EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Nathan Ellington – The Duke Back In Wigan Talking About Football As A Muslim, Missing The Beautiful Game and Wanting to Come Back To Wigan Athletic

“THE DUKE, THE DUKE, THE DUKE IS ON FIRE”

Very rarely is a footballer so beloved by supporters that they are unofficially given a title of nobility, but ask any football fan donning a blue and white Latics strip and they will tell you why. With vehement pace, implausible strength and an equally prolific striking partner in Jason Roberts, this player had the traits to become royalty at Wigan Athletic. Before a certain Northern Irish international there was only one man on fire to the Wigan faithful: The Duke.

Nathan Ellington, renowned throughout Wigan as “The Duke” for his shared surname with famous jazz pianist Duke Ellington, is a prominent figure in the scriptures of Wigan Athletic’s history. Just like his musician counterpart’s prolific composition performing, Nathan performed in just as a prolific way in front of goal; scoring 59 goals in 134 league appearances and, along with Jason Roberts, helped fire little Wigan up the divisions and into the ever-so prestigious Premier League – the pinnacle of English football. Whilst he proved so integral to Wigan’s Premiership push, Ellington left the club for West Bromwich Albion, before even making a top flight appearance for the Latics, for the sum of £3,000,001 (he was allowed to leave for any offer over £3 million), a sum that nowhere near matched the price tag labelled on him by Wigan fans. A price tag that read: ‘Priceless’.

Nathan was back in Wigan, a place many would call his footballing home, for the annual Joseph’s Goal charity match. He cheerfully agreed to answer some questions as it was clear that he was happy to be back.

“So Nathan, you’re back once again in Wigan for the Joseph’s Goal charity match, how does it feel to be back?”

“It’s great. Obviously it’s always great to be connected with Wigan and for such a good cause, and it’s great to play football as well! On all fronts I’m happy!”

“You made over 130 appearances for the Latics, do you have a personal favourite moment that resonates with you?”

“When we won promotion. When we got promoted and we knew it. When I scored that third goal against Reading, that was one of the best moments ever to be fair! Every time I watch it I get goosebumps you know, definitely that’s got to be the time that sticks out to me.”

Whilst the moniker of “Club Legend” very rarely gets awarded to a player who was only at the club for three years, it is deserved to a player who was pivotal to getting Wigan Athletic into the top tier of English football and, consequently, led to a stay in the Premier League that resulted in some of the best years in the club’s history. Without the likes of The Duke and Roberts edging Wigan into the automatic promotion place, who knows if the same club would be in the position to lift the FA Cup just eight years later.

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Ellington and former strike partner Jason Roberts celebrating securing promotion after beating, ironically, “The Royals”.

Furthermore, who knows what could have been if the Latics’ acclaimed striker had stayed on throughout our Premier League campaigns. One can only speculate. Regardless, Nathan left supporters with some phenomenal memories: memories that resonate with you for a lifetime.

“That event, among others, is why you were proclaimed a legend during your stay at the club. Do you ever feel that you left too soon?”

“Yeah I didn’t want to leave, everyone knows that I left too soon but based on what happened I ended up leaving before the principal of things. Yeah I would have loved to have stayed and who knows what would’ve happened but now it’s not possible to ever go back in time! But that’s life isn’t it.”

“Have you been keeping up with the club’s situation?”

“Yeah I seen the relegation at the moment, not had the best of seasons of course. I know that the strikers got injured during the season as well so obviously that means less goals to stay up as well. Yeah it’s not good news but there’s always a next season to try and make up for things and I’ll be looking anxiously for Wigan to get back up to the Championship.”

“If only we had you up top!”

“If I was fully fit! I still feel like I can play to be honest and one of the things I’ve been thinking is going and training with the club. I want to get match fit again and you never know what can happen, but if I can train at the club and get fully fit maybe there’s a possibility that could happen. It’s all down to who the manager is and what happens there so let’s see.”

This is the kind of news that causes euphoric anarchy among Wigan fans. News that Nathan Ellington wanting to return to the very club that he is still idolised at, straight from the horses mouth. Whether we will ever see The Duke in a blue and white striped shirt again may be unlikely, but the sheer possibility that the DW Stadium could be roaring with chants of “The Duke is on Fire” is a thought that makes the hairs stand up on any Latics fan’s body.

“You’ve played for various clubs and even ended up on loan in Greece playing for Skoda Xanthi. How is football different as a player abroad rather than in England?”

