Neil Gregory has been in football since he was 14, but he has never had so much publicity. Last week, the cameras wanted to picture him at the kitchen sink, washing up. That, Gregory thought, was a step too far over the gender divide. So, yesterday, he had Football Focus on his well-scrubbed doorstep instead.
Gregory's spectacular volleyed winner for Canvey Island at Wigan has set up a second-round home tie against Northampton today. The cameras will be there and it is odds on that at some point during the afternoon, they will linger long enough on the 29-year-old for a gratuitous mention of his day job. After David Beckham, Gregory has become football's most celebrated new man. Gregory will accept "house-husband" as a description, but certainly not "professional babysitter" as his manager, Geoff King, jokingly said. "I'm really just a father," he adds.
Right on cue, two-year-old Alex climbs up to the table and idly stabs a chocolate biscuit with a biro. Canvey Island's Cup hero watches benignly before substituting paper for the biscuit. He still wonders at the source of all that infant energy. One of the reasons he enjoys playing for Canvey is their realistic attitude to his own strengths. "They don't ask me to run about like a lunatic," he says. Alex does that for him.
Manning the barricades of the gender war was not quite what Gregory had in mind when he accepted responsibility for looking after his son. The decision was partly financial – his wife, Louise, could earn more – and partly emotional. Alex was born three months premature. He weighed 2lb 8oz at birth, barely bigger than a man's hand. Gregory was playing for the Boston Bulldogs at the time and rushed home to find Alex and Louise in intensive care.
There were further complications. Alex had a heart defect and stomach problems and, for what seemed like an eternity, his little life was in the balance. When he came home from hospital three months later, he was still only five pounds. Suddenly, football did not seem quite so important any more, which was a neat coincidence because, having been released by Colchester, Neil had signed a two-year contract with the part-timers of Canvey Island. Training two nights a week, playing Tuesdays and Saturdays. During the day, he looked after Alex, did the household chores and they became minor celebrities at the local Tesco's.
"Where's your dad?" they would ask Alex when Louise took him in on her day-off. She felt written out of the script some days so has switched to working part-time. Now the childcare is shared, two and a half days each. "Sometimes the days seem long and I'm watching the clock, thinking how long before Louise gets back," says Gregory. "But he's such a good- natured kid. If he was having tantrums all the time, perhaps I'd say, 'You stay here, I'll go and get a job'. But, realistically, what am I going to do? You worry about him. Has he eaten enough, has he drunk enough, have I stimulated him enough, is he growing? But when I need a break and Louise is back, I'll go down the pub with me mates for a couple of hours or go and play some golf. It's almost a perfect balance."
All Gregory had to endure was the abuse from the dressing room, that bastion of liberal thought. "It's only one of the lads who keeps going on about it," he says. "He's a school teacher too. 'Ah, Greggers, he just sits at home and watches TV all day', that sort of stuff. I tell him he should come and try it one day. I heard that a mate at Brentford was talking about what I was doing and the reaction was 'that can't be right, that's women's work'. Football's a macho world, but people who know me aren't that surprised."
There is a suspicion, in his own mind not least, that Gregory never quite made the most of his talent. Eleven years at Ipswich – from apprentice through to the seniors – produced only a handful of first- team games. At a time when only three substitutes were allowed, Gregory doubled on the bench as the reserve striker and stand-in goalkeeper. Once, after only eight minutes against Huddersfield, Craig Forrest, the regular goalkeeper, was injured. On came Gregory, the post-training messabout sub. And what happened? A gallant 1-0 victory with the part-time keeper as hero? "No, actually," he laughs. "We lost 3-0."
You can imagine it too. Gregory, perhaps, never quite took his football as seriously as he should have done. His tendency to put weight on an already stocky frame counted against him, though there was nothing wrong with his courage or his eye for goal. At the age of 17, he broke a vertebra in his back, an injury more common to tennis players and cricketers than footballers.
The recovery took a year out of his footballing life, at a critical period of his development, but he forced his way back into George Burley's first team before being transferred to Colchester for £50,000, a record fee for the club. He played 49 games, helping them win promotion to the Second Division, but was mysteriously discarded thereafter. Only later did he discover that on his 50th game, Colchester would have owed Ipswich more money. Canvey's fast-rolling bandwagon was an attractive alternative.
"Everyone thinks Canvey have loads of money to pull in all these ex-pros, but we don't have anyone here who doesn't want to work hard," says Gregory. Port Vale, Wigan and Southend have all found that over the last two seasons and one glimpse of the windswept Park Lane ground, with an easterly whipping over the sea wall, will certainly test Northampton's resolve. Canvey Island, the runaway leaders of the Ryman Premier League, one step away from the Conference, might even be regarded as narrow favourites.
The Zambian Post have already been alerted to the goalscoring exploits of one of their own. Gregory was born in Zambia when his father was working for the GPO and now has the telephone number of the Zambian national coach. He laughs at the thought. Dad, an international at 29? That would be a tale to tell Gregory's boy.Reuse content