The following is an extract from John Nicholson’s new book ‘Can We Have Our Football Back?‘, an exploration of the state of the game, how we reached this point and what things might look like in the future. John wanted to hear about the realities of the money in football first hand, so he spoke to a mystery player…
I thought it would be really interesting to get a current Premier League player to talk to me but obviously this wasn’t going to be easy because my name hardly commands any weight or heft in the football world
Eventually, he got in touch. He wanted to stay totally anonymous simply because he’s worried his life would be made hell by what he called “agents, greedy bastards and other assorted c**ts.” So that was fine with me. What he had to say was shocking and heart-warming in equal measure. We talked for some time. I got straight to the heart of the matter and began by asking him how much he earned.
“I’m earning less than some in the first-team squad but a lot more than the youngest players. I know some of the lads talk a lot about their wages with each other but I don’t and I never have. I wasn’t brought up that way. But also because I really don’t think I deserve the money. People might think that’s just me being…what’s the word…false bragging [he meant false modesty]. But it isn’t. I kick a ball around and that’s it. It’s not a special talent. I know not many can play as consistently as I can but so what? It’s just football. Football isn’t important. It’s not like I’m curing cancer. Do you get me? Yeah I’m a good footballer and, like, OK pay me as someone who is really good at his job. But it has got totally out of hand.
“I hear people outside the game defending us. Saying that we’ve got to have incredible dedication and there’s so many pressures and how we deserve every penny we get like, but that is…it’s crap, isn’t it? OK OK, it might be true for Cristiano Ronaldo or a few of the top top players, but for people like me, workhorses who play, if we’re lucky, 35-40 games a season, it simply is not true. I just don’t believe it is. So how much do I get? OK, well, I’m not showing off, right? That’s not me.
“So, I get into my account every month, just over £200,000. It works out with win bonuses that I got paid over £2.5 million across the last 12 months. It is f**king insane, isn’t it? And I’m quite low paid at this level. In the last five years I’ve earned at least £10million. Across my whole career by the time I retire it’ll end up around £18million or even £20million. And c’mon, you and I both know, I’m a decent player, I’m a hard grafter, I do a job and I don’t give managers any shit, but I am not worth £20million of anyone’s money. I don’t think anybody is. But there are boys on £10-15million per year now. It’s mental.”
I asked him about his tax arrangements on this huge money. Did he have offshore investments and the like?
“No. I’m a working-class boy from a council estate. I don’t want anything to do with that shit. I don’t even understand it. I’ve got an accountant that a friend recommended. He thinks I’m insane because I insist on paying all the tax straight off the top. I don’t understand it all, he fills out all the forms but basically I pay, I think, is it 45 per cent of it in tax? I don’t even know. So I’m left with a little more than half of that total. How do I survive?! [laughs loudly]
I get into my account every month, just over £200,000...and I'm quite low paid at this level.
“My dad was a union man, he told me straight from the day I signed professional forms, you pay what you owe and if you cheat on your tax you’re cheating the working class out of their money and I still believe that. It’s right, isn’t it? When you hear that there’s no money for kids and schools and everything, that’s because people like me haven’t been paying into the pot. That’s what dad told me years ago.
“The bottom line, and this is why I wanted to speak to you, the bottom line is that I don’t need all that money. None of the boys do. I live a nice life, I’ve got some saved for when I stop playing. I mean, like my dad says, ‘How many dinners can you eat?’ do you know what I mean? But if I told some of the boys this, they’d think I was a real prick. To some of them, you get as much as you can, for as long as you can. They’re not bad lads. Well, some are twats, but no more so than in any walk of life.”
So how much do you think you should be getting? What would be plenty for you?
“I was thinking about that today. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be poor. I’m not mad. I want to be comfortable, nice house and car and everything. I want to make sure the kids are well looked after, just like every dad does. But they go to the local school. Not fucking Eton or that shit.
“I know plenty that do fine on £35,000-a-year and they’re not less happy than me. But I reckon if I played football, got £100,000-a-year because I’m good at it, a few extra perks here and there, that would be plenty of money. Plenty. Nobody I grew up around earned that sort of money, nothing near it and would never have been able to. Maybe I’m daft in the head for saying that, but if it all went away tomorrow – and it will go away at some point – it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.”
What will you do when you retire?
“I’ve got lots of things planned. I want to live my life. Football robs so much away from you. It’s all you think about. I plan on earning a living, I’m not just going to live off my money. My main interest is in coaching kids. I always fancied being a PE teacher actually. What do you get for that as a wage?”
I dunno. Probably about 30 grand after a few years.
“There you go then, that’ll do me. The wife earns 27, so we’d have about £60,000-a-year. Who wouldn’t want to live off that, especially when you’ve paid for your house? Piece of piss. And I’d be doing something useful and not just being called a c**t by fans. Mind you, the kids might call me a c**t mightn’t they!”
We talked for ages and I couldn’t help feeling he was really unusual in his outlook on life; a one-off perhaps but he insisted that he wasn’t and that teammates probably felt the same underneath or at least just felt they’d got lucky so if the money disappeared, they’d just be thankful for what they’d had.
“There are some really greedy bastards out there though. I could give you a list of names, you’d be amazed at how obsessed they are with milking money out of the club and out of everyone in fact. Some lads are like that because they’re from some really deprived country and about 200 f**king people live off what he sends back. That’s terrible, that is. You can see the pressure on them lads. Everyone is relying on him.
