Tales From The Secret Footballer: San Siro, my father and Fabio Capello

In an exclusive extract from the new book, The Secret Footballer recounts his dream visit to the home of Milan and an awkward meeting with a former England manager

I've never had much interest in the perks that come with football. My golden years came about in part because I forfeited all the bullshit that came from success. I wanted to succeed in this game more than I wanted to revel in any of the spoils; believe me, there are plenty of players who choose to go about that in reverse.

You should have seen the look on the faces of boot suppliers when they'd turn up to the training ground to hand out vast amounts of crap, only for me to tell them I didn't want it. I think I get some kind of perverse pleasure out of it.

Some perks simply have to be taken up for the greater good, however. I owe everything to my parents so when my father's team – and by extension my team – Tottenham drew Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, I thought that this would be the perfect way to repay him. The problem was that the tickets were like the proverbial rocking horse shit. Worse, two of my friends – diehard Spurs fans – had decided to tag along.

I tried everyone. I spoke to a couple of lads at Spurs but they had already given away their complimentary tickets, and I spoke to my own club, too – usually a last resort. Just when all hope seemed lost, I was invited to lunch by one of my best mates. I told him that although I'd harboured ambitions of going to San Siro, I'd probably left it too late now and so I'd end up watching it on the TV at home. I threw plenty of crocodile tears in because he tended to hang out with some pretty big-hitters. And it paid off. "Hold on a second, mate," he said. "Let me make a quick call." When he came back to the table, he was wearing one of those grins that said: "You'll owe me forever and that makes me happy." "You need to call Paolo when you get there," he said. "He has the tickets and he'll take you in."

It transpired, rather bizarrely, that he'd rung Liam Gallagher, who at some point had been associated with Adidas, who sponsored Milan. It was a safe assumption that Adidas had a box at San Siro as part of the deal, and that depending on who was asking there might be a couple of tickets kept aside for distant acquaintances of Adidas's "friends and family". And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the corporate equivalent of the six degrees of separation.

I rang my father: "You fancy going to San Siro to watch the Tottenham match?" I rang my friends and told them the good news. It's amazing how happy football can make some people.

And so it was that, thanks to Liam Gallagher, my father and I and two friends met Paolo at the VIP entrance of San Siro in the middle of a monsoon and ascended those famous circular stairs until we reached the executive boxes. When I was a kid watching the Italia 90 World Cup, that stadium mesmerised me. It still does, but the reality is that when you walk up those stairs it's like wading up a waterfall of piss. My advice is to take the lift. Paolo led us to a door and said he'd leave us to it.

As I put my arm out to turn the handle, the door opened to reveal a stunning and very smiley Italian woman whose name I've forgotten but whose phone number I still have, saved under "Stunning Italian woman". Let's call her Isabelle. She welcomed us in and showed us around what was without doubt the finest executive box I have ever seen. On the right-hand side, down the entire length of the wall, was a shrine to Adidas that encompassed pictures of, among others, David Beckham, wearing the red-and-black stripes of Milan, with a pair of his white Predator boots – signed, of course – in a glass case. There was memorabilia from a host of legendary players – shirts, boots, trophies and so on, all signed and proudly displayed.

Underneath were fridges of beers and Cokes, and there was a huge plasma screen where you could watch replays of the game if you missed something live. Along the back wall was a bar with an impressive array of drinks and in the middle of the room was an enormous table groaning under the weight of incredible-looking food including hand-carved hams, olives the size of plums and pasta dish upon pasta dish. I've been in executive boxes all over the world and for the most part they are like hotel rooms – if you've seen one, then you've definitely seen them all. But this was the real deal.

"And out of these doors you can see the pitch and your seats, please gentlemen," said Isabelle. The view left you speechless. The box was smack bang on the halfway line, just below the level of the camera angle that you see on the TV. As I wandered outside, the full scale of San Siro hit me and I silently repeated what a friend once said to me when I took him on a tour of the stadium at my first big club: "Ahhh, proper football."

