Lilian Nalis

Former Player Remembers: Lilian Nalis

This month, Club Historian John Hutchinson spoke to the elegant and skilful midfielder Lilian Nalis, who was the first Frenchman to play for Leicester City on Filbert Way, where he scored a truly spectacular goal against Leeds United in 2004.
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In his career, Lilian played close to 500 games in France, Italy and England. Sixty-six of these appearances were for City between 2003 and 2005, when Micky Adams and then Craig Levein were the managers.

Since retiring from playing, Lilian has had a successful career coaching in France and is now assistant coach at French Ligue 1 side RC Lens. 

When Lilian signed for Adams’ Leicester in July 2003, he had played for AJ Auxerre, SM Caen, Stade Lavallois, EA Guingamp, Le Havre AC and SC Bastia in France and for AC Chievo Verona in Italy.  

Describing his career before arriving in Leicester, Lilian began: “When I was 16, I went to the formation centre at Auxerre, which was like the academy system in England. I stayed at Auxerre for five years. I played in the reserves but never played for the first team, so I decided to leave for another club. I moved to Caen in Normandy in the French Premier Division.  

“I had a good time in the first season at Caen, but the second season was a bit more difficult, so I decided to go to Lavallois in the division below. I had a great time there and then I moved to Guingamp in the French Premier League. Then I went to Le Havre and, from there, I was sold to Bastia in Corsica. I had a great time there. I stayed there for three years. I’ve kept my house over there, even though I’ve been working in different places since. It’s a place that I really love.

A year earlier, some Leicester people had come to see me in Bastia about signing for them. And now, a year later, they came back to me at the end of the season. Chievo were okay to let me go. This was Leicester’s opportunity and we found a good deal together.

Lilian Nalis

“Bastia was the last club I wanted to play for in France, so I decided to move to Chievo Verona in Italy (in July 2002). At that time, Leicester City (newly relegated from the Premier League) were calling me. They were aiming for promotion but this was uncertain, so I moved to Chievo where everything was clearer at that time.

“Chievo were a Serie A side and were playing in Europe. It was a bit of a tough time for me because they had some good players like Eugenio Corini and Simone Perrotta, international players in Italy. I played in some games, but I was already more than 30 years old. Then Leicester came back for me and I decided to move to England.

“A year earlier, some Leicester people had come to see me in Bastia about signing for them. And now, a year later, they came back to me at the end of the season. Chievo were okay to let me go. This was Leicester’s opportunity and we found a good deal together.”

When Lilian signed for the Foxes, in July 2003, the Club had survived administration and had just been promoted back to the Premier League after one season in the second tier.

“To be honest, I wasn’t aware then that they’d been in administration the previous year,” Lilian continued. “Micky Adams was the manager. He wanted to put me into English football and that was good enough for me. I’d been in contact with him on the phone. I’d already seen some people from Leicester the year before. This time, everything was done by phone with some agents.” 

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Les Ferdinand, Micky Adams & Lilian Nalis

Nalis was one of many signings during the summer of 2003 in a bid to stay in the Premier League.

Lilian was one of a group players signed by Adams to prepare for life back in the Premier League. Others included John Curtis, Ben Thatcher, Keith Gillespie, Riccardo Scimeca, Les Ferdinand, Steve Howey, Craig Hignett and Marcus Bent.

Lilian’s first game in Leicester was a pre-season friendly against Barcelona in front of a capacity home crowd.

“That was a great memory for me,” Lilian recalled. “At Chievo, we’d had crowds of between 6,000 and 10,000 in a big stadium so it looked really empty. To play my first game for Leicester in front of a full stadium was really amazing.”

Lilian’s next game, against Southampton, was City’s first Premier League game in their new stadium.

Thinking back, Lilian said: “It was a really good atmosphere. I’ve got a great memory for this match. We were winning 2-0. Les Ferdinand scored with a header and then they came back at the end of the game to make it 2-2.

“There were some amazing and experienced players at Leicester. For me, it was a really good time. I’d arrived in England, but I didn’t know the country at all. They were good lads at the Club. I could talk good English, not the best, so I could exchange with them and I had a great time.”

I was only concerned about shooting. I don’t know how to explain it really. I need French words to explain the goal and the feeling I had scoring it!

Lilian Nalis

Lilian soon adapted to the English game.

“The game in England was more intense than in France or Italy. This was a big change for me. It was really physical, but that was good for me. In France, I was a bit more of a playmaker, but in England there were more direct balls and I had to adapt to this. Everything was much quicker when the ball was coming into the field, and pressure from opponents was coming really quickly as well. I learned a lot of different things. It was good for me.”

In the fifth game of the season, a 4-0 home victory over Leeds United, Lilian scored with a stunning 30-yard left-foot volley, which fans still talk about today.

