Exclusive player prediction: ‘Back in September with crowds’

Matt Stead

A month ago I talked to a Premier League player about the lockdown. I first spoke to him last year for my book Can We Have Our Football Back? On Saturday I caught up with him again. He hasn’t kept any wages for about three years, preferring to invest it in various projects and charities, largely anonymously. He laid out his reasons for being anonymous in our previous chat and sadly he hasn’t changed his mind on that, but I do respect why.

So, I can’t tell you who he plays for, where he’s from, what nationality he is, or what position he plays. I write up our conversations to make them more coherent and less rambling – this one went on for over two hours – and to edit out the asides and anything not pertinent to football. Then I run it past him so he’s happy. So with that in mind, here we go…


Johnny: “So how are things going?”

Player X: “Fine. I’ve just spent an hour on the bike and done some weights. The family is well, which is the main thing. How about you?”

J: “We’re both fine. So you’re fit?”

PX. “Fit by normal standards, yeah, but not football fit. But I’ll be okay. I’m trying to stay at a point where two weeks pre-season will bring me back to maximum.”

J: “Right so let’s get down to business. What do you make of this Project Restart thing?”

PX: “Not much, Johnny. Not much at all. It’s too soon. Much too soon. Is there any appetite for it? I don’t think there is. Is it practical? No.”

J: “But apparently a majority of clubs are in favour of finishing these last 92 games behind closed doors on neutral grounds. 13 in favour, six are against and one undecided. So it could happen.”

PX. “It’d be nice if we got a say in it, we’re just the mugs who have to play and put our health at risk. A lot of lads’ minds are not on playing football right now and they won’t be in four weeks either. So much to do with playing football is about how your head is. If you’re not fully focused, you’re no good. And we see the death toll everyday and it’s really distracting and worrying for everyone. What I’d like someone to tell us is how many deaths per day is an okay amount to allow us to play football again? 600 means no, but 200 means yes? I can’t accept that.

“It just feels wrong to me and I know many of the boys feel the same. Reading between the lines, they feel a bit like they’re being treated like circus animals, like it’s our duty to go out and entertain people, as if there’s a war on. We keep being told health and welfare of players is the most important thing, but I’m cynical about that. Very bloody cynical. Also, you‘ve got to remember, some lads will have relations who have died. No, heads aren’t right. We’re not robots. You can’t just flip a switch and we’ll perform. If any fans think we’re all champing at the bit to get going at all costs, I can tell you we’re not. I’m not up for it at all.”

J: “Well, it’s all about the money isn’t it? That’s pretty obvious. The whole game is going down the pan and fast. It’s going to go bust.”

PX: “Of course it is. The clubs are desperate. I read that article you wrote about the total collapse of football, that’s what you called it, and I think you’ll be right if crowds aren’t allowed for months. Your Man Uniteds and Citys will be okay, but I don’t see how most clubs can survive.”

J: “Unless mass gatherings are allowed in the next couple of months, we’re at the end of the road.”

PX. “Exactly and that’s why I think they’ll allow crowds back in, even if it’s very risky. Someone in the Premier League will be in the ear of some government prick and they’ll stitch a deal up to start games with crowds in the grounds, back to some sort of normal.”

J: “What?! Really?! You think they’ll open grounds again soon?”

PX: “Yeah I do. There was talk today about how open-air crowds are much safer than sitting in a pub with your mates for five hours. Funny that. That’s them excusing it happening in advance. Getting their defence in first. Next it’ll be okay to wear a mask if you can’t socially distance yourself. You watch, in the next month it’ll all change. But if that’s right, why have we banned games at all? You can’t go from saying it’s dangerous to saying it’s not dangerous in just a few weeks.”

J: “I’d not thought of it that way. I’d assumed it would be shut down until the new year or longer, until there’s a vaccine, maybe.”

PX: “It probably should be. But money talks doesn’t it? And I don’t trust the government to do what’s right. They’ll have the club chairmen, the broadcast bosses and owners in their ears. All the big wigs. We’ve got one of the worst death rates in Europe, that’s all the proof you need that our government fucked up, so you can be pretty sure they’ll fuck it up again, this time over football. They’re not suddenly get any good, are they? And have you seen one of the ministers who’ll make the decision on football? I looked him up. Oliver Dowden he’s called. He doesn’t even understand how the football business works.”

