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"People will recognise me and the street kid in me looks back and thinks: 'What the f**k are you looking at?'"

As the Premier League season gets underway, The Secret Footballer chats to us about coping with fame and some of the other big issues impacting on footballers today.

Image: David Davies

The Secret Footballer: What Goes on Tour is out now. The42 recently caught up with him to discuss some of the issues discussed in his latest book.

1. Tell us about the background to writing the book. What made you want to write it?

The players that know who I am kept encouraging me to write it. They’ve all got their own stories and some of it is just ludicrous. Whenever I’m with them it is impossible not to end up in tears of laughter talking about some of the things we’ve done on tour or on pre-season holidays or mid-season breaks. And each player can top the next player.

It was a very obvious part of the game to write about and really enjoyable to write too. The truth is that lots of players love to feed their ego by reading about themselves, so they give me a lot of good stuff that you’d never be able to read about anywhere else.

2. You write often in the book about footballers’ debauchery and infidelity. I was reminded of a passage from Keith Gillespie’s autobiography where he writes that it’s very rare to find a professional footballer who has never cheated on his spouse. Is this a fair assessment from your experience, and if so, why is this the case? Would it be fair to suggest it has something to do with the constant desire for adulation that, I assume, goes hand in hand with being a top-level footballer?

Well I might be wrong but I’m fairly certain that Keith has never actually played with every footballer that has ever played the game, much less talked to them individually about their sex lives. I do take the point that lots of players take advantage of the sex to be had that constantly swirls around the game but I also know a lot of players that are completely loyal to their religion and maybe as a result, to their wives.

There is a player playing in the Premier League right now that is a devout Christian and didn’t have sex until his wedding night. And I also played with a number of Muslim players that didn’t take their shorts off in the shower after the game because they weren’t allowed for any of us to see them naked.

And then there are those players that just don’t put themselves in those circles, they are football through and through and they don’t get their heads turned by women or alcohol or anything else that you might term as a vice.

3. Do you often miss life before you became a professional footballer?

I miss the fact that nobody recognised me and those that did judged me as me and not as a footballer. I miss the fact that I had no money. Money creates so many problems. When you make money people come after it, the government, friends, family, chancers, businesses etc.

I know it sounds like a first-world problem, but that is exactly what it is, a problem. I never wanted to be famous and obviously, I’m not David Beckham, but it still catches me off guard. I can be standing for a train and a group of people will recognise me and the street kid in me looks back and thinks: ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’ I forget sometimes. My default setting is that street kid and what he thinks, not as an ex-footballer.

4. Your wife writes in the foreword for the book that in football “women will always be in second place”. Is there ever a sense of guilt about this? It made me think of Roy Keane’s comments a few years ago essentially complaining about wives trying to dictate to players which club they should sign for, though I suspect it’s invariably the other way around.

Keane’s comments received plenty of criticism and some people understandably don’t like hearing that women tend to be almost secondary to a footballer’s career, but would it be fair to say that it’s inevitable, given that footballers at an elite level have to be quite selfish and ruthless to a degree?

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Manchester City - Stadium Of Light Roy Keane. Source: EMPICS Sport

To be certain, women play a crucial role in a footballer’s life. Some of them are helpful and some of them are not. Some women — like Mrs TSF — stand side by side with their man and respect that they may have to live in a place that they don’t particularly want to live in.

Some will do this because it helps to advance a player’s career and some will do it because they want their husbands earning more money. Men are men and women are women. Women like to see their man become successful because success tends to equal a stable home life in which she feels safe. There are lots of career women today, which is fantastic, and there are also lots of women that are homemakers.

Today, Mrs TSF just wants to feel safe bringing her children up, and there is something about that to be admired. Not everybody wants to take over the world. I know the type of women Keane is talking about and the reasons as to why they wanted to enter this life.

Don’t forget the facts. One in three footballers will get divorced within two years of retiring from the game and one in three will go bankrupt within five years. The other third will develop a mental illness. Not many people are thinking about that at the start of the journey.

5. Would it be fair to say a lot of the excess spending and hedonistic lifestyles footballers engage in on their summer holidays essentially comes down to a pressure to conform with their peers? And on a related note, have you come across many footballers who can largely avoid these temptations and remain relatively sensible throughout their careers?

I think that there is a certain amount of peer pressure. I think the fact that money — at the highest level anyway — is abundant at certain moments of a player’s career and usually while they are still young men in their prime. I think temptation is a factor for the same reasons.

And I also think that the pressure valve needs releasing every once in a while. Football is all consuming. As fans, you are saturated with it, but as players it’s even worse. It isn’t twice a week, it’s every day.

