When The Secret Footballer first appeared in The Guardian I thought it was a simple, but brilliant concept. In a world saturated with football, what better way to offer something new than by cutting through the thick sludge of its PR machine under a cloak of guaranteed anonymity?
After a few weeks, however, I became suspicious; the TSF appeared to be a Guardian journalist’s wet dream; he was a footballer, he was liberal with an eclectic taste in music, art and literature and whatever was in the football news, he had some experience of it. It was too good to be true. I began to suspect that the TSF was actually a Guardian journalist retelling stories he’d heard from lots of players but had never been able to publish. Not so much tales of a secret footballer as secret footballers’ tales.
I gave up on the blog and I unfollowed him on Twitter and didn’t think much of it until we equalised against Portsmouth on the opening day of the season and Brinyhoof told me that The Secret Footballer was widely believed to be Dave Kitson. This, of course, piqued my interest.
There’s a website which scours TSF blog posts for clues to his identity and then crowdsources suggestions as to who he is. That site is certain that Kitson is their man. And then when you hear Kitson being interviewed you can quite believe that he is, after all, a Guardian journalists wet dream.
I sometimes struggle to differentiate between one English Premier League footballer and another. Kitson was one I did know although even now I get him confused with Steve Sidwell. While reading the book, I still found myself checking Wikipedia to remind myself whether Kitson had played at Chelsea or not.
The book; The Secret Footballer may well be written by Dave Kitson. The marketing blurb threatens an ‘explosive’ expose of the modern game. But although the anonymity gives him licence to blow the bloody doors off, the opaque references and context – ‘our star striker once went to a hooker…’ – does begin to come over as the stories of someone in the pub who’d heard some stories from a mate whose dad is friends with the dad of a bloke who lives round the corner from a professional footballer.
The book is broken into themes; tactics, managers, money, the media, the big time, and so on. The more ‘explosive’ stories tend to be so beyond the comprehension of the average man that without names and places they might as well be the work of a playground outsider seeking acceptance through more and more preposterous stories. He might as well be telling us that his dad is ex-SAS and a speedway world champion. There are stories of debauched parties in Vegas and playing a game where players fly around the world on their days off just for kicks. These could be stories made up by someone guessing at what the stupidly rich get up to.
But, he talks in unnecessary detail about things which are more important to him than the reader. He goes on at length about the media’s obsession with putting a man on the post for a corner, when the most effective position is on the edge of the six yard box. There are also subjects that are quickly dismissed – drugs, for example. If this were a work of semi-fiction you would think this offers a rich vein for a yarn or two.
While his blog suggests a bit of an outsider that is atypical of the stereotype, the book does a pretty good job to reveal him, in the main, as an insufferable bellend. There’s a story of a day at Cheltenham races where the players win big before being scoffed at by ‘a group in tweed’ for their raucous behaviour. The star striker tears up a pile of cash from their winnings that had accumulated in the middle of their table. That, claims TSF, showed them for what they (the tweeds) were. I’d argue that it only reinforced what a bunch of detached tosspots professional footballers can be.
The middle is padded with an interminable Q&A with an anonymous agent and some questions from Twitter. He spends page after page defending his practices. While attempting to paint a picture of a skilled professional, it just serves to illustrate what’s wrong with the game. Incidentally at one point the TSF blames football’s excesses on the fans because we buy into the whole circus. With all blame absolved, the agent dismisses his own questionable practice as ‘just business’.
‘Just business’ is the safe word word of a shyster; a delegation of immorality that’s used by pimps, drug dealers and Herbalife resellers to excuse their actions. Those who claim that what they’re doing is ‘just business’ are effectively saying that they are no longer able to perform simple functions of an individual. Unable to ethically differentiate between what they can do, and what they should do.
The life as a Premier League player that TSF paints reminds me of friends who work for big corporations. They are cocooned, trapped even, in good salaries and pension schemes, but they are worked into the ground, constantly under pressure to perform or face imminent redundancy. They often work in a narrow spectrum where their influence as an individual is limited. They adopt a behaviour and language which can become incomprehensible to those on the outside. I have two friends, who don’t know each other, whose wives worked for the same massive corporation. Their marriages collapsed after their wives had affairs with work colleagues. Apparently in that company its not uncommon; large corporations become like small islands with their own norms and ways of working; detached from the outside world. I guess that’s what Premier League football is; the players are people at the top of their profession working for its industry’s largest corporations, we are sales data.
Naturally, the book reveals very little about Kitson, if it is him. However, the closing chapter, which speculates on the ending of his career, reveals some clues as to why he may now be at a team like Oxford. A combination of excessive living, bad investments and poor financial management has left the player materially wealthy but cash poor. This may explain his stubbornness towards Portsmouth who continue to pay him £10k a month. He needs the cash to sustain a lifestyle he and his family have become used to.
At the end of the book he tells a story of him divesting himself of the accumulated trappings of his life at the top in order to help fund a tax bill; the football shirts he’s collected from star players, the designer furniture in his house. He has become paranoid, a depressive, and he is struggling with the machine-like professional he’s expected to be and the thoughtful human being he actually is. His career at the top is slipping away anyway, but he seems fed up with the business of the game. He says early on that there’s a common mantra in the profession that ‘football used to be my favourite game’. As attractive as it appears from the outside, for his own sanity, he needs to get out of the big time.
Perhaps this is one of the links between Kitson and Michael Duberry. Both have experienced the big time; but they’ve also experienced the dark side of it. But maybe they still enjoy playing football. If at the end of your Premier League career you can retain some enthusiasm and you can deal with the psychological impact of playing at a lower level, then actually playing in League 2 probably seems like fun.