With an unescapable brooding sense that he might just storm out of an interview muttering an expletive, Johnny and Al's odyssey takes them to the perma-dour Mark Hughes...
He has worked at Manchester United and was chosen for the FA Elite Coaches Award. Meet Alex Weaver, who has just won the Singaporean league ahead of Steve Kean...
Before you start, we genuinely don't know who he is. After our review of 'I Am The Secret Footballer', we got in touch with our man through Twitter and sent questions via e-mail. His e-mail address appears with 'TSF' in the sender name. He's not silly...
Go on then, who are you? (Worth a try)
I am the Secret Footballer.
How many people do know who you are? Presumably your family & some people at The Guardian, but who else? Anyone in football?
A few players know that I write the columns and wrote the book, a few more called me when the book came out. If I had to put a number on it I'd say that, right now, there are maybe 50 people that know. Of those, nine are players from various Premier League clubs.
Do you throw any red herrings about your identity into your columns/the book to throw people of the scent?
All of my anecdotes, whether they are in The Guardian columns or on the Secret Footballer Website or in the book 'I Am The Secret Footballer' are very real, that is to say that they most certainly happened and I am always clear if the story relates to another player.
I suppose if there is one thing that I didn't expect, it would be this theory that TSF is actually a cluster of players pooling their best stories. I can see how some people would come to that conclusion but because I am on the inside looking out and I know that there are many players that have a vast collection of anecdotes (indeed most players do), it simply never occurred to me that people wouldn't realise just how much footballers actually cram in to a short career. So I can understand that some people would look at my writings and think 'This guy has been through everything that a footballer can go through, it must be more than one person.' The fact is, I pretty much have and so have most other players. Then again, all that could be a red herring...
What would happen if tomorrow, your face was on the front page of The Sun with 'The Secret Footballer Revealed' underneath it?
With everything that's going on in the world that should never happen. On the other hand, however, there is this much abused newspaper policy that they can print what they want provided it is 'in the public interest.' Personally, I really couldn't care less. The fact is that unless I say 'I am the Secret Footballer' in the public domain then it will only ever be guess work anyway.
Were there any legal problems with some of the racier stories in the book? Obviously you don't name names, but you do give clues and we can make educated guesses, which might implicate some people. Particularly the story in the pool...
The people that thought the pool story was close to the bone should have seen it when it was raw. Even I had to think twice but actually, the woman involved can't say anything obviously and the player involved is a mate that has retired. He was fine with it, so the liability lay in the woman that was involved. If a huge number of people knew that in the football world but it wasn't public knowledge then I wouldn't have used it. The fact is, however, that there are three people that know who this women is; me, my friend and, of course, the woman. That story remains one of only a handful that I have never shared with another player and I never will. It isn't fair on her, she was on holiday, had a few too many of something or other and got carried away. We've all done that, I know I have, and there is no need to ruin lives over it.
Lots of things were cut out by the lawyers on the grounds that they implicated people that had no right to reply. In the book there was an anecdote surrounding a trip to South Koreathat I liked but it was supposed to run as a juxtaposition. The first anecdote (the one that got in) was a light-hearted story that ran straight in to another tale about two American girls that were raped in a room upstairs by members of a South Korean gang, I was left to pick the pieces up which was without doubt one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. Anyway, I'd named the place that I was in and the name of the gang which I knew because the girls told me they had been buying dope from them for two years while they were studying in Korea. The lawyers took it out and I only found out on the last draft as the book was going to press. That is a downside of writing under anonymity, you can't pick the phone up to people and ask the easy questions that need answering.
You do specifically mention Ashley Cole and Robbie Savage as players you aren't a great fan of - do you particularly dislike these two, or they 'easy' targets that nobody likes too much?
I'm not sure that I said I wasn't a fan of either of them. Obviously Cole does himself no favours with some of the stories that surround him but personally I have no problem with him, other than whenever it kicks off against Chelsea he is the one hiding behind Terry and Lampard while calling us all, c***s and shouting f**k you! I look around trying to work out where this voice is coming from and its always him peering out from behind a bigger player - it's like a playground scene. You have to laugh.
