Ryan Nelsen: From New Zealand to Cardiff for world football's mild Rover

Blackburn face Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final in Cardiff today with a defence reinforced by a multi-talented Kiwi. Paul Newman talks to an unlikely recruit in their revival
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The cornflakes were probably sent flying when the rugby union and cricket diehards of Christchurch opened the sports pages of their daily newspaper this morning. The local Crusaders rugby team have a big Super 12s match in South Africa tonight and the New Zealand cricket team have just won a Test match against Sri Lanka, but the back page of today's Christchurch Press is devoted to a sport that usually struggles to make any impact in the South Island city.

The cornflakes were probably sent flying when the rugby union and cricket diehards of Christchurch opened the sports pages of their daily newspaper this morning. The local Crusaders rugby team have a big Super 12s match in South Africa tonight and the New Zealand cricket team have just won a Test match against Sri Lanka, but the back page of today's Christchurch Press is devoted to a sport that usually struggles to make any impact in the South Island city.

Five of yesterday's 16 sports pages were devoted to the same subject, which also provided the main section with a front-page splash last month for probably the first time in the newspaper's 144-year history. It is extraordinary what effect a 27-year-old footballer making his first steps in the English game can have.

Ryan Nelsen has been the talk of his rugby-mad home city ever since his debut for Blackburn Rovers in January following his move from the United States. His mature performances quickly won a regular place in the centre of the Blackburn defence, which has conceded just one goal in the last six games as Mark Hughes' team have climbed clear of relegation trouble and embarked on an FA Cup run which sees them take on Arsenal in the semi-final in Cardiff today. The game kicks off at 11.15 in the evening back in Christchurch, where the sports bars are expecting a busy night.

"I'm feeling a lot of pressure from back home," Nelsen said during a break from preparations at Blackburn's training ground. "I've got cousins giving me advice, uncles telling me what to do. It will be perfect timing for everyone on a Saturday night back home. Some of them will be half-drunk so I'll be expecting a barrage of abusive text messages after the game. Everyone associates New Zealand with rugby, but the fact is that more people there play football and there's a growing interest."

Nelsen is clearly used to taking things in his stride, as befits someone who left home at the age of 19 to go to university in the United States and has gone on to captain both America's most successful team, DC United, and his national side. As he considers his remarkable impact in his three months here, Nelsen is a charming mixture of modesty and self-confidence.

"My philosophy has always been to give everything in training, to play flat out, to do whatever I can to help the team and after that what will be will be," he said. "If I'm playing in the first team, so much the better. Fortunately for me I don't think the expectations here of a New Zealander who's been playing in the United States were that high."

Nelsen felt no nerves on his Premiership debut against Portsmouth, despite an alarming start. "I was shown a yellow card after about eight minutes for a foul on Yakubu," he remembered. "In the back of my mind I kept thinking, 'Imagine being sent off in your first match here'. But thankfully I got through it OK and we got a good win."

A series of authoritative displays by Nelsen alongside a rejuvenated Andy Todd have already prompted Mark Hughes, the Blackburn manager, into talking about extending the New Zealander's 18-month contract. Nelsen said: "When I first came here the thing I wanted above all else was to find some consistency week in and week out and, thankfully, so far I've been able to achieve that. I think the Premiership's the best league in the world. It's got everything: great players, high intensity, the fans, huge public interest.

"Everyone says the Premiership is played at a frenetic pace, which it is, but the key thing I notice is that your decision-making has to be a lot quicker. And you just can't afford to make mistakes. The players are so good they'll punish you immediately.

"The atmosphere in the grounds is fantastic, particularly in the FA Cup games. When we played Burnley it was the best atmosphere I've ever experienced at a football match - not in terms of numbers or volume of noise but in passion and intensity. You really felt the pride of the two towns was at stake."

The prospect of playing in the Millennium Stadium holds no fears - "there are 50 stadiums as big as that in the United States and I've played in plenty of them in front of big crowds," he says - but Nelsen is well aware of the importance of the occasion.

"When you're at a club like Blackburn you're very much aware of its history," he said. "The FA Cup's also massive in New Zealand. I remember my father used to wake me up so that I could get up to watch the game in the middle of the night. Being a rugby man he used to fall asleep watching it, but I loved every minute of it."

Nelsen's family have Swedish and English origins and the interest in football came from his mother's side. "My grandfather was manager of the New Zealand national team in the 1960s," he said. "I also had three great-uncles who played for New Zealand. My father's side of the family was strictly rugby. When I was four or five years old I think it was my mum who won the argument, because football was what I wanted to play."

Not that playing football was an easy choice. "All my friends played rugby. You were a softie if you played football rather than rugby. I had to play rugby to keep up the image! The girls seemed to go for rugby players and most of the best parties happened after rugby matches so that was another reason to play it. I played football and rugby at school and rugby was actually very good for me. It hardens you up and gives you a different kind of fitness.

"Football was always my game, though, and I loved watching the Premiership on TV. There are probably more games shown in New Zealand than there are here. Manchester United were the team we all knew most about because they were on television so much, though I never actually supported them. I grew up watching people like Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson. I never imagined that I'd be playing under one of those guys one day."

Nelsen was also an accomplished cricketer, playing in age-group teams alongside many of the current New Zealand team. "I played with people like Craig McMillan, Daniel Vettori and Shane Bond," he said. "I do sometimes wonder where I would have got if I had stayed with it, but I'm certainly not complaining with the way my football career has gone."

A broken leg jeopardised Nelsen's future in the game . "At one stage it looked like I might not be able to play again," he said. "I didn't really have any education behind me, so that's why I turned my thoughts to trying to get to university in America. I thought, 'If I can't play again, what have I got to fall back on?' It was a safety net."