J: “Oh yeah, I know about this. I read David Conn’s piece. He said in parliament that the Premier League restarting would…I’ve just looked it up… “release resources through the rest of the system”, but it won’t affect the EFL at all…”

PX: “Yeah. Typical isn’t it? It’s his job to know this stuff and he knows almost nothing. I looked him up on Wikipedia. (Laughing now) Have you seen him? He looks a bit like a shit Joe Hart.”

J: “Ha ha ha…He does!”

PX: (Chanting) “‘You’re just a shit Joe Hart. Shit Joe Hart. You’re just a shit Joe Hart.’ It says here he’s ‘known as one of the brightest political strategists’ –  he must’ve wrote that himself. (laughs) This is the problem, Johnny. You’ve got these jokers in charge. No-one can trust them. They say one thing one week, then another the next, so we’re right not to trust them, aren’t we? Would you trust him to stand up to all the big money men from the league and broadcasters? Do me a favour.”

J: “Oh I’m in total agreement. Regardless of the politics, this mob is just not good enough at the job.”

PX: “And that’s why they’ll give it the go-ahead. They’re weak. They’ll not dare be the government in charge who let the Premier League crash. They’re dopes. They’ll give in. People will get sick as a result, but they’ll pretend they’ve done everything right, like they have for weeks now.”

J: “So when do you think they’ll let people in the grounds, then?”

PX: “I think it’ll be the first week in September.”

J: “Has anyone at the club told you that, or even hinted at it?”

PX (laughs): “Of course not. Basically all we’ve been told is that there are talks ongoing, so keep yourself as fit as possible. The clubs have been talking and there’s a vote on the June restart soon. That’s it.”

J: “So why September?”

PX: “I still think the behind closed doors thing is a non-starter. It’s too complicated, too much admin involved. Also it means testing the lads, when those tests should be done on frontline workers, not footballers. So that’s a bad look for a start. My guess is that most players are against it. But football, like you wrote, is fucked without live games and September is probably the edge of the cliff money-wise for most of them. If there’s no hope for any other live football this year, then they’ll push it through. But if they put September on the table, then they’ll wait it out. So they’ll trade not doing it in June, which no-one wants, for a later date, when they’ll hope things have improved.”

J: “But what about the social distancing advice? How do they get around that?”

PX: “I bet the clubs give out masks. Maybe they’ll reduce the capacity. By September, testing will probably have been done for all those who need it, so pressure will be off about that and they’ll test us every few days, without it looking bad. We’ll have to train six foot apart. It’ll be so much lip service though. You can expect the tabloids catching lads out being too close.”

J: “Do you think players will accept that in September?”

PX: “Hard to say. Depends on how bad the virus is then. The young lads probably will. They’re not likely to get sick anyway and that’s how they’ll sell it to them along with telling them there’ll be no money unless they play. That’ll get their arses in gear. There are lads who have only known big money coming in. They don’t get where it comes from, don’t even care really. It’s just always there. They don’t understand that it is our wages that are killing the clubs. You can tell them look, 75% of the money the club earns goes to us, so if the club is running out of money, that’s because of us. They just think the money tap in the Premier League is always turned on and can’t imagine it won’t be. So if they’re told in August, it’s all ending unless you play, then they’ll bloody well play.”

J: “Last time we talked, you advocated all players just putting three month wages into a fund for the NHS, or the club doing that. But that didn’t happen…”

PX: “No. I can’t really go into that, but players got off lightly because of Hancock shooting his mouth off. No-one wanted to give that twat and his cronies another chance to have a pop, so everyone has shut up about it.”

J: “Yeah, I’d noticed that. You don’t hear anything about it now. There was talk of raising four million.”

PX: “If that’s true, I don’t know if it is, you’ve got about 500 first-teamers on anywhere from 30 grand a week to 250 grand. What’s four million divided by 500?”

J: “Hang on, I‘m rubbish at maths.”

PX: “You must be if you’re slower than me. It’s eight thousand. That’s all. What are you going to spend your other £242,000 on this week? Y’know? Even if you’re on 30, that still leaves you 22 grand that week and hey here’s another fucking 30,000 next week (sighs heavily). It’s disgusting. And yet everyone is bigging the players up. Well done lads, you’re so generous. Bollocks. You know how I feel about the wages in football. We’re all still getting bundles of cash every month for NOT playing football NOT!!(laughs) Tell me that isn’t crazy.”

J: “Our readers were amazed that you give away everything you earn – or invest it in other people as you called it – it was a very positive response.”

