I am The Secret Footballer – Review
Last month saw The Secret Footballer, longtime columnist with The Guardian, release an autobiography, I Am The Secret Footballer. It prompted speculation up and down the country – what do the guys at Born Offside think of the book?
Footballer’s autobiographies can be expected to contain small insights – Robbie Fowler’s autobiography has a story of Gary McAllister accidentally texting him when trying to tap up Robbie Keane, for instance. But even the best footballer’s autobiographies I’ve read only have a few of these, I Am The Secret Footballer is packed with them. There is a strong rumour that The Secret Footballer is not one ex-pro, but a journalist bringing together stories from several high profile professionals he’s worked with. As far as I’m aware, TSF denies this. But the biggest argument to support the multi-pro theory is the sheer amount of things he claims have happened to him. This does mean that the book is jam-packed with interesting material.
I Am The Secret Footballer is organised into themed chapters – First Steps; Managers; Fans; The Media; Tactics; The Big Time; Agents; Money; Bad Behaviour; The End Looms. Each of these contain both surprising revelations and interesting perspectives on commonly known scenarios.
Several of the stories are dark, but not surprising. Some of the more striking stories include recollections of bitter older players knocking down those more talented than themselves, and players being alarmingly subservient when the manager lets it be known a player should be frozen out. There’s also tales of managers ‘losing’ the dressing room by being overly matey. This included one manager who fined TSF for being out drinking several nights before a match, then asked him if he’d managed to pull. A good impression is given of who several managers are as personalities, even though the writer is unwilling to name names, for obvious reasons.
The chapter on bad behaviour isn’t a handful of semi-naughty tales, but stories of TSF and his team-mates genuinely embracing the high life. In particular there’s a story of time spent in Thailand that’s more what you’d expect from a rock band than the often bland image we’re presented of footballers’ private lives.
There’s also a pretty decent focus on small details. Away dressing rooms are often neglected and battle scarred, with the marks of where players had lashed out in previous years still visible. Apparently St. James Park is one of the worst away dressing rooms.
I’m not sure how much of the book is new material, but there is, understandably, an overlap with the Guardian column which inspired the book. As a semi-regular reader of that column, there are some stories I recognise – the tale of David Beckham and the villas, for example.
Despite working for a national newspaper, TSF is pretty scathing of the media. He writes about how top flight players are super-drilled, a ‘bad’ pass could be because a player has played a pass into an area where a team-mate has practiced arriving during the week, but has not turned up to. If the intended recipient doesn’t turn up, either because of being blocked or through laziness, this is almost always interpreted as the passer’s error. (He also writes about how he’s often thought about how it might be more fun to return to the lower divisions, where the tactics are less strict, and there’s more room to let loose and enjoy playing the game.)
TSF argues that it’s almost impossible to decode the intentions and plans of both teams immediately after the match, and that, as a result, TV analysts prefer to focus either on the narratives they’d decided beforehand, or on individual brilliance and mistakes rather than even trying to give a deeper understanding of the scenario. It’s an explanation that feels to me like it makes a lot of sense.
The chapter on agents is turned over to an agent to answer a series of questions. There’s some strong arguments – in particular he makes persuasive case against using the PFA and solicitors as representatives. That’s not to say that I agreed with everything said here – the agent uses the old ‘football is a private business’ argument, which struck me as a bit Willie McKay (I’d say a football club is a community asset more than a normal business) but otherwise the arguments in this chapter are at least provocative and interesting.
An incident when, pre-match, The Secret Footballer spent more time stretching than he needed, in order to admire the accuracy of Paul Scholes’ passing is really well told. This is probably the point where the writer’s descriptive talents comes struck me most, but it’s there throughout. A story of taking out childhood friends for a really expensive meal manages to make the writer and his friends sympathetic, and is structured so that the final paragraph works both as a poignant moment and a punchline. It’s not just that his experiences have given The Secret Footballer interesting things to say, but he paints a picture, a real sense of being there.
In his Guardian column, The Secret Footballer has written about his mental health problems, including a column published on the morning of Gary Speed’s suicide. (He received numerous emails that week, asking if he thought reading the column had driven Speed to take his life. Probably not the most tactful thing to say to a man who’s just admitted to problems with depression.) Here he discusses the anxiety of fame. Imagine feeling anxious that everyone’s staring at you, but knowing there’s a pretty decent chance that people really are staring. TSF admits he dislikes the player-fan relationship so much, he even avoided several Christmas parties until he was told he’d be fined for not showing up.
When you add in the irrationality of some managers and the fact that the game is so pressurised and demanding, with little support, I’d be very surprised there’s not more mental health issues than have been publically discussed. Most footballers who’ve come forward to discuss their own mental health issues have been either recent retirees struggling to cope with the end of their playing days (Dean Windass, Darren Eadie) or suffered during a prolonged injury (Matt Jarvis, Sebastian Deisler). But the irrational punishments and the inability to walk out would seem to make football a breeding ground for mental health problems.
The major problem with this book comes from the format – we can’t properly share in his triumphs and defeats, and there isn’t really enough of a sense of what his biggest achievements and failures on the field are. But I Am The Secret Footballer gives an all-round sense of what life as a top class footballer must be like.
Verdict: Few specific match details, but the amount of insights offered into footballing culture and lifestyles is more or less unprecedented for such a widely available book.