There’s a crackle in Stuart Nelson’s voice.
With increased time to reflect during these unprecedented times, there’s no doubt emotions can run at a higher level than usual. And a rare discussion about the goalkeeper’s time at Griffin Park brings treasured memories right back to the fore.
“I’ve done a few interviews with Gillingham since we’ve been locked down but that’s very ‘here and now’ for me,” he tells brentfordfc.com from his Chelmsford home, almost 13 years since his departure from TW8.
“It’s nice to finally talk about Brentford because, actually, when I look back it’s got everything. It makes me really emotional because it was such a good time in my life and I’d forgotten some things.”
Having undertaken a work experience placement at the Club in the late 1990s and later been on trial as a teenager, it was third time lucky when Wally Downes paid non-league Hucknall Town £10,000 for his services in February 2004.
With Downes’ side on a slide towards danger and fellow stopper Paul Smith having signed for Southampton less than a week earlier, the circumstances upon his arrival were certainly not favourable, particularly for a player without a single Football League appearance to his name. But after a month of bedding-in time – during which time Alan Julian shipped 11 goals in four Division Two games – Stuart was handed his debut away at Brighton and Hove Albion.
A Richard Carpenter goal shortly after half-time had put the promotion-chasing Seagulls on the front foot at the Withdean Stadium, but three minutes before the final whistle, a moment indelibly marked in the 38-year-old’s memory.
He recalled: “A ball got played over the top, it bounced straight up and their striker ran onto it. We were probably due to meet head on but it pitched up. I don’t know why I did it, but I thought I had some sort of NBA spring legs and I could jump over him and head it away. But I jumped up and literally speared him! We landed on top of the ball, so I remember getting up with it in my hands and saying: 'Ref, I got the ball!' but he sent me off.
“I walked off and our fans gave me a proper standing ovation! I’d done alright in that game but it was my Football League debut and that was my life’s ambition. To do that, but for it to finish that way just makes the story. I don’t regret it.”
The subsequent ban didn’t come into immediate effect, but change was afoot by the time he regained his spot a month later. That change was accelerated by the appointment of Martin Allen, the former West Ham midfield enforcer, who would oversee the famed Great Escape that saw The Bees pick up 18 points from his first nine games and seal survival with a narrow 1-0 final day victory at home to AFC Bournemouth.
“I go back the week before and remember Grimsby Town away, who were also fighting for their lives,” Stuart continued. “It was such a great game to play in. It was a six-pointer and whoever won it stayed up, basically. I remember walking in that day, how Martin used to lead us in. He used to say: 'Shoulders back, head up.' Then we lost the game and it felt like we’d blown it.
“But to then go and win the game in front of our fans. This was my first professional season and the fans were running onto the pitch; I was really close with Alex Rhodes at the time and we were literally next to each other being carried off. It was like winning the league.”
Having fulfilled his initial brief with gusto, Allen assembled a new squad on a shoestring budget, calling largely on seasoned professionals to minimise the risk of having to undertake another recovery operation the year after.
With just one year’s senior management experience under his belt by this point, the on-field Mad Dog persona from his playing days was all the wider footballing community had to go on. But his new subjects soon found out the inner workings of Martin Allen the manager.
“I thought it was fantastic because it was just so different,” he said. “He’s a proper man-manager but in a different sort of way to the orthodox man-managers. He lifted the pressure off players by taking it on himself by doing some weird stuff or taking your mind off situations by doing weird things.
“He used to do what he called his 'old school’ circuit. He went into the dressing room, closed all the doors and windows, turned all the showers on red hot and you couldn’t see each other for steam. All the lads were in there working: doing presses with dumbbells, doing dips off the benches, star jumps. There was no room to move. Then the session would finish, he’d open the door and we could breathe. There was nothing scientific behind this stuff, it was just getting everyone together.
“But there’s always a method to his madness, it was never just off the cuff. I think he’s a very clever, astute manager and person. After he famously swam in the river at Hartlepool, signs went up in the dressing room that if you said you were going to do something, you’d do it and that was what came from it.”
However unconventional his schemes were, few could argue against the success they played a part in producing.
By the end of the 2004/05 season – Allen’s first full campaign in charge - Brentford’s fortunes had improved tenfold and they found themselves in the League One Play-Offs after a fourth-place finish. They went one better and finished third the year after, missing out on automatic promotion by just three points.
Defeat at the semi-final stage twice in succession was, nonetheless, the bitterest of pills to swallow.
“Back when I was at Doncaster Rovers in the Conference, I wasn’t playing but we were smashing people left, right and centre,” said Stuart. “But in that team, I didn’t feel we were smashing teams, we were just grinding out results. We’d done so much hard work on the training pitch.
“We’d do set-pieces every Friday morning with those big manager jackets on. We wouldn’t warm up, we’d just do those to start with. Then he’d get us to take our jackets off and training would start because he wouldn’t want us to get warm then get cold walking through set-pieces. It was boring but he used to say something like 50 per cent of goals in the league were scored from set-pieces, so if we scored at one end and stopped them going in at the other end, we’d always have a chance.
“Losing to Sheffield Wednesday [in 2004/05] was very tough because we’d built a side and clicked. We felt we could do it, but over two legs it wasn’t enough. It [losing to Swansea City] hurt massively the next year because we kept dropping points and literally won two of the last ten games. I think the reason we struggled towards the end was because we sold DJ Campbell but if we’d have kept him, we’d have won automatic promotion without a shadow of a doubt. He’d have got us over the line because he was that good.
