Monumental Nelson can leave with head held high
He had the perfect name for a Norfolk hero – and after the most inauspicious of starts, Michael Nelson won most of his battles for Norwich City.
Few players have suffered such a nightmare debut experience for the Canaries as the half-dozen summer signings who made their first appearance for the club in the 7-1 League One home defeat by Colchester 18 months ago.
Goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos and centre-half Nelson were the men most in the firing line after that opening day debacle.
But while one of them never played another first-team game for the club, the other turned disaster into triumph in the space of eight months and went on to score two of the most important goals of City’s title-winning campaign.
It was Nelson whose first-half goal in the 1-0 win at Charlton, a header from Simon Lappin’s corner, clinched promotion in April. And he produced an action replay in the 2-0 home victory over Gillingham a week later, heading in another Lappin corner as the Canaries were crowned champions.
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As he heads off to Scunthorpe United after a transfer deadline day move – with a return trip to Carrow Road scheduled for the Championship game on April 2 – Nelson has a guaranteed place in the club’s history books because of those two goals, even though his stay was cut short after only 45 senior appearances.
News of Nelson’s exit for an undisclosed fee came out of the blue, late on Monday evening, though with his contract at Norwich running out in the summer and no immediate sign of a new deal being announced, it was perhaps not the big surprise it seemed at the time. Paul Lambert admitted letting the big defender go was one of his most difficult decisions as a manager.
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“That was a hard one. It really, really was tough,” he said the next day. “If the truth be known, if I was to let him out on loan he was going nowhere. Scunthorpe made a bid. I told Michael because I think he’s an absolutely brilliant lad, he’s got a heart of gold, a great desire for a footballer and he’s somebody at 30 years of age, and having a young family, who needed security which I couldn’t guarantee him. So I’m delighted for him to get the move.
“I didn’t want Michael Nelson to get to the end of the season and then for me to turn round and tell him ‘Thanks very much’ and then he’s one of 800 people looking for a club.
“I owed it to him to try to help him on a personal note because I thought the lad was absolutely brilliant when he was here, not just as a footballer but as a man, a top man. You wouldn’t meet a nicer guy.
“I owed it to Michael Nelson. I could have been selfish and kept the lad here but because of what he did for me and for this football club, I owed it to him to be fair and he goes with my best wishes.”
From a financial point of view, City have put a bit more cash in the bank rather than allow Nelson to leave on a free transfer in the summer if he wasn’t to be retained. But Lambert insisted he had not made any decision over the player’s future before Scunthorpe’s offer came in.
“It’s purely hypothetical. I couldn’t tell you what was going to happen tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen in the summer,” he said. “It’s a hard question to answer because I never made any decision whatever on the lad regarding the summer time.”
It was one of Lambert’s early managerial master strokes that helped Nelson recover from a false start with the Canaries. For five matches after the Colchester drubbing, the new No 5 did not get a kick, but in Lambert’s third game in charge after his move from the Essex club, he recalled Nelson against his previous team, Hartlepool, with dramatic results.
He scored the opening goal after 26 minutes in a 2-0 win at Victoria Park, but not just any old goal.
When Stephen Hughes’ shot was parried by goalkeeper Scott Flinders, Nelson reacted quickly to hook the ball home with a superb bicycle kick. It was a finish any striker would have been proud of. It was then we were treated to the first example of the kind of self-deprecating humour that became his trademark in interviews.
“I said to some of the lads here that you get one of those a season and I think I get one a career, so I’ve probably used that one up now,” he said after the game.
“I couldn’t get there with my head, so I just thought I’ll chuck something at it and see what happens and I couldn’t have caught it any sweeter really, it just flew in.”
Getting back into the team meant more than the goal, though, to Nelson.
“I’ve been itching to get back in since the first day of the season,” he said. “That wasn’t me on the first day. I was really disappointed with the way I played and even more disappointed that I hadn’t had the chance to put it right, so for the travelling fans who have seen me today – that’s more like me, not just the goal because they probably won’t see that again, but performance wise, grinding things out. That’s what I have to offer.”
He had to endure another long injury absence shortly afterwards with ankle ligament damage before returning to League One action in the pre-Christmas game against Huddersfield. He didn’t miss another match until a foot problem forced him out of the final game of last season at home to Carlisle. But by then, Nelson had done his duty.