Ryan Nelsen bows out as 'all-time great'

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013
Ryan Nelsen
Getty Images
EXIT PLAN: Ryan Nelsen will play his last game for QPR on January 29 against Manchester City.

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Ricki Herbert has drawn up a shortlist to take on the biggest job in New Zealand football - replacing retiree Ryan Nelsen as All Whites captain.

Nelsen was yesterday hailed as an "all-time great" of New Zealand football after confirming the obvious, with Herbert leading the tributes by saying his skipper would "leave a huge hole" in the All Whites' ranks.

Nelsen advised New Zealand Football that his first international in Christchurch last October would also be his last.

The 35-year-old centreback will quit the Queens Park Rangers club in England's Premier League (EPL) to become Toronto FC's new head coach in North America's Major Soccer League on February 1.

His last appearance after eight years in the EPL with Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham Hotspur and QPR will be against Manchester City at home on Wednesday (NZ time).

Nelsen rang Herbert and NZF chairman Frank van Hattum yesterday from Toronto, where he was attending a club media session.

The NZF chiefs had hoped their captain would consider playing on for the All Whites at least until the end of the World Cup Oceania qualifying series in March, and possibly through to the November inter-continental playoffs.

Nelsen gave their request "a lot of consideration" but said he had decided to hang up his boots. "When you're not enjoying the playing side as much as other aspects of football, you know it is time to move on. That time is now and I want to commit all my energies into my coaching career."

He believed he was leaving the All Whites "in a good space with quality players able to carry on the recent success".

Nelsen was the driving force behind that success, culminating in the All Whites' unbeaten run at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, where he was named in the ESPN television network's team of the tournament.

Herbert told Nelsen it had been "a great honour and a privilege to have him in the side and to captain the team in the World Cup finals". "It's disappointing to lose a player of that stature, that's for sure. But the [World Cup] campaign moves on and we've got a game to win [to clinch the Oceania qualifying berth]."

Herbert sensed there was "a strong possibility" Nelsen would hang up his boots once he was confirmed as Toronto manager.

"I thought it would be difficult coaching at that level to continue to play as well. But we gave Ryan the time and space he needed."

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Herbert wished Nelsen well in his coaching career with Toronto.

"Ryan has always loved a challenge . . . it's something he's capable of achieving. I think it's a great club [Toronto]. It's well resourced and he's got a chance to etch his trademark on it."

Herbert said he had drawn up a shortlist of potential new All Whites' captains. He would not name the individuals, but Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith has been Nelsen's recent understudy, New Zealand's most-capped All White Ivan Vicelich has also worn the armband, and Winston Reid captained premier league club West Ham United in a recent English cup tie. Australian-born Wellington Phoenix captain Andrew Durante is also now eligible to play for the All Whites.

"We've only been given the news [of Nelsen's retirement] today, so I'll just get through the weekend and and sit down with a couple of the [All Whites] staff."

Van Hattum said Nelsen was "without doubt, one of our all-time greats". "Like many sports greats, he has gone out on his own terms.

"The fairytale would have been for the All Whites to qualify for the [2014] World Cup finals in Brazil with Ryan at the helm, but this is the reality of professional football."

Longtime New Zealand football observers rank Nelsen behind Oceania player of the century Wynton Rufer, who won German Bundesliga honours and the European Cup Winners Cup with Werder Bremen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as New Zealand's greatest footballers.

Steve Sumner, who captained the All Whites at the 1982 World Cup finals, said it was always difficult comparing players from different eras, but Nelsen had "to be right up there" near the top of the Kiwi football pyramid.

"He's been a trailblazer for New Zealand football in the premier league. Ryan's shown that New Zealand blokes can make it and earn a good living there."

Sumner said the timing of Nelsen's retirement was unfortunate for the All Whites, "but really he's done his bit".

"He's played in a World Cup finals and had a couple of cracks at the Olympics. What more can he do? He's looking further afield now in his career."

Nelsen made his All Whites debut in June 1999 against Poland, while still a soccer scholarship student at Stanford University in California.

He played in the 1999 and 2003 Confederations Cup finals, captained New Zealand at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and the 2010 World Cup finals. Fittingly, he won the last of his 49 caps when he led the All Whites to a 3-0 win over Tahiti before his parents Wayne and Christine and 10,569 other Canterbury fans, at AMI Stadium.

- The Press

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