If you lose and have a bad game, it is the worst feeling in the world — I promise you. You get a knot in your stomach all week. Your brain chips in and makes it worse, ‘maybe the gaffer will bollock me on Monday, we’ll have to watch the video of the game and everybody will see how shit I was, maybe the gaffer will drop me, maybe he’ll sell me, maybe he’ll have me shot!’

There is no escape at times. When we see players having a drink, or shagging, or smoking a cigarette, it’s the pressure valve being released. For the most part anyway!

6. You reference the Michael McIndoe scandal in the book. Do you expect a scam as wide-ranging and high profile as that, which is actually orchestrated by a footballer, happening again to a group of footballers in the near future? And is it the gullible types that tend to get caught, or are these schemes so sophisticated that no one in the game is immune from falling victim to them?

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League Championship - Play Off Semi Final - Second Leg - West Bromwich Albion v Wolverhampton Wanderers - The Hawthorns Michael McIndoe. Source: EMPICS Sport

It isn’t always gullible types. It is peer pressure and the sense of missing out on a good thing. If I look across the changing room and I see a top player investing some money into something, then I’d probably assume that he must have a fantastic legal team and financial advisors around him, because he’s worth millions. And that might lead me to completely blank the due diligence that I should do on any business or opportunity that is shown to me.

It’s a case of, ‘well, if Wayne Rooney is doing it then it must be good’. Not that he did. But that’s an example of the thought process.

7. You write in the book about depression and the lack of understanding of it that existed in footballing circles when you were a player, highlighting specific examples. Do you get the impression that considerable progress has been made in football in recent years, owing to high-profile cases such as the one involving Aaron Lennon and the greater publicity and openness about the issue, or is there still a serious problem and a significant lack of understanding regarding mental illness that continues to exist within the game?

Liverpool v Everton - Barclays Premier League - Anfield Aaron Lennon. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

In terms of help, we are light years away from where we were. In a good way. I believe that the PFA were too slow on the uptake, but like so much of football, the problems only seem to be dealt with when they can no longer be ignored.

The PFA handed out little handbooks about mental illness in the last year of my career. The trouble is that anybody with depression, which is one of a number of mental illnesses, will know that reading anything that somebody gives you is like death by a thousand paper cuts. It is the mundane things that become like torture.

I very much admire guys like Clarke Carlise, Aaron Lennon and Stephen Caulker that have spoken out and asked for help. It is really helping to highlight the issue and break down the ignorance that people have towards mental illness.

The amount of times I hear, ‘what’s he got to be depressed about?’ That’s not what depression is. Depression is a bad word for depression. It should be called temporary brain damage, because that’s what it feels like. Something has gone wrong with the brain and needs fixing.

8. You liken one former manager to ‘The Office’ character David Brent and suggest he had a bit of an inferiority complex when it came to dealing with the players. Do you suspect this sort of situation is commonplace in football nowadays?

TSF

I think there are a few managers that are perhaps aware that they are managing inferior players to themselves but are earning fortunes in comparison. Now, there isn’t anything that can be done about that.

It is the economics of football over the years, but it certainly manifests itself in the behaviour of some managers towards their team or certain individuals within the team. That was certainly the case with our manager.

9. You write that every footballer has regrets. What’s your biggest?

Moving to certain clubs that didn’t turn out well. Financially over exposing myself and having to leave a club that I loved because I needed the money to pay off debts. Buying a house that I couldn’t really afford.

Not looking after myself as well as I should have in the last couple of years of my career.

Talking too much to the press and trying to be a martyr for certain things in the game that I believed to be wrong, such as Fifa, the FA, coaching, the England team, certain players etc.

If I could have just concentrated on football I may well still be playing but I just couldn’t hack it anymore. It made me utterly depressed.

10. One of the recurring themes in the book is the explosion of the Premier League’s finances and how you benefitted from that to a degree, while current players have it better than ever in light of the unprecedented levels of TV money being devoted to the game.

Do you expect this financial bubble to burst anytime soon, particularly in light of the falling viewership figures, which Sky have sought to address recently, or are the good times likely to continue for the foreseeable future?

Leicester City v Manchester United - Community Shield - Wembley Stadium BT Sport TV presenters and pundits (left-right) Jake Humphrey, Michael Owen, Robbie Savage and Rio Ferdinand. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

I have made predictions on this before. Several years ago I said that Facebook and Amazon (there was no Netflix back then, or if there was it was very embryonic), would get interested in sport because it puts bums on seats. But these seats are in living rooms and lounges.

Amazon have just dipped their toe in the water by purchasing the rights to the ATP tennis tour — from under the noses of Sky — for £10m.

Facebook have live streamed certain sporting events and you only have to look at how many roads BT and Virgin are digging up in order to provide faster broadband. We need faster broadband to stream live events because they are big chunks of information. Silicon Valley is still experimenting, but once these areas marry up, we will see a dynamic shift in how sport, and other TV, is consumed.

