Footballers have a famously short career. You start at 18, finish at 35 and then you’re basically The Queen Mum. It’s a job in which retirement is a concept you dread rather than one you pine for. Having been taken out of wider society at some point in your teens, the chances are you don’t exactly have much to fall back on. Even in the days of the mega pay packets and coaching badges, footballers' second acts can be fairly bleak places, as the likes of Gazza, Keith Gillespie, Kenny Sansom and others will testify.
The cliché is that if they don't fall into alcoholism or low-level coaching, most footballers go on to run pubs after they retire. It’s true to an extent. (West Ham hard bastard Julian Dicks has got a place called the Shepherd & Dog in rural Essex.) But really, they do all sorts of things. Robbie Fowler is a slumlord, for instance. Before he got handed an uncertain position at Spurs, Tim Sherwood edited a magazine for celebrities. George Weah ran to be the president of Liberia. Eric Cantona became an actor, Bixente Lizarazu is a European Jiu-Jitsu champion and Gabriel Batistuta started playing polo. It depends on the player, really.
Now, the recently retired Gary Neville and the soon-to be retired Ryan Giggs have gone into business together, opening the imaginatively named “Café Football” football restaurant within the spiritual home of spending money unwisely: the Westfield Shopping Centre.
These two are people I have a vested interest in. They're the players I grew up watching, the ones whose careers have spanned my life as a football fan, and so I went to find out if there really is room for a football version of Planet Hollywood.
Westfield is a weird place, isn’t it? A garish living museum dedicated to the madness of late capitalism plonked right into the middle of one of London’s most socially divided areas. It’s like the British Museum if it displayed things that 21st Century Man buys on credit cards rather than the things that 2nd Century Man had slaves build for him.
Because of its proximity to the station, it's completely unavoidable if you live in Stratford (same goes for the one in Shepherd's Bush). Westfield is a shopping centre, a temple and a major thoroughfare all in one. Once upon a time, shopping centres were places that you went to if you were either feeling flush with cash, or just about ready to throw yourself off the top-level food court into the basement coin fountains, but now, you can’t fucking escape them. If ever there was an attempt to keep the proles feeling terrible about themselves, it’s putting branches of Omega next to bus stations.
Café Football is located in an area of this consumer megalopolis called “The Street”, an outdoor district that contains one of those creepy Germanic Christmas markets, scorched Nutella waffles for four quid a pop and a massive branch of just about every restaurant you’ve ever been to, apart from Wimpy.
Made out of reclaimed steel and the size of an A-Road Lock N Store, it didn’t really look like many “cafes” I’ve ever been to. But if I judged all cafes on how they looked from the outside, I'd never have had a Full English in my life.
To be fair, once I got inside, it did resemble a cafe a bit more closely, with its open kitchen, relaxed seating arrangements and groups of dour men. But more than anything, it reminded me of an ambitious branch of Foxton's with more behind the bar than just Perrier and Coke.
However, just in case any kids' birthday parties felt let down by the lack of mascots, dugout-style seats and those giant watch things that hang on the walls of suburban bedrooms, there was enough football tat smattered around to let everyone know that this was definitely a themed restaurant. Here are some boots – possibly Ryan Giggs's :) or possibly Gary Neville's :(
In a quasi-tasteful, post-modern addition there were a number of football clichés plastered over the walls. Which is strange, because Gary is a thoroughly modern pundit who tends to avoid these. God, maybe Gary's being ironic? Maybe Gary Neville is now an ironic football restaurateur. Who would've guessed he'd grow so much back when he seemed like Little England's last outpost waddling along the right flank.
I'm not sure this one actually is a football cliché. It sounds more Lil' Jon than John Motson, more Rick Ross than Richard Keys.
The menu was remarkably comprehensive. With burgers, pizzas, pies, pasta, salad, noodles and basically everything else on the menu, they seem to have adopted a zonal marking approach to people's eating habits.
After plenty of deliberation, I went for a starter of mini fish 'n' chips, and Chloe, our photographer, opted for the more ladylike "treble pie". For our mains, we decided to both try the "fan's favourites" selection, a kind of revolving guest menu chosen by famous football supporters. I went for West Ham chairwoman Karren Brady's pie, mash 'n' liquor and Chloe went for Michael Vaughn's ham, egg 'n' chips. Because we all know British people only eat meals that have 'n's in them. And come in three portions. A hat-trick of portions, as Cafe Football's maitre'd would no doubt describe it.
The mini fish 'n' chips was a decent start. Bits of deep-fried whitebait, with satay fishbits, tangy tartare and some crisps, which tasted good but looked like parcel stuffing, It was the kinda thing that'd get Gregg Wallace's eyes a bit wet on Masterchef. If I worked for the Evening Standard food section, I'd probably call it "classic British food with a twist". But I don't, so I'll just call it "pretty good".
