Time to salute Nelson for turning the tide with City
PUBLISHED: 12:01 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 08:55 02 July 2010
Half a dozen new signings took the field for Norwich City when their League One campaign kicked off with that fateful game against Colchester United. Now, with just 10 games to go and the Canaries poised to climb out of the third flight at the first time of asking, only two of the six summer recruits who experienced that crushing 7-1 defeat have survived as regular members of the starting eleven.
Half a dozen new signings took the field for Norwich City when their League One campaign kicked off with that fateful game against Colchester United.
Now, with just 10 games to go and the Canaries poised to climb out of the third flight at the first time of asking, only two of the six summer recruits who experienced that crushing 7-1 defeat have survived as regular members of the starting eleven.
The first is easy - Grant Holt became skipper under new manager Paul Lambert and has become arguably the single most influential player in City's revival, his 27 goals in all competitions putting him one goal per match away from equalling Terry Allcock's 1962-63 club record of 37 by the end of the season.
But it would have taken a brave fan to forecast which of the other five close season captures to figure in that opening day debacle would recover and ultimately cement a place in the side under Bryan Gunn's successor.
Two of them, winger Simon Whaley and goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos, were swiftly discarded from Lambert's plans and both have left Carrow Road in recent weeks after their contracts were terminated by mutual consent.
Two more, central midfield pair Matthew Gill and Owain Tudur Jones, have been largely sidelined by a combination of injuries and the form of others.
The luckless Gill was on the bench for 15 consecutive games until he was left out of the 18 at Huddersfield on Saturday, and he last saw meaningful first team action in the Boxing Day win over Millwall.
Tudur Jones returned from a month on loan at Yeovil keen to fight for a senior recall but, like Gill, found the queue for midfield places showed no sign of shortening.
All of which leaves Michael Nelson, the centre-half who arrived from Hartlepool - where he was well known to City's former assistant boss, Ian Butterworth - after cutting short his honeymoon at the end of June.
With the exception of Theoklitos, who was not given the opportunity to redeem himself at senior level but failed to inspire confidence in the reserves, Nelson was perhaps the player most criticised by fans after the Colchester game.
But Lambert clearly saw something in the robust centre-back and, when Michael Spillane was sent off in the Carling Cup tie against Sunderland, his one-match suspension provided another opening for Nelson.
Recalled against his former club at Victoria Park, Hartlepool, he scored with a spectacular bicycle kick in a 2-0 victory, had another goal inexplicably disallowed a week later against Walsall and, for three and a half matches, City did not concede a goal as Nelson's central defensive partnership with Danish signing Jens Berthel Askou blossomed.
It proved to be the second false start to the new chapter in his career, however, when damaged ankle ligaments forced him off after an hour of the League One game at Milton Keynes Dons on September 14.
It was more than three months before Nelson started another league match - the 3-0 home victory over Huddersfield Town - when it was the unfortunate Askou's turn to sit it out after breaking a broken bone in his foot in the 3-3 draw at Yeovil.
Since then, the man from Gateshead has been ever-present - playing alongside Gary Doherty in all but one match when Doherty was suspended - as City have won 13 out of 15 League One games to take the promotion battle by the scruff of the neck and build a seven-point lead over second-placed Leeds.
And his value to the side was never better illustrated than in the return fixture with Huddersfield on Saturday, when he was the pick of the defence.
There were times in the first half when the overworked back four was at full stretch, but Nelson was so often the one with the timely tackle, the vital interception, the rock-solid header. There were no frills, no slide rule passes, but he played a huge part in limiting the damage before half-time and laying the foundation for City's storming second-half revival.
With the possible exception of the 5-0 win at Colchester, where the bandaged Nelson was magnificent in the mud as City enjoyed sweet revenge for their opening day torment, it was perhaps his best game of the season.
And it is a measure of how well he has played that Askou, whose form had made him indispensable before Christmas, has been unable to find a way back, even on to the bench.
Nelson, 30 next week, is within striking distance of Championship football for the first time since moving into the professional game with Bury in 2001.
But, speaking ahead of the trip to Huddersfield, he was not prepared to contemplate end-of-season celebrations.
“If it goes the way everyone hopes it does it's probably going to be the best season I've had, but at the minute nothing's done so it's just another season in my career,” he said.
Promotion would, however, complete a remarkable transformation for a player whose season started so inauspiciously with the kind match that no one involved, on either side, is ever likely to forget.
He admitted: “It's going to affect you when someone goes and sticks seven past you. You can't just brush it off and say let's carry on. You've got to take stock, have a look at it, take what you can from it and make sure it doesn't happen again. Luckily enough, it hasn't.”
It has taken more than luck, though, to turn the tide. Time, perhaps, for us all to salute Nelson.
t FAREWELL AGAIN TO COMBINATION
City's decision to withdraw from the Football Combination once again comes as no great surprise.
The move was telegraphed weeks ago, first by the decision to switch home games to afternoon kick-offs, then by moving them to Colney to “protect the pitch” (cut costs?) at Carrow Road.
One can only hope the programme of friendlies being planned is better than the great void that existed last season. But if these matches are afternoon kick-offs at Colney, it will in any case be virtually impossible for most fans to attend.