“We were having a tough time in the league,” Lilian explained. “The Leeds game was an important one for us to win. From what I remember, when the ball came down it was as if I’d seen the ball before. It was clear in my head. I was only concerned about shooting. I don’t know how to explain it really. I need French words to explain the goal and the feeling I had scoring it! The game was live on TV in England and it was on TV in France as well. The manager, at the end of the game, taught me a new English word… ‘fluke!’”

With relegation already confirmed, Lilian’s last Premier League game was an away fixture against the champions, Arsenal, whose ‘Invincibles’ side was undefeated in the league that season.

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Lilian Nalis

The Frenchman didn't score too many, but they were often spectacular when he did.

“The game was at Arsenal’s old stadium,” Nalis said. “It was a tough time because relegation is something you always remember. We were winning 1-0. Then Thierry Henry (and Patrick Vieira) scored. We had too many draws that season and also we conceded some late goals which put us in trouble. I think we could have stayed up, but it wasn’t to be.”

The following season (2004/05), Lilian played in most games, but in October 2004, Adams resigned and was replaced by Levein.

“Micky leaving was difficult,” Lilian reflected. “He was the manager who brought me to England. Also in my first season, he looked after me when I had a problem in France when I lost people in my family. He told me: ‘Go back to France and deal with the problems you have.’ For me, it’s really important when people want good things for you. He always looked after me. When I came back, I had some difficulties returning to the game. He was hard on me sometimes but that’s normal. He was looking after me. It was sad for me when he left the Club.

“We had a decent season, but the Club was looking to go straight back to the Premier League so, for us, it was not good enough. We played some good games a few times but not enough for us to go straight back up.”

After two seasons, Lilian left Leicester City.

“It was not an easy decision,” he continued. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I was already 34 years-old and, in France, players would have retired by then. So, when the Club decided not to extend my contract, I accepted that.

“Later, I was driving down to Corsica when the Sheffield United manager rang me. He asked me to come to the Club and then offered me a contract.

Tony Pulis was Plymouth’s manager. I was nearly 35. He wanted to save the club from relegation. He asked me to look after the young lads in the squad. After I arrived, we had a great run and I think we got to 10th in the league, which was good.

Lilian Nalis

“I played for Sheffield United at the start of the season but then Mick Montgomery played in my place. They got good results and I wasn’t playing. Then Micky Adams, who was manager at Coventry, wanted me on loan. I played six games in a month and scored twice. Coventry wanted to extend my loan, but I’d signed for Sheffield United, wanted to play for them and my family were there. But the team was still doing well so, in December, I went on loan to (Championship side) Plymouth until the end of the season. That season, I played for all three clubs against Leicester!

“Tony Pulis was Plymouth’s manager. I was nearly 35. He wanted to save the club from relegation. He asked me to look after the young lads in the squad. After I arrived, we had a great run and I think we got to 10th in the league, which was good. When we finished the season, Plymouth asked me to sign for another year.”

By this time Ian Holloway was Plymouth’s manager and, at the end of the 2006/07 season, Lilian won Plymouth Argyle’s Player of the Year Award.

“When we finished that season, the club signed me for another year,” he explained. “This took me to being nearly 37 years-old. Then Swindon asked me to go there for a year which meant that I had six marvellous years in English football.

“Then I went back to Corsica. My house was, and still is, over there. I met the president of CA Bastia. This wasn’t Sporting Club Bastia who I’d played for in Ligue 1. It was a club in the Fourth Division. I had to wait until October until my license allowed me to play and then I decided to join them. At the same time, I was doing my coaching badges. I took responsibility for the club’s set-up for young players which I had to develop. I was also training and then playing at weekends.

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Lilian Nalis

Lilian has worked at several French clubs in a coaching capacity since retiring.

“I really enjoy coaching. I love it. I stopped playing after one year then carried on coaching the academy and doing my second-degree badges. Then I was asked by the first team coach to be his assistant and we had some great times together. The Club got promoted and then to Ligue 2 the year after. It was my first experience of coaching and it was absolutely marvellous.

“I then had the opportunity to become assistant coach at Lavallois in Ligue 2. We weren’t looking to get promoted because the club wasn’t set up for this, but we had some good seasons. My next move was to Le Havre as assistant coach and now I’m assistant coach at Lens in Ligue 1, the French Premier League. I’m passionate about the game. I want to have more years in it, carrying on learning a lot of things.”

Speaking before last week's first leg, Lilian concluded by previewing the UEFA Europa Conference League tie between Leicester City and Ligue 1 side Rennes.

“Rennes is a really good team producing really good football,” Lilian said. “They lost some players to the Africa Cup of Nations, but are in really good shape at the moment. Rennes have really moved forwards in the last couple of years. They have people bringing in money so they can invest. They’ve got good players to develop.

“I’m going to be happy to watch the game on TV. It’s going to be a good game.”

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