All Whites will miss Ryan Nelsen's influence

19:55, Jan 08 2013
Ryan Nelsen
END OF AN ERA: As he prepares to end his playing career and take over as Toronto FC head coach, Ryan Nelsen has likely played his last match for the All Whites.

People often ask if Ryan Nelsen's influence on the All Whites and their magnificent World Cup run in 2010 is overstated.

The answer? It can't be.

Suggestions New Zealand's best player since Wynton Rufer was essentially coach of the team at the Cup are too harsh on Ricki Herbert, but there is no doubt Nelsen was the most influential individual in the campaign, on and off the field.

Not only was he an outstanding defender, in both qualifying matches against Bahrain and then at the World Cup - he was named in one tournament team at centre back - his leadership and ability to lift players around him is without question.

When Ryan Nelsen is in the lineup, the All Whites have a different feel about them. When he's missing, they can look lost.

Many of his All Whites teammates insist they would not have qualified against Bahrain or drawn all three matches at the World Cup without him.

They're right.

He is the individual with perhaps the greatest influence on a current New Zealand national sporting team and here is the evidence to prove it.

Between 1999 and 2013, Nelsen played 49 internationals for New Zealand. They won 22, drew nine and lost 18 for a winning percentage of 45 and a losing percentage of 37.

During the same period they played 51 matches without him (he often missed matches against Pacific Island teams), for 16 wins, 10 draws and 25 losses. That's a winning percentage of 31 and a losing percentage of 49.

In Ricki Herbert's tenure, which dates back to 2005, Nelsen has played 17 matches, won eight and lost just four. Without him, Herbert's men have played 36 matches, won 11 and lost 17.

They are compelling statistics.

Nelsen has not said in as many words that his All Whites career will end at 49 matches, 18 months out from potentially a second World Cup, but the confirmation that he is quitting the English Premier League to coach Toronto FC in America's Major League essentially makes that announcement for him.

Toronto, bottom of the MLS pile last season, won't want a rookie coach distracted by playing international football, and Nelsen won't want to do anything other than justice to his new job.

Coaching is his future and he has a lot to learn in what could be a baptism of fire.

And as the 35-year-old said today, his body and mind have told him for a while it was time to move on.

Interestingly, New Zealand Football have heard nothing directly from Nelsen and are learning about his future from the media - it's all happened so quickly. They are in the dark but preparing for life without him.

So where does this leave the All Whites?

In a pickle. He'll leave a massive hole.

Ben Sigmund once said Nelsen was the sort of player who would walk into a room and make everyone stop and go silent, just because he was Ryan Nelsen.

Not only will Herbert miss his leadership and playing ability, the coach could be forced into a permanent formation change for the first time since 2009.

A back three hasn't worked without Nelsen. A back four would now seem to outsiders to be almost a mandatory requirement.

On a brighter note, centre back is at least a position in which the All Whites are well served. Established internationals Winston Reid, Ben Sigmund and captain-in-waiting Tommy Smith are all capable of doing the job well.

And Phoenix skipper Andrew Durante comes into the equation in March, when the Australian becomes eligible for New Zealand, two years since he sat on the bench but never appeared for the Socceroos.

One of the best defenders in the A-League, Durante should be rushed straight in.

Sources say Durante is excited by the prospect and is committed to playing for New Zealand.

And who knows, perhaps Nelsen can be used by Herbert in the set-up as a mentor to the players closer to the final World Cup qualifiers and tournament itself, if the stars align.

So while the All Whites' task of qualifying for and competing at the next World Cup has been made exponentially more difficult, it would be foolish to simply write them off.