BY KEVIN O’NEILL
Outrunning Kolo Toure at the peak of his physical powers was never an easy task.
The Ivorian – when in commanding form at the centre of the Arsenal defence – was something of a man-mountain; a formidable juxtaposition of brute strength and fleet-footedness that enabled the Gunners centre-back to stand tall against the best strikers in the Premier League for more than half a decade.
Even having left Arsenal in 2009, he would remain a solid force in the Manchester City rearguard, adding two major honours (including the 2011/12 Premier League title) to the three gained at Arsenal (one Premier League and two FA Cups), where he was also a Champions League runner-up.
Indeed, the Toure of then is not the Toure of now, as a still greatly determined yet more cumbersome version has emerged in the past few years.
But for many years, since making his Arsenal debut (2002), it was rare that Toure got beaten in a straight foot-race. Nonetheless, that is precisely what happened when the Gunners made the journey to Bramall Lane to play against relegation candidates Sheffield United in late December, 2006.
The Blades had been given little chance of matching a highly talented Arsenal side that, despite having injuries to contend with, still included Tomas Rosicky, Gilberto Silva, Robin van Persie and second half substitute, Cesc Fabregas. Add to that the fact Sheffield United had won only five games that season, and it seemed highly probable the Londoners would leave the Steel City with three points.
The Gunners, as expected, made most of the early running and the United ‘keeper, Paddy Kenny, made a terrific save to deny Rosicky. Julio Baptista and Gilberto Silva also squandered really good chances to give the visitors a lead on a cut-up, bumpy pitch hosting its second game in five days – conditions hardly conducive to Arsenal’s much-heralded, easy-on-the-eye passing policy.
But it was in the 41st minute that the normally dependable Toure was led a merry dance by a previously unknown French striker called Christian Nade, who Blades manager Neil Warnock had picked up on a free transfer after the powerful frontman parted with his first professional club, Troyes.
The level of danger appeared minimal when United’s Irish midfielder Alan Quinn played a pass into Nade’s feet. Toure happened to gamble slightly, trying to nip-in ahead of Nade, but the former Le Havre loanee cleverly dummied the ball and had the speed to be in the right place when it drifted past Toure.
Still, Nade – very much the raw, new guy in town – had lots more work to do to score.
Tussling to reach the ball ahead of Toure, he was still a good distance from goal, about 25 yards out.
But Nade wouldn’t be fazed. He tore ahead of his marker, bore down on goal and then, he had the poise to slip the ball nonchalantly past the onrushing ‘keeper, Jens Lehmann, giving United an unlikely lead.
There would be further drama later in the game when United goalie Kenny had to leave the field injured – and his side had already used all three substitutes. So, defender Phil Jagielka donned the gloves for the closing stages and his late, spectacular save to deny van Persie would capture many of the after-match headlines. But it was Nade’s winning goal, scored by a virtual football nobody, that lives longer in the memory for many onlookers.
After all, Nade had been a complete novice at that level, arriving in England with only eight professional goals to his name in French football (from 68 appearances).
Even the player himself – who has since become a journeyman player who operates in Scotland’s third tier – admitted to The Football Pink that he had not really been ready, back then, to play in the Premier League (he was 22-years-old).
“I don’t think it was possible to be ready at that age, especially because I was in a new country and couldn’t speak the language. But I didn’t feel any pressure before the game, not at all, because nobody expected us to get any sort of result. So, my attitude was to play like it would be my last ever football match – and it worked.”
For sure, a care-free approach would serve Nade well in that particular game – he netted another ‘goal’ but it was chalked off for offside.
“That game was one of my best ever. We surprised everyone by winning and, most of all, maybe surprised ourselves,” he recalled.
While Nade’s name was chanted around Bramall Lane that night, his golden moment against the famous Arsenal would be as good as it would get for him in English football. From there, Nade would experience very few moments to cherish in the Blades shirt. And in previous interviews, Nade has admitted to finding it difficult to cope with getting paid so much money as a Premier League player.
His wages back then had sky-rocketed to £15,000 a week, and Nade would regularly spend up to £1,000 a day on expensive cars, clothes and even people he had barely known.
He would score only two other goals for Sheffield United, in just over 20 appearances, before falling out with Warnock’s successor Bryan Robson, who agreed to let Nade leave the club. By then, the wonderful goal against Arsenal was very much a thing of the past. A distant, fond memory to dine-out on for some time, for sure. But not enough to ensure that Nade would enjoy a long and lucrative career in the world’s most exciting league. Finding himself pushed aside by Robson, Nade was very keen to move on and try his luck elsewhere.
But when a proposed move to Hull City broke down, Nade would find that his future lay in a country (Scotland) that would, in the long-term, play a much larger part in his life than he ever imagined. He joined Heart of Midlothian – but the transfer, he said, was only meant to be a short-term solution to his problems at Sheffield United. The plan, he explained, was to get some valuable game-time at Tynecastle, maybe for six months, to return to the type of sharpness shown in his early days in Sheffield.
“Neil Warnock, who took me to England, advised me to go to Hearts – and said he would sign me in six months for Crystal Palace.”
But football can be a messy business at times, and despite Warnock and Palace trying to sign Nade on several occasions, Hearts would not play ball and refused to sell. Nade, quickly losing confidence and fitness at this uncertain juncture in his career, would end up spending three poor seasons in Edinburgh, scoring only eight times in 83 appearances. There, his mood blackened, turning from one of brashness and pizazz, in Sheffield, to one of despondency and, at times, self-loathing in the Scottish capital.
