Admiral Nelson reflects on City career including Lambert, being a character and leaving the club
It’s not often that a footballer is best remembered for one moment - but with Michael Nelson and his time at Norwich City, that is the case.
That header at the Valley, and the celebrations, will live long in the memory, not least because that stadium was the place where the Canaries sank to their lowest ebb in a generation.
But Nelson offered so much more than one goal at Charlton. The hours of work that preceded it were relentless, the amount of sacrifice involved proved worthwhile.
Nelson was a battler. A reliable fighter who offered solidity and defensive security whilst other offensive protagonists like Wes Hoolahan and Grant Holt took centre stage.
For Nelson, signing for City was the culmination of years of hard graft, and he explains why he chose the Canaries as opposed to other interest parties.
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“I went and spoke to Nigel Adkins at Scunthorpe and a few other clubs as well. The Norwich one seemed to tick all the boxes and moved quite quickly once the interest started. It was a natural choice for me, I think.
“You could sense that (it was suffering) from the people who’d been there for any period of time, the fans as well and people around the city. There was quite a big turnaround in that summer, so the faces coming in were pretty excited at the prospect of what was possible,” he explained.
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“It was a mixed feeling of the club having a bit of a hangover from relegation but also fresh faces coming in and being exciting about the possibilities of what could happen.”
Nelson’s debut was unforgettable, for the wrong reasons; he was one of the cast members of City’s historic 7-1 opening day defeat to Paul Lambert’s Colchester United.
“It was one of those freak things. You go out and get beat like that, you come off after the game and you don’t think ‘this is gonna happen again next week’, it’s just one of those things. As quick as you can lose like that, you can win like that. I’d been in football long enough at that time to know not to get too carried away with one result.”
That performance saw Bryan Gunn sacked and replaced by the man who inflicted that defeat on the Canaries.
Lambert waltzed into Norwich intent on dragging the club forwards by the scruff of its neck. Those who didn’t comply, left through the front door.
Nelson’s first appearance under his new manager saw him net an acrobatic overhead kick against his former club Hartlepool United - from there, he didn’t look back.
“Once I got into the team under the gaffer, I managed to stay in there. I was regarded as an old-school centre-half. I think he referred to me a couple of times as the heating machine because I used to stick my head on anything.
“I was an old-fashioned stopper and a bit of a character around the place. We had a great bunch and some unbelievable characters in the dressing room. I think that’s one of the main reasons we did well. For all the talent and quality we had on the pitch, the togetherness was great.”
The manager responsible for City’s upturn in form was Lambert, and Nelson explains what it was like to work under the current Ipswich Town boss on a daily basis.
“He had a presence about him on the day he walked in. You knew when he walked into the room, there was a bit of a change in the atmosphere. It wasn’t like a dictatorship or anything like that, it was just when he was there, you knew you had to be on your guard.
“On the training pitch, if he came out and started giving instructions during the sessions then you had to stand up, take notice and do it as he wanted it or there would be consequences. That was a big factor in how he went along,” Nelson continued.
“If the tempo wasn’t right, then he would step in and his voice would be raised. Then everyone upped their level. We generally did shape and set-pieces on a Thursday, so we got to know the team then. All the tactical stuff, setting us up and how he wanted us to play in our team shape, the gaffer led that all the time. It was very much him in that sense.”
Nelson eventually left City for Scunthorpe United in January 2011, ending a short but sweet association with the football club.
“The terms and length of contract that Scunthorpe were offering were far more in terms of what Norwich could’ve offered me at that time,” he said.
“It was too good of a deal to turn down at Scunthorpe and I was closer to my family in the north. The money I earned at that level and throughout my career hasn’t been life-changing. I was effectively gambling five months worth of money against two and a half years worth of money.
“It is about the money. I’ve got a house, a mortgage, wife and two kids. I love playing football and I didn’t get into it for the money but, ultimately, that’s why I do it. It’s my job.”