Ryan Nelsen's once-in-a-lifetime homecoming

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 13/10/2012
Ryan Nelson
STAR QUALITY: Win tickets to see Ryan Nelsen and the All Whites in action at North Harbour Stadium.

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Ryan Nelsen has played in FA Cup semifinals and at the World Cup but he's never represented the All Whites at home before. TONY SMITH talks to the Kiwi skipper's family, friends and a former coach about Nelsen's return to Christchurch on Tuesday

Wayne and Christine Nelsen have had to go halfway round the world to watch son Ryan lead the All Whites.

They've been to France for the Confederation Cup finals, South Africa for the World Cup and to Blackburn many times for English premier league matches.

But on Tuesday the Cashmere couple will only have to go down the hill to Addington for a grandstand view of their lad in his first international appearance in Christchurch.

So will old friends such as his former Christchurch United, Greensboro College and All Whites team-mate Glen Collins, George Morris, his first senior coach at Cashmere Wanderers, and ex-All Whites Danny Halligan and Johan Verweij, who guided Nelsen's club career before he went on to a football scholarship in the United States, the world's toughest professional league and World Cup glory.

The AMI crowd will be chock-a-block with kin, cobbers and old St Thomas of Canterbury classmates all anxious to see the bloke they call "Nelly" guide the All Whites to a win over Tahiti.

It seems incongruous that a player two days shy of his 35th birthday, with 48 caps stretching back 13 years, has never played a hometown international.

But the All Whites have played only once in Christchurch in that period - in 2006 against Malaysia. Nelsen was unavailable then, preferring to establish his EPL career.

"It was maybe a little bit selfish on my part," he wrote in his 2010 book, Ryan Nelsen's Road To The World Cup.

"[But] I felt I could do more for the game in New Zealand by becoming a regular premier league player than playing in a lot of friendly internationals."

There was also an element of disillusionment with the national body's handling of the fallout from the All Whites' 2004 Oceania Nations Cup campaign after a 4-2 loss to Vanuatu.

Nelsen is a loyal man and he didn't like the way coach Mick Waitt was made a scapegoat.

That fidelity extends to his hometown and Kiwi sporting teams. Speak with Nelsen in the UK and there's a fair chance he's just watched the All Blacks or the Crusaders.

The former cricketer retains an unfailing optimism that a Black Caps boom is imminent.

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He's also a Stanford University political science graduate, who's developed diverse business interests, and is an enthusiastic spruiker of Kiwi wine brands.

Nelsen may have lived overseas for the last 15 years but he's still a Cantab to the core. Soon after the February 2011 quake struck, he was on a plane home to see how friends and family were coping and to support the rescue crews cleaning up the devastated CBD.

Glen Collins says Nelsen was "pretty excited" as soon as he heard the [World Cup] game was coming here.

"He's pretty keen to give something back to Christchurch."

Wayne Nelsen says he and Christine are looking forward to watching Ryan play in a white jersey at home.

"It'll be nice to be able to watch him play in Christchurch in front of the family and friends."

It'll be a fleeting reunion - Ryan will have to return immediately to help his Queen's Park Rangers club climb off the bottom of the EPL table. But it's an opportunity the Nelsen clan deserve for their devotion.

Thirty years ago, Wayne woke a pre-school Ryan to watch telecasts of the All Whites' games at the 1982 World Cup finals.

Nelsen Sr was a rugby man but Ryan was destined for the round-ball game. As Ryan once quipped: "Mums win in the end."

Christine Nelsen's family were steeped in football. Her father, Bob Smith, was a former New Zealand Football Association chairman.

His brothers Gordon, Vic and Roger and nephew Brian represented New Zealand, making Ryan the third generation to sport the silver fern.

Ryan became a Manchester United fan and a ballboy at Christchurch United national league games. He joined Christchurch United where Alan Finlayson was an early coaching influence.

He soon buddied up in Canterbury age-group representative teams with Collins, who switched clubs from Christchurch Technical to play with his friend. Collins says Nelsen was a sporting natural.

"He was just a bugger, he was bloody good at everything," Collins laughed.

"If we weren't kicking a soccer ball around, we'd be playing basketball or cricket. Trying to be better than Nelly was hard, he was good at the lot."

One of their Canterbury junior football teams also included future Black Cap Craig McMillan - still a close friend of Nelsen - and later Black Sox softball world champion and professional baseballer Travis Wilson.

Nelsen and Collins were cricketers at Lancaster Park and McMillan has no doubt Nelsen could have carved out a career in the sport.

"Ryan was a more than handy cricketer but he probably made the right choice. He was potentially a better footballer, just, than he was a cricketer but he was pretty driven at every sport, so he could well have gone to the top in cricket."

McMillan says Nelsen is a year younger than him but the All White was "so good he played [junior rep football] a year ahead".

