INJURY cut short Larry May’s playing career at Brighton but during a purple patch of his four-year spell at Barnsley he impressed his peers to the extent he was in the 1986-87 PFA team of the year.
Alongside him in that selection were Lee Dixon, the ITV football pundit who in those days played for Stoke City prior to his move to Arsenal, and former Albion full back John Gregory, who was playing in midfield for Derby County at the time.
Centre back Larry began his career with Leicester City and played over 200 games for them between 1977 and 1983. When given a run in the first team by former Rangers manager Jock Wallace, Larry’s boots were looked after by none other than Gary Lineker: the Match of the Day host being a Filbert Street apprentice at the time.
Leicester’s club historian John Hutchinson – who said of May: “He was very strong in the air, a powerful tackler and had pace” – drove down to Brighton in 2015 to interview Larry about his time with the Foxes and published the story on foxestalk.co.uk.
He recalled how Leicester had spotted him playing for a local youth team in Birmingham and invited him for a trial. Aged 17, he made his debut in the top division against Bristol City when one of his teammates was Frank Worthington, another who later played for the Albion.
In the following season, Jimmy Bloomfield, the manager who gave him his debut, departed and was replaced by Frank McLintock, who didn’t give May much of a look-in.
He went to play in America to get some games but ruptured a cruciate ligament which some thought might end his career before it had even got off the ground.
Back at Leicester, McLintock was succeeded by Wallace and he paired May at the back with John O’Neill – a partnership that endured for the best part of five years.
In those early times, though, May admitted he had to play through pain and regularly ice his knee.
Not only was May ever-present in the 1979-80 side that won promotion from Division 2, he headed the only goal of the game at Leyton Orient on the last day of the season to clinch the title. Striker Alan Young, who played for Albion in the 1983-84 season, was another ever-present.
Leicester only survived a season in the top flight and following relegation Gordon Milne replaced Wallace as manager, guiding them to promotion in his first season. May, though, didn’t see eye to eye with the former Liverpool midfielder and ended up handing in a transfer request.
In an Albion matchday programme, May said: “”We fell out over something and nothing really but at 24 you think you know it all and there was no future for me once I’d asked for a transfer. “Thinking back, I realise that I should have got on with it.”
As it was, in August 1983 he dropped a division and joined Barnsley for a fee of £110,000, signed by the legendary former Leeds hard man, Norman Hunter.
“For a man with a reputation of being one of the fiercest characters in football it was unbelievable – I’d say he was definitely the nicest fellow I’ve ever played for,” said May.
While on the books at Oakwell, with a nod towards a longer future in the game, May took his full FA coaching badge.
He told foxestalk.co.uk: “I was happy at Barnsley but, in retrospect, I should have bided my time and stayed at Leicester really. But I was a bit young and naïve. I loved it at Leicester. Leicester were the best club I ever played at. It was my best time in football and I loved it there.”
After three years with Barnsley, former Albion winger Howard Wilkinson took May to Sheffield Wednesday. He had just turned 28 and the move represented a step back up in standard.
“It was an important move at that stage in my career but looking back it was never brilliant for me at Hillsborough,” he said.
Amongst the competitors for his place was Nigel Pearson, better known these days for some eccentricities in management with Leicester and Derby.
At the start of the 1988-89 season, a move south to Brighton was mooted but Wilkinson held onto him because of some early season injury problems.However, Barry Lloyd got his man towards the end of September 1988 and May joined Brighton for £200,000.
His debut in a 2-1 Goldstone win over Leeds brought to an end a run of eight defeats at the beginning of the season but it was back to losing ways – both 1-0 – in the following two games which, ironically, were against his former clubs, Barnsley, at home, and Leicester, away.
The return fixture with Leicester was a happier outcome for May, though, because he was the sponsors’ man of the match in a 1-1 draw.
In his programme notes for the Barnsley game, manager Barry Lloyd said: “I know he’ll have a big impact on the way we play….at 29, we know he has a lot of football left in him.”
Captain Steve Gatting had a programme column that season and he also welcomed the central defender, adding: “His experience in the top two divisions is bound to rub off on to some of younger players. When we’ve played against Larry in the past he’s tended to be the man of the match and I’m sure everyone at the Goldstone wishes him and his family every success.”
Understandable sentiments, of course, and such a shame that before the season’s end, after only 25 games, an injury in a collision with teammate Paul Wood in a magnificent 2-1 home win over Man City would prove to be his last game for the club.
It was in the matchday programme for Albion’s game v Ipswich Town on 27 September 1989 that news of his forced retirement was announced.
“The sudden decision has stunned 30-year-old Larry and his family who were beginning to settle in the Brighton area after moving from Wakefield last year,” the announcement read. “In a 12-year career in the game, Larry has made more than 400 senior appearances, 364 in the league.”
A dejected May told the programme: “It hasn’t sunk in yet because I just don’t believe that I’m finished. I honestly thought that I could carry on playing at league level until I was 35. I’ve always been fit generally and never had a weight problem and this has really hit me.
“When the specialist told me that I shouldn’t play again my first reaction was that it had to be wrong. Now I’ve got to rethink and I’m not really sure about my future.”
Manager Lloyd added: “The announcement that Larry May had been forced to retire from playing was a particularly sad one. He performed very well for us last season and put heart and soul into everything around the club.”
Thankfully Larry was able to put that coaching badge to good use when Lloyd made him reserve team coach and, in more recent years, he became Head of Sports Participation for Albion in the Community.
- Pictures show Larry May in a matchday programme; captured by an Evening Argus cameraman getting a hand in the face; the programme announcement of his retirement; in an Albion team line-up as a coach.