It is the exception rather than the rule for professional
athletes to juggle the transition from player to coach, as
Ryan Nelsen has with the recent announcement that he will be
the head coach of Toronto FC, in America's Major League
Soccer, while still contracted to Queen's Park Rangers as a
He has transferred the football from his playing foot to his
managerial foot so swiftly everyone was caught off guard,
including New Zealand Football, which only heard of his
decision through the media.
All athletes entering the twilight years of their playing
career start to think about the future, and Nelsen was no
At 35, Nelsen knew his playing days were numbered. With the
World Cup just around the corner, though, Ricki Herbert and
the All Whites were banking on Mr Dependable sticking around
to qualify for the tournament and defend their ''unbeaten''
Nelsen had other ideas. It seems he was destined to be a
coach and has been thinking about coaching since he was 21.
As a rookie, he may lack the art and science of coaching, but
those who know him well wax lyrical about his leadership,
management and communication skills - key for any coach in
He has also had an impressive apprenticeship as captain of
the All Whites, Blackburn Rovers, QPR and DC United, and was
touted as being the most influential individual in the World
Cup campaign for the All Whites.
Let's face it, the All Whites needed Nelsen more than Nelsen
needed them, something reinforced by the fact that Ricki
Herbert and New Zealand Football were left completely out of
the loop with regards to negotiations between QPR and Toronto
If QPR does not release Nelsen from his contract, however, he
will miss a huge chunk of the MLS season. Luckily, Nelsen's
assistant, Fran O'Leary, has more than 20 years coaching
experience in the US college system and has a pro coaching
How must O'Leary feel, having coached for so many years only
to be beaten by a rookie coach for the top job?It is a trend
that is happening more and more in rugby circles as well,
where professional players are getting paid coaching roles
before those who have completed NZRU and IRB qualifications
in coaching, or come through the ranks of amateur coaching.
In rugby, however, there has been a less drastic transition,
with most players taking the player-coach route first before
deciding to become fully-fledged coaches.
Tana Umaga, Francois Pienaar and Carlos Spencer are examples
of rugby players who made the changeover from muddy boots to
polished black shoes in this manner, and not always
As a defender, Nelsen will make a solid coach, and if his
people skills are as good as claimed, he will be a great
figurehead, ambassador, motivator, and tactician for the
Toronto FC side.
What he lacks in coaching experience will be countered by
having the more experienced O'Leary by his side (and
protecting his back, perhaps?), and he will have the respect
of the players, having been one of them only moments ago
(something referred to as prototypicality in leadership
A word of caution, though: not all great players make great
coaches, and it will surely take Nelsen a few seasons to find
his rhythm as he dons a suit and practices his gesturing and
proclamations from the sideline rather than the field. Umaga
took a few years to grow into his coaching shoes, and Spencer
eventually ditched his coaching aspirations for mining (and a
bit of charity boxing on the side).
Anyone can be a coach for one season, but it takes a special
kind of person to be a great coach, and only a few such as
Alex Ferguson, Lois Muir, Wayne Bennett, John Wooden, Vince
Lombardi and Graham Henry can claim legendary coach status.
If Nelsen's first season as an MLS coach/manager goes well,
surely New Zealand Football or the new owners of the Phoenix
will be looking at him as a potential coach for the future.
Nelsen's decision to retire as a player may be a huge loss
for New Zealand in the next few years, but a potentially good
one if he can harness his leadership skills and football
knowledge to become one of the few legends in coaching.