What is interesting is the moment that Facebook bought the Oculus Rift headset for $2bn in 2014. In my mind, there is only one reason for that. Any customer can sit in the best seat in any stadium in the world without having to be there.

It means that Manchester United could sell the best seat in the stadium millions of times over instead of once. It also means that a customer can sit there and with voice technology software, tell the rift to order a pizza or a pack of beer at half time without leaving the seat.

That’s why Silicon Valley is interested in sport. Anywhere that you can find big numbers of customers to access, then you will find Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and who knows who else. If you want to read more on that, then you can buy a previous book I wrote called, ‘The Secret Footballers Guide To The Modern Game’. It goes in to far more detail.

11. You write about the lavish lifestyle of footballers in the book. What’s the highest amount of money you’ve witnessed a footballer spend in a single instance and what was the context of this situation?

I saw a Sunderland player spend €75,000 on a bottle of champagne in Marbella. That was probably the biggest single payment, other than cars. I saw a player spend a quarter of a million pounds on a brand new Lamborghini, but I don’t really class cars and houses as a lavish expenditure in the same way.

Lavish expenditure for me are the things that are completely unnecessary and have no resale value whatsoever. We had a bill in Las Vegas once for about $130,000, but that was split between a good few of us. It’s actually difficult to spend money without ending up with an asset.

I enjoyed nice holidays. That was my main vice. A nice big villa with all my family and friends. The most I spent was about €27,000 for a week in a villa in Ibiza, but the memories are my asset. Cheesy but true.

12. What is it about Las Vegas in particular that seems to appeal to footballers so much?

Stock - Las Vegas - Nevada, USA General night view of The Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada. Source: DPA/PA Images

It has the perfect blend of ingredients. It is miles away from prying eyes. Nobody knows who we are and if they do then they don’t overly care. And it has everything that a young man needs to let his hair down. There is nothing else to say!

13. One topic you explore is the idea of diversity and multi-culturalism in football and how the game isn’t necessarily as open-minded in this regard as it likes to portray itself as being. You write about how in your experience, for the most part, the French players mainly hang out with the other French players in the dressing room, the British players tend to stick together etc. With that in mind, would it be fair to say that most football dressing rooms are not unlike schoolyards with various different cliques?

Yes, but I think most places are like that. It is human nature. Safety in numbers and comfort in the familiar. Also, nature is lazy. Why speak English all day if you have somebody next to you that speaks French, the same as you?

But it isn’t totally separate, you just need to find ways to interact. That’s important because if I can’t do that, then I can’t scream to my midfielder to pick the man up that has slipped in to a little pocket of space behind him.

It is perfectly understandable that certain players would want to stick together in a foreign country in order to ease their transition, but it is also vital that we make them welcome and find a common ground for the good of the squad. The onus is on everybody to help the next man. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work.

14. You address the issue of bonuses in the book. What did you make of the recent revelations regarding players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting substantial goal bonuses etc. A number of critics suggested it was a bad idea and could cause the team as a whole to suffer. Would you agree?

Ajax v Manchester United - 2016/17 UEFA Europa League Final Package Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Source: Martin Rickett

I’m surprised by that. I’ll admit I didn’t see that criticism. Maybe it was a slow news day. Goal bonuses have been around since Moses wore short trousers. They encourage confidence to shoot in strikers and goals bring more confidence and that is only a good thing for the team.

Compared to the outlay on the goals Ibrahimovic scored against their return to Champions League football, then there is no comparison at all. Manchester United won the Europa League last season. They will be playing in the Champions League this season and I’m sure all of those players are grateful to Zlatan for helping them achieve that goal.

If only because they received their own win bonuses for winning the competition and qualifying for the Champions League. The only time I ever heard of bonuses causing a problem was a Premier League striker who came back to defend corners. Over the course of the season, he headed out more corners that his two centre halves put together and so he argued that he should have a clean sheet bonus like them. It’s a dangerous road to go down, because John Terry scored a lot of goals for Chelsea, many of them were very important. Where do you stop?

15. What’s the best piece of advice you could offer to a current footballer about dealing with the transitional phase that comes with retirement?

Make sure your financial affairs are in order. Make sure you have saved enough money to cushion the transition and fend off any unpleasant calls from the revenue and the like. You need money to live on and money for a rainy day.

Not enough players save enough money. They simply assume that they will go into punditry when their career ends.

I met with a PR agency recently that sounded me out about doing some punditry work in Australia of all places. I said that I wouldn’t mind some punditry work, but why can’t we do it here in Britain? She said, ‘the trouble is that there are bloody millions of you wanting to do it over here’. And that’s what you’ll be up against when you retire.

The Secret Footballer: What Goes on Tour – Out Now!


Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud

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