Soccer: Home crowd test for Nelsen

By Coen Lammers

All Whites skipper confesses to jitters as he prepares to play before friends and family.

Ryan Nelsen is struggling with the jitters. The All Whites captain has played a World Cup, two Olympics and 200-odd matches in English football, but feels unusually tense ahead of tonight's World Cup qualifying match against Tahiti in Christchurch.

You would think he had seen it all, but playing in front of friends and family for his first All Whites match on home turf is new to Nelsen.

"Yeah, I'm nervous. It's the most nervous I've been for a game," he said yesterday.

"For other New Zealand athletes it's quite common to play in Christchurch, but not for footballers."

Nelsen left Christchurch when he joined American university Greensboro College in 1997, but he has always remained a staunch Cantabrian, taking every opportunity to visit and support his city and province.

Before the 2010 World Cup, Nelsen hosted more than 1000 people at the old AMI Stadium for a book launch and the subsequent signing session lasted for hours as the All Whites skipper knew, or had played against, almost half of the crowd.

Most of them are bound to be in the stands tonight and Nelsen is feeling the pressure, especially as the fixture has virtually been marketed as the Ryan Nelsen testimonial match.

"I haven't been real nervous for a football game in 10 years. I just hope I don't have a stinker and everyone goes away thinking, 'Heck, what was all the fuss about.'

"But it will be fun. And not just for me, also for [fellow Cantabrian] Ben Sigmund. It will be very special for him as well."

The All Whites last played in Christchurch in a 2006 friendly against Malaysia, but Nelsen missed that game because of Premier League commitments.

This time, however, he would have walked over hot coals to tick that last box on his impressive CV. Nelsen will celebrate his 35th birthday on Thursday and knows this is likely to be his last opportunity to play at home.

He is even risking the wrath of coach Mark Hughes at Queens Park Rangers, where Nelsen is trying to keep on top of a dodgy knee that kept him out of Friday's match against Tahiti.

At his age, he said, these niggles were bound to happen, "especially when you put the miles on the legs that I have".

The knee has been under extra pressure as Nelsen is getting more game time than he expected at QPR.

Now he just hopes to get through tonight's match in one piece, so he can help his club get off the bottom of the Premier League table.

He said it would be tough, but his All Whites teammates will not lack motivation after the disastrous Oceania Nations Cup, where Tahiti emerged as the surprising winner.

As far as the future is concerned, Nelsen is living week by week but the 2014 World Cup is still in the back of his mind.

"When you get to the end of your career, you're only one injury away from the end. I think I've had a pretty good run and I wouldn't change anything. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, there'd be no regrets."

With the return of Nelsen, coach Ricki Herbert is close to having a full-strength squad, depending on how Winston Reid (back spasms) and keeper Mark Paston (infected foot) coped with last night's captain's run.

Victory will put the All Whites on the cusp of qualifying for the intercontinental playoff, which could be achieved in the next game against New Caledonia in March.


- Ashburton Guardian

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