“Southend United and Colchester United went up [in 2005/06] – they weren’t bigger than us. That was gutting. Ultimately, that was our massive opportunity missed. I won’t say it hampered us in the play-offs because I actually can’t remember that much of how I felt then because it was so new; I was almost a non-league player playing professional football.”
Having kept 36 clean sheets in 109 games across his first two full seasons, Stuart had hoped for more of the same and a third straight promotion challenge at Griffin Park. Yet the summer of 2006 brought a seismic shift that would undo Allen’s work and, effectively, spell disaster for both player and Club.
Prior to the players’ return to pre-season training, the popular manager left fans reeling when he announced that he could take the team no further, with Leroy Rosenior stepping in to replace him.
Stuart recalled: “That was difficult. Basically everyone who was out of contract left. From what I remember, the only boys that stayed were Frammo [Andy Frampton], me and Kev [O’Connor] and then the rest of the squad was built from scratch by Leroy, who went the opposite way to Martin. That was the worst thing he could have done.
“We’d built a way of playing and it wasn’t pretty but it was effective. We had a great group that got on well, with a great cameradery but you wouldn’t want to play against us because we were a horrible team. We didn’t suffer fools gladly. Leroy did the opposite and turned us into a nice team but it wasn’t a nice team; it was a team where the dressing room wasn’t great. Frammo and Kev I’d trust with my life, but the rest of the squad were just colleagues.
“If you can count your best friends on more than one hand then I think you’ve done very well and I’m looking at my hand now and two or three of my best friends that I trust with my life are from the time I was at Brentford. Lloydy [Owusu] and Deon [Burton] are real close friends of mine. I lived with Alex [Rhodes] and I later won a league title at Gillingham with Frammo.”
To make matters just that little bit tougher, an ankle injury suffered during a training session robbed Stuart of five crucial months in a season where his presence was perhaps needed most.
“I dived for a ball but got my foot caught underneath me and just heard a crack.” He grimaces at the thought. “The way I am, I’ll carry on, but it didn’t sound right. I went in to get some strapping but when I took my boot off it just swelled up. I went and had a scan but the people reading my scans couldn’t see what it was, so it went undetected for six weeks.
“I had two MRIs, a CT, an ultrasound and I saw two different specialists but I rehabbed back because they were thinking there was nothing wrong with me. The manager, I felt, was thinking I’d just chucked one in because the specialists were saying there was nothing on the scan. The very last thing I did on my rehab was to kick the football, so when I did that, it was absolute agony and I re-injured it every time.
“I then went to see a different specialist in Paddington and he just saw it straight away off the first scan – I had a high ankle sprain. He said I needed to go into a boot for six weeks and I remember being out on the Christmas do in Kingston on crutches. It was close to being operated on but he said to rest and see how I got through it. By the time I came back, the team was basically relegated.
“It was painful because I just wondered: 'Where are my team-mates from years before?!' We had heart and this team didn’t. We had steel and this team didn’t have steel. We’d never roll over and die until the final whistle went and this team let in a goal and rolled over straight away. Then when I did eventually come back into the side it was too late and I felt like I was getting the stick just because we were all getting tarred with the same brush. That was a real difficult season.”
Brentford finished a torrid campaign rock bottom of League One, with ten defeats from their final 13 games sealing their fate under the stewardship of Scott Fitzgerald and later Head of Youth Development Barry Quin.
With two games of 2006/07 remaining, the Club offered a glimmer of hope with the announcement that former England captain Terry Butcher would be taking the reins at the conclusion of the season. But being out of contract, Stuart’s future at the club was unclear.
“I’d only been back a few games and he didn’t know anything about me or the league, which was never going to help him in the first place anyway. He sat me down in the away dressing room and said: 'Everyone around here tells me you’ve done well for the Club. I’ve always believed you should play as high as you can for as long as you can. If you can get a team in League One, I’d advise you to take it'.
“Then Orient came in for me because [former Brentford goalkeeping coach] Jim Stannard had come in. They got promoted from League Two so I just went there because of what Terry Butcher said. I don’t know if he wanted me or didn’t want me but he’s a former England captain so I’m going to take his advice. He didn’t offer me anything, but he didn’t say he was letting me go either.
“I didn’t want to leave. It was such a whirlwind that I’d got to the end of three-and-a-half seasons with the club and I felt like my feet didn’t touch the ground at any one point. I don’t live with regrets, but because the Club got promoted, I do look back and feel like I wish I stayed. But that’s easy to say now as I was still a young, naïve non-league player trying to find my way. Brentford never saw the best of me.”
In 13 subsequent years, Stuart’s career has taken him as far north as Aberdeen and as far south as Yeovil Town, the National League side for whom he currently plays. But even after all this time – during which he lined up against Brentford six times - his level of gratitude and feeling towards the Club remains unconditional.
He added: “Players say they don’t want to celebrate against their former sides, but I’d go down the route of John Terry, when he said he’d never want to play against Chelsea. I’m not as big or as financially secure as him that I could turn round and say I didn’t want to play against Brentford, but it did feel like that. There’s a lot of love towards Brentford for what they did for me, how they gave me my apprenticeship in professional football.
“They gave me everything that I could ever wish for and more. There’s a proper love for that club and I’ve said the same about Gillingham as well, for different reasons. But without Brentford, I wouldn’t have a career. Without the support, the ups and downs, the good times, the bad times, the big saves - everything that went with it. I know I made mistakes but I came out of the Conference North to a League One team.
“For all those times when we struggled financially, they have got their rewards for hanging in there. My ultimate ambition is to come back and work at Brentford in some capacity. With the club going places, if I could come back in any role I would love to do that.
“It’s just a club I can’t wait to see in the Premier League very soon.”