“Abroad it’s much more relaxed but the fans are much more passionate, it’s unbelievable! They could have like 2,000 people and it could sound like Old Trafford with 55,000 people. It was an amazing experience; great weather and everything! It was good.”

“In 2014 you had allegedly joined Indonesian side Persija Jakarta but failed to make an appearance. What was the situation there?”

“I didn’t end up signing, I went over and trained with them. I trained on like a field like that car park you see over there – it’s pretty bad conditions. I was training and expected to get a deal sorted out, didn’t really happen quickly enough and I was there training and thinking, “this is a bit unprofessional”. I had another offer in Malaysia so went over there and got stuff sorted out over there in the end, so nothing happened.”

The 35 year old originally from Bradford had triumphant spells at many clubs after leaving Wigan, some of whom are based thousands of miles away from the very place he made his hunting ground. None of which, however, was he adored and revered as much as he was in the North West of England. I’m sure he would say something just as complimentary about his time in Wigan in return, no matter how nice the weather was in Greece!

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Ellington celebrating, not for the only time, whilst in a Wigan Athletic shirt.

In addition to his career in football, Nathan is the protagonist for the Association of Muslim Footballers, a consortium that Ellington himself founded in 2011 to help fellow Muslim footballers deal with problems that are quite specific to members of the faith and pioneering the solutions to problems that many non-Muslims have even thought about that concern Islamic football players.

“You converted to Islam in 2005 and are somewhat of an ambassador for Muslims in football; setting up the Association of Muslim Footballers. What additional problems do members of Islam face whilst playing football?”

“Well it’s just about people knowing what their needs are and how the club can help them as players. So you might need halal meat for example or you might need to know where the nearest mosque is or there are certain prayer times that you need to make. So as long as the club knows what the player’s needs are then they can accommodate them and they can understand more. When you understand someone that’s when you break down the barriers so that was the whole point I was trying to get across. Trying to show it in the right light that it is supposed to be seen as and really show all the positive examples like that.”

“What about with Ramadan? Does fasting make your job hard when you have to be active almost every day?”

“It never effected me to be honest. It’s not as bad as it sounds: it’s like a month of fasting but every day you’re eating, everyday you’re drinking still. It’s just delayed recovery on training days and if you’re travelling to a match, you don’t need to fast anyway you can just not fast the whole day and make it up the next days after the month. It’s not as bad as people think, to be honest I dealt with it very easily and a lot of other people do. There are millions of players around the world, players that do it every year an nobody even knows really.”

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Nathan Ellington with then Wigan manager Paul Jewell. Could we see Nathan back at the club at some capacity in the future?

“You mentioned about wanting to get back into playing. Does that mean that you’re not retired and you could come back into the game?”

“Basically, my wife was not well and it forced me to not be able to train regularly because I had to look after my children and stuff so that was a difficult period. It was like a year not at a club but still training and staying fit and eventually it got to a point where it was like, “OK, I’m probably not going to get the chance to train again and play”. But then now things have got a little bit easier and, really, I miss the game. When you step onto a football pitch, there’s nothing like it. For me, I’ve been in the gym for the last eight months; getting back to a fitness level where I can now possibly start a pre-season so that’s where I’m happy that I’m getting to that level. I’m training, I’m coaching, I’ve got my own academy; my own soccer school – that’s helping me as well as I can get involved with the players. Yeah I’m just enjoying being around the football scene at the moment and obviously, if I could, if I can get back to that fitness level then I’d love to play again.”

Eager. That is a word that best describes it. A man, clearly in great physical fitness; evident from his performance at the charity match, eager to play football again. Plenty of Wigan fans, fans who remember fondly Ellington’s great performances, eager to see him play again. Eagerness is not desperation, however. Eagerness is more the hunger that Nathan Ellington has to step back onto a football pitch and prove that he still has what it takes. Eagerness is a desire, a desire that drives the Wigan cult hero. A desire that Ellington had back when he was in a Latics strip and a desire he still has now.

Irrespective of whether I am being too hopeful that Nathan could return to the club in some capacity, he will always one of the great heroes in Wigan Athletic folklore. A man put on a pedestal by Latics fans and, 12 years after his departure, still doesn’t look to be taken off that pedestal any time soon. One of the defining cogs that ran the Wigan Athletic machine to Premier League glory and a player that is still prominent on the lips of Latics supporters today.

Nathan Ellington: Duke of Wigan.

Harry Robinson

 

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