PX: “Yeah I kept my eye on those. See, the thing is, right, I’m not sacrificing anything by doing that, am I? So I don’t want patting on the fucking head and being told I’m a good boy. I’m just doing what’s right. It’s not like I’m a saint. I’ve got millions in the bank, I just don’t need anymore. End of. What the fuck am I going to do with it? That’s the question I’d ask anyone. What the fuck are you doing with it all?”

J: “I think people were just shocked that anyone is so altruistic in football.”

PX: “Altruistic? What’s that?”

J: “Hang on I’ll get you a dictionary definition…’showing a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others; unselfish.’

PX: “Or to put it in footballers’ language “not being a c*nt” (laughs) I struggle with all of this, Johnny. I wasn’t brought up to say I’m alright Jack the rest of youse can fuck off. And I’ll tell you another thing, I get a lot more pleasure helping out others than just, y’know, shopping or whatever. Do you get me? If I can help, say, kids who’ve had a really bad time – and the stories I’ve heard would make your hair curl, the worst abuse you can think up – to have a nicer time through a charity, that’s worth a million Armani suits or Nike trainers or big fuck off cars. There’s so much good you can do with your money. It constantly disappoints me that some players don’t feel like that at all or maybe they don’t understand…”

J: “Money hypnotises people though. People become in awe of it.”

PX: “I totally get that. Did you see all these saps on the internet making out Arsenal players are some sort of heroes for giving up 12.5% of their massive wages. (laughs)I mean, fuck right off. Get real. They won’t miss it. How could they? You wouldn’t miss 12p if you had a pound of change in your pocket, would you?”

J: “The worship of footballers for the smallest acts of charity is vaguely nauseating. Those clapping hands emojis on Twitter make me want to scream. I wanted to ask you what you think about people saying how much football coming back, even behind closed doors, would improve the morale of the country. I wrote a piece saying it wouldn’t do so because most people don’t care about football. What do you think?”

PX: “I read that, yeah. It’s a really good point. Only two people in my extended family are interested in football. I hardly ever meet anyone who likes football. You even meet people who don’t know where their local club is or anything at all about it. So you’re probably right but plenty would be interested. Not a majority, but some. I miss football, both playing and watching, but that being said, if there isn’t any for a year, I’ve got plenty of other things to do. I’ve not been bored for a minute so far. Just get yourself a new hobby, learn a new skill, read books, learn to play the piano or something. Just sitting around crying about how you can’t watch fucking West Ham play fucking Palace, that’s pathetic. All that does is feed football’s egos. Football is massively up its own arse and it can’t believe most people don’t give a shite about it.”

J: “So do you don’t think the behind closed doors games will happen?”

PX: “No. But only because they’ll agree on September. The league and the FA seem to badly want it right now, but like I said earlier, they’ll get bought off with the promise of a September start because playing with people in the grounds is what they really want. When push comes to shove, the closed door option is just too complicated and there are too many downsides for everyone. We’re not the priority for testing, or shouldn’t be. Then there’s all the isolation while we’re locked down in a hotel for weeks. Remember how the England team got stir crazy under Capello at the World Cup? It’ll be like that all over again. I just don’t see it working and I think some lads would just say they’re not doing it, like I say, because their heads aren’t right. They won’t risk it. I’ve heard that said.”

J: “Some people think it’ll be good on TV.”

PX: “If anyone thinks it’d be thrilling TV, they’re wrong. It’d be shite. What if Liverpool win the league after one or two games? They’d have another pointless seven or eight to play. The mid-table games with nothing to win or lose would be tedious and pointless, they are even when fans are there. The whole thing is a joke. Football is played for fans, that’s the business. If you can’t have fans, then you shouldn’t be open for business.”

J: “Okay, regardless of what you think will actually happen, what do you think would be the best way to resolve the season?”

PX: “Just play the games when it’s safe to do so with a crowd. When there’s a vaccine preferably. If that’s in a year, so be it. Shut it down. Why do we have to finish it in a month? We can juggle future seasons’ calendars easily enough. We can extend contracts. It’s not that tricky really. But that’s not how it’ll work.”

J: “They want the TV money though, don’t they? And don’t want to have to pay anything they’ve had back.”

PX: “I was thinking about that. I don’t understand how these deals are done but surely playing behind closed doors would be a shit version of the product they bought, so they’re either going to want some money back, or not want to pay the full whack, because this isn’t what they thought they’d be getting. That’s another reason they’ll go with live games with crowds in September. It solves everything. The TV money kicks back in, there’s at least some match-day revenue and everyone can go back to pretending the whole thing isn’t an absolute fucking disgrace.