I never had a problem with Robbie Savage and was more than happy to believe those that had played alongside him when they said, 'he's a decent guy...when he's on his own.' I never had a reason to dislike him until one game we played and he got involved in something, he couldn't help himself. He said something to me that I have never repeated to anybody since and I never will. But I made a point of remembering it. So from now on, if I have a chance to fairly criticise him then I will - I won't do it out of spite though. And you can see how Savage reacts from the tweet he directed at me this week, he's fine giving it out but he can't stand it when criticism is levelled at him - you only have to listen to the phone in on 5Live to tell that. People don't just have a reputation unfairly slapped on them, they earn it through years of behaving in a certain way.
You mention in the book that, because you're a footballer, your opinion is likely to hold more weight than a fan or journalist - did you mean that to be just you, or footballers in general? Because anyone who watches Match of the Day or Soccer Saturday might have a problem if it's the latter...
Well, there is a disclaimer in there by virtue of the fact that Match Of The Day operate within time constraints so it is difficult for some of the pundits to dig beneath what's really happening on the pitch, instead they have to work to a narrative which is usually, hero and villain.
I don't know everything about football, nobody does. There are some things that fans know about and there are many things that I know about and what I will always know more about are tactics. It is true to say, and I hate to do it, that unless you have played the game then some things, no matter how well I or anybody else explains them, will always be the privilege of the player but only because we are in the know tactically 100% of the time on a match day, the fans have to wait 20 minutes before they can see clearly what the game plan is, we've been working on it all week.
A good example is if a team is playing for a draw and they have a tactic which is to nick one from a set piece if they can but ultimately never go over the half way line in any great numbers. Very often, the manager will tell the team that the opposition's centre backs and holding midfielders can have the ball but as soon as they advance over the halfway line then the team should get after the ball. Holding midfielders on the defensive team get terrible abuse for not running around like lunatics and they are abused on phone-ins for having terrible games when in fact they have been outstanding given the game plan. The fans will be screaming at them, 'close him down' and 'pressure him' and other things that are meant in good faith I suppose.
What people forget is that the attacking player can have the ball as much as he likes around the halfway line, if he never has a pass available then he can't hurt you. What the player is doing is stopping the opposition player from being able to pass the ball in to a deep lying striker and protecting his back four, he keeps looking over his shoulder to see where the strikers are and he adjusts his body shape all the time to encourage the attacker to make a non-threatening pass. He never gets ragged or loses his concentration, if a fellow player does lose position he will spot it and 'fill in'. It is a very hard role to play because it requires so much diligence and one mistake usually costs the team - you can do it brilliantly for 89 minutes, lose concentration and lose 1-0. And thats the bit you will see on MOTD and no doubt you'll be hung out to dry for it.
Aside from the stories, how much more difficult would it be to say some of the stuff in the book/columns with your real name on the byline?
It would completely kill the idea. I wanted the fans to think a bit more about what they were watching rather than accepting what they were told. There is so much to football that you don't see. The way to convince fans of every club to listen to what you are saying is by writing in anonymity. That way, there is no player prejudice where you might not listen to a Liverpool player because your'e an Evertonian etc.. But writing in anonymity also allows you the chance to tell some good stories, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought of that right from the start. The mix of stories and information seems to be something that people have taken too and I had never come across anything like that before. When I pitched the idea to The Guardian, that was my main selling point.
You've mentioned that you would like to carry on writing - what form will this take? Will you carry on when/if you 'unmask' yourself?
I may do a second TSF book. The publishers have already approached me and I'm thinking about it, I want it to be even better and I have one or two ideas. I will continue to write on www.thesecretfootballer.com and that is something for which there are some fantastic ideas flying around right now. I have always wanted to write novels, loosely based on my crazier experiences and put in to a different genre. I have met some incredible people doing some amazing things and coupled with my own stories and the influences on my life, I think I could put something out that would make people sit up and talk.
In the last chapter of your book you talk about your depression - for outsiders, it seems impossible for someone to perform as a top-level player with such an affliction, so how did you manage it? What would have happened if you had gone to your manager(s) with the problem? Would you have received a 'John Gregory' response?
I did go to my manager - I went to two managers in fact. One said, 'Why the f*ck didn't you tell me earlier, now we can deal with it.' The other said, 'Right, OK, if you need anything let us know, if you need a day off, let me know.' That was it - there is at least the acceptance now if not an understanding.
I wish I'd told them sooner, I've achieved a lot but it frightens me to think about what I could have achieved if I'd opened up sooner. If I have one piece of advice to people struggling right now it would simply be to go to your doctor and ask for help - they won't laugh at you and you are not a weak person. Get help, get on with your life.