Nyron Nosworthy: 'Sometimes it's good to get a kick in the teeth'

From an early-morning job cleaning offices in London to the misery of relegation with Sunderland in 2006, Nyron Nosworthy has not had it easy. But, as he tells Michael Walker, those hard times are great motivation
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In pre-dawn darkness the door clicks behind him and the bicycle is eased on to the road. The journey from Brixton to the City is about to begin again, through London streets empty save for the patrol cars of the Metropolitan police.

Invariably they see the teenager sway around a corner towards Liverpool Street and view the absence of lights on his bicycle as possibly the least suspicious thing about him. So they wave him down. So he speeds up. This is now a sprint towards an office block. There the youngster jumps off his bike, scurries inside and closes another door behind him. Safe. Now work can start. The clock says it is 5.30am. The boy is 16. He is Nyron Nosworthy.

"I had a cleaning job in the City. I'd just finished secondary school, I didn't take the YTS with Gillingham until I was 18, I was just training on the Friday and playing on the Saturday. So I had to chop and change and I had this job, and that is not a good job.

"I used to ride my bike there. The police used to chase me because I never had no lights on my bike. It was the early hours of the morning so it was dark. I lasted about a month. I'd ride from Brixton to Liverpool Street and get into the offices and start.

"I'd turn up late even though I'd be leaving home at 5am. I'd get into the City area and the police would see me and try to flag me down. I just blanked them, kept going; got to get to my destination, up the escalators, do my stuff and get out of there. I was cleaning floors, polishing – cleaning like a cleaning lady – proper grimy stuff. Someone's got to do it, I know, but preferably not me. So I've done the hard work. I know it's not where you want to be."

Roll forward a decade. Now the venue is the training ground of Sunderland Football Club and new manager Roy Keane has called a meeting to discuss time-keeping. It is something he cares about, because it says something about an overall attitude. In March, even with Sunderland chasing down promotion, Keane was prepared to drop three players who were late for the bus to Barnsley. Nosworthy was not one of the Barnsley Three. As his cleaning days reveal, he can get out of bed.

However. "Unfortunately I have been late once. Unfortunately, it was the day after we'd had a meeting about punctuality. After the Big Conversation about it I was late and I was thinking: 'That's the sort of luck I've got. It could only happen to me.' I just overslept – my alarm didn't go off – and I came rushing in. I could see them all out on the pitch and I was thinking 'Ooooooh God, only me.'

"Luckily, I managed to sneak on but he obviously found out later. He had a word. But I came through that all right. I just know to be on time."

A few weeks later and it is Kenilworth Road, Luton. The darkness, literal and metaphorical, is gone. The sun is out and Sunderland are up, back in the Premier League in Keane's first season as a manager. The Championship title has been clinched with a 5-0 win and Nosworthy is cavorting in front of the Sunderland hordes who have taken the boy from Brixton to their heart.

Bare-chested, Nosworthy is wearing a hat with "Keano" scrawled on it and he is singing the song with which he has become associated. It is "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse, the Sunderland version being: "They try to take the ball past Nyron, he say, no, no, no."

"I had a little granddad cap and they'd written 'Keano' on it. I was well in the moment then. I promised I'd sing the song. Now it's on YouTube and I get a text every day about it. It was funny. Once."

And finally, back at the Sunderland training ground in the midst of this sweaty season of theirs. Nyron "Nuggsy" Nosworthy – his father's nickname due to the shape of his son's head – is reflecting on a journey that could easily be packaged as rags to riches, or City cleaner to Premier League sweeper, but which actually is about someone making the most of himself.

Because of players such as Paul Davis and David Rocastle, "and just the way they play the game," Nosworthy grew up an Arsenal fan. Yet his experience of football could hardly be more different to the young players being guided through Arsenal's and others' academies today. Nosworthy's first club was called "Independent".

"I started there pretty young, 12 or 13. There were a lot of good young players there. That team was very talented and I send my regards out to the men who ran it. We were the south London Brazilians of our day. We played Gillingham and Charlton and that's how I got my trial.

"I was very raw, I had some natural ability but I knew I had to work on technique. I went to school – St Thomas Apostle – with Dickson Etuhu and Nigel Quashie and at the time I got my YTS I'd say there were a lot of players much more talented than me.

"But I could see it's a nice lifestyle to have, that's what spurred me on. I enjoy it every day I'm in here, I forget about everything else and, personally, I appreciate it. I could see the carrot and I realised that the only way to get it is through hard work and I don't mind getting my hands dirty."

Twenty-seven last week, as Nosworthy said, it was on a part-time YTS at Gillingham where he was given his chance.

Tony Pulis was the manager but soon gave way to Peter Taylor, who was prepared to field Nosworthy as a substitute in any position. Even right-wing.

