A couple of years back, The Guardian newspaper began publishing a weekly column called “The Secret Footballer.” The diary of an anonymous professional, it quickly became a must-read. In a sports world where ghosted columns by star players are so often dull and turgid, this was always a gossipy, salacious and entertaining diversion. With his identity protected, the individual wasn’t shy about expressing opinions about the game and revealing the secret foibles of his fellow pros. At a time when it’s nearly impossible to gain access to dressing-rooms, this guy took us behind the door and allowed us to stay and look around.
As the column became more and more popular, it inevitably spawned a book. However, “I Am The Secret Footballer – Lifting the lid on the professional game” proved much more than just a bitchy trip through the sport. It also offered genuine and instructive insights into how the game is coached in the 21st century. Readers were afforded an opportunity to read about the levels of preparation involved and, most importantly, the tactical approaches. In a Sky Sports-world, we all think we know how teams are set up and what they are trying to do. This book made me realise the truth is very different. We know much less than we think.
“The level of detail that goes into games still amazes me,” wrote The Secret Footballer. “Every player has his own script: what to do, when to do it, information on the player he’s up against, including weight, height, age, strengths, weaknesses, even what the opponent is likely to do when the ball comes to him in certain situations. We memorise every single set-piece – where we have to stand, run and end up. We even memorise this for the other players, so we know where everyone else will be at any given time.
“You know that pass when you say to yourself: ‘How did he spot that?’ Often, he didn’t need to: he knew the player would be there because the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making. It’s exactly the same with the pass that leaves you saying: ‘Who was that to?’ The receiving player either forgot to be there or was taken out of the game by a tactical maneouvre by his opposite number. Football at this level is very chess-like, certainly to those inside the game.”
The last line is the most important to consider when observing the often ridiculous fall-out from Ireland’s 3-0 defeat by Germany the other week. It amused and amazed me that so many people were concerned about what Eamon Dunphy, Johnny Giles and Liam Brady made of the result and the performance. In my own personal experience, Dunphy, Giles and Brady are wonderfully generous individuals and two of them are among the greatest players Ireland ever produced. However, they are far, far removed from the reality of the modern game. They are not “inside the game.” And they haven’t been for decades. Not years, decades.
Now, they are tremendously entertaining to watch and Dunphy’s cabaret is always hilarious and provocative. But, anybody who treats their analysis as the definitive word on any match and any team is being utterly ridiculous. It’s nearly 20 years since Brady managed a team, more than 30 since Giles and Dunphy were involved in running one. Anybody who has started working in kids’ soccer in the past decade will tell you how sophisticated the coaching and training is now compared to when they played the schoolboys’ game themselves. Imagine the difference then at the professional level.
We don’t have to imagine though because our friend, the mystery author, has laid it out for us.
“What particularly riles me is when you hear a pundit or co-commentator say something like: ‘Can’t understand, Martin, why Drogba is not on the post here. That header would have fallen to him and if I’m Petr Cech, I’m saying: ‘Go on son – clear that off the line for me!’” wrote The Secret Footballer. “The fact is that corners are routinely cleared by a man stationed on the six-yard line, exactly where Chelsea would position Didier Drogba. If somebody scores inside that post, it is for no other reason than a player having lost his man.
“The point I’m trying to make is that if there is a player on the post, he will clear possibly one or two shots or headers off the line a season. If that same player stands on the six yard line, he will probably clear 100 corners away over the course of the season. The worst thing, though, is when this dross gets into popular culture and my friends start saying stupid things to me like, ‘We should have had a man on the post – our manager doesn’t know what he’s doing,’ just because it sounds like the right thing to say.”
All of the above is why the whole Dunphy-Giles- Brady show is outdated and outmoded. The fact people in Ireland still place so much store in their opinions is frankly bonkers. The game has moved on several eons from their time. Their pomp was an era when players ate steak and chips before matches and sipped tea at half-time. That was a time when Celtic could become champions of Europe with a squad all but one of whom was born within 10 miles of their ground. Dunphy et al may have noticed the football world has changed a lot since then.
Their claims that our illustrious past players were done a disservice by Noel King sending out a damage limitation selection against the mighty Germans showed exactly why the joke of their analysis just isn’t very funny anymore. We can watch their pre and post-game shows and enjoy the monologues and exaggerations and ersatz drama but we can’t take it seriously. It’s all bombast, far removed from a sport now predicated on forensic tactical preparation, increasingly exact science and the statistical tendencies of players in possession.