Player Profile: Ryan Nelsen
Date of Birth: 18/10/1977
Height: 1.86 m (6 ft 1 in)
National Team: New Zealand
International Caps: 49
International Goals: 7
Just six Kiwis can claim to have played in the Premier League. There’s West Ham’s Winston Reid, Burnley’s Chris Wood and Fulham’s Simon Elliot, as well as Danny Hay and Lee Norfolk who also made a handful of appearances in the English top-flight. But one name sticks out above the rest: Ryan Nelsen.
The centre-half is the only player from New Zealand to have captained a Premier League side and is arguably one of his country’s greatest and most influential sportsmen. He made 198 Premier League appearances for three teams over an eight-year period, the bulk of them coming in the North West with Blackburn Rovers where he was affectionately known as ‘Admiral Nelsen’, or simply ‘The Admiral’.
Eight years before joining Rovers, Nelsen began his footballing career as an amateur college player with Greensboro College in 1997. He played there for a year before spending the same amount of time with Stanford Cardinal from 1999 to 2000.
Nelsen started his professional career much later than most. He was 23 by the time he had his first full-time senior contract. He played for Christchurch United for four seasons, playing 109 times and scoring 16 times. This was an uncharacteristically high goal return for Nelsen who, later in his career, would become known as extremely goal-shy.
In 2001, Nelsen signed for D.C. United in the MLS. After two impressive seasons with the club, Nelsen was named captain. It was easy to see why this was the case; Nelsen was physically imposing, able to sniff out danger and a natural leader. In his final two years with the club, Nelsen was named in the MLS Team of the Season twice in succession.
It was predictable that a European club would eventually come calling. That club, it transpired, was Blackburn Rovers.
Nelsen was a stalwart at the heart of one of the best defences in the league at the time. Mark Hughes, the Rovers manager, selected Nelsen at every available opportunity, although injuries would mar his first season in the Premier League. Rovers, with the help of Nelsen, finished in 6th place in the Premier League in his first uninterrupted season, meaning the Kiwi would play European football for the first time in the 06-07 campaign.
In that campaign, Rovers were disappointing in Europe but domestically had another strong year. They finished in 10th place in the Premier League and narrowly missed out on an FA Cup Final, losing to Chelsea in extra-time in the semi-final at Old Trafford.
The remainder of Nelsen’s years as captain of Blackburn Rovers would be a steady decline, culminating in their relegation at the end of the 2011-12 season. In total, Nelsen played 208 times for Rovers, scoring eight goals.
Before Rovers were confined to the Championship, Nelsen had been signed by Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur. Now 35, the defender saw the White Hart Lane move as an opportunity to play for a truly elite club for the first, and probably last, time in his career.
While he played only a bit-part role – he made eight appearances and scored one goal in the 11-12 campaign – he will look back on his time with the club as a success. After all, it made him the only Kiwi to have played for a top-four Premier League side.
While the Admiral jumped ship at the start of Blackburn’s relegation season, he experienced demotion first-hand in his final season as a player. By this time, Nelsen was playing for Mark Hughes once again, this time at Queens Park Rangers.
QPR had invested a huge amount of money in players under the ownership of Tony Fernandes but did not reap the rewards – they finished bottom of the Premier League table in 2012-13 and have not been back in the big time since.
In the narrative of Nelsen’s career, it was an unfortunate end. But history will remember him as a fine Premier League defender, especially in his golden years with Blackburn Rovers.
New Zealand are a rare presence at major international tournaments. As a youngster, Ryan Nelsen couldn’t have dreamt of representing his country on football’s biggest stage – but that’s exactly what he did in 2010.
Nelsen was named New Zealand captain for the World Cup in South Africa. Although New Zealand were unlucky not to progress from the group stage, they hold the title of being the only team to have gone undefeated in that year’s competition, drawing all three of their Group Stage games.
The highlight was a 1-1 draw against Italy, the nation who had won the previous edition of the World Cup in 2006. Nelsen won countless plaudits for his heroic performances across the three games.
Nelsen would most likely be one of New Zealand’s most-capped players had it not been for a recurring muscle injury which often prevented him from travelling to meet up with the squad during international breaks.
Where is Ryan Nelson Now?
Ryan Nelsen has largely withdrawn from the public view, although he occasionally makes television appearances in his home country.
The only major exception was his brief stint as manager of Toronto FC between 2013 and 2014. He left the club after winning less than one in three of his 64 games in charge.
Did you know? Interesting facts about Ryan Nelson
– Centre-back turned author: Nelsen co-wrote a book with Tommy Smith about the defender’s journey to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.