Still not yet in the grave

As an author myself I know the pain that you go through when starting on a new project, trying to wrestle with that internal voice that questions whether it is good enough, and will people buy the end product (FYI – Passport to Football is still available to buy here).  Football books are even more of a challenge with few publications actually worth a first read, let alone a second or third.  However, we strive here at the Ball is Round to bring you what we consider to be the best books written on the Beautiful Game.  In our “must read” list is probably the finest book written about what it is like to be a professional footballer on a day by day basis.  Not content with just one book, he followed it up with a second a few years later detailing his transition from player to manager and finally to a life away from the pitch.  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you TWICE nominated author for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, Garry Nelson.

Garry played over 640 games in a career spanning 18 years and is probably best remembered during his Charlton Athletic days where he wrote his first book, Left Foot Forward.  He then followed this up with Left Foot in the Grave during his time at Torquay United.  We caught up with him whilst he was giving Tommy Walsh a run for his money in building a log cabin in his garden.

How is the left foot these days?  Still putting in those crosses for a Carl Leaburn to miss time his jump?
The left foot is still working well thanks – playing in the odd Charlton Vets game, most weeks in the Premier Division of the Southend Borough Combination Vets League (there are 5 divisions) for Old Southendian and still managing to play in the Hong Kong Soccer 7’s Masters Competition for Kowloon Cricket Club.

I have failed to find a fan who has a bad word to say about you as a player or manager (apart from Crystal Palace fans of course), what three words summed up your approach to the game?
Enthusiasm, Energy and Endurance

You started your career off at 18 with Southend United.  Coming from Braintree was this a childhood dream being at the time (and potentially still) the “Biggest club in Essex”?
No it would have been playing at Goodison Park for Everton (my family moved from Liverpool in 1960 to Braintree) the team I still support today. I grew up in the Southend Area so it was more of a pull at the time than the other team that had been courting me, Colchester United.

Whilst you were not a “journeyman”, you played for a few clubs.  At which club did you really feel at home?
I would have to say Plymouth Argyle, Brighton & Hove Albion (for most of my time there) and most definitely Charlton Athletic.

What was the best team you played with and why?
There are several ways to look at this question. The best team because that is exactly what we were, was Plymouth Argyle when we won promotion in 1985-86. We had no superstars and we all got on both on and off the field. We gained promotion from a very small squad with each player maximising their individual and collective potential. As a collection of great players I have to say that when I first joined Charlton Athletic  I thought they had some really good players, technically better than the players I had played with before and to be honest I was a bit worried whether I would get a regular game. Whilst I wasn’t one of the more gifted technical players it was great to see how much they appreciated my overall contribution within the team and that certainly helped me during some lengthy scoring droughts.

You started your career in the age of perimeter fences, football violence and mud bath pitches.  Any occasions when you felt “sod this, I want to be somewhere else”?
I think my lowest ebb as a professional was when I was playing in Swindon’s Reserves in 1985 against Arsenal Reserves having been dropped the day before at Torquay having started every one of our league games. We lost 10-0,  were totally outclassed and by the end totally humiliated too. Working in the real world now I have to say that I don’t think any job would have compared so was just part of the inevitable ups and downs.

We frequently chat to Alan Devonshire, who is now manager down at Hampton & Richmond.  He saw you in your Brighton days as a competitor with him for the left wing for England.  Did you ever think you would get a call up for the national team?
I think Alan may be thinking of someone else there because I think he was a few years older than me and I was never really in his class. I did have a couple of great seasons at Brighton and they did play an England B match v Italy B at the Goldstone during this time and there was a silly rumour going round saying I might make the squad as the local boy. Obviously the call never came but the crowd did do a very good rendition of “Nelson for England” in the second half!!

You wrote your first book whilst you are still playing at Charlton Athletic which prior to the situation today where players write a biography after a season in the Premier League is very rare.  What made you decide to write “Left foot forward”?
I suppose having the opportunity with someone who had written before and knew the process and who gave me the belief that a book about a relative nobody would still have appeal. I am glad to say he was proved right.

Were Charlton in favour of the diary at the time? Were you tempted to write more in depth detail or do the fans/media simply over glorify the whole football player life?
I decided the best line of attack was to keep the writing of the book under wraps otherwise players may not have been relaxed in my company. I also decided that it wasn’t going to go into certain areas that could have provided sensational headlines (relatively) but ruined my hard-earned reputation as a good lad. I think that decision was the right decision and very few people had reason to fall out with me for anything I had said about them in the book.

As a player training for a few hours in the morning, what did you really get up to in the afternoons?
In the early stages, I played a lot of snooker (badly) then having children relatively young I was lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with them. In later years I went to college on day-release and then started to run a small business to gain a bit of insight into life after football. It didn’t prepare me that well actually but I made a little bit of money for a few years.

You hold a UEFA coaching licence, and have sampled Football League management.  Why haven’t you ever considered staying in management?
I had a year in management at Torquay (as you can read about in Left Foot in the Grave) but was offered the chance of a longer lasting career with the PFA in London.  I really love coaching and it is a disappointment that I don’t get the chance to coach other than some involvement in Hong Kong each May. Who knows one day I might get another chance to don the track-suit.

Does it make you sad to see most of your former clubs struggling in their respective leagues today?
I follow all of my former clubs and like to see them all do well. The situation at Southend is really disappointing at the moment and must be so frustrating for the fans that have turned out in great numbers in recent years. I know Steve Tilson pretty well and he didn’t deserve what eventually came to him but I am sure he will bounce back. Charlton’s predicament was a shock to everyone who saw the rise and rise of the club in the last 20 years and shows just how quickly it can all go south when so much is wrapped up into being in the Premiership.

