Plymouth Argyle youngster Curtis Nelson’s rise to become a first team regular and England U18 player is no surprise to former Head of Youth Mike Pejic.
The 17-year-old centre back has been a revelation this season, making a remarkable, smooth transition from youth to first team football.
That has led to him receiving a first England call-up, for an under-18 international away to Italy on Tuesday, April 12.
Nelson is the only player in the 18-strong squad from a club outside the Premier League or Championship.
And five of that squad featured for England when they were crowned European under-17 champions last summer.
Pejic has congratulated Nelson on his call-up and believes he has the potential to play in the Premier League.
It was Pejic, a former England international left-back, who brought Nelson to Home Park in 2009.
Nelson was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire and spent seven years at Stoke City’s academy. For part of that time, Pejic was one of the age group coaches for the Premier League club.
Nelson was not taken on as a scholar by Stoke and Pejic, who had moved to Argyle as their Head of Youth, wasted no time in making a move for him.
The defender was offered a two-year Apprenticeship from the start of the 2009/10 season, and has not looked back since.
Pejic told The Herald: “I was taking the under-16s at Stoke and Curtis was 13 at the time.”
“He was one of the boys we were pushing through the age groups even then.”
“He was playing at full-back at the time but I heard in his last 12 months at Stoke they played him in midfield. They made a decision on him as a centre midfield player but I always felt he would probably make it as a centre-back.”
“I couldn’t believe it when Stoke released him because the kid had got ability and was a good athlete. I rang him up and he came straight down. I think it helped that I had been at Stoke in persuading him and his parents that he should sign for us.”
Nelson arrived at Home Park as an Apprentice shortly before the end of the 2008/09 season.
Pejic said: “When I first joined Plymouth some of the young lads didn’t like the work I did with them because it was tough. Curtis was always a good athlete and he found it a little bit easier than the others. He relished the work I was giving him. There was the running work, the gym work and the free weights programme, as well as the technical and tactical stuff.”
“I thought his main position was at centre-back and we put him there in the youth team straight away. He did quite well there and just progressed through really. The only thing I had one or two problems with him was his concentration levels weren’t as sharp as they could have been.”
“He relied on his pace, strength and power to get him out of trouble at times but we worked on that aspect of his game.”
Nelson made his first team debut for Argyle as a substitute in a 1-0 home defeat by Notts County in the Carling Cup first round last August.
He has gone on to make a total of 30 appearances and does not celebrate his 18th birthday until May.
Pejic believes Nelson has been fortunate to have Peter Reid as his manager.
He said: “Peter Reid is doing a brilliant job with all the ones who have got a good chance of coming through. They have been exposed to training with first team players, which I believe is very important for them in their development. He’s one of the few managers around the country who is doing his best to produce players.”
England’s game against Italy in Carpi will give coach Noel Blake a chance to assess the players ahead of their European Under-19 Championship campaign next season.
“England were European under-17 champions last year, so it’s a fantastic achievement for Curtis to get called up. If he plays in the game, I’m sure he will do well.”
“He just needs to really believe in himself and show everybody what he’s about. He’s probably the only one playing first team football at the moment.”
Nelson’s fine form has attracted interest from Premier League clubs, who have sent scouts to watch him in action.
But Pejic believes it would be best for him to stay at Argyle and continue his football education with them, instead of moving elsewhere.
Pejic said: “I hope the club keep Curtis and don’t sell him cheaply. The same with (Joe) Mason and (Jack) Stephens. They should be the future of the club, and should be kept until they have each played at least 100 games. Then, if the club wants to sell them, fine.”