Lewin Nyatanga has not had an ordinary career path. At 30, he’s already been retired from the game for 18 months and openly admits he hasn’t attended a live game since.
Fourteen years ago, he made his senior Derby County debut at 16, and at 17 would become the youngest player at the time to be capped for Wales.
He had the world at his feet, so people thought. Talk was rife of how far this budding young defender could go, but what makes Nyatanga really special is not how far his career went, but how at peace he is with every decision he made during his 12-year senior playing career.
“I never really felt I’d end up at Arsenal or Barcelona” he says. “Did I walk around thinking that? No. I think I knew myself what my level was. I gave it my best and I knew where I was compared to the top players.”
Nyatanga is clearly proud and accepting of what he did achieve during his career, but he’s not circumspect in discussing how football appeared to have worn him down over the years, believing it is a “taboo” to discuss being a footballer in a negative light.
“I’m always very quick to put a massive disclaimer that I knew how fortunate I was,” he says. “If you say anything negative as a player, people don’t like it.
“The money is great and it’s a privilege but it’s not what people think it is. It’s your life, it takes over your life 24/7. You can’t leave work and relax and I know other jobs have that.
“But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. If it was easy then everybody would do it.”
“I think in the fans’ eyes you become non-human,” he adds. “People see you as a footballer and not a person. I think England at the World Cup is a good example because their PR did so well at making the England players connect with the supporters.
“People treated them so differently because they realised they’re actually normal people and not treated just like objects who play on a field and go down the tunnel. People think they just stay in a cardboard box until the next Saturday.”
Perhaps it’s a fair point, but more footballers now have been more open about struggles with mental health, the positive and negative effects football has had on them, whether through the media or their own social media.
Nyatanga, now settled working close to his Northampton home with his family, believes football is treated differently to other jobs.
“If you gave all footballers a truth pill for a week and made them do interviews I think you’d be very surprised,” he muses.
“I remember Assou-Ekotto doing an interview saying he only played football for the money and everyone got mad, I didn’t understand it.
“All my friends who work as professionals in other jobs, they want to climb the ladder and get a better salary, isn’t that what everyone does? Why are footballers different?
“You’re not allowed to say things like that so footballers just go silent. I know a lot of footballers who hate football, I know some who love and some who have a love/hate relationship with it but nobody says it because they’re so scared of the backlash.
“Nobody wants to put their head above the parapet.”
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It’s clear already Nyatanga is not your stereotypical footballer. He’s not just thoughtful about the perception footballers have gained over the years but refreshingly positive about every aspect of his career, even the bad times.
There’s no ‘what could have been’ about him and he’s so at peace with his decisions he admits it actually was a “relief” to leave football and had begun to plan when to walk away while at Bristol City, over four years before he did actually retire at the age of 29.
“I certainly knew when I went to Northampton on loan,” he admits. “That’s why I went there. I’d bought a family home nearby so it was close to where we were.
“I was 90% sure it was my last season and it will sound crazy but from Bristol City it was an exit strategy. That might surprise people but I realised it wasn’t for me.
“You have family aspirations so I had to make sure that was set and secure, so a lot of time went into planning walking away. I wanted to go out positively, give Northampton my best, so I’m quite pleased with how it ended.”
But for Nyatanga the journey started over a decade before his Northampton swansong, 60 miles up the M1 at Derby County, the club he’d grown up supporting.
Signing professional terms at the start of the 2005-06 season when he was just about to turn 17, he’d go on to play in 24 league games in his first season, culminating in his senior Wales debut in March 2006 against Paraguay, though the record of youngest Wales player would only stand for two months, broken by a certain Gareth Bale.
For any young player the attention and adulation could and should have been too much to handle, but Nyatanga doesn’t particularly see it like that.
“When you’re going through it you don’t really think about it too much, do you? You just get on with it. Looking back, probably only now I’ve realised what an achievement it was and at the time perhaps didn’t give myself the credit.
“It’s interesting, because when do you know if you’re ready until you get thrown in and you survive? I don’t think you’ll ever really be ready, you just have to do it, but I played and I stayed in there for a long time so I’d say I was ready.”
Regarding his Wales debut, Nyatanga reflects on the lead-up to his bow against Paraguay to emphasise the progress he’d made so quickly as a youngster.
“Six months before my debut I was playing for Derby Under-18s away at Sheffield United and I didn’t have the best of games. I remember walking off and saying to a team-mate that I was never going to play in the first team, six months later I made my Wales debut.”
But as quickly as things had been going well, Nyatanga’s time as a regular in the Derby defence was at an end and he was loaned out to Sunderland, now under the leadership of Roy Keane, in October 2006.
Sunderland had endured a miserable start to the season and sat bottom of the Championship when Keane took over but would go on to win promotion back to the Premier League.
While many youngsters may have seen being loaned out as a negative, Nyatanga starts to show some of the positivity and optimism that has become such a refreshing feature of his persona.
