Words: Max Freeman-Mills 
Image: Offside Sports Photography

It’s hard to forget the fuss, really, the tabloid headlines, the chat show screen time. Becks had a little cut, a boot had been kicked, Victoria was furious, the media were loving it, and Fergie was almost certainly livid and growing livider by the minute as the eyes of the country were fixed on the goings on behind his dressing room door.

The flying boot story, with its rumours and twists, was a great time, peak insider gossip. It was also a sacrilegious betrayal of dressing room omertà; a code weakened by each autobiography, tabloid blind item, and salacious interview.

The top-flight dressing room is shrouded by something like the Wizard of Oz’s curtain—you can pull it back if you want, and ruin the mythos, but come on, don’t bloody do that, don’t ruin it for yourself, it’s no fun. Potentially the best class of dressing room story is the type that’s unverifiable—or at least as-yet-unverified. Take Mourinho at Chelsea in his first spell, apparently hiding in a laundry basket to sneak in for an illicit half-time chat. Journalists might have known it had happened, but with the threat of UEFA punishment hanging over the affair, a code of silence reigned.

Now, years later, we’ve got modern grumpy Mou grinning as he pontificates to the agog Keys and Grey on BeIN Sports. Is it entertaining to hear a manager reflect on an amusing and hitherto secret episode in his career? Yeah, but don’t you tell me it doesn’t ruin the enjoyment a bit to know both that and how he did it. Notwithstanding his already suspect choice of broadcaster, José is taking a story that had a bit of magic in it, an unlikeliness that was great craic, and turning it into a boast, in a studio that’s been designed to look like a state funeral dedicated to his greatness.

Where are the closed ranks? The siege mentality that made that very Chelsea squad so strong? Look at how Rafa Benítez has handled himself since 2005 if you want a guiding light. After one of the most famous half-time turnarounds of all time in Istanbul, do we have a word-for-word reproduction of what he or Steven Gerrard said to gee the lads up? Vague generalisations have been trotted out about working hard and closing down Kaka, and the idea that Stevie wanted to avoid humiliation (I’m looking at you Djibril, stop snitching). But no gurning managerial interview about why gosh, yes, maybe it was the greatest speech of all time, thanks for saying that.

There are the odd iconic exceptions: first to mind is John Sitton—then of Leyton Orient, now of being a cab driver. In a fly-on-the-wall documentary called Orient: Club for a Fiver, Sitton’s singular managerial style was there for everyone to see. “You, you little cunt, when I tell you to do something, and you, you fucking big cunt, when I tell you to do something, do it,” he roared. “And if you come back at me, we’ll have a fucking right sort-out in here. All right? And you can pair up if you like, and you can fucking pick someone else to help you, and you can bring your fucking dinner, ‘cos by the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll fucking need it.”

Unfortunately, truly enlightening looks like this are few and far between. Newly Monégasque Cesc Fàbregas may be an unlikely villain, but is another who brought his dinner for a story that didn’t need the tell-all treatment. A pizza slapping into the face of Sir Alex Ferguson, who’s just masterminded the victory that ended Arsenal’s Invincibles run. Could you script a more perfect moment of bathos? Leave it at that! Don’t tell me who threw it, don’t tell me whether they meant to, or if they’re sorry. Let me imagine that the tunnel brawl it was thrown in featured a masked pizza bandit. But Cesc, denim-shirted on A League Of Their Own in 2017, fessed up, and bloody well ruined it. Regret and apologies: two things that I don’t want in my detail-scant rumours.

Or Mesut Özil in his autobiography, taking on Mourinho again, claiming the Portuguese called him a coward to inspire him at Real Madrid after a tepid first-half performance. “Are you giving up?” he says the manager said to him. “You're a coward. What do you want? Do you want a nice hot shower, wash your hair and be alone? Or would you prefer to show your team-mates, the fans and me what you can do? Remember, I don't need you.” Funny, yes, but where’s the mystery? At least the story of Johan Djourou and Valon Behrami scrapping on the floor at Hamburg or Ferenc Puskás fighting Brazilians after Hungary’s 1954 World Cup semifinal with a beer bottle in one hand and a football boot in the other had the good grace to not come with a full transcript.

And for a series of games that meant basically nothing for so many years, the Manchester derby is doing an okay job of appearing properly vicious. Flying foodstuffs resurfaced in 2017 when the significantly less-funny-than-pizza pint of milk was the missile of choice as Mourinho (again) kicked off at City’s dressing room celebration music being a little bit too loud.

With the release of last year’s hagiographic Amazon Prime series about Manchester City, any semblance of secrecy was shredded. Football documentaries have accessed dressing rooms before, for impactful moments, showing your heroes confronting each other in ways you’d thought unlikely, or managers foaming at the mouth with rage. But for a whole season, All or Nothing saw game after game of generic pump-up music, starship-looking personal booths, players awkwardly trying not to look to camera as Pep issues more borderline incomprehensible instructions. Access for its own sake, just to show that the terms your company signed were really good, is a disaster, stripping back the mystique of the sport.

In Netflix’s
Sunderland Till I Die, in the midst of a genuine crisis and at a club riddled with apparent under-qualification, the dressing room was still called off limits. The resulting show is nonetheless considerably more revealing and compelling than Manchester City’s equivalent.

I don’t want to know what happens during the ad breaks. I actively want to have to speculate on how hard it was to convince Steve Finnan to come off at the break in Istanbul, or whether Tony Pulis really did do a head butt in the buff that time (yes, I know, he did). Post-game selfies are a symptom of the disease, revealing your boys as the optimistic sorts who really are thrilled with fourth place, all things considered, not the insatiable warriors you thought.

If finding out some gossip, or seeing players looking happy after a knockout win, are the potential rewards, there’s no doubt the deal stinks. Bring down the iron curtain, fine the selfie-takers, make it clear that leakers won’t progress. Leave the dressing room alone; it’s one of the last bubbles of secrecy left in the game.

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