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.



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.”

To read more about the Secret Footballer continue reading at the Guardian website.

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