An untimely ‘curse’ struck the Bees squad in the final months of the 2008/09 season.
Though Andy Scott’s men were coasting at the League Two summit from early February until the conclusion of the campaign, from March, one by one, members of the forward line started to drop like flies.
Charlie MacDonald dislocated his shoulder, Jordan Rhodes fractured a metatarsal and Damian Spencer suffered a sickening blow to his cheekbone. But first there was Nathan Elder.
Picture the scene. It’s 7th March 2009 and an underwhelming crowd of 3,406 have spread themselves thinly around Rotherham United’s temporary home, the Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield. The Bees are top of League Two, four points clear of Wycombe, having lost just twice in 12 games since the turn of the year; the Millers, meanwhile, continue to flirt with the possibility of relegation from the Football League.
Ben Hamer has perhaps been the busier of the two goalkeepers; Marcus Bean has flashed Mark Hudson’s free-kick narrowly over his own bar, while Sam Wood’s stinging drive has been the closest the Bees have come to an opener. With 62 minutes gone, though, there’s an aerial collision between Pablo Mills and Nathan Elder. The Brentford striker is left crumpled in a heap, writhing around in considerable distress, while the defender somehow escapes any punishment.Embed from Getty Images
As it later became clear, this wasn’t a standard clash. Mills’ elbow had caught 23-year-old Elder and inflicted such damage – a double cheekbone fracture, a fractured eye socket, severe trauma to the eyeball and extensive bleeding in and around the eye – that it was unclear when he would re-gain his sight, if at all.
Naturally, it’s a day he’ll never forget.
“It still sticks in my head but when it actually happened, I jumped up to head the ball and I was knocked out when I landed,” he tells BEES.
“When the physio came over and I came to, where I couldn’t see out of my eye, I thought my eyebrow and cheekbone had swollen up. I knew it was serious. The physio held up two fingers with a hand over one eye and asked how many fingers he was holding up. He switched eyes and I couldn’t tell him because it was just black. For him, he could see that my eye was open and he didn’t panic, but his reaction showed that I needed to go to the hospital immediately.
“I questioned it but stood up and went into the dressing room and as we got there, I looked in the mirror. Everyone was telling me to sit down but I told them to get off me for five minutes so that I could find out what was going on; I could see that both my eyes were open but I could only see out of one of them. That was scary and that’s when I started to panic because I immediately thought I’d lost sight in that eye and it was done for.
He continues: “We were such a tight group that when I got in the ambulance, the coach came to the hospital when usually they’d have gone straight home. But Andy Scott made sure they went to make sure I was alright because he’d seen the kind of trauma that had been caused. It might have been hard for the boys to see it because when I got to the hospital I was in shock and it was a bit of a mass panic with people wondering if I was going to be alright. Andy was phenomenal and the boys were first class, though it must’ve unsettled them.”
A NON-LEAGUE TALENT UNEARTHED
It was a career-altering moment in Elder’s career, but had it not been for his own misdemeanour while playing for non-league Billericay years earlier, he might never have carved a career in professional football at all.
“I was playing against Worthing when the Brighton scouts were there, however, before that I’d been suspended by the club for two games because I missed a game as I’d taken my ex-girlfriend away for her birthday and I wasn’t honest with my manager. I saw the chairman in the bar after a game and he said that he hoped the suspension would teach me a lesson, which I thought was completely unnecessary.
The manager told me he’d start me against Worthing and I had it in my head that I was going to run riot, I was going to be the best that I possibly could just to wind the chairman up and show a little bit of attitude, I suppose. I scored a header in the first half and I remember while everyone was chasing me, I was looking for him in the crowd but I couldn’t find him! I lobbed the goalkeeper in the second half and about 15 minutes before that, I saw where the chairman was, so I scored, ran over to that side and just smiled at him – he must’ve wanted to shoot me!
“It turned out that the Brighton scout came and watched me for the following two games after that. We were playing against someone like Ilford away and the manager pulled me over after the game and just said, “You are no longer with us. We’ve had an offer come in from Brighton and if you accept it, it looks like you are turning pro.” I was looking at him very confused because I hadn’t had a clue. Within the week, I drove down to Brighton with someone from Billericay and they sorted everything out for me.”Embed from Getty Images
His £10,000 move from Essex to the south coast was completed on 1 January 2007, but it proved the grass isn’t always greener. With no prior full-time football experience, Elder initially struggled for opportunities in the Seagulls’ first team, scoring just twice in 22 league appearances, in stark contrast to his performances in the reserves, where he excelled.
With age comes wisdom, though, and he now knows why.
“It was my fault,“ he concedes. ‘I trained really well and in the reserve games I was scoring every time but I never knocked on the managers door and asked him why I wasn’t starting. I always thought to myself that I was lucky to be in this position and coming from where I’d come from, I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
“As time has gone on I’ve realised that if you don’t show the hunger in order to give the manager a reason to start you, he won’t. I was sitting there too comfortably and thinking that if I got the call, I’d come in and do my best. I suppose there was no pressure on me if I didn’t put pressure on myself but it was only really when I went to Brentford that I learned that. We went on a losing streak at Brighton of about four or five games where neither of the strikers scored and I think at that point, Dean Wilkins was watching me in training but I never actually said to him, “Gaffer, put me in, give me a chance.”
‘I WAS GIVEN A CLEAR EXPECTATION’
Thirteen months after joining Brighton, Elder admits he was ‘relieved’ to join the Bees in a move that netted his former club a cool £25,000 profit. It was a fresh start for both player and club as Andy Scott attempted to re-stabilise the club following Terry Butcher’s departure in late 2007.
