Retiring All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen was celebrated on both sides of the world yesterday after a man-of-the-match performance in his last English Premier League game.
Queens Park Rangers midfielder Shaun Derry gathered his team-mates for a guard of honour as Nelsen, new Toronto FC Major League coach, left the Loftus Road pitch after playing a major role in last-placed QPR holding champions Manchester City to a scoreless draw.
Nelsen - joint QPR hero with Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar - was also feted by the fans as he saluted the stands at the west London ground after his 240th Premier League game.
Back home in Christchurch, his father, Wayne Nelsen, watched a live screening among a clutch of Canterbury football fans at Robbies' Riccarton bar.
"Good on you, Dad, congratulations on a great career," a well-wisher said, slapping Nelsen snr on the back as his son made the final bow of his eight-year Premier League career.
Nelsen is unavailable to comment until the English transfer window is over tomorrow. But he will fly to Florida on Saturday for Toronto's pre-season training camp. QPR manager Harry Redknapp wanted him to stay for the weekend's match against Norwich City but club owner Tony Fernandes confirmed Nelsen's departure when he tweeted: "Thank you Ryan Nelsen. You have been an absolute star. Wish you good luck in your new role."
It's the end of a 20-year senior career for Nelsen, who made his debut for Cashmere Wanderers as a St Thomas of Canterbury schoolboy.
Ex-All White Allan Carville was among the bar-room crowd yesterday. He remembers "being beaten in the air to the first two corners" in a southern league clash by a 15-year-old Nelsen before deciding it was "game-on".
Lifelong QPR fan Simon Bell, a Halswell junior coach, was also there to witness Nelsen's last game in the blue-and-white hoops. He said the All Whites skipper had been a big hit despite being at the club for only half a season.
West London-born Bell said Nelsen had "brought a lot more recognition" in New Zealand for his favourite team. "People know who QPR are now when I say I support them."
So how does he feel about Nelsen leaving? "It's tough for us, QPR, but he's 35 now and he's at the stage where he has to look at what he's doing. But we'll definitely miss him. He's been the one real shining light on the defensive side of things, that's for sure."
Wayne Nelsen said he and wife Christine had had a lot of joy following their son's career. "We've had a chance to go to all these places and these grounds and meet a lot of interesting people.
"We're going to miss these games," Nelsen sr said. "We always used to get up [in the middle of the night] and watch them live . . . obviously, we'll have to get better MLS coverage now."
He remembered his son's reaction when told in his late teens by a surgeon that he would have to hang up his boots after a serious knee injury and operation. "Ryan said, ‘he might say I can't play again but I'm going to'. He probably played another 400-plus games after he was told he would never play again."
Nelsen went on to play top college soccer in the United States, captain DC United to the MLS title and embark on a premier league career at Blackburn Rovers, where he was team and club captain for several years before later moves to Tottenham Hotspur and QPR. He also captained the All Whites to an unbeaten record at the 2010 World Cup finals.
While family, friends and fans were watching in Christchurch, Nelsen's former Canterbury junior representative team manager Peter Phelan had a prime seat in the Loftus Road stands.
Nelsen arranged tickets for Malaysia-based Phelan, who was in London on business, and the pair later had a beer in the QPR players' lounge.
Now one door has closed and another opens for Nelsen.
His parents were with him in London when he got the offer from Toronto president Kevin Payne late last year and Wayne Nelsen said his son was excited by the challenge of turning Toronto's fortunes around.
Nelsen has no coaching qualifications, though some All Whites may argue he was their on-field manager at the 2010 World Cup finals. But at every step-up in his playing career, he has made a seamless transition.
The man former Blackburn boss Mark Hughes once described as "the best free transfer " in Premier League history may have been playing on glass ankles and knees but he left the big stage, still at the very zenith.
Nelsen defied his 35 years to beat England defender Joleon Lescott to a high ball, at a corner, to make thundering tackles and timely interventions and put his body on the line with a brave block in injury-time.
Nelsen was hailed as "a terrific servant of the Barclay's Premier League over the years" by the television match commentator.
The Guardian Football website said the New Zealander would be "sorely missed" and the Independent, who made Nelsen man of the match, said City were "denied by an inspired performance from Ryan Nelsen".
Team tribute leader Derry told Radio Sport this month that Nelsen has been "our main man this year".
The last word should go to the supporters. A Blackburn fan tweeted Nelsen would become a fantastic coach if he "puts as much passion into management as he did wearing the shirt".
On the Loft for Words QPR website, Chubbs wrote: "If ever a player could become a legend in half a season, it's Ryan [Nelsen]. Gave us hope when all seemed lost, a light at the end of the tunnel."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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