Bryce Johns: Truth is, Nelsen can't play

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Ryan Nelsen. File photo / Brett Phibbs
Ryan Nelsen. File photo / Brett Phibbs

It would be a brave man who criticised New Zealand football captain Ryan Nelsen right now.

He's signed with one of the glamour clubs in the English Premier League; he was more responsible than any other individual (coach Ricki Herbert included) for our stunning performances at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; and he flew halfway around the world to play a strong role in the All Whites' friendly match with Jamaica just this week.

But there's a reason you didn't see him on the field when Tottenham Hotspur took on Arsenal last weekend and it's the same reason he's unlikely to have much of a role in one of the English matches of the season tomorrow (Spurs vs Manchester United). Put simply, Ryan Nelsen can't play.

Is that brave or what? And here's the logic.

Nelsen's move to Spurs from Blackburn Rovers has elevated him from a side of perennial battlers to one of the most powerful clubs in England, possibly Europe.

He is playing among the elite and the elite can, well, play.

The difference between the sides like Spurs and Rovers is huge. We've seen the difference on these shores.

Think back to David Beckham's two appearances in this country with the LA Galaxy. The best players in the world are like him, they can land a ball on a tea towel at ranges of up to 60m.

It's not so important for the men at the back but, as we saw on Wednesday night at Mt Smart Stadium, Nelsen coughs the ball up way too often. He is a great stopper, he is a fantastic leader, he is the ultimate team man and few in the world read the game better defensively than he does.

But at the top level, when he gets the ball, he needs to be able to give it to someone who can play.

You wouldn't have heard about that in the sycophantic tributes paid Nelsen by our partisan boys in the commentary box, or read it in the next day's match reviews, but he put possession at risk as often as any of his team-mates.

And when the likes of Ledley King, Michael Dawson or Younes Kaboul win the ball off Wayne Rooney tomorrow morning, Harry Redknapp will trust them not to do the same.

That's no slight on Nelsen, by some margin the most influential Kiwi football player ever. Technically he's not the best - Wynton Rufer takes that title in a canter after winning trophies with decent European teams based largely on his goal-scoring.

But Nelsen has had more visibility, has done more for the All Whites and post his playing career, will surely have more long-term impact on the national game. Rufer is, unfortunately, too flaky to have any sort of leading role.

So what of the All Whites' chances of heading to Brazil in two years? It's not a pipe dream.

They will strike an opponent similar to Jamaica from the North American/Caribbean confederation. This time out, they were under prepared and trying a range of youngsters; Jamaica were just out of a series with Cuba.

Despite the loss, the young guys showed there is plenty of hope. Chris Wood has the size and skill to be a better targetman than either Shane Smeltz or Chris Killen and, though he was given a rough ride by Notts County pro Damian Stewart, he kept the ball better than most.

In midfield, Michael McGlinchey displayed a desire to look forward, a relief compared to the traditional lateral movement we've seen from former playmaker Simon Elliott, while Marco Rojas is a rare New Zealander with man-beating ability.

But it's at the back where the Kiwis are best served. With Nelsen leading the line and Tommy Smith looking as comfortable on the ball as anyone, and West Ham's Winston Reid's physicality to the fore, we're a chance of getting to Rio.

Reid's injury at halftime proved conclusively the step up from the Australian league to the English game, with Ben Sigmund's hopeful lumping of the ball forward a sight of All Whites' teams of yesteryear.

There also has to be doubt on Tim Brown's technique on the big stage and Kosta Barbarouses' suitability under pressure.

But the All Whites to emulate Australia and make back-to-back World Cups? Don't scoff. It's more likely than Nelsen starring in the Champions League next year.

OWEN GLENN, rugby league backer. Owen Glenn and the Mad Butcher.

Who'd have guessed?

The very rich Glenn is the man who put substantial cash into the New Zealand hockey programme last year. He even tagged along with the Black Sticks to the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands.

But good luck to him if he tries the tactics used there to woe the Warriors players - French perfume, a day at a spa and the offer of dinner in Paris. South Auckland meets the south of France.

He's an astute man though, and rarely backs losers.

The buzz about the start of the Warriors' season today, against Manly at Eden Park, seems a lot stronger than the Super Rugby kick-off last week.

Coach Bluey McClennan is a local hero; the team has never been so packed with talent; and there is now cash in the bank.

All they need is continued success on the field. But it's the Warriors, so who's brave enough to predict that?

Bryce Johns is editor of the Herald on Sunday.

- Herald on Sunday

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