Soccer: All eyes on Ryan of the Rovers

By David Fearnhead in Blackburn

All Whites soccer captain Ryan Nelsen is rapidly making a big name for himself by captaining his new premier league team in FA Cup-obsessed England.

Nelsen, 27, started with Blackburn Rovers only in December, but made soccer history yesterday when he skippered his English FA Cup team through to the quarter-finals.

His team grabbed a last-gasp 2-1 win over local rivals Burnley in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

He was also joint man of the match in what is England's oldest derby in the world's oldest competition.

Christchurch-born Nelsen is just the third New Zealander to play in the premier league.

For the past four years he played for DC United in the US Major League Soccer.

In England, his debut performance in January earned him a public mention by his manager.

He has been on the team list for every game since, but said he was surprised manager Mark Hughes had made him captain so quickly.

"I found out only a few minutes before they named the team that I was going to be captain, " he said.

"There are a lot of senior players who have been here a lot longer than me, so it was a great honour.

"But to be honest it was more important that we got through."

Hughes, a former international player, was sure he had the right man for the job.

"Giving Ryan the captaincy was a recognition of how he's performed for us. It would be fair to say he's one of my best signings.

"He's got a great presence about him on the pitch.

"He always gives his all and you saw that again tonight."

Nelsen, the face of the Small Whites campaign in New Zealand, said he knew he had a role in promoting soccer for New Zealand.

"I just want to do well and give New Zealand players a good name and maybe open up a few doors for other players," he says.

Of his life in England, Nelsen says he could do without the Lancashire weather and mushy peas.

He can deal with the best strikers in the world, British bureaucrats and the grey skies, but not the local delicacy.

"These squashed-up peas are the most disgusting things I've ever seen. They are just rotten and the people at the club now know not to put that anywhere near my plate."

The tie was a tense affair following a goal-less draw away at Burnley.

The replay took place in near freezing conditions and heavy snow. Nelsen was rock solid and commanding in his leadership and at times ventured far from his central defensive position in an attempt to break the scoreless deadlock.

It finally came for Blackburn in the 31st minute as Tugay's shot deflected in off Burnley's Micah Hyde. But Blackburn's lead lasted just 11 minutes when Hyde spectacularly equalised. Burnley manager Steve Cotterill was the happier of the two managers as the teams got a halftime respite from the cold.

It wasn't just the snow that glistened over Blackburn's Ewood Park, though. Nelsen was everywhere - stifling and nullifying the Burnley attack and twice coming close to putting Blackburn back in the lead with headers from set pieces.

It looked to be heading into extra time but with three minutes left on the clock, Morten Gamst Pedersen unleashed a powerful looping shot that booked Blackburn a place in the next round and a home tie against first division side Leicester.

Nelsen shared the man of the match award with Pedersen, but he spent his post-match interview deflecting the praise on to the impressive young Norwegian.

"It was great to get that win. Morten was excellent for us tonight ... you need that special player who can turn a match for you and he has that for us."

- additional reporting NZPA

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