All Whites pair united by Christchurch

BY TONY SMITH
Last updated 11:45 13/11/2009
Ryan Nelsen
MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post
PRIDE OF THE SOUTH: Christchurch United alumnus Ryan Nelsen.

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The once-mighty Christchurch United club is glowing with pride at the prospect of two more old boys potentially playing in the World Cup finals.

In 1998, Ryan Nelsen and Ben Sigmund were playing together in the Christchurch United defence in the Canterbury premier league. Tomorrow night they will anchor the All Whites' rearguard in their death or glory game against Bahrain in Wellington.

The club faithful will be hoping the pair live up to the old club song: "United They Stand" as they bid to deny Bahraini star Jaycee John and his mates that all-important away goal.

Former United coach and ex-All White Johan Verweij said it was a "real buzz" to have two United products on the brink of a World Cup finals campaign.

"I'm still a Christchurch United man and I know a lot of people associated with the club are really looking forward to this game," Verweij said.

"If (Nelsen and Sigmund) are successful on Saturday, it will be a fantastic achievement for them and a proud moment for our club.

"There's quite a number of players from Christchurch United who have played in a World Cup."

Of the 1982 All Whites squad which went to the finals in Spain, skipper Steve Sumner and Bobby Almond had long careers with United. All three 82 goalkeepers, Richard Wilson, Frank van Hattum and Barry Pickering played for United either before or after the 82 campaign, as did outfielders Grant Turner, Allan Boath, Glen Adam and Peter Simonsen.

In subsequent years, United has also contributed players like Rhodes Scholar Ceri Evans and Danny Halligan to World Cup campaigns and the great Michael McGarry - while Dunedin-domiciled - also had a lengthy career with the Rams.

Numerous United players wore the All Whites shirt during the club's halcyon years as a national league force from 1970-91. United won six national league and six Chatham Cup crowns, including the league and cup double in 1975 and 1991.

But the club's strength was split into regional divisions in 1993. Its players drifted to other Christchurch clubs, though the loyal Halligan and Verweij remained.

Halligan was still playing and Verweij coaching when United signed Sigmund, who was still at Christchurch Boys High School in 1998.

Serendipitously, Nelsen - then 20 - was home for a semester's sabbatical from his university soccer scholarship in the United States. He'd already had three or four seasons with United before he went stateside.

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Sigmund and Nelsen teamed with Halligan to form a near-impregnable defence as United swept to the Canterbury title.

Verweij said it was no surprise to see Nelsen and Sigmund go on to professional contracts and international honours. "Though, having said that, we wouldn't have dreamed then that they'd be playing in such a big game as this."

The United faithful are delighted that Sigmund has matured into one of the best defenders in the A-League with the Wellington Phoenix.

Verweij said Nelsen was "always going to be playing at a higher level". His talent was that obvious back then.

"Ryan had the ability to step up no matter what the level. He did that when he arrived at Christchurch United, then he did that when he went to the USA to play college football and he did the same when he played at DC United in the MLS - he became one of their best players.

"And he stepped in at Blackburn Rovers and became one of their best players and their captain.

"People at United are immensely proud of both of them."

As will be supporters at other Christchurch clubs. Nelsen was a Cashmere Wanderers junior and Sigmund also played senior football for Christchurch Technical and Ferrymead Bays.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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