"I think that was a huge advantage for him, everything quickened up playing older boys."

Collins and Nelsen went to different high schools but "caught up in the school holidays", forming "The Heathcote Valley Keeping Association", taking turns to don old goalkeeper's gloves while the other "fired in shots".

Nelsen went to Greensboro College in North Carolina and recommended Collins to his coaches. His friend joined him in the second year and Collins recalls an incident where Nelsen showed his leadership qualities.

Greensboro had qualified for the top-four national playoffs. A player from each squad was invited to speak at a pre-tournament dinner.

"The first speaker got up and said a player on their team had died and they wanted to respect his memory."

The speech was a show-stopper. A reverential hush ensued. Someone from Greensboro College had to speak next so Nelsen grasped the nettle.

"Ryan wasn't the captain, he was only a second-year player but he got up and spoke really well," Collins says. "It's that kind of stuff [that earmarks him as a leader]. He's a pretty inspirational kind of guy.

"He commands respect on the field. He's not the kind of guy who tells you to do something he won't do himself. He leads by example so you want to do it too. He was like that, even as a kid."

Peter Phelan, who managed some of Nelsen's Canterbury junior teams, agrees. He watched Nelsen develop from a 15-year-old "technically gifted centre midfielder" to establish a formidable central defensive partnership with future All Whites team-mate Gareth Rowe.

But Nelsen's off-field acumen also impressed Phelan, one of Canterbury football's most able administrators of his era.

On the field, "Ryan controlled most games". Off the pitch, he was "confident yet polite and had the respect of his peers. Already his natural leadership abilities were evident."

Phelan remembers a comment made to him by Bobby Clark, the former Scottish goalkeeper and ex-All Whites coach who signed Nelsen to Stanford University, after Mark Hughes had handed the Kiwi the captaincy armband soon after signing him in 2005. Clark said: "Ryan is not only a great player, he makes the players around him better too."

"This observation came to mind [in 2010] when I was watching from the stands in South Africa, especially at Nelspruit in the 1-1 draw with defending World Cup champions Italy."

Danny Halligan played more than 50 times in the All Whites' midfield and was player-coach at Christchurch United alongside a teenage Nelsen.

He says Nelsen impressed him instantly because he was "very hard working, he stuck to basics and was a really resilient type of character.

No matter who he was playing, what the score was or what the conditions were like, he never deviated from what he wanted to achieve.

He commanded respect from younger and older people in the team from day one.

"He wouldn't be the most technically talented young player I've ever coached but succeeding in football is not about the person who's got the greatest skill or athleticism, it's about having a good attitude and mindset."

Nelsen and All Whites team-mate Ben Sigmund, who played together at Christchurch, were "identical about the way they went about their business", Halligan says. "They've both had great careers and have achieved a lot and they are great examples for younger players."

Halligan, now Canterbury United's national youth league coach, believes Nelsen has never forgotten his own experiences as a young player.

The Queens Park Rangers man has passed on his knowledge and passion for the game to young New Zealanders at two Olympic Games campaigns and took All White Tim Payne under his wing when the young Aucklander signed for Blackburn.

Halligan's own footballer son Jordan once received a Ryan Nelsen Blackburn Rovers jersey.

His loyalty to friends is legion. Collins was supposed to be Nelsen's best man at his wedding to American bride Monica.

But Collins couldn't get into the United States because of visa difficulties related to his college stint in North Carolina.

He and his wife were special guests of the Nelsens at their home near Manchester for three weeks over Christmas in 2009 and watched several Blackburn matches.

McMillan and Nelsen have also been friends for almost 25 years and the cricket legend has a fond memory of Nelsen getting him tickets to watch "Manchester United, my team", play Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.

"It was a real highlight to watch him play the likes of [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Carlos] Tevez and made me think back to playing under-12s together and look back on the journey he's been on."

Collins, Halligan and Phelan all agree success at the summit of world football hasn't changed their friend.

"I don't think you see it so much in New Zealand but a lot of guys overseas start earning a bit of money and fame and it goes to their heads," Collins said. "But he's the same old Nelly he was when he was 10 years old."

Nelsen still gets surprised when he's recognised in public on his fleeting visits home.

"When he first started coming back from the US no-one knew him," Collins said. "But the last time he came home, we were having dinner and a few kids came up and got his autograph. He didn't know he was that well known back here."

Collins hopes the national body can harness Nelsen's skills once he hangs up his boots "because he's going to be such an asset for New Zealand football".

But, in the meantime, there's a long overdue opportunity to watch Ryan Nelsen on Canterbury soil for the first time since he helped Christchurch United win the Canterbury League in 1998.

"It's possibly going to be the only chance Ryan has of playing in Christchurch for his country," Halligan says.

"I know the type of person he is, how parochial and proud he is [as a Cantabrian and New Zealander]."

- The Press

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