Theo Foley's autobiography: Love story of modest football man

Theo Foley smiled from the pages of other people’s books, had cameos in other people’s stories.

Theo Foley's autobiography: Love story of modest football man

By Larry Ryan

Theo Foley smiled from the pages of other people’s books, had cameos in other people’s stories.

In Eamon Dunphy’s autobiography The Rocky Road, Foley is the Charlton manager about to give Eamon an escape from his soured Millwall career.

“I liked Theo. He was a Dubliner: brash, extrovert, optimistic, intense, thin as a whippet, hard as nails when he played, full of sardonic humour around the dressing room. ‘What’s the story, Dunphy? Do you still want to play … or are you looking for a rest home?’ was his opening gambit.”

In Alan Smith’s recent book Heads Up, Foley is the good cop you could take a few liberties with on the Arsenal training ground, on the rare occasions George Graham didn’t take the session.

“One morning, Niall Quinn launched himself at Theo, rugby tackling his countryman during the warm-up, with both ending up at the bottom of a grassy ditch. Thankfully, Theo wasn’t the sort to get on his high horse. Both had a good laugh.”

And in A Football Man, by John Giles, Foley is the player wrongly, in Gilesy’s view, chosen in central midfield for Ireland in the World Cup playoff with Spain in 1965, an indictment of selection by committee.

Foley is another of our most enduring football men, who wove himself into the fabric of the English game over 60 years, without ever really making the story about him.

Now, after much persuasion by the ghostwriter of Theo Give us a Ball, Foley has joined some of those dots and painted a rich portrait of a life in football.

He was sacked at Charlton within a season of signing Dunphy, but not before he had smartened up the Valley touchline, sporting a three-quarter length brown leather coat he bought out of Bobby Moore’s car boot for £100.

He left Arsenal in 1991 because Graham felt his good cop had grown too close to the players. And he was as bemused as Gilesy about ‘65, even if Theo was Ireland’s best player doing a man-marking job on the great Luis Suarez. Spain got their winner only when Foley was off the field patching a cheek opened by a Spanish elbow.

Theo grew up in Inchicore, St Patrick’s Athletic’s Richmond Park visible from his back garden. “This was like Wembley. Growing up with a football stadium as a backdrop, football seeped into my blood and stayed there.”

He captained Northampton Town in the English First Division, while running a pie shop in the town, its grand opening performed by the singer Ruby Murray, before she became rhyming slang for an alternative evening meal.

He won nine Ireland caps, mostly at full-back, hastening his own demise by chancing a knee injury to play against Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany in Dublin.

He’d linger around the edges of Irish football, a footnote in the narrative. He was shortlisted for the manager’s job in 1975, when two FAI reps called to his house to interview him at quarter to midnight. George Burley wanted to bring him on board as assistant in 2005, but Brian Kerr got the hotseat.

He notes it’s less than 50 years since the Republic first appointed a manager with autonomy to pick his own team, in Mick Meagan.

“We were miles too late and you can’t help feeling we’ve been catching up ever since.”

While at Charlton, he had a regular Saturday slot on London radio station LBC, predicting the First Division scores with a young Jeff Stelling.

He even made it into a Private Eye Colemanballs collection for the immortal post-match line: “If there was one person to blame it would have to be the team.”

Later, at Arsenal, George Graham didn’t win any more championships after the pair parted. Who knows what else Graham lost? A conscience, perhaps. Foley turned down a bung for the first time in 1972. “I’d never have been able to look Mammy and Daddy in the eye had I taken it.” Theo Give us a Ball is full of appreciation for the life football gave him, but also reminders of how disposable even great football men once were.

Years after he bought the leather coat, Theo met Bobby Moore again.

“A couple of years before he sadly passed away, I saw him at the old Wembley trying to get into the private bar after an England game and some arsehole on the door wouldn’t let him in without a pass. ‘Can you get me in here, Theo?’ he said, as I walked past. The captain of the England World Cup winning side at the home of English football. What a joke.

“I pulled the doorman aside and gave him one hell of a bollocking as Bobby was just too modest to have a go. Ironically, there is now a bar at the New Wembley named after him as well as a restaurant and a statue outside. All correct and only right but all too late, unfortunately.”

At 81, Theo still works as a matchday host at Charlton, would still “watch a kickabout in the back garden with as much enthusiasm as the World Cup”. But it fits pretty well too that he may not even be the true hero of his own story. When his son Paul, who wrote the book, agreed to a chat, he warned he might struggle “to have enough puff for the phone”.

When Paul had the idea for this book, six years ago, he was a fit man in his early 40s, who’d played non-league football, who went to the gym three times a week.

One day, in 2012, he noticed his leg catch on the treadmill and from there unravelled a nightmare. The tumour on his brain stem is inoperable. Six months of radiotherapy here, nine months chemotherapy there. A second course of chemo now.

He began the book five years ago a touch typist, he finished it sweating through the night, prodding out his father’s words, one finger at a time.

“For the last 18 months, I’ve been in a wheelchair. The hands don’t work too well. I’ve changed quite a bit. It’s been a bit of a struggle. They are trying to zap it and control it, but it just slowly gets worse.”

Would there have been any book without his illness? Paul doubts it.

“Dad is quite a modest man. Who’d want to read my story, he always said. But the book helped me in a way, even though it was a slog. It gave me a focus. That’s how I sold it to him.”

For Paul this is a love story. The boy’s fondest memories of an “idyllic childhood” are of spending six weeks of school holidays with his dad on QPR’s training ground, chasing footballs. With maybe an ice cream on the way home.

These past years he has battled on, teasing out his dad’s memories, pride his comfort.

“Mum says I’ve captured his voice,” Paul laughs. “I bloody should have.”

Their love story had its fairytale. “The pinnacle,” Theo calls it.

There has been much 20-20 hindsight about Anfield ‘89. George Graham will tell you he planned it to a tee. In his new book, Bruce Grobbelaar says he feared the worst after Kenny Dalglish’s downbeat teamtalk. Alan Smith smelled something in the Mersey air when he and David O’Leary enjoyed a relaxed pre-match nap.

But Theo won’t bluff. “If I’m completely honest, I didn’t give us much chance.”

He admits he roared at John Lukic to kick it long, with time running out, rather than bowl it to Lee Dixon, before Michael Thomas made sure Theo is more than a footnote in Arsenal history.

“I have been fortunate enough to have been invited over to The Emirates for the odd game to see Ricey or Bouldy and was blown away when Arsene Wenger came over to our table and knew exactly who I was.”

Nor was Foley a footnote in the lives of the players he became too close to.

Among Paul’s fondest memories is regularly coming downstairs as a teenager to find the late David Rocastle in his front room, shooting the breeze, waiting for a lift to training. Rocastle, known as ‘son of Theo’ in the Arsenal dressing room, was lost to cancer by the age of 33.

Nowadays two international shirts have pride of place in Theo’s home. The Spanish shirt Luis Suarez wore in Paris and an England one signed by Rocastle after Foley left Highbury to become the boss back in the East Midlands.

The message on it reads: “To Theo, you will always be my no. 1 coach, wishing you every success as manager of Northampton Town, from your stepson Dave ‘Rocky’ Rocastle.”

- Theo Give us a Ball: A Life in Football is published by Apex Publishing and is out now.

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