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The Secret Footballer: Undercover in the Premier League.


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The Secret Footballer: undercover in the Premier League

Growing up on a council estate, all he wanted to do was play football. But a long career in the Premier League has made him question everything. The Guardian's Secret Footballer reveals what life is really like at the top of the game


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The Secret Footballer

The Secret Footballer

guardian.co.uk, Friday 10 August 2012 23.00 BST

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The secret footballer

The secret footballer: 'For the record, I never thought I’d be this old. My career has flown by; there have been unbelievable highs and terrible lows.' Photograph: Jay Brooks

A few years ago, I seriously considered giving up football. Sometimes, when the games are coming thick and fast, and you don't see your family, you aren't playing wonderfully well and the results are poor, it gets on top of you. I would later come to realise this was depression knocking at the door. But standing in the tunnel before a match against Liverpool at Anfield, I had a brush with something that Marcel Proust describes as "a remembrance of things past". As our coach gave each player a ball, I lifted mine up to my nose and sniffed it. Don't ask me why – I had never done it before as a professional, or since. The ball was brand new and looked so inviting. The smell took me right back to my council estate and the moment when my mum and dad bought me one of my first full-size footballs. It suddenly filled me with all the reasons I'd ever wanted to play the game – it smelled of happy times and familiarity. As the noise outside grew louder and the opening notes of You'll Never Walk Alone made their way through the tunnel, I told myself to keep that moment at the front of my mind for as long as possible.

As a kid, I played football day and night – I used to take a ball to bed with me so that I could do keep-ups as soon as I woke up. Football held the possibility of glory and happiness, and an escape from the mundane life that came with growing up in a small town. I played for the best local teams, the county and district sides, and was known in our area as one of a crop of talented players who were emerging. Around the age of 15 and 16, a few of my team-mates were picked up by professional clubs. It was pretty hard. I didn't feel they were as skilful as me – stronger maybe, and certainly better built at the age of 15, but definitely not as good with the ball. When I finally signed with a team myself (for £500 a week, which was a fortune to me), I set about my new-found career with the overriding feeling that they'd let someone in the door that perhaps they shouldn't have, an outsider into the inner sanctum. That feeling has never left me.

My first impressions were that I'd made a massive mistake. The standard was poor and some of the players were detestable. A few of the senior players would pass the ball at me as hard as they could in an attempt to make me mis-control it. I've since found out this sort of initiation test happens at every level. On Dwight Yorke's first day as a Manchester United player, Roy Keane fired the ball into him deliberately hard. "Welcome to United," Keane said. "Cantona used to kill them."

Thinking back to those days, though, there are many reasons why being a virtual nobody made playing football much more enjoyable. There was little pressure on the club or me to do well, but I was hungry to succeed anyway. The manager expected me to make mistakes, as did the fans, but I always wanted to be perfect and, so long as my performances fell somewhere in the middle, I knew I was doing OK. Very often, though, they were excellent and pretty soon I became a big fish in a small pond.

Once I moved into the Premier League, there was no hiding place. Not from the fans, not from the officials and certainly not from the cameras. The contrast between clubs at the top and the bottom of the ladder is huge. At the lower league club I played for, we had one kit man and one physio, who treated everything with ultrasound because that was the only machine he had. Most of my clubs since have included numerous kit men, physios, masseurs and fitness coaches, working at a training ground with at least five practice pitches, full-time chefs and designated car parking.

Other than the money, one of the main things that stands out in the Premier League, especially at the top clubs, is that a lot of the players are built like cruiserweights. They are solid, the tackles feel stronger and the tussles are that much harder to win. (Antonio Valencia once blocked a clearance of mine and I swear it was like being hit by a car. That's what I remember thinking as several fans helped me out of the stand and back on the pitch.)

Playing Premier League football is a dream come true, but away from the pitch I would happily swap almost everything. Years ago, if I said I played football, people would queue up to talk to me and buy me drinks. Today if I go out to see friends, I have to be on my toes. Everybody seems to be a reporter. If you meet a footballer and he comes across as a rude, arrogant prick, the chances are that he is simply trying not to give anything away. Either that, or you have bumped into Ashley Cole.