"I was pretty decent there," Nosworthy laughed, adding, "some might have a different view on that. I caused trouble, when Peter Taylor was there I played most of a season up front. I scored one goal – in a lot of games – but I'd cause havoc, I was a nuisance. Then I played one game as a makeshift right-back and I enjoyed it. I thought I'd try to make that position my own. From there I was steady for two seasons. I scored two goals from full-back. The main thing for me was getting games and, without realising it, an education.

"Then I wanted to test myself at a higher level and Sunderland came calling. As you can see it's a hard place to turn down. But I did have the North-South dilemma, that was a big dilemma for me. Before I used to say I would never go up North: 'Too far, too cold, dire, my family's down here.' But after two seasons here I can say the move was the best thing I've ever done.

"It's not like Brixton, it is always busy there, it's like a carnival some days and if you're not from there, you're wondering what it's all about. But that's just everyday life. Up here it's quieter, fresh air. When my family come up, especially my brother, they feel like they're in a different country. I'm right on the beach and they come and say: 'Let's go for a walk.' In Brixton when did we ever 'go for a walk?' Not too often."

A resident of Roker, Nosworthy remains as London as the congestion charge, though don't get him started on that.

"I've got a real problem with Ken Livingstone and the changes he's making to society, to Brixton. It just seems to be money-making schemes and from people who can't afford it. If I was to see him I'd have something to say to him. He's causing stress."

So moving to Wearside was a leap. It was followed by a drop as the Mick McCarthy team of free transfers such as himself promptly became the worst side in Premier League history, winning only three games on their way to fifteen points. Nosworthy played 30 times that season and even this big smile of a man was subdued at the recollection.

"It was an embarrassment," he said. "Everyone was down and thinking we'd no right to be here. It's a different squad now and we're here to prove that we have the right to be here, but that bad memory is a motivation. Last season we got that winning feeling back and losing again hurts even more. But sometimes it's good to get a kick in the teeth because it brings out something else in you."

What it brought out in Sunderland was Niall Quinn, the Drumaville Consortium and from there, Roy Keane. Having resisted the offer to play centre-half for McCarthy, in January Nosworthy had the suggestion again, this time from Keane. "It was never 'a suggestion'," clarified Nosworthy. "We had injuries, that's how it started. I played well there and enjoyed it. It just stuck."

Nosworthy's form in central defence was a revelation, but Keane must have also seen the refreshing appeal of a self-deprecating character who has taken a different path. Along with the Sunderland captain, Dean Whitehead, Nosworthy won North-east player of the year last week, a reward that came on top of a call-up by Jamaica, the country of his father, Paul. Unfortunately, Jamaica's proposed friendly at Brisbane Road last week was cancelled – by the Metropolitan police.

But Nosworthy goes back to London tomorrow. Sunderland are at West Ham United seeking to build on the promising defeat at Arsenal a fortnight ago. Sunderland may have only eight points from nine games but that is three more than at the same time two years ago and when offered the comparison Nosworthy replied: "It feels a lot better this time.

"The last time we were up there was so much negativity around that it felt like we were already down at this stage.

"Now everyone is relaxed, we are confident we can beat teams, so there's definitely no panic. The manager is naturally calm and confident and he's bringing that sense through the club. Results-wise, and where we are in the table, doesn't look that well, but we've played a lot of the top teams. OK, we've lost, but we're taking the positives."

Gills, thrills and Ian Wright's skills: how Dave made it to the Premier League

By Glenn Moore

"Dave" always had potential, but finding him established in the Premier League is still a shock to someone who followed his enthusiastic first steps as a professional footballer. Nyron Nosworthy became known by Gillingham supporters as "Dave" as a jokey response to uncertainty about the pronunciation of his name (someone may also have known there is a South African cricket coach called Dave Nosworthy). There was equal debate about his best position.

As a junior at Priestfield the young Nosworthy played in midfield, but his first team debut, in August 1999, came in attack. He then made appearances in wide midfield and at centre-back and left-back before settling at right-back. It was immediately obvious that he was powerful, but his technique and composure left much to be desired.

His debut came in Peter Taylor's season as Gillingham manager. An experienced team, playing an uncompromising style, had lost a dramatic Second Division [now League One] play-off to Manchester City the previous season. Taylor introduced a passing game and young faces, one of whom was Nosworthy.

One particular memory is of a home game against promotion rivals Burnley. Late in the game, with the Gills winning, Ian Wright came off the bench for Burnley. Nosworthy was in defence and had played well but, with few feints and turns Wright lost him in the box to head in an equaliser. Nyron was both mortified and awed.

Gillingham went up through another epic play-off final, and by 2002 Nosworthy was an established player, usually at right-back. But the Gills were punching above their weight in the Championship and, after five seasons, went down.

To general amazement Nosworthy, who was out of contract, promptly joined newly promoted Sunderland on a Bosman. Like the rest of his new team-mates he struggled in the Premier League, but Nyron has persevered.

While Gillingham languish, managerless, in League One, Nyron has joined Steve Bruce, Micky Adams, Tony Cascarino and Marlon King as one of the club's notable old boys. Congratulations, Dave.