The "treble pies", however, weren't "pretty good" at all; in fact they were "bloody awful" and more like something you'd expect to find in a petrol station fridge than a proper restaurant. The curried chicken, the beef 'n' ale (or was it white spirit?) and the cheese 'n' vegetable were lukewarm, flaky and sparsely filled. They were presented within a box emblazed with Fergie's famous, "Football… Bloody hell" line and are certainly the most miserable way either Ryan or Gary will ever commemorate their 1999 treble.
Between courses I nosed about the place, searching in vain for signed match balls or glass cabinets exhibiting Massimo Taibi's gloves or Alf-Inge Haaland's shattered kneecap. Clearly this is a classier establishment than that.
Still though, the promise of "top notch food and lively banter" was only being partly fulfilled. Come on Nev, get your waiter's outfit on and give the punters some of this.
The place was relatively busy for a weekday lunchtime, but there was little in the way of storming repartee or locker room horseplay. Nobody had made a joke about Becks's sarong or scalded Peter Schmeichel's penis yet. It was mostly just groups of thirty-somethings in moderately expensive suits drinking Peroni.
Wondering what other footballers thought of the place, I asked the Managing Director if any had been in yet. He told me that Ravel Morrison had been in last week, and Kevin Nolan had a table booked for the coming week. Unsurprisingly, they hadn't elected to include a quote from Morrison in the press release. They must be waiting for the arrival of Nolan's famously refined palate before they can really start boasting.
Eventually the mains arrived. My choice – as suggested by Karren Brady, remember(!) – pie 'n' mash, was a decent attempt at the form but at nearly 14 quid, it was pricey. Then again, what else could you expect from a woman who sold her own husband to Stoke?
Michael "Vaughny" Vaughan's crazy ham, egg 'n' chips concoction (chips out of shot and in another receptacle, of course) was pretty good. Though can you think of a dish that's harder to fuck up than ham, egg 'n' chips? It's what divorced dads line their stomachs with before the pub. I didn't expect molecular gastronomy from an England cricket captain, but I expected more than just a piece of rocket in terms of flair.
At the half-time stage, I wondered what the score would be if this was a real football match. One of the starters was fine; the other was a bit grim. One of the mains was fine, the other was better, but a little bit scrappy. We were probably drawing 1-1, going behind early but coming back in the second half through a deflected corner. As the cliché mural on the wall said, it was still "all to play for".
For the desserts, we decided to launch an all-out attack; we were hauling off Carrick and slinging on Chicharito. We were eschewing the world of taste, and heading straight for the football-themed puddings.
I went for the "Chocolate Turf", a kind of brownie with a green Pistachio topping that's designed to look, alluringly, like a piece of pitch. Chloe went for "Wignall's Half Time Orange". At first I read it as "Wigley", and wondered if football's most famous caretaker had finally packed up his tracksuit and gone into cooking, but the dish was in fact named by Michelin starred chef Michael Wignall, who had devised the menu.
The Turf Cake was not an appetising proposition. When it arrived on my plate, I felt like one of those sorry bastards who'd won a section of the pitch from his beloved home ground just before it was turned into luxury flats. On realising I had to eat it, I wondered if perhaps there was anyone who loved Maine Road or Highbury so much that they decided to tear the grass, soil and line-paint from the ground, and eat it, so it would forever be a part of them.
Sadly, the thing was just a rich and slightly stodgy chocolate cake that I couldn't really stomach more than three mouthfuls of.
On first impressions, the Half-Time Orange seemed even less edible than the Turf Cake. It looked ornamental and smelt chemical, like a Lush Bath Bomb frozen rock hard. I'm not a parfait connoisseur, but I'm pretty sure it isn't meant to be deadly if you throw it at someone hard enough.
Because of its texture, temperature and shape, the damn thing was almost impossible to eat. It was a challenge in physics as much as it was in gastronomy. After a good few minutes chasing it round my plate, while it escaped from the spoon like a stuffed toy in a rigged arcade machine, I eventually managed to get into it. Of course, it was too cold to eat. But through the brain freeze, I could just make out a citrusy, perfumey taste. Un-edible and inedible; a first!
When the bill came, I was a little bit disturbed that I was about to shell out £72 for lunch, but looking closely at the prices, Cafe Football probably falls into a fairly uniform pricing range that's somewhere above Nando's and below El Bulli.
As I trudged back to the office with the rare novelty of a three-course, boozeless lunch in my stomach, the food began to lose even its novelty factor. In its essence, it's very bad food. It's even worse when you consider it was devised and cooked by somebody with two Michelin stars.
On a technical level, I guess it had tried to hard to bridge a gap between classy and classic, traditional and experimental. It was supposed to keep the scum out, yet bring the tourists in. The food was uninspiring and overreaching at the same time. I'm not really sure what it should have been, but it shouldn't have been this.
If you really want to test the culinary instincts of Premier League stars, I'd suggest a trip to Essex to try Julian Dicks's grilled halibut.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
Previously in the Who Are Ya? series: