Nelsen the unique Kiwi who took flight

At the heart of Blackburn's rise is a real rarity - a top-class New Zealand footballer
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The Independent Football

The club motto on Ryan Nelsen's tracksuit perfectly sums up Blackburn Rovers: Arte et Labore. There is a lot more arte at Ewood Park these days, as a rueful Arsenal will testify after last weekend but, as a centre-half whose job it is to stop the other lot scoring, the labore bit is Nelsen's speciality.

Nelsen is that rarity, a top-class New Zealand footballer from a nation which worships rugby. Ruggedly constructed at 6ft 1in, Nelsen could clearly have taken care of himself as an All Black, but it was football which won in a family affair. "My grandfather was manager of the New Zealand football team and I had some great-uncles who played for the country, too. My father's side was all rugby, my mother's was football. Obviously her side won."

This afternoon Blackburn seek to pull off the north London double, following up success over Arsenal by winning at Tottenham. As the manager, Mark Hughes, acknowledges, venturing as close to zeal as his laid-back character permits, the last dozen games of his season are all vital as Blackburn make their push for that Premiership holy grail, Europe. "That's what we want, involvement in games of significance from now on," he said. "We don't just want the season to drift out."

Today's visit to White Hart Lane is more relevant than most, since Spurs are also well placed for Europe, something which ani-mates Nelsen more visibly than his manager. And with reason, since the catalyst for the 28-year-old's route to Premiership fame and involvement in occasions like this afternoon's was a broken leg suffered as a teenager, which threatened to end his involvement with the game.

Nelsen, a keen and talented cricketer, also represented New Zealand at youth level before the time came to decide that football would be his chosen path. "Then, when I was 17, I broke my leg in a game, a fracture at the bottom of the femur. It was a humbling one, where they told me, 'You might not come back from this'. So I thought, 'Hang on, I have got absolutely nothing to fall back on, no education', and that acted as a kind of wake-up call. If sport was taken away, what was I going to do?"

What he did was accept a sport-associated scholarship in political science in the United States in 1997, going first to Greensboro College in North Carolina for two years and then to Stanford University in California for a further two. Those honours which are particularly associated with sport in the United States, MVP and NSCAA All-American, ensured he would move on to the North American professional game in Major League Soccer with the Washington club, DC United, in 2001.

Nelsen became club captain, defender of the year and was named on the MSL All-Star XI for both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. All the time, his long-term ambitions lay in England. "It was always my top ambition to play in this country," he said. "In New Zealand everybody follows the Premiership, and it was my first option." It was, unfortunately, an unrealisable option. Since New Zealand are not ranked in Fifa's top 70 he could not obtain the necessary work permit visa, so football in America offered excellent experience instead.

In the summer of 2004 Nelsen was invited for a trial at Blackburn and, after causing a flurry of concern at Ewood by stopping off en route to accept another invitation, a few days working out with Charlton Athletic, he arrived at his destiny. "He had promised to come to us and, thankfully, he kept his word," said Hughes, who was massively impressed by his first view of the Nelsen Spirit.

"By 10 minutes into training I knew he was better than what we already had." Still, the visa was a problem, and Blackburn's first work-permit application was turned down, only to be allowed on appeal, and Hughes had landed a top asset on a free transfer. The manager has continued to be impressed. "Ryan's mentality and character are both strong. Every day he comes to work he wants to get better, and that attitude has spread through to the other top players here."

The admiration is mutual. Visibly cheered by the news that Blackburn have opened talks with Hughes over a contract extension, Nelsen said: "I can't say enough about Mark Hughes or the coaches here, like Mark Bowen. They have put trust in me and I will try to repay them."

Modestly, Nelsen calls Blackburn's decision to take him aboard (quickly expanded to a three-year contract) "a calculated gamble," adding: "I knew I could succeed over here, but a lot of players have come over to the Premiership and never found their feet. That's why I thank Blackburn so much. Maybe if I had been from Italy or Germany it would have been a bit easier, but I am from New Zealand, a country whose football reputation doesn't carry much weight."

As he prepares to face Totten-ham's array of striking stars ("Mido, Keane, Defoe, how many have they got?") Nelsen knows that the folk back home will be watching. So is Ryan Nelsen a national hero nowadays?

"We aren't really great at putting people on pedestals, which I think is fantastic." In that respect, Ryan Nelsen smiled, New Zealanders are very different from Australians.

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