“And they’re not going to spunk up a load of money for next season until there’s a clear date when it’ll start. September solves that as well. Even if we played these nine games to end the season behind closed doors, there’s no way we’re playing a whole season like that, though I bet the Premier League says they will. There’s a softening up campaign starting. First it’ll be ‘oh you know, it’s not that dangerous being outdoors in a crowd’, then ‘a lot less people are catching the virus now,’ then it’ll be, ‘we’ll have to play next season in isolation, or you’ll not get any money.’ Then ‘let’s just think about getting back to normal in September. We won’t if it’s not safe’ and then in August it’ll be ‘everything is fine, let’s do it.’ We’re being softened up to do something that could still be unsafe. I bet we see loads of journalists soon saying ‘we’ve got to start again.’ Without live football, football dies. They’re not going to let that happen without a fight and they’ll fight dirty if they have to.”

J: “You know the world of football far better than I do, do you think people – players, fans and officials – are just in denial about how serious this is? I get the impression some fans still think there’ll be big transfers and it’ll be like before.”

PX: “There is a lot of that going on. Denial, I mean. It’s hard to believe it’s all going tits up because the common view before this was that the Premier League and its clubs were loaded. So the fact they’re weeks away from going bust seems totally mad. But it’s the truth.”

J: “And that’s why you think they’ll push through a full resumption in September?”

P.: “Totally. They’ll just risk it. They’ll pretend they’re minimising the risks but they’re really fucking desperate now, so will do anything, even if it risks the player’s and fan’s health, they’ll do it. They’ll never admit that, like. They’ll say the opposite. The way it looks now, there’s no way we should be playing in September really. Some players will be reluctant but they’ll probably try and blackmail us into playing saying all the non-playing staff will have to be laid off.”

J: “How much is the wage bill for non-playing staff at a typical top-flight club do you think?”

PX: “I don’t know, but it won’t be much, not relatively. If you had 1000 staff on 25 grand per year, that’s only two and half million per year. I’m not being funny but I could pay that entire wage bill for a year out of my own pocket and if I can, pretty much any player in the Premier League can. So the lads could easily collectively pay the staff wage bill at any Premier League club between them for a year, don’t you worry about that. Everyone chucks in 100 grand and it’s job done.”

J: “How many would be happy to do that?”

PX: “None. But if it was forced on them, they’d accept it. They need it spelled out to them that there will be no football club to pay them a fortune in the future. We have to take responsibility. We’ve had the most money by far so it’s down to us to bail out the club until the game comes back properly. I know that might be an unpopular view. Most think the owners should. But that’s unrealistic and isn’t the way they see it. The owners could just shut a club down if players won’t do the hard yards until the restart. They’ll just turn the key, walk away and then fight it out in the courts for years.”

J: “You mean for breaches of contract?”

PX: “Yeah. But if you’re a player, are you really going to sue them for breach of contract? Are you fuck. The contract wasn’t drawn up for this situation. You can’t expect to go on pulling your 150 grand a week for playing football, when you’re not playing football. I’ve looked at my contract and there’s definitely clauses in there which gives them some room to move. It’s not ‘you will get your money no matter what.’ I talked to my lawyer about it. He reckons the club has a good case that these are exceptional circumstances, the club has no income, through no fault of its own and so they can claim to be insolvent. They have us on the balance sheet as assets, but we’re not assets unless we can play football. And we can’t. So we’re dead meat, really. I don’t understand the legals really, though.”

J: “Well even if you sued and were successful, then what? It’ll be a limited company, and if there’s no money in the company, they’ll just put the whole shooting match under.”

PX: “Well there you go then. So we’ve no choice really. It won’t be forever. We’ve had it ridiculously easy for so long and have got so much money spare, it’s mad.”

J: “But you know what people say to that.”

PX: “That everyone lives to the maximum of their income? You spend what you earn? I’ve heard ex-players saying that. It’s rubbish. Ex-players get weird about player wages, have you noticed? They get all protective and play down how much it is in reality. I don’t know why really. Bottom line? We’re rich. So jog on and fuck off.”

J: “Yeah. That’s said all the time, like players would financially suffer.”

PX: “Bollocks. That’s true in normal life, but this isn’t normal life. I know boys who have been on six million plus bonuses for four years. They’ve probably had 30 million out of the club before they were 25. Even after paying 15 mill in tax, how do you spend 15 million in four years? Just add up what you might buy. 200K on a car, three million on a big London house, if that’s where you play, or want to live. 100K a year for 10 friends and family. Yeah keep going, you’ve only got shot of 7.2 million. You’ve still got 7.8 to go. Do you get me? Yeah you can throw it away gambling, but we can’t run football for betting addicts. We’ve already got everything we need. It’s not a hardship to go without for a bit. We don’t need ex-players talking shite. They just make us look bad.”

