Worrying about contracts, injury, younger players' form, and the early taste of death that is the end of your playing days

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The Independent Online
As a pair of strikers, Alan Shearer and Garry Nelson do not have much in common.

One earns more in a fortnight than the other does in a year. One has a spanking new top-of-the-range Mercedes; the other runs a creaking Fiat with 125,000 miles on the clock. One has played his entire career at the top level, winning a championship medal and a display cabinet full of England caps in the process; the other turns out for Charlton Athletic.

And this autumn the gap has widened further. Shearer has just produced Diary of a Season: The Inside Story Of A Champion Year. This is a book which, by dint of including entries like "Sunday 31 July: I manage to venture out of the house to turn the sprinkler on the lawn and then on to the local garden centre with Chloe to see the ducks", qualifies as the least insightful book ever written (if that is not too active a description of the player's involvement) by a footballer.

By contrast, Nelson this week launched Left Foot Forward, his diary of last season. It is, quite simply, the best account of what it really must be like to be a footballer since Eamon Dunphy's All In A Game. Compare, for instance, the two books' entry for Tuesday 7 March 1995. While Shearer is droning on like a dull Nigel Mansell about how his team are in the driving seat and just have to stay ahead on the final straight, Nelson is being tackled from behind at Bristol City. He writes: "The thought zapped me even as I went down: 'That's it, your career's finished.' The stretcher took forever to arrive. The trip back to the brand new - who cares - medical suite even longer. As I was being carried along the touchline, a City fan leaned out from the crowd: 'That's your career over, you bastard,' he crowed. 'You'll never play again'."

While Shearer's is a book of certainties, Nelson's is charged with insecurity. Worrying about whether he will get another contract, about injury, about the sparkling form of the young player replacing him in the first team, about what the manager is saying about him on the club call. And, most of all, worrying about the early taste of death that is the end of your playing days; about having to face up to what he calls "the long littleness of anticlimax when your time out in the middle is over".

The Bristolian who took such delight in seeing a former Swindon player brought low will be disappointed, but that tackle last March did not mean it was over for Nelson. At 34 he is presently leading a young Charlton team to the upper reaches of the Endsleigh League, a rarefied position to which he is so unaccustomed he will soon be in need of oxygen.

On Thursday he was training with the team, gambolling around in a battered pair of boots with "Nelse" written on the side in blue marker pen, thrilled that he was putting off the end for another year. "I'm very reluctant to let go of it," he said, after he had finished grafting for the day. "I've worked hard to give myself some options for when it's over, but it's still a terrifying step. It's basically admitting you're no longer a young man."

He wrote the book, he said, not just as one of his post-playing options, but to put the ordinary player's point of view across, so that we, the fans, are not misled into believing being a footballer is all about birds, booze and a bulging bank balance. It is more likely to be about 500-mile round-trips in a coach to Sunderland where you end up on the bench. "God," Nelson said. "The number of hands of cards I must have played."

Not that the ordinary Charlton player seems that desperate to have their view put across. So far his sales in the dressing-room have totalled zero. "I think they think they'll be getting freebies," he smiled. "But they won't."

The fans, though, cannot get enough of it. The Charlton shop has accounted for his entire first print run. Since it became known they had an author in their team, every time he makes a mistake at the Valley, Nelson has heard someone shout from the stands: "Spend a bit more time in the training ground, Nelse, and a bit less at the typewriter." It is a book, though, that is not restricted in its appeal to Charltonites: this is one that will touch a chord with anyone who has dreamt of stepping out on the turf at Goodison Park but has had to settle for a life of less vaulted ambition. A bit like Nelson, in fact, who spent his Everton-obsessed youth fantasising about the day he would slip on a blue shirt. And then one day he did: Southend's. In the end, this is what makes Nelson's book so universal. As he charts his year, you realise that his struggle to come to terms with the three Ms that dominate his life - mediocrity, mortality and the mortgage - is not the sole preserve of the journeyman professional footballer. It is the experience of all of us. With the possible exception of Alan Shearer.

n Left Foot Forward is published by Headline, pounds 12.99

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