My relationship with the fans has been up and down. I've found that people are a lot braver when they are in a group than on their own; for that reason I try to leave the match with someone who happens to be playing well at the time. But there have been times when I have had to put up a physical defence in the face of a backlash from supporters. I remember being cornered in a nightclub by four inebriated meatheads and having to blindly punch my way to the door where I knew the bouncers would be waiting.

Now, I try to avoid nights out with big groups of lads. For years I even managed to skip the Christmas party, until it was announced that we'd be fined if we didn't attend. In five years at one of my clubs, my girlfriend and I had no more than a dozen nights out. Leaving aside the possibility of violence, I don't like getting into conversations because I am hugely paranoid that I am being recorded. I can't even do big crowds at shopping centres because they make me feel anxious (pretty embarrassing, really, although I get enough shit on a Saturday, so the idea of being abused outside Starbucks isn't particularly appealing).

During my career, I have been stitched up for many things. The most bizarre was to do with my supposed addiction to methadone. I first found out that this story was building when a friend in America called to say that "a British guy from one of the red-tops" wanted to ask her what she knew about my dependency on the drug. The background to all this was that I'd had an operation a few weeks before and, as a result, was taking some pretty heavy-duty prescription pain relief. I mentioned this to a journalist and, from there, the Chinese whispers began. My friend didn't say anything, but that didn't stop his newspaper from trying to run a story the very next day suggesting I had overdosed on painkillers.

Footballers are fantastic fodder for the papers. I haven't worked for a club that hasn't had a player caught out by his girlfriend or wife. But there are plenty of footballers' partners who turn a blind eye to indiscretions because they know that the life they enjoy would disappear if they walked out. I know wives who have walked in on their other half when he's in full swing, gone shopping, come home and had his dinner on the table as if nothing had happened. They simply cannot do without a designer wardrobe, two weeks in Dubai and half of Tiffany's every Christmas and birthday, and so look the other way. This amicable agreement becomes a problem only when the media get hold of it. Even then, the general rule is that things are brushed under the carpet as quickly as possible. The exception is when a wife no longer needs the player.

The real question is: what's in it for the player? After all, the risk and reward are completely out of sync. A married player has so much to lose for the sake of five minutes of lust. But it's more than that. There is the bravado. I can sit down with a stunning woman and she'll hang on my every word; I can make the worst jokes and she'll laugh like I'm a standup; I can buy her bottles of champagne and she'll be impressed. In short, a player can have his ego stroked relentlessly, sleep with a beautiful woman at the end of it and, nine times out of 10, he'll get away with it. If, indeed, his wife or girlfriend even cares. Many players have childhood sweethearts who they end up marrying, and many of them will have kids at a young age. When a player begins to earn the big bucks, that's when the temptations really start: and they coincide with the arrival of the Louis Vuitton handbags and the first-class flights to Barbados.

A friend who used to play football with me years ago and has since retired told me a great story from when he was in Dubai at the One & Only resort. He and his wife had checked in at the same time as another player, who is now an England international, and his wife. You all know him, though his wife is probably more famous than him in certain circles. My friend, who, it has to be said, is a handsome bastard, was sunning himself at one end of the swimming pool and he noticed the wife of the other player slip into the water at the far end. After he had caught her eye a couple of times she made a beeline for him. When she was close enough, she wrapped her legs around him. All the while, her husband was asleep on a sun lounger under a shady tree. My friend even brought out his mobile phone to show me a few of the picture messages she'd sent him after their return. Anyone who had taken a picture of the action in the pool would have made a fortune, and made four lives unbearable for a time.

But no footballer who preaches ethics where the media is concerned would be foolish enough to completely regret the influence they have in this country. After all, Sky TV has pumped billions of pounds into football, which in turn has filtered down into our pockets.

The money players earn makes anything a possibility. Over the past few years, Las Vegas has overtaken Marbella as the number one destination for footballers looking to let their hair down. Out there, even our worst behaviour looks sedate. A few seasons ago, I made the pilgrimage with a group of regular revellers and was blown away by the debauchery. By the end of the week, eight players had new tattoos and one player took a local girl back to England and married her in a shotgun wedding.

