“I’ve lived a movie. From a kid in Australia, to Wembley, to Spain, to playing at the Bernabeu, to being deported, to being arrested, to working with David Beckham.”
Former Reading defender Andy Bernal was no ordinary footballer.
The 55-year-old describes himself as a pioneer and trailblazer for Australian football having experienced virtually every up and down on and off the football field.
Bernal spent six years in the late 90s with Royals, between 1994 and 2000, making more than 200 appearances for the club.
His time in Berkshire, however, was overshadowed by a charge of attempted voyeurism in Emmer Green. After initial denials, Bernal admitted the charge, and had to pay nearly £9,000 in costs, although he escaped jail.
The incident, which he calls ‘fake news,’ tarnished his reputation and it was in part the reason for chronicling his career in a new book entitled Riding Shotgun .
“It is a story about my life as a footballer, a journeyman, a pioneer and trailblazer of Australian football,” he explained in an interview with BerkshireLive .
“I had some wonderful times, some ups and downs, and for the past 10-12 years I was living a lie.
“After my football career which was fantastic, a subsequent arrest in Reading occurred so I needed to come out with the truth of really what happened on that day.
“It’s really haunted me and it was a scenario which was fake news, it was simply not true. It’s not what happened and I’d be prepared to go to court or go on lie detectors.
“It’s something which stained my football career and all my wonderful achievements and I wasn’t going to have it anymore.
“The story needed to be told. I achieved many fantastic firsts for Australian football and I didn’t want to leave a bad taste of all my years in Reading based on that one horrible day.
“I just needed something to clear the air because it stained all the wonderful accomplishments I had made.
“To play for that Reading side at that time was very special. They were fantastic, memorable days for me and I needed to air my side.
“People can decide what they want but that’s how it is.”
Bernal’s journey started as an 18-year-old leaving Sydney and becoming the first Australian to play in Spain.
After leaving the country to avoid military service, he ended up in England and became just one of two Aussies to be signed by the legendary manager Brian Clough.
Clough was boss of Nottingham Forest but after failing to break into the first team at the City Ground, Bernal signed for Ipswich Town.
His time in England was brought to an abrupt end, however, when he was unable to get back into the country following a holiday due to problems with his visa.
That resulted in him playing back in his native Australia for Sydney Olympic in the National Soccer League.
Five years later in 1994, Reading manager Mark McGhee came calling with Royals and Bernal went straight into the side that won Division 2.
The following season, despite finishing second in the standings, Royals had to go through the play-offs for a place in the Premiership and they were denied by Bolton Wanderers at Wembley.
“I was 28 and working as a park ranger and dog catcher in Woollahra which is a nice part of Sydney,” said Bernal about his move back to England.
“One day I’m chasing 101 dalmations at Watson’s Bay and nine months later I’m running out at Wembley.
“That in itself…it just doesn’t happen. Who would have thought we’d play at Wembley?
“Reading allowed me to live my dreams – playing at Elland Road, playing against Bryan Robson, in a wonderful Reading side.
“I didn’t score many goals, but I scored against Leicester City not long after Mark McGhee had left us and that was a special day.
“I had some wonderful teammates from Gilkesy (Michael Gilkes) to Ady (Williams) – you could go through the whole side, Dylan Kerr, Dariusz (Wdowczyk), Shaka (Hislop), – a lot of really good people.
“The town, the chairman Sir John Madejski, Nick Hammond, Parky (Phil Parkinson)…the good mates see through what you read in the newspapers sometimes and therefore, it’s unconditional so I have a lot of gratitude and am very thankful to them.”
Bernal was one of a select group of players to have played at Elm Park and Madejski Stadium, following the club’s move across town in 1998.
The defender, affectionately known as ‘Skippy’ by supporters, described Elm Park as ‘a beautiful ground.’
“I know it was an old one but for us in Australia, coming up the stairs, the terraces, the pub across the road…England is so old but it’s so beautiful,” he said.
“For us, it was a cauldron where we were fantastic. We feared nobody and I’ve got some wonderful, wonderful memories.”
Bernal’s time with Reading ended at the turn of the millennium due to injury and he subsequently entered a dark period in his life, which included the arrest.
Having torn up the Australian record books by making a successful footballing career in Europe, he now had a totally different challenge to overcome.
A crack cocaine addiction spiralled out of control and at one stage, almost led to his death.
“I had gone from playing and captaining Reading FC to smoking crack cocaine in Reading and London,” he said.
“I’m not proud of it. It’s a path I went down that I wish had never happened but I am here.
“I should be dead – from the three, four, five, six years I lived after that, I should simply not be here.
“But I am here, and here for a reason and I really believe my whole football path which began with a kid being told he wasn’t going to play football because of a problematic left knee from birth – it was a career on one leg that allowed a kid from Australia to live dreams of playing at Wembley, to play against Manchester United, Chelsea and Leeds United.
“I wasn’t the greatest Socceroo and I wasn’t the greatest or worst Reading player of all time, but I lived my dreams and now I have come out the other side and am in a position where I am able to leave some sort of legacy.”
Bernal got his career back on track through agency work and was involved in one of the biggest transfers of the time – David Beckham’s £25m move from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2003.
The Aussie, fluent in Spanish, ended up being Beckham’s right-hand man and experiencing the frills and spills of dealing with one of the biggest – if not the biggest at the time – sporting stars on the planet.
Mingling with the other Galacticos, Bernal did his best to keep the paparazzi at bay.
He was relieved of his duties after Beckham decided not to renew his management contract and has since worked for Football Federation Australia as a scout during the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifying campaign in 2006 and further agency work with young Australian players and helping them get their break in Europe.
Working with Beckham also resulted in him becoming one of the victims of the tabloid phone-hacking scandal in the early 2000s.
It makes Bernal’s journey in Europe an incredible rollercoaster of emotions and scandals, all chronicled in Riding Shotgun.