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“It was unbelievable – going from a really disappointing and unexpected start, to ending the way I would have wanted it to end if I’d planned it myself. To score the goal that got the club promoted… you couldn’t really have written the script any better.”
Michael Nelson speaks quietly and calmly, but there’s a hint of excitement in his voice as he recalls one of the highlights of a long and nomadic playing career. It’s a journey that has taken him to 13 clubs and seen the defender make more than 600 EFL and Scottish Premier League appearances, but one game on 17 April 2010 is particularly memorable.
A decade has passed since Nelson, now 37, etched his name into the history of Norwich City with the header that secured promotion to the Championship. It’s a moment that defined the veteran centre-back’s time with the Canaries, and unsurprisingly a match he remembers with great clarity.
“Simon Lappin had a corner on our right, he swung it in with his left foot and I just managed to ghost in towards the back post unmarked. I didn’t really have to do a great deal with it – just get my head on it and hit the target,” he says, describing the 34th-minute strike.
“Then it was just a case of going on and doing what we needed to do to win the game. That was largely helped by big Fraser Forster in goal, who was unbelievable on the day.”
That header and a string of fine saves from Forster secured an instant return to the second tier for Norwich following their relegation in 2009, and marked a staggering turnaround for a club that was in relative turmoil at the beginning of the campaign.
The optimism of pre-season was swiftly replaced by panic in Norfolk that summer as the Canaries lost their opening League One match 7-1 at home to Colchester United – the worst result in Norwich City’s history, and one which cost manager Bryan Gunn his job.
“Everything just seemed to go past us and go by us. Personally and as a group we just didn’t deal with the whole situation and Colchester as a team, in the way we wanted to or how we did in pre-season games,” Nelson explains.
“It was one of those matches where you got into the changing room at the end of the game and thought ‘how has that happened?’ It was a bit of a whirlwind, and nothing I did throughout the 90 minutes seemed to have an effect, to change my performance or the performance of the team.
“It was quite heated at half-time (when Norwich were 5-0 down). There was plenty said in the changing room; everything that you would expect from a team-talk at that scoreline, that’s what we got! We were told in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t good enough.
“We couldn’t get close to them, couldn’t lay a glove on them, and it was a real day to forget.”
Gunn appointing Paul Lambert as manager – the very man who had masterminded that 7-1 result while in charge of Colchester United.
“He just had something about him from the minute he walked in the door on the very first day,” Nelson says, recalling Lambert’s arrival.
“We had a meeting and when he walked in the door it was almost like a classroom of schoolchildren, everyone just went quiet and sat up straight! From then on that was it, as soon as he entered a room or came onto the training pitch you knew it was time to work and time to listen, no messing around.
“Him and (assistant manager) Ian Culverhouse formed a really good partnership. Cully would do a lot of the drills and take a lot of the training, with the gaffer watching on at times. But whenever the gaffer spoke up and didn’t think the tempo of training was right, he stepped in and the tempo lifted tenfold.”
Results steadily improved under Lambert and Norwich were flying by mid-season, racking up 12 wins and two draws in three unbeaten months from November through to January. They eventually topped the table four games into 2010 with a 1-0 victory over Brentford, as the promotion bandwagon started to gather pace in East Anglia.
“There were some great games throughout the season where we got some big wins that were a bit of a statement. The Leeds game at home (a 1-0 victory in late March) was one of those,” Nelson remembers.
“But we just started to go into every game thinking that we were going to win, and I think we had the majority of teams beaten before we had even kicked a ball. We were that dangerous – Chris Martin, Grant Holt and Wes Hoolahan as a front three were pretty much unstoppable.
“We just had massive belief in the squad. Even if we had to make changes and one of those three had to come out, the lads that came in nearly always did the business.”
That relentlessness maintained Norwich’s position at the League One summit as the campaign wore on. Lambert’s side went into their promotion-winning match against Charlton Athletic with a seven-point lead over third-placed Millwall and three games of the season remaining.
“I think we all knew it was going to be a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’. Nobody really spoke about it in those terms, but I think that privately each person knew that we were too good individually and as a group not to get over the line,” Nelson admits.
“We just wanted to do it as soon as we could, and obviously there was a little bit of redemption in doing it at The Valley (where Norwich were relegated the previous season). It was always going to be a tough game, they were chasing promotion – more the play-offs than automatic – so to actually get it done there was really good.
“The build-up to that match was the same as always. We prepared the exact same way all week and the manager gave his usual team talk. He was very direct, very to the point, and gave us the same instructions, which were basically ‘go out and win’.
“He’d leave the finer details to Cully to get across to us, then he would touch on other stuff as the game went on and at half-time. But in terms of the build-up, there was no thinking that we had to change things because this was a chance to get promoted. We just carried on doing what had served us well all season.”
It was an approach that yielded dividends, as Norwich erased memories of that heavy opening day defeat thanks to Nelson’s match-winning moment in South London.
“That goal has got to be up there with the most important goals I’ve scored in my career,” he reveals.
“The fact that it turned that season from how it started into how it ended… getting all kinds of abuse and being written off by people, and then taking it on the chin, going through the season and managing to score that goal to come out the other end. To completely turn things around was a brilliant feeling.
“It was an unbelievable season. For everyone involved, including the fans, to get Norwich back up was brilliant.”