“By the age of 18/19 I’d had nearly 100 first-team games,” he says. “I’d rather have been playing that sat on the bench or sat in the stand. In that sense it was the same league, just a different team and I was actually playing.”
The side aspect of working with such a fearsome figure as Roy Keane would also potentially make or break a player of Nyatanga’s age, and he admits looking back perhaps he wasn’t ready for the standards Keane brought to Sunderland.
“Working with him was brilliant. He has very high standards but he’s fair. The first two months I was struggling to get up to the pace needed.
“My last game we played Leicester away, it was the only game I played centre-back and I thought I played really well, but it was too little, too late.”
Meanwhile, Derby had joined Sunderland in earning promotion to the Premier League, and it made life even more difficult for players like Nyatanga who were now suddenly on the fringes of the first team.
After spending the second half of the 2006-07 season with Barnsley, Nyatanga returned to Oakwell for a full campaign the season after, playing 41 league games after signing a new contract with the Rams.
Was it wrong place, wrong time? Nyatanga doesn’t think so and is again keen to stress the positives he took from the situation and that there was nobody to blame for him losing his place at Derby.
“I do think people sometimes hold onto things too much. They’ll use it as an excuse for why it didn’t work out. James Meredith is a good example of that because he was with me at Derby, got released, played in the Conference for many years and now he’s back in the Championship at the level he deserves.
“He didn’t give up, he kept going. I think people think it’s 90% luck and 10% work but it’s not really like that.”
While the defender was playing regularly for Barnsley, Derby were enduring the season from hell and Nyatanga was briefly recalled in January after a defensive injury crisis, scoring on his Premier League debut in a 3-1 defeat to Portsmouth.
“It was what it was, you just get on with it. Whatever’s in front of you, just make the best of it. I got loaned out but in my mind I made the best out of that situation. Would I have rather sat in the stands at every Premier League ground? Probably not.
“I came in and scored after three minutes but we lost 3-1, so I walked off the pitch knowing as a defender I had to do better. You can’t work around thinking you’re brilliant because you’re not.
“In a selfish way I was lucky I wasn’t really around that season. It wasn’t nice, players didn’t want to be at training, you were dreading the Saturday.”
“Maybe it sounds harsh but I’ve got so many better things I’d rather do on a Saturday afternoon”
But relegation to the Championship brought renewed hope of forging a career at the club he’d grown up supporting. He played 30 games, plus the first leg of the famous League Cup semi-final win against Manchester United, but at the end of the season he was allowed to leave for Bristol City, the trigger for starting to plan out his “exit strategy”.
“It was definitely the club’s decision. I had Derby bed sheets and wallpaper. I was told I was in their plans and I made personal plans around that and then got sold two days into pre-season. But like I say, it is what it is, you can’t look back and complain.”
Nyatanga says his idol growing up was Chris Powell, but it was Francesco Baiano who made the back of his shirt and Stefano Eranio also gets a mention as a player he admired as a child.
With a refusal to even look at being released at his boyhood club as a negative blot on his career copybook, Nyatanga says his positivity is just an “internal thing”.
“Be proud when you’re successful but then if things don’t go well look at yourself, don’t blame others. People say ‘Oh, I got released by this manager,’ that kind of thing, well be good enough so that they can’t get rid of you.
“I could turn around and say if I was quicker then I’d have played at another level. But I wasn’t, so what do you do to get the best out of what you have? I know I can look back 100% and say I gave it everything and that’s why I can say I’m quite happy with how it went.”
🏆 Lewin Nyatanga – Championship Apprentice of the Year 2006 🏆
Derby County Apprentice
🌟 Wales U21 captain at the age of 16
Retired after close to 400 club career games
🏅 League One promotion & EFL Trophy with Barnsley in 2015-16
— League Football Education (@LFEonline) February 10, 2019
With his football career long gone, he’s now turned his attention to other interests. His new job, his family, including his young daughter – not football.
“The transition is always hard but I planned it, it was my decision. I wanted to leave so it was more like a relief when I finished. My last game was May 1 and I started my new job on July 1 and I still do that now.”
Nyatanga worked in a gym near his family home and has now been promoted to team leader, making sure new staff are trained up to the level required.
“You get up in the morning, go to work, come back to your family, it’s all good,” he lays out simply.
But in among his new interests in life, he admits football is no longer high on the list as he makes a firm break from his past career.
“It’s not that I couldn’t go. If I was invited I’d go. Maybe it sounds harsh but I’ve got so many better things I’d rather do on a Saturday afternoon,” he laughs.
“I want to spend time with my family, I haven’t had Saturdays free since I was about seven. It’s boring, I know what will happen, I’ve seen it a million times so it’s nothing new for me.”
It’s little surprise for someone so positive that his final words lay bare what he feels it was all about, and what it’s still all about, and that possibly more should follow his lead on attitudes towards football and life in general.
“It’s about being happy, giving it your best and if you’ve done that, you can be happy.”
By Rich Laverty