Diary of a Footballer
Only a Game: The Diary of a Professional Footballer
By Eamon Dunphy
Published by Penguin (second edition)
July 1998, £8.99, ISBN: 9780140102901
Left Foot in the Grave
By Garry Nelson
Published by CollinsWillow
August 1998, available from 1p, ISBN: 9780002187749
Everyone wants to be a footballer. I still do, and I’m 37. But in the absence of a shift of our solar equilibrium (although I do have a decent left foot), I spent a significant part of my Christmas period reading the day-to-day accounts two professional footballers: Eamon Dunphy and Garry Nelson.
Within the contours of football literati, they are among a small band of former players who have been feted as writing interesting books. Their diaries, written over 20 years apart, arguably show that the nuts and bolts of playing football, particularly outside the top division, haven’t changed very much.
Dunphy also wrote the brilliant Strange Kind of Glory, a book about Matt Busby and Manchester United that has historical scope and a lyrical appreciation of both football and people.
His Only a Game?, however, is the diary of Dunphy as a player in his last season in Millwall’s midfield in Division 2 in 1973-74. Almost inadvertently, it seems, the book portrays a team in decline. The previous season had ended well, but relationships in the dressing room break down and the team underperforms. It would be a transitional season for Millwall, and despite being an Irish international at the time, Dunphy is dropped.
Some of the more interesting parts of the book lead from this, including his time spent in the reserves on a Thursday afternoon watched literally by a couple of pensioners, or meeting token groupies outside the dressing because he’s not in the squad.
Dunphy’s frustrations with various training routines hint at an era when football, even at this level, was amateurish, with the players having to retrieve practice balls from stinging nettles during training. There’s little sense of glamour and, Gordon Hill aside, few household names. Hill had just broken into the Millwall first team and would later move to Old Trafford and play for England. As the butt of various practical jokes, he gives the book its lighter moments. Dunphy is incredulous at his gullibility, which the older pros gratefully exploit.
Dunphy’s book is a strange read, both gripping and mundane. The writing is good enough to carry a consistent voice, but testament to the strengths and limitations of the diary form; everyday concerns inevitably take centre stage over anything deeper. The little nuggets of insight are only occasional.
And this is where, after reading Garry Nelson’s diary of his season as player-manager at Torquay in 1996-97, it became apparent that the primary motivation behind staying with these books owes to the interest in the result of the each successive game. It was akin to being a fan. “Everyone hates Millwall”, but I wanted Dunphy to play well, and Millwall to at least not lose. And in Left Foot in the Grave, too, I was supporting Torquay’s relegation fight, willing the author to get on the score sheet. Both books have a momentum simply because they are structured around the weekly routine of a football season that we all know so well.
As player-manager, Nelson’s account of life at Torquay is certainly a reminder of the work that goes into looking after one of the league’s ‘have-nots’. Besides his frequent appearances on the pitch, Nelson’s weeks are eaten up by paperwork, long road trips to scout reserve games and supervising training on the local rec. With the team stuttering and almost no money to play with, it seems a fairly thankless job.
Yet, what at times makes it difficult to read is Nelson’s distracting use of half a dozen words when one or two would do instead. He sprinkles metaphors and similes into the diary like Del Boy speaking French, and it’s off-putting. There were sections — usually mid-week entries towards the end of the season where there wasn’t a fixture — that I skim read because the writing was so laboured.
I suppose what I wanted from both books was to hear more about what playing is actually like. And isn’t that what every supporter wants to know? When Nelson describes waiting for a volley in the last minute, for example, I was truly gripped. Dunphy recounts scoring a beauty from outside the box in a reserve game, and some verbals with Aston Villa players after a league fixture, but neither book really reveals what the sensation of playing professional fotball feels like.
But perhaps that would be out of place in both texts and, on reflection, these books do give a good sense of the routine of professional footballers. It’s pretty relentless stuff, and across both eras there’s little in the way of glamour. One theme that does come through is how dressing rooms are not always the easiest environments to be in, and players come and go with sometimes alarming alacrity. It’s a short-lived profession, and little sentiment is involved.
The diary is a useful vehicle to tell the life of a footballer. Neither of these books makes the most of the opportunities it affords, probably because the culture of football is to put the team before the individual. But both kept me reading, if only to find out whether each team could bounce back after such a bad result last time out.