Halfway through the trip, one of the players said that Lindsay Lohan had invited us to her house in Los Angeles – something that didn't appeal to me. That turned out to be a great decision because on their arrival they quickly realised that she was under house arrest. As one of the lads later told me, "We drove five hours to watch a **** movie."

I've been to just about every club and trendy bar worth going to, and I've seen every kind of show. But I've never seen a place quite like TAO in Las Vegas. We took a table that had a $5,000 minimum spend. In Vegas, you absolutely must have a "sorter" – a type of concierge who knows everyone in town, will get you the best seats for shows, clubs, restaurants and pool parties, have helicopters and limos on tap and access to all the women a man could ever need. As we took our seats, "Jess" introduced us to the owners and explained who we were. Five minutes later a parade of drop-dead gorgeous women walked in a line past our table. Each time we saw one we liked we had to tell Jess, who'd seat them at the table.

It was hugely embarrassing for me, but the girls make thousands of dollars a night and I'm not here to judge. Behind us was another table that included some proper stars, among them a Barcelona player. We had a couple more spaces to fill; when a woman who was a complete knockout walked past the table, everyone stood up in unison and yelled, "That one!"

She had not gone unnoticed by the table behind and, when Jess reappeared, we realised we were not quite as important as we thought we were. Jess told us: "The table behind have asked me to tell you that whatever you offer for this girl, they will double it." One of our party, mortally offended at losing the girl to the table behind us, challenged them to a "champagne war". The idea is to send over a bottle of champagne; the other table is then meant to reciprocate, and on it goes until the bill gets too big for one side to pay. If a table keeps playing but cannot afford to pay, they are forced into the ultimate loss of face – they are marched out of the club by security to heckles and wolf whistles.

The final bill? Just short of $130,000, excluding tip, which as Jess explained on the way back to the hotel was nowhere near the record but still a great effort. Those situations can be awkward. I had made it clear that I did not want to participate, but I was only kidding myself. How could I possibly sit at the table and buy my own drinks? That's why I didn't put up any resistance as I checked out and paid my final bill of $14,000, which included some ridiculous overpriced room service and a helicopter trip to the Grand Canyon.

But it has always seemed strange to me that, the higher you go in football and the more you earn, the more you are given for free. When I started playing, we used to have a gold McDonald's card that allowed the holder to walk into any "restaurant" and order a free meal once a day. Today we are inundated with sports drinks, chewing gum and grooming products. When one of our players has a baby, you can't move at the training ground for Harrods hampers and baby clothes. Car dealers are queueing up to lease cars at ridiculous prices, while tailors, mobile phone companies, security firms and property companies are desperate to offer their services.

A friend who was playing for England at the time told me that a property company working on the Palm project in Dubai approached David Beckham with an offer of a villa in return for an endorsement. My friend said Beckham agreed, on condition that every other member of the squad was offered a villa at cost price – about £600,000. Today those villas are worth between £3m and £7m. So far as I know, Trevor Sinclair actually lives in his now. Right place, right time. Good luck to him.

During the boom years of the Premier League, my wife and I had a beautiful detached house with five bedrooms, a games room, a cinema and so many other rooms that I don't think I ever went in all of them. I had a full-sized snooker table that was used at the world championships, as well as a collection of games consoles that sat on a £6,000 custom-made sideboard gathering dust. The house had its own mini-spa, including a hot tub, sauna and twin bath with a built-in TV that sat in its own wet room. Every wall displayed a piece of art, including an etching by Picasso bought at auction through Bonhams. I drove the kids to their £3,000-a-term private school in one of three brand new cars. We holidayed in Barbados and Dubai, and rented villas costing up to £30,000 a week which came with their own butlers and staff. In a really flush year, I'd fly my family and friends out to join us on private jets that were stuffed with champagne.

Today, most of that has gone. A tax bill has all but wiped me out and everything that football bought me has been sold off.

When I played at the top level, I earned tens of thousands of pounds a week. One club I played for made me their record transfer. I have won back-to-back player of the year awards, trophies and played against all the big-name players that the Premier League can offer. But football can go one of two ways: either you embrace every part of it and it becomes your life; or, and this is the case where I am concerned, you rebel against certain parts of it and you end up being consumed by hate, guilt, anger and bitterness.