Nelsen spent three years at university - at Greensboro and Stanford - on a sports scholarship, a route which many New Zealanders take because of the difficulties in getting a visa to work in Europe. Bobby Clark, an Irishman who had managed New Zealand, was the coach at Stanford and a major influence as Nelsen was recruited by DC United in the Major Soccer League's 2001 draft.

Quickly establishing himself at the Washington club alongside some famous names - "I played with Hristo Stoichkov in his last year and Marco Etcheverry was technically the best player I've ever seen" - Nelsen was soon appointed captain. He was twice named in the MSL All Star team and last season crowned his time at the club by winning America's major prize, the MLS Cup. The teenage prodigy Freddy Adu was one of his colleagues last year and he also played with Bobby Convey, who joined Reading last summer.

"I'd say that DC's level would be around the top of the Championship here," Nelsen said. "It is hard to compare because they play in the middle of the summer in the US. When you play in 95 degrees with 95 per cent humidity the whole style of the game is different. People look at it and say it's too slow, but it has to be. If Premiership footballers tried to play over there they would struggle and vice versa."

Having reached the end of his contract last year, Nelsen wanted to try his luck elsewhere. He had several offers, but a 10-day trial at Blackburn quickly convinced both parties. "I was impressed straight away with the management, the strength of the playing staff, the facilities," Nelsen said. "I also got the feeling that it was a very friendly club. It was an easy decision to take."

The only goal Blackburn have conceded in their last six games was against Arsenal last month. Thierry Henry, rated by Nelsen as the best striker in the world, missed that game through injury - and will also be absent today - but the New Zealander has faced him before, playing for his national side in the 2003 Confederations Cup in France. The All Whites had already conceded six goals in losing to Japan and Colombia and faced the hosts in their final game.

"We got battered," Nelsen recalled. "It was rather overwhelming for some of the younger players, though I really enjoyed it. I just loved playing against those great players. France had played their B team in the previous game but they played virtually all their big names against us.

"Henry played up front and scored one. We were 3-0 down in around the 92nd minute. I was absolutely shattered after three games in about five days and I thought, 'Well, 3-0 is at least fairly respectable'. And as soon as I thought that they came down our end and scored. Then they kicked off and scored another straight away."

New Zealand have qualified for only one World Cup - Nelsen's schoolboy hero was Wynton Rufer, the best member of the 1982 team that played in Spain - and the Confederations Cup offers a more accessible route to the international stage. Nelsen made his first mark on the national team in the 1999 tournament in Mexico, where New Zealand earned much honour in defeats to the United States (2-1), Germany (2-0) and Brazil (2-0).

"The score was 1-0 against Brazil till late in the game and we had two extremely good chances to equalise," Nelsen said. "One shot was cleared off the line and then one of our guys put a great chance wide from about six yards. Then Ronaldinho came on and scored with a 30-yard free-kick in the 92nd minute to make sure for them. I was only 20 or so at the time. It was a fantastic experience."

That was in sharp contrast to last summer, when Nelsen led the New Zealand team in the Oceania qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup. An extraordinary 4-2 defeat by Vanuatu, who finished bottom of the group, combined with Australia's 2-2 draw with the Solomon Islands, ensured that the latter two went through to the final play-off at New Zealand's expense.

"It was the worst moment of my career," Nelsen said. "They had four shots on goal and scored four times. There were no excuses, but we did have four or five guys out. We just didn't have enough depth in the squad. The island teams are improving.

"We haven't had a game since last June. Most of our team play in Europe and we just can't get together. Then when we do play we fly around the world, get together for two days and everyone expects us to get it together. There's no money in New Zealand football so we fly economy. You have your knees in your nose flying for 24 hours and you're expected to step straight off the plane to train and play. If some of the international boys here saw what we have to put up with I don't think they would stand for it."

Nelsen's parents will be on a plane flying in the opposite direction later this month to watch Blackburn's last three Premiership games. Will they still be here for the FA Cup final? "I'm not banking on anything," he said with a smile. "But they have got open tickets."

Why the All Whites have a long way to go match the deeds of the All Blacks

Brief history of football in New Zealand

* It may not rank alongside the contribution of the mighty All Blacks, but New Zealand football does have at least one claim to fame in the history of sport. In 1879 the city of Wellington staged what may well have been the world's first floodlit match. But a crowd of 8,000 at the Basin Reserve were disappointed when the lights - there were only two large ones at either end of the pitch - failed and the match had to be abandoned.

* New Zealand was one of the first countries outside the British Isles to form a football association, in 1891. But it was only in the 1970s that a countrywide league competition became established.

* The country has only one professional team, the Football Kingz, who play in the Australian national league.

* New Zealand's first international was a 3-0 win at the Basin Reserve in 1922 over Australia, who until the Second World War were the only opponents other than visiting teams representing Chinese universities in 1924, Canada in 1927 and England Amateurs in 1937. The establishment of the Oceania federation in 1966 opened up new avenues and New Zealand have competed in World Cup qualifying competitions ever since.

* The most famous All Whites ever were undoubtedly the team that reached the 1982 World Cup finals (after beating China in a play-off), losing in Spain to Scotland (5-2), Russia (3-0) and Brazil (4-0). The team included Ricky Herbert, the current head coach of the national team, and Brian Turner, one of his assistants, who went on to play for Wolves and Brentford respectively, and Wynton Rufer. Rufer was briefly on Norwich City's books but enjoyed his greatest success with Werder Bremen, helping the German club to domestic honours and the 1992 European Cup-Winners' Cup, scoring one of the goals in a 2-0 win over Monaco in the final. He was voted best overseas player in the Bundesliga.

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