(HAPPIER TIMES: Michael Nelson celebrates a Barnet goal. Picture: Action Images)
By Chris Dunlavy
He’s played 700 games, spent the best part of two decades in the EFL and won promotion to the Premier League.
But for Michael Nelson, Chesterfield’s veteran centre-back, the park pitches of his native north east will always have a special significance..
Two decades ago, the teenage Nelson had, in his own words, “given up” on football. Released by Portsmouth, wearied by trials and yearning for home, he ditched his boots and headed up the M1.
“I got a job fitting blinds,” recalls Nelson, now 38. “At that stage, I thought my chance had gone. I was playing Sunday League with my mates, just enjoying myself. I wasn’t focused on getting back in at all.
“Thankfully, the coach at my club in Washington knew the manager at Spennymoor and sent me over there to train.
“That was it really. I had a season there, then moved to Bishop Auckland in UniBond North. There was no pressure on me to perform, to earn money or win a contract.
“I loved it. I was playing for fun and really relaxed. Because of that I was playing well and suddenly pro clubs started having a look.”
Eventually, Bury took the plunge. That was in 2001 and, since then, the big stopper has played over 300 games for Hartlepool, won back-to-back promotions at Norwich and also had stints at Scunthorpe, Bradford, Cambridge and Barnet.
Now, in his twilight years, he has come full circle by signing for Non-League newcomers Chesterfield – and it isn’t just the surroundings that are familiar.
Signed for Barnet by Martin Allen in 2015, Nelson also played under the new Spireites boss for the final eight games of last season as he tried – and valiantly failed – to keep the Bees in the EFL.
“Martin and I go way back,” he explains. “He was actually a pro during my first year as a YTS at Portsmouth, then reserve manager after that. I played and trained with him then and our paths have crossed ever since.
“He’s a brilliant manager. Very clear, very organised. There’s no complicated ideas. Sessions are simple and everybody knows their roles on the pitch.
“Man-management is excellent. He includes the senior boys in his plans. He asks advice. He wants to know about training loads, what the dressing room is like.
“And he’s very receptive to anything you say. It’s not a dictatorship at all. At Barnet, I was probably in his office more often than I was on the training pitch.
“I’ve actually been there when he’s done press and it was great to watch. Seeing how he conducts himself, the way he uses motivational tools, putting stuff out in the papers in order to get the supporters going.
“That’s the thing with Martin. He doesn’t just want to come in and get the team playing; he wants to engage the fans and the staff.
“I remember when I joined Norwich in 2009, they’d just been relegated to League One for the first time in 50 years.
“Everybody was disillusioned, but Paul Lambert came in, got the fans to unite behind the club and it took them all the way to the Premier League.
“If I know Martin, he’ll want to transform Chesterfield in the same way.”
That two-year spell at Norwich represented the zenith of Nelson’s career, but also his worst moment on a football pitch when the Canaries were drubbed 7-1 at home by Colchester on the opening day of the League One campaign.
“We got absolutely pumped,” he says. “There were about four of us making debuts and everything went wrong. It was a nightmare.
“It seemed the rot would carry on, but then Paul came and the change was instant. We were getting 25,000 crowds every home game. You’d pick the paper up on a Sunday and our average attendance was bigger than three or four Premier League sides. Unbelievable.”
That defeat would prove pivotal in Nelson’s personal life, too. Wife Dawn and their two young sons were set to move to Norfolk from their home in the north east, but were spooked when Lambert took the hotseat. A decade on, they remain a family divided by geography.
“As players get older, they tend to get closer to home,” says Nelson with a rueful smile. “With me, it’s the opposite. I always seem to get further away.
“I was talking to my agent the other day, and he said he’d never known or even heard of anyone living away for so long. But you know how it is. My eldest got settled in school. Then my second got into nursery. He’s ten now and hasn’t known anything else. It has been tough; I’ve missed both the boys’ birthdays this year. That’s happened countless times over the last decade.
“I remember once at Norwich, I got up Christmas morning, opened the presents and was in the car at 11 to drive down to training. I’ve missed a lot of parties, a lot of milestones. We just try to enjoy the days off and the summers as much as we can. And my wife has been unbelievable.
“Whatever team, wherever it’s been, if she knows I want to do it then she’s supported me. She’s kept the house going, looked after the kids, all whilst working as well. I wouldn’t be here today without her.”
Nor would he be at the Proact if Barnet had offered a contract. Before his own departure to Chesterfield, Allen recommended the defender be signed up for another year. But when John Still took charge a fortnight later, Nelson found himself out in the cold.
“We have a WhatsApp group and I saw the boys talking about meetings they were having on the Monday to discuss contracts,” says Nelson.
“They’d all had phone calls when John arrived on the Friday, but I didn’t receive one. I didn’t have a meeting on the Monday either. And it wasn’t just a case of him only ringing players under contract – there were others in the exact same situation as me who got invited.
“In the end, it was obvious there wouldn’t be any offer, so I had to look after myself. It would have been nice to hear from the club, even if it was to say thanks. But that’s football. Chesterfield came along and I was delighted to sign.”
And, for Nelson, that means leaning on the experience of his halcyon days at Carrow Road as Chesterfield – one of the world’s oldest clubs – face up to being a Non-League scalp.
“At Norwich, every team we came up against, it was their Cup final,” he says.
“You had to match that desire every single week, and we’ll need to do that this year. Martin will thrive off that – and I think he’ll make sure his players do.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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