Our man inside the game on how he lost a friend by betraying his trust and failing to see the big picture.
As a Spurs fan I’m encouraged to dislike Arsenal. And on derby day I do. But recently, it has been both fashionable and fun to stick the knife in after two bruising encounters with Pep Guardiola’s superb Manchester City side followed by a 10th league defeat of the season away to Brighton yesterday, the first time in 16 years Arsenal have lost four games in a row.
But I can remember a time when it was difficult to dislike the way the Gunners played, especially when I still called myself a footballer.
In the early part of my Premier League career, Arsenal were morphing from an experienced team of world-class footballers to what was hoped would be a new, younger, more dynamic side. We now know that the transition failed even if the reincarnation brought about a brand new stadium as well as some precocious talent such as Cesc Fabregas and… some others players too.
And I can relate to the failure that tends to bridge a stunning success with a slow-motion car crash. My first book sold extremely well, the second book did not. Subsequent books offered me varying degrees of success but never managed to recapture the golden halo that still circles the first.
Those later books were successes in the same way that Emanuel Adebayor and Nicolas Bendtner were successes. Sure, they played for an elite club and initially they did phenomenally well in a crowded market of emerging talent but they, like Arsenal, began to believe their own hype and that their future would thrive and survive off the back of affiliation and branding.
One of my oldest friends in football had a job at Arsenal as a scout and as such our lunches became interesting again. I’d give him some information about managers and players that I knew and he’d tell me about Arsenal. He told me how Wenger operated, which players the club were going for, the ownership, the fallout from the players’ meetings and so on. And I couldn’t help myself. The information was so good that I sold him out in a desperate attempt to save myself. The throwaway lines that he offered up were Twitter gold dust when they couldn’t be threaded into a column.
“Wenger owns the place mate, everybody in the boardroom is scared of him; it’s his club.”
“I recommended Heung-min Son and Marco Reus to Wenger, both were desperate to sign for us but Arsene said he wasn’t interested.”
“The gaffer was hellbent on signing Schneiderlin from Southampton, we agreed the fee and the wages but the gaffer backed out at the eleventh hour, he really struggles to push the button on big transfers.”
That last nugget is telling because it offers us a real insight into Arsene Wenger’s true mindset. He doesn’t want to spend big money but in the last few years, faced with the pressure from his own fans, a bulging cash surplus and a market that screams ‘overpay’, Wenger buckled. The problem is that it belies his true ethos and when he eventually did cave in it was too late anyway. Rival clubs had been spending in every window before Arsenal joined the party and as the Gunners collected another young talent from a faraway land that they were bound to lose to a bigger team in any case if he performed, the gap widened and others caught up. The result of that panic and indecision are all that’s left of Arsenal and they can be seen rotting away on pitches up and down the country most weeks.
Historically I’ve been very good at working out when the game is up. Relegations have had the whiff of inevitability about them way before they were mathematically certain. My knees told me that playing on for another season would be damaging to my body and my reputation long before my manager told me to retire. The Secret Footballer survives because I have a family to feed and no boss that will plead insanity on my behalf.
But with my friend I missed the warning signs. I thought that he knew about my alter ego and that the information he was passing along could reasonably be expected to find its way into the public domain. He didn’t. For once, the game played me. I lost a friend long before I worked out why he wasn’t returning my phone calls. Fifteen years down the drain for the sake of a few moments of minor success.
We haven’t spoken for nearly two years.
That man gave me my big break in football and I tried to repay him with my performances every time I stepped out on to the pitch. But in the end, I got it wrong. I was selfish and stubborn and I couldn’t see the big picture. I’ve learned though.
The Secret Footballer tried to revolutionise the insight available to fans far and wide, it tried to give a new perspective into football outside of the columns and autobiographies that were filled with tired ‘remember when’ tales of women and booze. But all good things must come to an end and it’s important to know when the bell is tolling for thee.
But the lure of the game in any capacity is ridiculously strong and it is almost impossible to look on and not want to remain a part of it. Just one more spin of the carousel. It’s irresistible. Gunning for one more success can do that to you.
Ask Arsene Wenger.
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