Book Review: I am the Secret Footballer
I am the Secret Footballer
Published by Guardian Books
July 2012, £7.99
The Guardian’s decision to gather together their Secret Footballer columns into this new book appears to have been handsomely vindicated on first glance; sitting as the volume does atop their online bookshop chart as well as prominently on the shelves of Britain’s retailers. Serialization never hurt Charles Dickens’ chances and it will be comforting to the paper’s proprietors that opportunities remain to charge for content in this increasingly open access world.
Few who read this blog will be unfamiliar with the columns; their having become something of a cause célèbre over the past 18 months – but only a proportion will have read the whole set as they were originally published given the tendency these days to imbibe our media piecemeal via online sources and social avenues.
There is also advantage to be had in being able to sit back and read the articles in one sitting, providing an opportunity to reflect and speculate. Indeed, the whole is a coherent, compelling one and the result is a fascinating view into the life of a professional footballer in the twenty first century.
The text is organised into a series of chapters and few of these fail to be interesting. Perhaps the most important is the entry on depression, penned immediately before the death of Gary Speed and with the text altered to reflect upon that fact. The Secret Footballer speaks with honesty and integrity and his account of the tendency of the modern game to pile on the pressure is illuminating and moving.
Elsewhere, sections on money and agents astonish while betting plays as significant a part as it does in Steve Claridge’s Tales from the Boot Camps. The sums of money involved are, of course, extraordinary and although this should come as no surprise given our broad knowledge of what the top players earn, the reader is still left floored.
Only a section on bad behaviour veers towards men’s lifestyle magazine territory even if the tales of bottles of champagne hoist aloft the gaming tables of Las Vegas do provide entertainment – but perhaps the strongest sections (to this geek at least) were those involving tactics – the chessboard complexity of the modern game and the preparation needed to take on all comers does perhaps explain Alan Hansen’s apoplexy whenever a defender lets his marker go free at a corner.
Of course speculation as to the identity of the individual has been rife and a website has been set up to forensically explore the detail. That has presented problems as almost all the likely candidates fail the criteria in some way while some incidents are so individual and outlandish that, even allowing for footballers’ tendency to ignore The Guardian, surely two and two would have been put together to let the cat out of the bag.
At the moment, the online poll on the aforementioned website has Sheffield United’s Dave Kitson as the favourite and having seen the ‘flame haired marksman’ play in the flesh about a hundred times, I can say that much of the narrative supports this. In particular, the outspoken style that saw Kitson decry the importance of the FA Cup rings true as does the player’s intelligence and articulacy – OK, we all know the story of ‘Professor’ Pat Nevin and the fact that in the Country of the Blind, the one eyed man is King but the ex-Cambridge United man always seemed to stand apart from the crowd.
Much tallies. Kitson blew his big money move to Stoke City, fell out with Tony Pulis, once took part in a pre-season tournament in Korea, came a cropper at the hands of Antonio Valencia and has seen his career tail off disappointingly after it peaked at Reading.
Other candidates include Kevin Davies and Andy Johnson while one of the most talked about possibilities has been Danny Murphy. It could be him but despite the fact that many tipped the Liverpudlian to be an England regular in his time at Crewe, his career can hardly be said to have failed – his Fulham days providing a real Indian Summer before he moved to Blackburn Rovers this Summer.
As mentioned though, not everything reported can be traced to a single person and this has led to speculation that names may have been changed or, more radically, that the Secret Footballer could be a composite of several different players, skilful copyediting knitting together the disparate strands of the material.
That would be problematic and given that the column and book (this is made explicit in the preface) have been presented as the work of a single man, would provoke a reaction of condemnation if proved to be true. Short of the Secret Footballer being a fantasist (a possibility given the jawdropping nature of many of the stories) any collusion in a fake on the part of a paper renowned for its buccaneering exposure of cant and hypocrisy – recall Neil Hamilton and Andy Coulson – would be met with gleeful merriment by its rivals. Put simply, The Guardian has too much integrity to pull such a stunt.
For overall, the book achieves its point in summing up the soul (or lack of) of modern football. The Secret Footballer himself on balance comes across as a decent enough individual and his honesty (if you can call it that given he has remained anonymous) is to be applauded in that many fans’ eyes will have been opened – his defence of the money swishing around soccer and exposure of rampant disloyalty and individualism do confirm our suspicions but any lingering faith in good nature of the icons we hold so dear will perhaps have fizzled.