Guardian Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Si Hawkins
From WSC 351 May 2016
When the Secret Footballer embarked on his lid-lifting column for the Guardian six years ago, he presumably didn’t envisage having to stretch those trade secrets across four books, even after retirement. There’s a telling chapter here in which he repeatedly tries to quit playing, but football keeps pulling him back in, and you wonder if his publishers have been doing the same: “Dig deep, TSF, just a few more anecdotes…”
The Secret Footballer is no longer a footballer, and the change of status clouds this peculiar book, which comes across rather like one of those rarities compilations cobbled together after a great band breaks up: frequent nuggets of interest, but a definite sense that the real gold was exhausted a while ago. Indeed, Access All Areas begins with the author’s other half dismissing his “pretty tame” previous volumes and urging him to “write the book that I wanted to read”, a moment that brings to mind the classic rockumentary This is Spinal Tap, where David St Hubbins’ wife Jeanine takes over as manager and they end up playing jazz at a puppet show.
Access All Areas is well named in a way, as it veers haphazardly between events and eras: tales of triumph and tetchy fallouts, him trying to buy a club and become an agent, all bookended by an awkward dream sequence and a genuine tragedy, which is jarringly tacked on at the end. Dotted throughout, meanwhile, are his pithy thoughts on last season’s Premier League line-up, which feels like random page-filling. TSF – as he calls himself – regularly boasts about breaking the boundaries of football non-fiction but this, really, is just a decent toilet read.
And yet he does have a point. This book may scrape the yarn barrel but there are still more moments of insight than in a whole shelf of superstar player autobiographies. One tale about a ludicrous FA hearing is particularly revelatory, partly because – with just a cursory web search – it pretty much confirms who the author really is (googling remains a unique part of the TSF experience: it’s almost impossible to read these books without reaching for your phone to investigate some juicy clue).
Indeed, there are several moments in book four where the once-secret footballer seems to be throwing that nameless shirt into the crowd, which may be for the best. TSF is a caricature really, but beneath the exaggerated arrogance is a sharp football thinker. Here he offers a memorable assessment of Gary Neville, who “wants to make that jump”, he predicts, pre-Valencia job, but not in Britain, where players would sneer. “I’d be looking at this gaffer who was a pundit, and I would struggle to get past it: ‘You know you’re not a manager really.’”
Meanwhile his previous books and columns have offered candid views on graver issues, notably mental health. Going public should add weight to such welcome admissions, as it’s hard to take a secret footballer entirely seriously. The question is, would he be quite so bold without the mask?