“But there’s one boy I know who is the worst of the worst. You’ll hear him talk and basically the only thing that matters to him is money. When he hears players going to China for 600 grand a week he’s f**king consumed with jealousy. He was half decent 10 years ago but he’s shite now but he’ll probably end up there aged 45. I hate the c**t. He gets us all a bad name. Plays up to the stereotype. Spends like 50 grand on a watch. It’s not necessary, is it?”
I always fancied being a PE teacher actually. What do you get for that as a wage?
Does your wife agree with you on these things?
“Yeah. She grew up on an estate like me. She hates the whole footballers’ wives thing. WAGS and that bollocks. Stays away from it all. We’ve got the same values. When she sees one of the boys has bought some massive f**k-off car, she just calls them a wanker, not to their face though. But like me, she says, ‘All that money and there are people who can’t feed their kids’. She actually says that, you can print it. And I bet ordinary people all over would say the exact same thing. But some of the boys never hear it. They’ve just got yes men, tarts and hangers on, always in their ears. Footballers are treated like babies. I mean, man up.
Speaking of that, I was just listening to the Peter Crouch podcast and he said he’s always had his underpants provided by the kitman on match and training day. I was amazed. Why can’t you provide your own underpants?
“[Laughing] It’s true. You don’t know the half of it. That podcast is funny but it’s funny because it puts what is normal to footballers into the real world and in the real world it’s all just totally mental. And I don’t know why it is like that. But it just is.”
So what is it? It’s the money isn’t it? That’s really behind everything.
“The money, the people who come with the money, the agents and dodgy owners…
“It’s all of those things and loads of other things as well. Like, for example, when I’ve played Manchester City, there was so little chance of my team winning that we might as well have not bothered. The gap between the top sides and the rest is huge. Bigger than I ever remember it. But it’s always going to be that way when they’ve got so much money. They just buy all the best players. It’s no more complicated than that.
“For anyone else to get a look in, a big side has to really have a bad day. Well, that’s not what sport is supposed to be. You wouldn’t put a lightweight in the ring with a heavyweight, but that’s what is happening now in football.
“It all makes me feel like it’s not our game anymore. It’s still a great game, obviously, but everything that goes with it is now shit. I mean, right, this coming season there will be at least 12 maybe 14 clubs that won’t even take a point off City and will probably get beaten four and five. It does make you wonder what the point is.”
That’s why I wanted to write this book, just to try and break this horrible feeling open and find out what it’s all about and hopefully suggest ways to make things feel good and increase competitiveness.
“Your problem though isn’t to get the players on board with massively changing the situation, right? We’re just pawns in the game, it’s all the other people – agents, club chairman, owners, TV companies. They’d kick up a stink, y’know? The way to f**k everything up is to stop paying for it on Sky and BT. I know you’ve said it isn’t even that popular, but that’s where all the money comes from basically; alright there are rich owners like Abramovich and the royal family bloke at City and the rest of them, but if you kill it on TV, that’d make everyone shit themselves.
“That could be the spark that sets it all alight. And what are they going to do? They can’t make people pay for it, can they? That email you sent me with all the points in it laid out, that made sense to me, but nothing will happen until the TV deals end. I’d love it. It’d be brilliant. Cut everyone’s money if that’s what it takes. That’d sort the men from the boys. I mean, right, my dad only has Sky and BT because I pay his bills. He couldn’t afford it if I didn’t. Any government would be stupid if they couldn’t see how popular that’d be as a policy.”
“People are like sheep and football fans more than most. Tell some of them to jump off a cliff and they’d do it. The tribal warriors at clubs are all gullible twats, everyone knows that. The club knows that those f**king idiots will turn up and pay money they can’t afford to watch their team no matter what. They say they respect the fans but that’s shit. They take the piss if you ask me.
“I look at some of the fans and I wonder what the f**k they think they’re doing. Especially on Twitter. When you see them swallowing the PR shit from the club and fighting with other fans about it, honest, they’re pathetic jokers. Big club fans are the worst. I hate them and I’m not the only one. Obviously, you’re never allowed to slag off fans, it’s rule number one, but to be honest, there are too many c**ts at games of football. Sorry, I’ve gone off on one there – winds me up, though – I won’t miss tribal football fans when I retire, put it that way.”
Big club fans are the worst. I hate them and I'm not the only one.
Well, I think a lot of fans feel the exact same way. Writers do, too. Those one-eyed fans make all our lives worse. But just to move it back to what we were talking about. Are you saying that if a popular footballer went on TV and said I support the movement to make football free on TV, it would swing everyone in behind it?
“Definitely. But your problem is the agents will be in the lads’ ears saying this will lead to their wages being massively cut and like I said, a lot of them can only ever see more and more money as a good thing. That’s what they’ve been told since they were young. Most people just want more money even when they’ve got loads.
“But then, if everyone stops paying, not even the agents could stop it. I just think that no-one has ever thought of doing it, not, like, as one big group. I talked to dad about this, this morning actually.
“He’d tell you he’s proud to be a socialist though I don’t think he really knows what that means and I certainly don’t. I told him like and he was a bit, ‘Well, that’ll knacker your money, son’, but I was saying f**k it, why do we have to earn so much more than we can ever spend, and dad agreed and he did say it’s obscene.
“But I can’t see Sky and them lot just rolling over without trying to fight back. And as for the government making it a special case, they’re the shittest ever. Haven’t a f**king clue. So good luck with that. Anyway, I hope what you’re doing with the book has some effect. Wouldn’t surprise me if it had none at all, but wouldn’t surprise me if it kicked something off either. You never know until you try, do you? Something needs doing, though. The way things are in top football is wrong. End of.”