Two hundred and 23 appearances, 48 clean sheets and a League Two champion’s medal: Stuart Nelson’s Gillingham career is mightily impressive.
In an era when footballers’ loyalty is seemingly always under question, the fact that he came in as an outsider and left as one of ours says it all. The fans bought into him, he bought into them and, however tongue-in-cheek it may be, his reputation as “England’s Number One” says it all. I hope he is remembered as one of the club’s best players – not just goalkeepers – when that great history book is written.
I’ll write my disclaimer here: Nels and I used to speak regularly during my time working at the club. What were intended to be short phone calls to discuss his programme page (its “Nelson’s column” title still makes me chuckle) often turned into hour-long chats about this, that and everything else. He has a sharp sense of humour, a great turn of phrase – I think he’d be a great co-commentator in future – and is as far removed from the idea that all footballers are unintelligent beings as I’ve come across.
Nels was immensely proud of his work; the fact he was relatively late turning pro after years knocking around the non-league scene gave him a sense of achievement in everything he achieved. He once told me that his long-time goal was simply to play one Football League game – by the time he left Brentford in the summer of 2007 he had already clocked up a century.
Few fans will know this, but in pre-season fitness testing ahead of the 2016/17 season, he was consistently among the fittest players in the squad. I’m sure I’ll get corrected if I’m wrong, but I can only remember Emmanuel Osadebe and Josh Wright beating him in the 1,000m runs around Beechings Cross. Pretty good for a then 34-year-old goalkeeper, I’d say.
Without his drive and determination, Nelson’s Gillingham career would be incredibly different. He’d have left in the summer of 2015, a couple of months after he lost his place in the starting XI to Glenn Morris, had he not have convinced Justin Edinburgh he was worthy of being the club’s number one. For all of his notable appearances in the 2012/13 season (Rotherham away, anyone?), I’d argue that he was even better in the 2015/16 campaign. He played an unsung part in the 3-0 win at Millwall, then won us the game against Colchester a few days later. His battle with Paddy Madden in the 0-0 draw at Scunthorpe in March 2016 also sticks in my memory – the Irish striker wasn’t going to beat Nels that day, regardless of how hard he tried, let’s face it.
Yes, there were the errors at the start of the 2016/17 campaign, mistakes that he has held his hands up to. I can’t recall seeing a player as distraught as he was after the Scunthorpe thrashing four league games into last season, in which he was at fault for two goals. A bit like Rob Green after his World Cup fumble against the USA eight years ago, I’ve always felt certain players didn’t bother fighting for the shirt in that game once we were behind knowing full well that the goalkeeper would be the focal point for the blame. But again he fought back, playing a part in the historic victory over Watford in the EFL Cup days later. To make 42 appearances last season, under two managers who both wanted him out at certain times of their time in charge of the club, speaks volumes about his staying power.
There’s no shortage of juicy stories when you work in football, tales that can be told to your office colleagues in confidence, but the one thing I never passed on to anybody at the club was the extent of the injury he sustained just before Christmas 2016. In saving Dean Bowditch’s penalty against MK Dons with his feet, his ankle quickly swelled and caused him great pain during training and in matches. Sales of frozen peas must have increased dramatically in Essex. It was something the club managed to keep quiet rather well, although a slightly stray comment from him in an interview with the KM’s Luke Cawdell just before a trip to league leaders Sheffield United saw the Yorkshire team’s coaches telling their players to go in hard on him. He ended up having a great game that day; a 2-2 draw (and nearly a 3-2 win) later, I think it’s safe to say that we won that battle, even if the Blades won the League One war.
Last season was certainly lively from his point of view: I can’t imagine what it’s like turning up for work one day and finding out that somebody else (in this case Jonathan Bond) is coming in to take your place with immediate effect. His performance in the 1-1 draw against Charlton (including another penalty save) proved a point, as did him clocking up his 200th Gills start in front of the Sky cameras against Bolton in December 2016. It’s also telling that he was reinstated for the crucial game away to Northampton Town on the final day of last season, having lost his place to Tomas Holy a few weeks earlier. In a big game, you want your leaders out there: being appointed vice-captain in July 2016 was something else that Nels was immensely proud of.
I remember him speaking about a note he kept on his iPhone, one that listed all of his Gillingham appearance stats and accomplishments. He loved playing for this club, although his goal of getting 50 clean sheets sadly won’t happen now. His commitment to the cause is unquestionable – always chatty in interviews, he even missed the team coach after a JPT win away at Colchester in 2014 because he was on post-match media duty! He loved the fact that the fans voted him in the top three of the Player of the Year award at the end of every season he spent at the club, too. I wish him well for the future – I imagine I’m not the only one.