‘In Conversation With’ were articles for the matchday programme in the 1998/99 season in which Dave Tavener interviewed various members of the team. Below is the interview with the wonderful Lenny Piper that appeared in the programme for the Isthmian League match against Purfleet on the 13th February 1999.
Progressing through the ranks
"I first started playing football at the age of around eight or nine when I was in a Sunday side called Metrolite. When I was 13 I got picked up by Wimbledon when their scout John Frett saw me playing, I still speak to him regularly now. I went to Wimbledon with a friend and we started off just training with them but within a couple of weeks we had signed schoolboy forms. After that I became a YTS player and then a professional, at the time I was a YTS player Wimbledon also had Jason Euell and Carl Cort who of course are both in the first team now. We turned pro at the same time and I remember they did score a lot of goals at that time. When I finished as a YTS, Wimbledon offered me a two-year contract but I only signed for one year as I wasn't sure whether I would enjoy it or not. I did actually do very well and was offered a new four-year contract but on an agent’s advice I didn't accept their offer and left the club after it went to a tribunal. His reasoning was that my style of football was not suited to Wimbledon and that if I went down to a lower league I would get regular football and would be sold on in a couple of years. After leaving Wimbledon I went to Gillingham and it started really well. I came on as sub for my debut against Bristol City and scored within nine minutes. From then on though I would start some games and only be sub in others, Tony Pulis was the manager at the time and I don't think we ever really hit it off and it started to go downhill from there."
In a strange kind of way Lenny became a victim of his own success as appearances for the England Youth side blocked his path to the Wimbledon first team. "While I was away with the England side other players were getting a run in their first teams and I wasn't getting a look in. I could see everyone else getting in and I wanted a chance but wasn't getting it."
The Crazy Gang
"Nothing really happened to me it is usually the new signings who have things happen to them. There is always a good spirit at the club. I still speak a lot of people at Wimbledon and I think they are getting a lot more credit now. There is a lot more money backing the club and they are buying better players; their squad is a lot better than it was a few years ago."
First goal is Bristol fashion
Lenny's debut for Gillingham came on 17 August 1996 in a Division Two Nationwide League fixture at Priestfields against Bristol City, his crowning moment of glory came in injury time and clinched a 3-2 victory over the side the Saints were to meet four months later in the FA Cup. "A cross came over and I remember a Bristol defender headed it out, the ball dropped around the edge of the box and I just fired in, it was certainly one of my most important goals. Gillingham had signed me as a midfielder but they always played me either up front or out wide and never really in the middle. I always said I wanted to play midfield but they felt that I didn't defend enough to play there. I see myself as an attacking midfielder, I have always scored a lot of goals from junior football through to the Reserves with Wimbledon and Gillingham."
Ten days after making his City debut earlier this season, Lenny scored twice at Aldershot Town, the first of which was a gem. "I do enjoy scoring goals but I haven't really attacked as much as a I would like as they want me back defending. The Aldershot game was a good one for me."
"I won five caps with England at Under-18 against France, Hungary, Sweden, Latvia and Scotland. I was also supposed to play in the away game with Hungary but I couldn't go as I didn't have a passport! I was also in the squad to face Italy but missed out then when the game was snowed off. I suppose there is a danger of playing for your country at that age going to your head but most of the players I was with then have now played in the Premier League. I played out in France for England and I would say that scoring for my country gave me biggest buzz ever. It is such a different way of life as you get to meet players from other parts of the country and you have to get to know each other."
From a Womble to the Gills
"You do notice the difference in stature between the clubs when you go down a couple of Division's. Obviously, there is a big difference in the wages but you also notice it on the coaching side. At Wimbledon we had something like seven coaches but at Gillingham there were just two with the physio and the Youth team coach pitching in. The Youth coach also did the Reserves, it was like the Reserves didn't really matter."
"We won the Southern Junior Floodlight Cup when I was at Wimbledon, it was about four years ago. We beat Arsenal over two legs, we drew 2-2 at Highbury and then beat them 1-0 back at Selhurst Park. Other than that, we lost in two FA Youth Cup semi-finals, once to Manchester United and once to West Ham United. Philip Neville played for Manchester United and Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard played for West Ham. Somewhere in the region of five players who were in that West Ham side have gone on to play in the first team."
Staying in trim
"I lost a lot of fitness during my time at Gillingham and I wasn't fully fit when I joined St. Albans. I broke an ankle last March and when they released me on the last day of the season I had not long come out of plaster. I couldn't run and they left me to get on with it, so I had to do all my own training and when you train by yourself you don't really know how fit you are. I broke my ankle when I was playing for Gillingham Reserves against Fulham at Gillingham's training ground. Ray Wilkins was at the game and when the match kicked-off I thought I'd really try to impress him but as I went to intercept the ball, I caught my foot and broke the ankle. Apart from that I haven't really had any serious injuries."
"I was training pre-season with Brentford and Brighton & Hove Albion but they said that I wasn't fit enough. I spoke to Welling United and asked if I could train down there just to get fit but I played a couple of league games at the start of the season. I played in the first game of the season, it was against Rushden & Diamonds and it was bit of a disaster, I was so unfit I came off before half time. They have a really nice set-up at Rushden with training pitches all around, it is better than at a lot of Second Division grounds."
"After Welling I came to St. Albans and the training here is a lot better than it was at Welling. We never had any floodlights, so when it got dark we would just call it a day. The set-up at St. Albans is pretty professional, possibly more so than at Gillingham. To help improve my fitness further, I was going to go to Barnet every day shortly after joining St. Albans and then come in here afterwards. But I'd got a few knocks and injuries and it became pointless to go there, especially with Christmas coming up, so I just let my injuries settle down. I miss the everyday involvement of professional football and I really get excited when we do training here as it is the only time when I get to get to kick a ball, I don't see one from one training session to the next. I still hope to get back into the pro game, I have got a lot fitter as the season has gone on and if anyone has been watching I can only hope to get picked up again."
"I think the higher level at which you play the game the more time you get on the ball. When I first came here I couldn't believe how quick the game was, as soon as you touch it someone is on you trying to tackle you. Now I am getting used to it and know just how long you are going to get on the ball. I thought players at this level would be a lot less fit than they are as they have to go to work during the day. I thought I would be able to waltz around and it would be a lot easier than it actually is."
"I have only ever been sent off once, that was in a Youth team game for swearing at the referee which was a bit silly really. I was banned for a couple of games but now I tend to stay away from referee's because I don't really know what they are like at this level. You do get good and bad ones but I do steer clear of them now. I think it is a good idea to have full-time referees as they would have a lot more time to get together to talk about the game and study videos and that sort of thing."
What does a full-time footballer do at St. Albans?
"I give a hand with anything that needs doing around the ground. I helped with the moving of the crush barriers and I also did a bit of painting when I first came here. I don't think they were too pleased with it and won't be asking me again!"
Lenny stayed at Clarence Park until the end of the 1999-2000 season when, as the current St Albans City Player of the Year, he joined Farnborough. He scored 28 times in 98 games for St Albans. During the rest of his career he had spells with Margate, Dagenham & Redbridge, Tonbridge Angels, Fisher Athletic, Whyteleafe, Beckenham Town and Ramsgate. He also had a short stint as caretaker manager of Fisher Athletic but retired from the game when aged just 31.