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FOOTBALL: Nelsen has no regrets over choosing football.

Byline: MARTYN ZIEGLER

BLACKBURN'S bid to thwart Everton a place in next year's Champions League will be aided on Sunday by the arrival of new defensive sensation Ryan Nelson.

Nelsen turned his back on prospects of playing international cricket with New Zealand to pursue his football career.

Nelsen, a brilliant batsman as a schoolboy, was invited to join the New Zealand youth cricket set-up but chose football instead and now captains his country's soccer team - known as the All Whites.

The 27-year-old has had an astonishing impact in the Premiership since signing on a free transfer from DC United in January - he was named as Blackburn captain for the Lancashire derby against Burnley on Tuesday in place of the suspended Andy Todd after playing just six times for Rovers.

Life could have turned out so differently for Nelsen, who was rated at least the equal of his school contemporary Craig McMillan - now a Black Caps regular - when they were at St Thomas of Canterbury College.

Nelsen's late grandfather had been head of the New Zealand FA, however - and there were other several ex-football internationals in his family, and he made a life-changing choice.

'They thought I was mad when I chose soccer over cricket. Their reaction was 'what's the future in soccer?',' said Nelsen.

He won a soccer scholarship to the USA where he excelled academically too, emerging with a degree in political science from Stanford University.

Four years with DC United and the captaincy of the New Zealand side, followed before Blackburn manager Mark Hughes swooped in the transfer window, and Nelsen has settled in to the club as though he has lived in Lancashire all his life.

He said: 'I absolutely love it here. I love the area. The club has a family atmosphere; everybody has been fantastic.

'From the first day I got here I felt happy with the management, the players, the facilities - it's truly awesome.

'It was a surprise to get the armband on Tuesday - but it was a fantastic honour with a lot of other experienced players around. The game itself wasn't pretty sometimes. But the main thing was to get the win and Morten Pedersen hit an absolute blinder to win the game.

'I had a couple of chances to score myself with headers and I thought both of them were in actually. The goalkeeper made an instinctive save.

'The second one I headed it down too hard as it bounced over the bar.'

Nelsen knows all about the importance of the FA Cup and reckons Blackburn have a great opportunity to progress to at least the semi-finals. He added: 'I think we've got the players to make any game competitive.'

Hughes, meanwhile, just thanks his lucky stars that Nelsen dropped into his lap.

The Blackburn manager said: 'I just cannot understand why he was not picked up before. He has been fantastic; he came on a free transfer, and it has been a great bit of business.

'He's a huge talent - a strong man both on and off the field. He has presence, and I gave him the captaincy because I thought his performances merited it

CAPTION(S):

Blackburn's Ryan Nelson in action against Burnley's Ian Moore during the fifth round of the FA Cup
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 4, 2005
Words:543
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