ISL 2017/18: Gregory Nelson's journey from fleeing war-torn Ukraine to being the 'Flying Dutchman' at Chennaiyin FC
Chennaiyin's Dutch winger is enjoying a good first season in the ISL
"Gregory Nelson... la la la... Gregory Nelson... sha la la la la!"
It's been the loud and boisterous chant rendered by the fans of Chennaiyin FC in appreciation of their new winger Gregory Nelson. The club's Twitter handle uses the hashtag #ParakkumNelson (Flying Nelson) while tweeting about him as the Dutchman has given the season two champions some much-needed wings in this current campaign of the Indian Super League.
If you were to glance at the stats, there's nothing that says that he has lit up the league with his performances. He only has one goal and zero assists to show for himself. But what he has done is helped his team in an area where they've struggled in past seasons - wing play.
Speaking to Sportskeeda on a day off, Nelson says he's adjusted fairly well to playing in a new country like India.
"The adjustment has been really easy. I've been welcomed very well," says Nelson.
Prior to signing up with Chennaiyin, Nelson had been with three other clubs in 2017 although when asked about he tells us it was really only the two clubs.
"On paper, it's three teams, but actually it's only been two. I was supposed to go to Kazakhstan. I went there for two weeks. They promised me some things, but they didn't keep their promises. So I didn't play there at all and after that, I went to Bahrain for 6 months."
He seems to have found what he was looking for at Chennaiyin with the whole 'package' as he likes to call it, being attractive, from role to compensation to timing. Countryman and Chennaiyin midfielder from last year, Hans Mulder, seems to have also put in a good word about the league.
"Yeah, Hans is a very good friend of mine and he did help me in coming here. So, yes, he was a big part of it," says the winger who revealed he could have made his way to the ISL even earlier.
"Also in year two and three of the ISL, I was supposed to come to India, some agents were supposed to bring me here, but it didn't work out. Last time they spoke and spoke, but nothing happened and they took someone else."
Nelson has been an ever-present for much of Chennaiyin's season and says he's impressed with the level of football on display in the league.
"It's quite good," he exclaims. "I didn't expect it to be this good. They are eager to learn and eager to get on the field, so it's quite good," he adds talking about some of the young Indian footballers he's playing with.
'Wanted to show I should be starting'
Nelson started the season on the bench as new head coach John Gregory opted to go with other players in Chennaiyin's season opener against FC Goa. But down 0-3 at half-time and needing to find something, he turned to Nelson who came on for the second half. And in those 45 minutes, he showed what he could bring to the pitch with his dribbling and bag of tricks down the flanks as Chennaiyin fought back to score twice, but fell short in the end.
His reward for that showing was a start in the next game against NorthEast United who they beat comfortably and ever since he's been a mainstay in the line-up.
"I came on for the second half and we were 3-0 behind," he says talking about the opening game.
"So you could just go out there and play how you want, it's already 3-0. And the second game, obviously it was starting from 0-0, different mindset. Plus since I was on the bench for the first game, I wanted to show that I should be in the starting eleven."
He certainly has shown that since.
Off the mark
Nelson has combined providing good crosses from out wide with making telling runs into the box. He has found himself in some good goal-scoring positions in games as well. In fact, he could have scored one almost immediately upon his introduction in the opener against Goa.
After much trying though, he did finally get his name on the scoresheet and what's more, it turned out to be the decisive matchwinner in their last home game against FC Pune City.
"It was good to finally score and especially as it was the winning goal and helped us get three points, I'm really happy," reveals Nelson.
Nelson usually starts down the left, but we've often seen him swap positions with whoever is playing on the right wing, be it Francis Fernandes or Thoi Singh.
"Normally, as wingers, we are free to switch," says Nelson. "But yes, I changed to the right and I felt good. Then the coach told me to go back to the left side, but I wasn't getting as many balls as I was on the right. So we decided to change again and finally I scored," he goes on to say about that particular encounter against Pune City.
More importantly, after that match, he was happy his side didn't concede another late goal as they had done in their two previous home games.
"Happy we kept the zero (clean sheet) because that's very important as the last two home games we conceded goals in the last minute. We finally broke the cycle," says Nelson, bringing a smile to his face.
Dutch misery on the international stage and playing amidst tense conditions
Being from the Netherlands, we inevitably broach the subject of his home side's inability to qualify for two of the biggest tournaments in the world in recent years - the Dutch didn't make the 2016 Euros and will not be in Russia this summer for the World Cup - and it's something that he says makes him a touch sad.
"Of course I'm disappointed because I have many friends who've played/play for the national team. I'm not happy to see that," he exclaims. "I think for a long period of time, we had the big players Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, van Persie. They were leading the team. Now as they've gotten older, new players have to step up. And I think they're yet to find that team which can replace them."
One of those players is Jeremain Lens, currently at Swansea City in England's top flight and a Dutch international with 34 caps to his name. Lens and Nelson came up the ranks together at Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. And Nelson narrates an interesting story of when the two of them ended up staying together briefly in 2015.
"Jermaine is a good friend of mine from when we were 4-5 years old. He's one of my best friends. So I went to Ukraine and was in Donetsk. He was at Dynamo Kyiv. At this time, in Donetsk there were some problems, so my team from Donetsk we moved to Kyiv. And everybody could not stay at the hotel in Kyiv, so since he was my good friend I ended up staying with him," says Nelson who was with Metalurh Donetsk at the time.
The problems that Nelson is alluding to is, of course, the tense political situation in Ukraine between 2014-2016 which eventually led to war breaking out with neighbouring Russia. Many people in the Eastern part of Ukraine were displaced as a result including the footballers from prominent teams such as Shakhtar Donetsk. Metalurh Donetsk eventually went bankrupt as a result of the turmoil.
Footballers' lives are often assumed to be filled with luxury and comfortable living, but this was a reminder of the grim reality that they operate within the same confines as the people belonging to that region.
"I think it was more difficult for the people there and the people in the country for than me. It was scary and strange sometimes, but it didn't really have a big effect on me," Nelson recalls about the atmosphere back in Ukraine.
A fan favourite
Back to Chennaiyin where he's become a fan favourite, I actually ask him about the chants that the fans have been belting out and he actually gives a sheepish grin saying sometimes he's confused who they're calling out.
"It's actually difficult because they're singing 'Gregory’ and the coach's name is also Gregory. They say my last name 'Nelson’, we have Mailson too (in their team). So it's kind of confusing," he chuckles.
Nelson exudes a very laid-back and relaxed demeanour in our conversation and I was curious if that's how he usually is. He replies in the affirmative, saying that even before games chances are you will find him the same way in the locker room.
"I'm very relaxed; like to listen to some music and joke around with the players. Play with the ball a bit. Just relax and have fun," he says talking about his approach before the start of a game.
As with most players, winning the title is on his mind: "Target number one would obviously be to win the league. I just want to help the team achieve this."
But he also underlines that ultimately it's about being a significant contributor: "I want to be important in every game, whether it assists, whether its goals, or just give somebody a pass and he gets an assist. Just want to be important."
He has certainly become important to this Chennaiyin team who currently sit an impressive second in the table. If you ever tune in to a Chennaiyin game, you will see how Nelson is a key channel for Chennaiyin's attacks, stemming from a very simple philosophy that the coach has entrusted the team with.
"When Nelson's on the wing and he's one-on-one, give him the ball and just get into the box because there's going to be a chance."
And Chennaiyin are indeed very much in with a chance this season to win it all with Nelson on the wings.