How NOT to be a Football Millionaire

By: Keith Gillespie



I anticipate a few comments but the teasing is gentle. Heads turn in my direction when one of the boys asks whose round it is. “Well, I’m skint lads...” Cue loud laughter.

They know me well enough to leave it there, and change the subject. We have a quiz to win.

I’ll deal with this my own way. Look in the mirror, face the day. Get over it, and get on with it.

It’s an attitude that has a shelf-life.





1

Best Laid Plans

“WHERE did it all go wrong?”

Isn’t that what a hotel porter once said to George Best? I’ve been asked the same question more than once but, unlike George, I don’t have Miss World and stacks of cash lying next to me. It’s usually posed by a drunken stranger in far less glamorous surroundings.

I never spoke with George, even though his name is interwoven with my life. We shared a dressing room for Billy Bingham’s testimonial when I was a teenager, but shyness prevented me from saying hello. What would I have said anyway? “Hi, I’m Keith, I’m a winger from Northern Ireland who plays for Manchester United, and the newspapers say I’m going to be the next George Best.”

At Blackburn, the dressing room comedians christened me ‘Bestie’ all right, but that was more a reference to my roguish tendencies than the playing ability. The name stuck with me, up to and beyond George’s death in 2005.

I’ve led a colourful life. I doubt that anyone who crossed my path would describe me as a clean-living, model pro. I liked a drink, learned to smoke, and swear by an unhealthy diet. No veg, no eggs, nothing unfamiliar. Nutritionists tried to change that, prescribing a list of foods and giving me a chart to fill out my daily intake. After a couple of days, I ripped it up, and went back on the cheese and ham toasties. I couldn’t be arsed with all that hassle.

I’ve taken a single-minded approach to looking after my body and I insist to this day that it never caused any of my problems. I’m 38 now, and feeling good. I haven’t put on weight. At my peak, my body fat percentage was seven per cent. Today, it’s 10 per cent, well within the ideal range for an athlete.

Club doctors always thought I was a freak. My inability to put on the pounds no matter how I lived baffled them, and tormented less fortunate team-mates. I remember the reserve keeper at Newcastle, Mike Hooper, coming back for pre-season weighing 17 stone. The club put us on the scales every Friday so, in order to shed the pounds, Mike would spend early morning in the sauna and then run to training. On the bus home from away games, we’d stop for chicken and chips, and he’d sit there, looking at it, wanting it, but knowing it was wrong. I could eat a bucketload and report the next day to find I’d lost a pound.

Beer is a similar story. It’s no secret that I’ve always liked a night on the town. The strange thing is, I played the best football of my career when I drank the most. I was out three times a week in Newcastle, boozing as much if not more than the average bloke my age. In hindsight, not a wise move for a public figure. In my younger days, it led to rows, bad publicity, and, inevitably, amateur shrinks put two and two together and came up with the conclusion that I had a drink problem. Incorrect. Let’s make that clear early. Alcohol was the catalyst to mischief in town, but I seldom drank at home, and never needed it to get out of bed in the morning, nor will I in the future. I’ve read what alcoholism did to footballers like George and Paul McGrath, and I’m grateful to have avoided the affliction of that terrible disease.

This man was susceptible to other urges. They didn’t cost me my health, but they almost cost me everything else.

How much money did I blow? One afternoon, I sat in Phil’s apartment to figure it out, once and for all. It’s the closest I’ve come to therapy until I realised that I actually needed therapy.

He scribbled down my recollections, correcting me on a figure or two along the way.

Working out the bonuses was the hard part. The signing-on fees, the appearance money, the inducements. At Newcastle, we received £50,000 a head for coming second in the league, which was huge money in 1996.

By the time I moved onto Blackburn, the globalisation of the Premier League had inflated the wages and the incentives. We earned £1,500 per league point, so two wins on the trot could be worth an extra £9,000. And if you scored a few goals along the way, it helped.

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