Did you have an agent as a player?  If so what did they actually do for you?  And do you think they are a necessary evil in the game today?
No – I didn’t have an agent and if I needed advice I would always refer to the PFA. Agents have grown in prominence and influence and are now an integral part of the game. The money they earn is totally disproportionate to the work they do and whilst fans moan about how much players earn they would be really shocked about how much agents earn from deals.

As a former player and a qualified coach, what do you make of our abject failure in South Africa?  How much is down to the manager?
I was, as the rest of the nation, bitterly disappointed and shocked at the level of performance achieved. Players looked jaded, out of sorts and clearly a lot must have been going on in the background as the players looked ill at ease with each other. Rooney was the biggest disappointment and I am a massive fan of his. I don’t think he was fit and therefore mentally wasn’t in a good place. The impact of that on the rest of the team was massive but no one team will win World Cup’s relying on their star player to perform.

Pre-season for top clubs now seems to involve flying half way around the world to moan about the weather.  Where was the worst place you ended up playing pre-season?
That is a very easy one to answer – Bucharest just after the fall of Ceausescu in 1990. They took us for a Taste of Romania on our last night and we all came home with food poisoning!!

We are interviewing a Premier League footballer, a Celebrity Masterchef and a pornstar along with you this week – our virtual celebrity TBIR Brother House.  As a fully fledged media star, what’s the unlikeliest situation you have ever been in?
Hiding under a market-stall in Dam Square, Amsterdam with Alan Curbishley as Dutch fans rioted after losing on pens in the semi-final of the Euro’s in 2000.We were there for a Snickers Football Promotion.

At what point did you decide to call it a day as a player and why? May 1997 – after 18 years and a failing tendon in my right leg I was offered the job of heading up the London Office of the PFA rather than trying to perform on my dodgy leg in the 4th Division (as we used to know it) as Player-Coach of Torquay United.

I note today that Manchester City have taken their summer spending up to £80million.  What is your take on their whole acquisition policy?
Aren’t they just trying to repeat what Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona have done in the past few years? It’s sad and limits the development of some great young talent that always emerges from Manchester but it is reality at the very top of the game at the moment.

How often to you get to a game when you are not making log cabins in the garden?
I saw Charlton 6 times last year, Brighton 3 times, Southend 3 times and Arsenal once. I would like to go more often but the enthusiasm isn’t what it once was or should be but I counter that with the fact that I am still playing so the love for the game is I suppose still there – just about.

As a relative new Twitterer, in a 140 word Tweet, sum up Garry Nelson the player?
Whole-hearted player, who played with a smile and made the most of the talent he was given. Sweet left foot, who could make and score goals.

So modern professionals take note – you need to have something interesting to say before you start writing your egotistic autobiographies at the age of 22.  Nobody wants to hear about your dull lives – give us the thoughts of a true professional any day.  So ditch the “My story” and “Totally Frank” style books and get yourself a copy of Garry’s books.  I am sure all Brighton, Charlton, Plymouth, Southend, Swindon, Torquay (and a few Notts County) fans will raise a glass in your honour.


  1. I saw Garry play for Charlton on a number of occasions againt my team Huddersfield in the early 90’s and he always looked a dangerous player against us, pacy and determined. Having read the two books above as well as other ‘famous ‘football books, they are without doubt the best!

  2. welli gave garry the player of the year award in may 1988 at the goldtone i was only about 3 or 4 but i remeber it like yesterday one of my proudest moments thannk you garry

  3. I, too, am an author and Garry is my nephew. I am so proud of his achievements as a footballer and a writer. I never knew this interview was here and have enjoyed reading it a lot.

  4. your goal for Brighton away at Brentford still classed by many as your best. I was lucky enough to see it.

  5. Gary Nelson is a class act. I met Gary and friends in my early career, in the 90’s, as a club director of coaching for South County SC in Wakefield Rhode Island. He came into the area to offer his services teaching the game to our kids. At first, I was skeptical, due to the fact many people with accents come over and tell us stories about how the played for the National Team, etc. I asked Gary if I could check on his credentials and he ok. After talking to my friend Graham Ramsey, one who knows football throughout the world, I was embarassed. Graham told me of Gary’s wonderful background in the game.
    Well, the clinic they put on for the kids was the best I have ever seen. The worked, and taught the players so much in the week they were here. I was coaching a high school team at the time and many of my players took part in ther clinic. We won the Championship that year.
    I was so impressed with Gary as a peron. He was modest, unassuming, friendly and most of all, excited to work with our kids. Also, he and his pals were great guys to have some beers with at the pub. Great conversation goes well with great food and , of course, great beer.
    I will never forget the guy who came up to me at a tournament and asked if we were interested in having he and his buddies, also pro players in the UK, come to our town and give a clinic for a week. It was one of the best experiences I have had in this wonderful sport. As the United States Youth Soocer Region 1 Coaching Administrator, I have experienced many experiences in the game, from Olympic Development Development coaching, Women’s National League owner/ coach, USYS Regional Coach of the Year, and much more. One week watching Gary and friends teach those kids this game is the best. In my role as one of four USA Regional reps, we are creating teaching programs for the coaches and, most importantly, the kids how to develop their technical and tactical skills. I want to thank Gary nelson for showing me the way it should be done.
    Thank you Gary, you are a class act. And thank you for what you do for the game!
    Jim Kelly
    USYS Region1 Coaching Committee Administrator.

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