By his own admission, Nade had lost interest in keeping himself in peak physical condition, leading to injuries, a loss of form and weight gain. While he never sampled alcohol or many of the other trappings that can derail a footballer’s career, he has admitted to being unprofessional (at times) in his Hearts career; sometimes turning up for training having had no sleep after staying up all night in the casino, in Edinburgh or back in Paris, or with women.
A reported dressing-room altercation with the Hearts skipper Ian Black also did little to help his cause.
“I think if I stayed in England I would’ve remained more focused on football,” he said.
“I would’ve been more professional because, in England, you know you have to fight hard to be in every match-day squad. It was a difficult decision to go to Scotland, where I had to start from scratch again. For me to perform to the best of my ability, I always needed strong and healthy competition for places. For example, we had eight strikers at Sheffield United, so I had to be better and fitter than seven other players, or at least six others, to get in the team. I never had this competition as a motivating factor at Hearts and by the time I finished there, my career had definitely lost its way.”
Nade would keep going but always, it seemed, to the wrong places, as disastrous spells in Cyprus, Thailand and Vietnam – and trials in South Africa that amounted to nothing – preceded a rebirth of sorts, as a player, back on Scottish soil.
After a move to lowly East Fife failed to materialise, Nade would agree to join Scottish second tier side Dundee, who were vying for promotion to the top-flight in the 2013/14 campaign. Once there, a rejuvenated Nade would, to an extent, rediscover his football mojo.
“When I got back to Scotland everything had to change.
“Physically and mentally, I needed to improve, so I changed my diet and returned to my gym work. I had the inner drive to do it and it turned out that Dundee was an unbelievable experience, for me,” he added.
Although Nade – then 31-years-old – only found the back of the net three times in 16 games, he would find peace of mind at Dens Park; getting as fit as ever before and scoring the opening goal in Dundee’s final game of the season win against Dumbarton that sealed the Scottish Championship for the Dark Blues.
Nade, by his own admission, had finally felt comfortable in his surroundings, for the first time really, since leaving Sheffield.
Scotland, he said, had simply grown on him. And the more time he spent there, his confidence and sense of self-worth returned. There was a close bond in Paul Hartley’s team, he said, and all the players still stay in-touch through a social media chat group. This sort of camaraderie among team-mates had been something Nade yearned for since his early years as a professional. But like most other things in Nade’s rollercoaster career, it wouldn’t last too long.
“I really loved every day spent with Dundee, and their fans. Most of all though, I enjoyed playing with my team-mates and it was a great feeling to win the league.”
Despite making a great impression with the Dundee fans, Nade was soon released by the club.
However, leaving Scotland at that stage in his life was not an option for Nade, as he had become fully ensconced in Scottish life. And so, he agreed to sign for Raith Rovers, where he would manage seven goals in 33 games – including the winning goal as Raith recorded a first away victory against Rangers since 1959.
And in the summer of 2015, Nade’s hard work in the Championship, over two seasons, would be rewarded with a move back to the top-flight with Hamilton Academical. On signing for the Accies’, Nade had made it clear that his ambition was to remain in Scotland’s top division for the foreseeable future.
But despite knocking himself in to great shape in the pre-season, Nade was unable to establish himself as a first-team regular at New Douglas Park. He did manage three goals and two assists in his short time there – but only started in four matches by Christmas.
So, when the chance to sign for Dumbarton (in the Championship) would arise, Nade decided that it was the right move for his career, as sitting on the bench, not playing too often, had never been his strong point.
“I was sad to leave Hamilton because I knew I could’ve achieved a lot more there, but I didn’t get enough time on the pitch. However, I wouldn’t say a bad word about Hamilton. I enjoyed the club and the people there, and always appreciated that the manager (Martin Canning) was always honest with me,” said Nade.
Despite being the first ever winners of the Scottish League in the late 19th century, Dumbarton have not competed in Scotland’s top division since 1985. They had also been struggling near the foot of the Championship for most of the 2015/16 season. Yet, moving there would be a perfect choice by Nade, who would score seven crucial goals to help the club avoid relegation – including a first career hat-trick against Alloa Athletic and a vital score in a 3-2 win against Hibernian.
The latter goal was particularly sweet, as Nade remembered well the verbal bashing thrown his way by the Hibs fans during his ill-fated spell with cross-city rivals, Hearts. One might have felt, at that point, that Nade had finally found a place to lay his well-journeyed hat. A place to settle in. And, perhaps, a place where he could become a real local hero.
But a new contract at Dumbarton couldn’t be agreed in the summer of 2016, and after speculation linking Nade with the Northern Irish club Linfield, his next port of call would be in Scotland’s south-west where he joined up with Stranraer (in the third tier) for the 2016/17 season.
Fitness problems, however, have hampered Nade’s impact in the early part of the current season, but he remains confident (at the time of interview) of producing the goods at Stair Park once the bothersome injuries subside – all in a country which he now fondly calls home.
“I am very frustrated at the moment because I want to help the team like I should,” he told The Football Pink in early September.
“But I know I will enjoy my football once the injuries stop. As for Scotland, I don’t really know how to explain why it feels like home. The people here are always smiling, always happy, so I too am very happy to be here.”
With the enthusiastic way that Nade speaks about Scotland, it seems difficult to ever see him plying his trade elsewhere. He seems comfortable in his current environment and happy to still be playing the game he loves.
Okay, the man he outmuscled and out-ran all those years ago at a packed Bramall Lane might now be operating two levels above him (Kolo Toure joined Scottish champions Celtic this season), but that sort of comparison does not faze Nade who merely wants to continue his Scottish adventure for as long as possible. And who knows, perhaps by the end of the season, Stranraer – the third oldest club in Scotland – will have reason to be grateful for the roundabout manner in which Nade ultimately made his way to a town probably more known for a thriving port than its football team.