Then came the day of his debut, Saturday 2 February 2008, Mansfield away. After 15 minutes he was thought to have suffered the ignominy of scoring an own goal – which was later credited to Stags forward Michael Boulding – but, to cap a bizarre afternoon, Elder tucked home the winner five minutes from time.
He reminisces: “I remember that I was in the wall and the ball hit me but I’m sure that it was on target and I’d have always said that no matter how many years had gone by. At half-time people were saying: “Unlucky, never mind,” and I didn’t understand, but couldn’t believe that had been given as an own-goal!
“After that I knew I had to do something about it and then when I was through on goal, I can’t lie, I was nervous, but I managed to stay calm, take a deep breath and slot the ball home. That was in front of the Brentford fans behind the goal and I just remember them lapping it up. My granddad had passed away close to that time and I had something to dedicate to him, which was nice. That’s not a game I’m going to forget any time soon!
“When Andy Scott brought me in, he gave me a clear expectation of what he wanted. I was adamant that whatever he wanted me to do, I was going to do. Brentford were in the midst of a season where they were just wanting to stay up when I came in and then after that he set the guidelines in terms of what he wanted to achieve the next season. I think originally it was play-offs but to win the title that season was just crazy.”Embed from Getty Images
Elder notched on three further occasions as the Bees finished 14th in the fourth tier and continued to be a key component of the starting 11 the following campaign, as the next target became apparent: promotion to League One.
““My strike partner changed a bit that season – I started off with Alan Connell and then it was Charlie MacDonald, even Marvin Williams played a couple of games up top. The partnership with Charlie Mac was brilliant. He’s slightly older than me and with that his experience was just invaluable and I found myself learning a lot from him – he was just outstanding in training. I still to this day believe that a lot of the success we had originated from him because he was just such a potent goalscorer and for a young lad to watch what he was doing, it was brilliant to try and emulate that.”
The ‘little and large’ partnership with MacDonald had produced 25 goals as March got underway, but in a cruel twist of fate, neither player scored again that season following on from Elder’s catastrophic injury. Just three weeks later, MacDonald dislocated his shoulder in a 1-1 draw with Gillingham meaning the two had appeared alongside one another for the final time.
But sitting helplessly on the sidelines for the remainder of the season, what emotions did Elder experience, watching the title win unfold?
“It was horrible. When they brought in Jordan Rhodes, it was really good to see the success he was bringing but when you are sitting indoors and you can do literally nothing, that was pretty horrible. There was one point where I came back to training and the manager said I could do anything apart from anything that involved contact. I had my mask sorted and just trained, but at the end of training I stayed out.
“I had a bag of balls on the edge of the area and was just trying to clip it onto the crossbar; I must’ve been out there for about 40 minutes but I couldn’t do it. Where my vision was blurred in my left eye I couldn’t gauge the distances right and this was something that had always previously been easy to do. Everyone had gone in to get food but I refused to come inside until I had hit the crossbar and in the space of those 40 minutes I must’ve hit it maybe once or twice, whereas usually it would have been about 20 times. That was a realisation that it wasn’t going to be as simple as just going back to training, I had a lot of work to do.”
A return did eventually come, though Elder had to settle for a place on the bench on the final day of the title-winning season. Andy Scott opted against rushing the striker back after such a significant facial injury and rapid recovery, however he understands the sense behind his former manager’s decision and still looks back on the day with pride.
“I was devastated because I really wanted to come on!” he laughs. “With the gaffer at the time, he was thinking that if he didn’t need to bring me on then he wasn’t going to because all it would take was me to run into someone, so he was probably nervous. At the time obviously, I really wanted to come on but when you look back on it, you realise he was probably right to make that decision.
“After the game someone put a red afro on my head and I remember walking round with that for ages! Fans were just running up to you, running up to my dad – who was nothing to do with football – asking him for his autograph and he was lapping it up! There is only really a handful of people who will ever experience something like that but if you can do it once on that sort of stage, it is absolutely unreal.
“As a squad we were very tight knit and we had such a laugh. Every training session there was something going on – whether it was Glenn Poole hiding your boots or Karleigh Osborne wearing some terrible gear into training, it was really, really enjoyable and that’s one thing that I will take away from that experience without a doubt. For every team that I played for after that, that’s what I’ve looked for to see if people are actually enjoying themselves or if it is just a job for them. If you are enjoying it, that’s half the job done.”
Though he planned to kick on at Griffin Park after his recovery from injury, it wasn’t to be. An ill-fated spell at Shrewsbury came next, but before long Elder was back playing non-league football. Perhaps his best spell came at Tonbridge Angels, where he scored 65 goals in just three seasons, but having left the Longmead Stadium this summer, he now balances a player-coach role at Isthmian South East Division side Sittingbourne with a career in recruitment in Leadenhall Market in the city.
But nine years after leaving west London, Elder still credits his spell at Brentford as ‘my favourite ever time in football’.
“I look back at it with a lot of delight,” he concludes. “After I had my injury, I went to watch Brentford away to Bournemouth and took my missus and my little boy. The tickets we had were up in the stands and I think it was the first time the fans had seen me with my injury and it was crazy. Walking up the stairs to my seat to a standing ovation, my missus didn’t even know what to do! It was insane and that’s one thing I want to make clear. The fans that day brought a tear to my eye and it was just really appreciated – even at half-time, I went to the toilet and everyone was singing and taking photos.
“The actual tickets that the club gave us were right in the top corner of the away section so we walked across the pitch, climbed over and walked all the way to the top of the stairs. It was amazing and made me feel really good – the fans that day were special.”
Originally featured in BEES 2018/19 Issue #4 v Wigan Athletic (15 September 2018)