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8 May 2017

So they may not get into Mensa, but what’s stupid is to assume that all footballers are thick

I like to see an ex-footballer doing well, but I don’t wish Mark Tucker luck at HSBC.

By Hunter Davies

Are footballers thick? An ex-footballer has just landed one of the world’s top jobs – more details after the break – so they can’t all be thick, can they, despite the public image?

What does thick mean, anyway? Philip Hammond, on paper, is a very clever bloke but clearly he can also be pretty stupid. Clever people often think they are cleverer than they are, don’t really know how the world works or understand how other people think.

My wife was incredibly clever but she adored EastEnders, a programme I’ve never watched in my life. Yet I am totally trivial, in almost all my interests. Though I do like to think I am seriously trivial.

It is, of course, unfair to assume that footballers are not clever, just because they left school early and have been encouraged to think about nothing other than football from the age of eight.

I’ve spent some quality time over the years with footballers ghosting their autobiogs, a job that usually takes up to a year. I found Dwight Yorke clever, fluent, intelligent, wise. Shame he turned out to be a pain. He was so buttoned up, and he messed me around by cancelling appointments.

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Gazza was hard work for other reasons – ie, going off to rehab – and wasn’t verbally very fluent, but then nor was John Prescott (whose biog I also did). But Gazza was clever, used to play chess and bridge with himself. He could easily have passed most exams. When I finished the manuscript he sat for five hours reading every word, correcting my spelling and my grammar. I don’t think any of my other footballers even read their whole book.

Wayne Rooney was too young at the time I did his book, just 19, and rather hesitant and tongue-tied, so it was hard to get him to reflect on his life, but clearly he wasn’t stupid. With age and maturity and experience of leadership, he has greatly developed.

I did Joe Kinnear, after he’d become manager of Wimbledon. He was one of the most streetwise people I have ever met, even if his reading and writing skills wouldn’t have got him into All Souls. He had this answerphone message that I meant to record, as it always made me laugh: “Hi, this is Joe. If you are ringing from Barcelona or Real Madrid then leave a message now. Otherwise, you can f*** off . . .”

Gary Lineker, whom I interviewed while he was at Spurs, was obviously smart and ambitious. Just before I went to see him, at his very classy Georgian house in St John’s Wood (very unfootballerish), he had been with two lads from a football fanzine. I asked him why he had given them so much time. He said when he retired from football he was going to go into the media in some form, so the more experience he got, the better.

He is now one of the best-paid TV presenters, clearly capable of fronting any sort of programme. Far nicer and brighter than Jimmy Hill, who also managed a terrific post-football TV career.

Business-wise, one of the most successful ex-footballers in recent years has been Dave Whelan, who broke a leg in the Cup final with Blackburn in 1960. He went on to run a street stall, then a chain of sports shops, and finally to own Wigan Athletic.

Right: the ex-footballer who has just landed a really big job is Mark Tucker. He will take over in October as chairman of HSBC. As a footballer, he played for Rochdale, Barnet and Wolves in the 1980s. Can’t say I remember him. His career was pretty short; he gave it up to read business management at Leeds, becoming an accountant and then working for the Prudential.

HSBC has 235,000 employees in seventy countries and has been my bank since 1958, when it was the Midland. It has just closed the two branches I have used for thirty years – in Kentish Town and in Cockermouth. Bastards. Ruined my routines.

I like to see an ex-footballer doing well, but I don’t wish him luck at HSBC. I now hate that bank. 

This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution