I clearly remember the first time I heard about the possibility of Nathan signing for us. I was working at Howdens in Louth with several Grimsby fans, when I told them the rumours they laughed.
“You’ll never sign Arnold, he’s a baller.” I never really knew what a ‘baller’ was, but a couple of days later Lincoln City acquired one and a couple of black and white clad colleagues were very unhappy.
As a footballer my first experience of him in a City shirt was quite emphatic. Arriving late for the North Ferriby game he scored the first goal of the National League season I saw with my own eyes, a rasping drive if I remember correctly. Over the next few weeks he clearly stood out as someone who knew his way up and down the wing, as well as understanding where the back of the net was.
I’d go as far as to say had he remained in the pre-January form for the entire season, he could have been our top scorer or even Player of the Season. It seemed when Nathan Arnold was on the pitch, Lincoln City won. He was involved in most of the neat triangles we played on the flank and often, in those very early days, we seemed to play much more football than we do now. The diagonal to Rheady slowly found its way in, but when we played the beautiful game on the deck, Nathan was usually involved.
The first time I got to understand a bit more about him as a person was after the Eastleigh game, a scrappy 0-0 draw which came before a meal some of us had chipped in for that brought the Cowleys out for dinner. It was an early FPS thing, one of the fund-raising events that ironically brought Nathan to the club. I can’t remember which it was, but one of Danny or Nicky were telling me about Nathan. He wasn’t like the other players, he wasn’t a card player or one for lots of banter. No, he was pensive and thoughtful, but still highly influential on the pitch and great with the younger players. I wondered, briefly, if he might be groomed as a long-term successor for the hot seat.
The rest of the season chugged by and obviously, Nathan wrote a couple of very important stories. That goal against Ipswich typified his play for me, always alert, full of energy and of course, cool and clinical. That was an emotional night all round for my Dad and I, more so my Dad. As Nathan slammed home that winner, my Uncle Jeff was in hospital in the final stages of his life. He passed in the early hours. everything about that night was highly charged, the win, the personal circumstances and Nathan Arnold is the first name that always springs to mind.
Maybe after January he tired, most of the squad did, but that didn’t stop the superb winner against Gateshead that essentially set us up for the title win at home. Again, Nathan popped up and scored a superb goal, one that will live as long in the memory as his Ipswich strike. For the next twenty years, Imps fans will debate which they preferred.
We won the title, I got my picture taken with Nathan and a week later I listened to Radio Lincolnshire as he opened up about his battle with anxiety, how he’d fought a personal battle every week following the tragic loss of his Mum. I listened after being signed off from work myself with reactive anxiety depression, mine not brought on by personal tragedy but by stress. I hadn’t been able to really speak of it, it seemed to be something few could understand, yet here was one of my favourite Lincoln players openly putting it out there. I got in touch.
From that point on my impression of Nathan the footballer changed because I got to know him, finally meeting him properly after his anxiety awareness evening, during which I spoke about my own issues. I couldn’t correlate Nathan the footballer and the person at times, because he is nothing like you imagine a professional player to be. He’s softly spoken and thoughtful, yes that is true. He’s clearly very compassionate and sensitive too, something I imagine has made a mark on many people he’s come into contact with. Most of the Imps squad were approachable that season, lots of the boys were great and I wouldn’t say Nathan was different in that respect, but he is different. Respectful, compassionate, understanding, attentive….. it is hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about him. He has an aura, a way of immediately making you feel as though he understands you, as though he cares about you. The thing is, he does. It isn’t an act or a gift, ever since our first meeting we’ve remained in touch. That demonstrates that it is all very genuine, this man is someone who cares greatly about others.
On the field this season didn’t work out for him, but those saying he isn’t League Two material are way off the mark. The cruel injury sustained in the 0-0 draw with Luton halted his season for a short while and after that, he was playing catch up. Slowly I believe he fell out of love with the full-time game, I think he became empowered at the impact his work in the summer brought. Sure, he forced his way back into the side against Coventry and was one of our stand out players, but by January he’d featured less and less. Popping the Rochdale full back on his arse before providing the cross for Ollie Palmer’s winner in the Checkatrade Trophy was his last telling contribution in a Lincoln shirt.
I don’t know what went on at Salford, but I can’t imagine the abrasive and rather amateur approach of their management duo was ever going to fit with Nathan’s approach to life. I think a few fans were put out to see him over in Nepal as we fought a promotion battle, but again nobody knows the true facts. What I saw was a man finding another avenue to help people, another way of making sure his time on this earth counts, not just by putting the ball in the back of the net, but in real terms.
After the news broke yesterday we exchanged messages briefly and wished each other well. He’d been in touch after I came out of hospital and hopefully we’ll meet with our partners for dinner sometime soon. I’d like to consider Nathan a friend, not because he used to play for Lincoln or because I’m a ‘star chaser’, but because of the following reason.
He asked me to speak at his event, without pressure, which I did. I was terrified and his partner Jen actually stopped me leaving (she doesn’t know that) because I was so scared. I saw Nathan open up and there could never be any backing out, so I did my short piece, sweating and terrified as my inner most demons poured out. I have suffered anxiety in some form for an awful long time, way back into my teens and for the first time I admitted it, inspired purely by Nathan Arnold. Since then I’ve been able to move on, still suffering but in a manageable way, understanding my limitations and even being able to talk about it with my family, friends and you lot. My life has changed completely, I got rid of the negative aspects and write full-time. As Nathan once put it, I share my gift, which I’m told is writing. There were other factors, it wasn’t all through Nathan of course, but he was the catalyst. He gave me strength to talk in front of a group of people and ultimately I reaped the tremendous feeling afterwards as people spoke to me about their battle. You know what? Helping people is catching. I rarely felt as good as I did leaving that talk, knowing people identified with my battle and that has spurred me on to be a better person.
Yesterday was bittersweet for that reason. Of course, I wanted my friend to remain a Lincoln player and to prove those who know little about him on social media wrong. I wanted him to come back stronger, fitter and with purpose. He could have sat back and taken a wage from the club for a year, but that isn’t him, not one bit. Part of me respected that and realised that he’s now moving on with his life, doing something else that makes him happy, although exactly what isn’t clear. My guess? Something part-time so that football is still in his life, but so that time to explore his other calling is available.
There’s not much more for me to say really. Nathan arrived as a footballer who gave me something to brag about to Grimsby Town fans and left as someone completely different. There’s very few people like him in the world, very few people who treat others the way he does, who look at the world the way he does. He’s made a living through football, but he’s not your typical footballer. My only hope is he finds solace in whatever he does next and that we remain friends wherever he goes.
Over the page is a collection of Graham Burrell’s photos of Nathan in action over the past two years