There was still an hour to kick-off, so we made the most of the hospitality. The waiter took the cork out of a very good Barolo and poured in earnest, and we sat around like kings of San Siro until the team sheet arrived.

Soon Isabelle told us that kick-off was imminent and escorted us to our seats, from where we could see that, apart from being the only four people in the box not in an immaculate made-to-measure suit with sunglasses, we were also the only Englishmen.

As the game started the noise levels were incredible. When the first half came to an end, amazingly Tottenham had held their own, although in truth Milan had offered almost nothing. Clarence Seedorf was having an off night and was being jeered by a section of the Milan fans as a result, and Ibrahimovic looked as if he'd forgotten that there was a game tonight.

At half-time we made our way back through the doors and into the warmth of the box, where I helped myself to some more Barolo.

My father still hadn't come in from his seat and was busy taking pictures and soaking up the atmosphere. Just then Isabelle received a call on her radio and stiffened as if royalty were expected. There was a quick spruce-up of the box and readjusting of clothing and hair before she stood by the door. In walked Fabio Capello.

I had a friend who played in the Premier League for many years and earned a fortune; whenever I'd ask how he was doing he'd say: "Very wealthy, thank you." For some reason, the moment I asked Capello how he was, that reply popped into my head. Not for the first time he let me down. "Very well, thank you. How are you?"

"Pretty good," I said. "How did you get in here?"

"Ah, good," came the reply, coupled with a half-smile. I slunk back into my seat and poured another glass of Barolo while Capello sidled up to the table.

The reason it was uncomfortable for both of us is that a few years earlier, when Capello had taken the England job, he had held a press conference in which he'd made it clear that it was time for the England squad to grow up. Misbehaviour would no longer be tolerated. A day later I received a call from a journalist friend who said he had it from two good sources at the FA that I was in Capello's England squad.

Not for the first time, I celebrated too early and far, far too well. This time, it proved to be a monumental, career-defining mistake. The next morning my name was everywhere – newspapers, TV, the internet – except on the list of Capello's England squad. Until this point my career had been going up and up and up, and it isn't an exaggeration to say that at that exact moment my love for football, my desire to play and, ultimately, my career fell off a cliff. Still, it makes for a great story.

I like to think that our meeting was an awkward one for Capello because it reminded him that he was not a man of his word. He made it crystal clear in that same press conference that it didn't matter which player committed an offence – the result would always be the same. We now know that, depending on the player in question, that was bullshit.

The box had filled up a little bit, to the point that there were now a dozen people or more milling around. Just then, my father and my friend walked in, rubbing their hands together and pointing out that it was still cold outside.

"Nil-nil," said my friend. "We're in danger of doing something here." He came to sit next to me, and my father walked up to the table for a quick heart-starter. Neither of them had noticed Capello, and I waited for them to realise who was in the room with them. But they didn't.

I sat there looking straight at my father and Fabio Capello standing next to each other, each deciding what they were going to plump for. My smile was getting wider. Just then Capello leaned across my father to reach for a glass at the other end of the table – and probably wished he hadn't. "Oi, fuck off, John! What's your game?" said my father. "If you want a glass, just ask for one. Don't lean across people."

The best thing was that at no point did he notice that this was Fabio Capello because he never once looked up. I sat there in a state of semi-paralysis; I hadn't managed to get the olive that I was holding into my mouth and my eyes were on stalks.

My father reached for a glass and passed it to Capello, who thanked him before filling it and wandering off. My father came to sit down next to me. "Bloody people," he said.

I stared straight ahead for a moment trying to think of the right words.

"Dad," I said. "I think you just told Fabio Capello to fuck off."


"I said, I think you just told Fabio Capello to fuck off."

Tales from the Secret Footballer (Guardian Faber is published today at £12.99. To buy a copy visit the Guardian Bookshop.

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