WORDS BY JASON JONES | @JWJONES57
Some callings in life are meant for the serious. Undertakers, for example, wear black for a reason. Investment bankers rarely moonlight as clowns. Commercial airline pilots spend their days hurtling around the troposphere in giant mechanical birds that have no logical right to even get off the ground, with hundreds of lives in the palms of their steady hands. There are some careers where tossing it off just isn't an option.
Somewhere on this list, far beneath brain surgeons and probably just above cabinet ministers, is the role of the professional centre-back. The last line before the last line, the lower vertebrae of the spine of a team; the heart of defence is about as serious as it gets once you step over that white line.
There is a conventional image of the central defender that, in a culture shaped by nostalgia and hipsterism, has become lionised far beyond the justifications of its merit. The no-nonsense centre-half, the man’s man, the psycho’s psycho. Blood-soaked bandages wrapped amateurishly around a concrete skull, bellowing mouth pitched wide open in constant fury, limbs snapping and bodies colliding as unfortunate wingers are swatted brutishly into advertising hoardings like the unfortunate rag dolls of petulant children. Captain, leader, warmonger, executioner. The bread-and-butter, short back and sides, steel toe-capped cornerstone of any great side. Think Charlton, Adams, Butcher.
This article isn't really about that sort of centre-half though. This article is about Nyron Nosworthy, and Nyron Nosworthy, bless him, loved a bit of nonsense.
Don’t be mistaken, ‘Nuggsy’ — a paternal pet name that stuck, referring to the shape of his head — was a physical presence, a ‘unit’ to quote the common parlance; less a man and more an inanimate lump made human by the misguided muttering of a fairytale incantation. A breezeblock Pinocchio. Long before vapid meme culture made a star of Adebayo Akinfenwa and his beastly physique, Nosworthy made up one third of an unholy triumvirate of big-lads-who-weren’t-actually-that-good, alongside George Elokobi and Danny Shittu.
But beneath that granite exterior beat a heart with the creative yearnings of a Brazilian winger, a soul longing to soar free with the fluidity and mischievousness of Rivaldo, anchored instead by legs that looked as if they were held together by rivets.
Not that it stopped Nyron from trying. An ill-informed Cruyff turn here, a moment of outlandish cognitive dysfunction there, Nyron’s playing style often resembled an avant-garde modern art installation, and his own 18-yard box was usually his precarious exhibition space. For the most part, the big man moved like a cross between Bambi and Dumbo, such was the irreverence of his motion.
Nosworthy started his professional career in earnest at Gillingham in November 1998, coming on as a first-half substitute against Fulham, only to be taken off again a little while later. In fairness to the Brixton-born defender, his time in Kent did get a whole lot better, and from the turn of the millennium, up until his departure in 2005, Nyron was a stalwart of the Gills’ backline.
He was even allowed to indulge the blossoming fancies of his artisanal inclinations every once in a while, although these pleasing rarities only ever happened in times of severe injury crisis, and with the sole intention of chucking a 14-stone cat among the pigeons.
Not that Nyron cared. In one surreal end of season encounter with Crystal Palace, he even managed to bag an ungodly brace. Both goals are peak Nosworthy; the unerring straight line momentum of a Nokia snake, ball maniacally bobbling just a half-yard away from complete control, brow furrowed in anguished concentration. A wise man was once misattributed the saying: ‘if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ Nyron Nosworthy running at a backline was more akin to a fish climbing Everest.
Back in the comfortable ponds of his defensive third, however, Nyron was attracting knowing glances from a long list of suitors. Upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the 2004/05 season, Nosworthy left Gillingham as a free agent, signing for Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland.
The Black Cats pride themselves on a long and rich tradition of providing refuge and shelter for disaster-prone centre-halves. The likes of china-shopping bull impersonator Titus Bramble, own goal screamer specialist Santiago Vergini and the ghost of Wes Brown have all donned the red and white stripes, and, on the face of it, there's very little to discern Nyron Nosworthy from this illustrious company. The man, to be frank, wasn’t very good at football and had a tendency to fall over for no apparent reason.
And yet, to this day, he is still idolised on Wearside. The Mackem faithful, to the tune of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’, still deafen home crowds up and down the country with tongue-in-cheek renditions of how: “They tried to get the ball past Nyron but he said ‘no, no, no!’”