Depression had always been there, but it took football at the highest level to really bring it to the fore. Once, I could ignore the catcalls from the stands, but it got to the point where I didn't want to take that abuse any more and I'd answer back. I never smiled for pictures with fans, I didn't train if I didn't want to and I didn't bother to make small talk with other players who I didn't have anything in common with. I drank more and I argued with the manager (more than normal).

In my house I had an Eames chair. It wasn't very comfortable but it looked the part. More importantly, it was the first chair I saw when I came home from training. During the worst days, I'd walk through the door, sit down in this chair and there I would stay until bed. I sat in that chair because I knew that once I did, I would not have to get up again to do something I couldn't face.

My wife knew this: she would catch me on the way in at the front door, turn me around and take me into town for lunch or to help her run an errand. I spent the whole time looking at my mobile phone, wishing the seconds would go faster so that I could get back to my chair. I should point out that the TV wasn't on, I didn't have a book, I didn't talk: I just sat there, hour after hour, day after day, dreading going to bed because I knew that the next time I opened my eyes, I'd have to leave the house for training and it would all start again.

Today, aided by 15mg of mirtazapine and 20mg of citalopram every morning, I am a completely different person. I still have bad days, but I don't wake up dreading the day ahead, I don't look out of the training ground window wishing I could be as far away as possible and I don't look at every single task as if it were the equivalent of climbing Everest.

For the record, I never thought I'd be this old. My career has flown by; there have been unbelievable highs and terrible lows. If I'm honest with myself, for about a year I have been drinking very heavily and eating excessively in a pathetic attempt to develop a gut so that they won't pick me any more.

What I will say, though, is that there is no feeling like having tens of thousands of fans singing your name, especially when you have just scored a goal. It feels as if you are floating for a couple of seconds. You don't hear anything the players are shouting in your ear as they try to celebrate with you. It is just a wall of colour for a few seconds as your brain attempts to find a pattern that it understands. When the whistle goes to get the game under way again, it feels as if you can do anything for about a minute afterwards. When I finish playing, that might just turn out to be the one thing I can't replace.


Decent read from the Guardian, quite believable. Part of the story certainly resonates with tales we've heard about the wife of a certain scouse captain.

Be interesting if this has more editions to come.

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Yeah, interesting read indeed. I though that this was a particularly pertinent quote:

football can go one of two ways: either you embrace every part of it and it becomes your life; or, and this is the case where I am concerned, you rebel against certain parts of it and you end up being consumed by hate, guilt, anger and bitterness.

I think that's the case in a number of walks of life where you have to subsume your individuality for a greater whole. Mob mentality certainly has it's uses but it also has it's victims.

Good luck to the guy, whoever it is. I'm sure someone can work it out.

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If you meet a footballer and he comes across as a rude, arrogant prick, the chances are that he is simply trying not to give anything away. Either that, or you have bumped into Ashley Cole.
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Intresting read, but it must be so hard having all that money and all those girls throwing themsleves at you. I happen to know 2 premiership footballers, both played for west ham, and they absolutely loved all the attention and adulation that came with being a famous footballer. I guess some love it and embrace it, and others cant handle it.

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So, the clues are;

twice named player of the season for his club.

He played lower league football for an unknown period.

he played for a premier league club for 5 years.

He has scored a goal or a few goals at club level.

He's been accused in the press of being addicted to methadone.

Played at the same time as Valencia was at Old Trafford, and keeping in mind, Valencia only really 'bulked up' about 12 months into his Man Utd career.

Shouldn't be too hard for someone to figure out really.

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The column has been going for a couple of years now. A lot of people think its David James. My personal opinion is its multiple footballers under one byline. I wouldn't be surprised if it were Graham Le Saux either.

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I'm taking the 'players are built like boxers' line.

Valencia was tiny and thin/skinny when he was at Wigan, he beefed up when he went to Utd. I may be reading between the lines though.

Seems like Levisse knows who it is.

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I'm taking the 'players are built like boxers' line.

Valencia was tiny and thin/skinny when he was at Wigan, he beefed up when he went to Utd. I may be reading between the lines though.

Seems like Levisse knows who it is.

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