J: “Yeah, you made that point last time we talked and I think it really sunk in with some readers that you can’t spend all the money. Out of interest and you don’t have to answer this but I know our readers would love to know, if you had to rustle up every penny you’ve got right now. How much would it add up to?”

PX: “Off the top of my head – it’d be around six million. What people don’t seem to realise is me and the wife and kids don’t have any more expenses than anyone else. We own the house. All we have to pay is bills for gas, lecky and food, same as anyone else. Most people live off 25,000 grand per year. We’re no different. So you can imagine how easy it is for us and how slowly that money diminishes, especially if you’ve got it in high-interest accounts – not that there are any good ones now. Three years back, when I made this decision, I had about 6.1 million. So I’ve spent about 100K in three years, just like a normal person on normal money. My money just can’t ever get near running out…”

J: “And you’ve not banked any money for three years?”

PX: “I’ve not kept any, no. And remember I’ve never been paid like a top player, not ever. Even now I’m about 40 grand a month lower than the average. For perspective, Kevin Du Bruyne is on over 16 and half fucking million per year, Paul Pogba is on 15 million per year. So don’t give me this shite about how lads will be hard up or feel the pinch. The only exception to this are some of the lads who come from really poor countries and send most of their money back and have huge numbers living off it.”

J: “Okay I think we’re getting to the crux of the matter here. Let’s lay out how YOU think football should get through the covid crisis, point by point.”

PX: “Alright. I wrote this all down. I’m probably looking at things too simply, but to me it is fairly simple.”

J: “Go on then.”

PX: “First, no football is played behind closed doors, it’s not practical and it’ll be shite.

“Second, we finish the season when it’s safe to play with a crowd present. Whenever that is. Get independent experts from outside of government to judge it. Do not trust anything a government minister says, especially not the shit Joe Hart (laughs).

“Third, the players and execs pay the wages of the non-playing staff – for as long as there are no live games.

“Four. We forgo any further wages until we’re playing again and the club is earning money. We shouldn’t be getting paid for not doing what we’re paid to do.

“Five. Shut the club down apart from essential maintenance staff until it’s safe to play again.

“And that’s it. The important thing is no-one is in danger of getting ill, or passing the virus on to a vulnerable family member. And we won’t feel like bastards for playing football and sucking down loads of money for doing so, while the country is burying thousands. The clubs will still exist, ready for the release from lockdown.”

J: “Okay, now let’s go through what you think will actually happen.”

PX: “Obviously, I might be totally wrong. In two or three weeks time, they’ll probably announce the behind closed doors thing is a non-starter or they can’t get a majority of clubs to vote for it. They’ll need to leave the door ajar on starting proper in September, though. They might even announce September at that point as something to aim for. Get us all used to the idea. Early August we’ll be told to go into pre-season training. Early September we’ll start the games and finish the last nine by early November, then, likely as not, start the new season in the New Year. I could be totally wrong, I could be way off the mark, but I just can’t see them letting football crash and burn. Too many people from clubs, to owners, to broadcasters need it to exist. Their main problem is convincing everyone they’re not just risking lives because they need money. Put it this way, if we don’t start properly in September, regardless of what happens in June, football will go bust. Simple as that. Not that I think that’d be a bad thing really, but that’s another story and I’ve got to go and cook the kids’ dinner.”

J: “We’re in for an interesting few weeks. Listen, thanks for giving me so much of your time.”

PX: “That’s alright, Johnny. When you write this, can you thank your readers for their compliments last time? I read a lot of the comments on Twitter, I was surprised there weren’t more wankers or cynical bastards, actually. But I’m not a hero. It’s only because football is so weird that it seems like I’m doing something mad, but to me it’s just sensible and it turns out I’m not the only one. I got word recently of two or three other big players doing similar things on the quiet.”

J: “Really? Bigger players than you?!”

PX: “Everyone is a bigger player than me, Johnny!”

J: “Joking aside, I think it’s given a lot of people a bit more faith in humanity, to be honest.”

PX: “Yeah well let’s hope the Premier League don’t destroy that. I’ll not hold my breath.”

J: “Amen to that. Look after yourself, man.”

PX: “Yeah, you too pal.”