Fan forums are still filled with threads on his abortive attempts at acrobatic clearances or ambitious back passes that resulted in corners. Downright mad rumours persist about him on the terraces, near-mythological anecdotes that are closer in tone to those jokingly spouted about Chuck Norris than anything you’d expect from a pretty average second tier centre-back. Nyron nutmegged Ronaldo. Nyron was once possessed by a demon. Nyron once killed a snake with his bare hands out of boredom. The man is a living legend.
Admittedly, Nosworthy’s Sunderland career got off to a shaky start. The defender’s first season at the Stadium of Light saw the club relegated to the Championship with a paltry total of 15 points, and his personal performances left a lot to be desired. Black Cats favourite Julio Arca once claimed Nyron was the worst footballer he had ever played with, citing in particular his proclivity for passing the ball with his ankles.
It’s easy to forget but, up until the arrival of therapist’s nightmare Roy Keane, in 2007, Nyron was predominantly a right-back, albeit one expressing a unique interpretation of the role. It was only after the Irishman — never one to turn his nose up at the bleeding obvious — figured that a switch inside would mean less movement for Nyron, and therefore less opportunity to fall foul of gravity’s wicked grip, that Nuggsy’s time on Wearside began to take on a romantic complexion.
Partnered with Manchester United loanee Jonny Evans, Nyron enjoyed a rebirth comparable to that of Bobby Ewing in Dallas, as Roy’s band of lovable misfits romped their way to the Championship title. In a team including the likes of Dwight Yorke, David Connolly, Ross Wallace, Carlos Edwards and Dean Whitehead, Nosworthy was voted Player of the Season. Ask any given Mackem and they’ll confirm that this, as well as an acknowledgement of his notable contributions, was in no small part down to the shock of seeing the hulking defender come good.
Nyron’s achievement shouldn't be understated. For a man with his sense of balance, running on grass is as problematic as running on water is for the rest of us. And yet not only did he manage to stay upright for the majority of a gruelling Championship slog, he was exceptional in doing so.
In truth, Nosworthy would never reach the heights of his annus mirabilis again. The Premier League always felt like one misadventure too far for the Jamaican international, and he struggled to establish any sort of consistency upon the Black Cats’ return to the top flight.
Like many cult heroes, however, it was always the defender’s irrepressible charisma that dwarfed his patchy footballing exploits. Sunderland fans have seen a lot of crap over the years. They are well-versed in mercenaries and donkeys, painfully accustomed to has-beens and hollow promises. Despite this, football is still a way of life on Wearside and, to their credit, the fans don’t ask for much from their idols. Passion, effort and loyalty: these are the only prerequisites for adoration. Like doting parents, they can forgive most things as long as you try your best, and in Nyron Nosworthy they found a flawed hero who did nothing but try.
The man was not afraid of hard, honest graft. As a 16-year-old, still waiting on a professional contract, Nyron would cycle from Brixton to the City in the gloomy hours before dawn to clean office blocks. He possesses a relatable quality uncommon in the increasingly isolated world of the hyper-rich footballing elite. He’d often get chased by the police on the way to his cleaning job for not having lights on his bike.
He is self-effacing but, more importantly, self-aware. Nosworthy himself refers to putting a shot into the upper reaches of a watching terrace as “doing a Nyron” and has, on several occasions, jokingly laid the blame for his issues with standing at the doorstep of a non-existent “Black Cat Ghost.” When all is said and done, Nuggsy was one of the good guys, a proper laugh, and guaranteed to leave every ounce of his gusto out on the pitch every Saturday afternoon. As a fan, what more can you ask for in a hero?
Nosworthy would leave Sunderland in 2012 having fallen out of favour with the powers that be: gone but never forgotten. One moment in particular stands out in the collective memory of the Mackem faithful, an iconic piece of pure Nyron.
6 May 2007: Sunderland had just clinched the Championship title and a return to Premier League football with a thumping 5-0 away victory over Luton Town. The sun is streaming down on Kenilworth Road in a heady promise of the summer months to come and a raucous army of travelling Black Cats are turning their lungs inside out as they salute their new Player of the Season with a chant that will stay with them long after he has departed. There, stood bare-chested in front of them, gap-toothed grin plastered from ear to ear, singing along to every single word and dancing as if his hips are made of Jell-O, is Nyron Nosworthy: the gentle giant with feet of lead and a heart of gold.