Book of the week: Left footsore by these tackles and shackles

Left Foot In The Grave? A View From The Bottom Of The Football League By Garry Nelson (CollinsWillow, hardback, pounds 14.99)
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The Independent Online
Tuesday 20 August. It is the second competitive match of the 1996- 97 football season, and Garry Nelson, Torquay United's player-coach, discovers one of the perils of being one of the game's few acclaimed player-authors.

A robust challenge by the Bristol City captain, Martin Kuhl, a notorious lower-division midfield enforcer, leaves Nelson sprawling on the ground. A push in the face follows, accompanied by a none-too-polite enquiry: "Who the hell do you think you are, writing things like that about me in your book?"

The book that raised Mr Kuhl's hackles, as well as his tackles, was Nelson's first, Left Foot Forward, a tale of a season as a Charlton player. It was a season that Nelson feared would end in a free transfer. As it happened, fortuitously for those who like a happy ending, he was wrong - but only by a year, hence the need to find a new employer in the summer of 1996.

Left Foot Forward was widely judged to be by far the best diary of a journeyman footballer since Eamon Dunphy's Only A Game? in the 1970s. It was a wryly observed tale, full of the insecurities and absurdities of the sport at not quite its highest level. It was also a very hard act to follow - a problem solved by Nelson's next move at the end of his Charlton career.

In May 1996 Torquay had finished bottom of the Football League, with only a controversial ruling on stadium standards - at that time still to be challenged in court - preventing Stevenage Borough replacing them in the Third Division. A senior player, Kevin Hodges, was being lined up to take charge of the team for the following season, and he wanted Nelson, a former team-mate at Plymouth Argyle, to join him as player-coach.

"Surely I was mad to even consider it," Nelson recalls. "Bottom club out of 92 last year. I shouldn't touch this with a barge pole." But, of course, he did, and what happened during the next 12 months is chronicled, with plenty of irony and emotion, in Left Foot In The Grave?

Nelson and Hodges had one big advantage: they did not, as it were, have a hard act to follow. In the early weeks of the season it even looked as though they might inspire an immense improvement on the previous season's indignities - so much so that Hodges won the divisional manager of the month award for October. Then the wins dried up, and Nelson's working weeks are filled with fears of failure.

For those readers who believe that a career in professional football is full of glamour and wealth, this book will be an eye-opener. Torquay, like most lower-division clubs, have virtually no money, so Nelson spends hours on the telephone begging for players on loan from old friends now in management. There is no training ground, so they have to plead to use council pitches, to which goalposts are transported on top of the club minibus. Once, the posts fell off the bus, alarming several elderly Devon motorists.

Sadly, Nelson's new job may mean that this is the last of his sporting diaries. Left Foot in the Professional Footballers' Association commercial department might prove hard to sell. If this is his final book, it is a good one.

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