During the lockdown I had the opportunity to speak with Nathan Ellington, a retired professional footballer. He had represented several teams across various English football leagues, from Bristol Rovers in League Two to West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League. While being known for dismantling championship defences with the aid of fellow teammate Jason Roberts for Wigan in the 2004–05 season, Ellington was also one of the most recognisable and vocal Muslims in the English game at the time. This was because he had converted to Islam in 2005. In the interview, Ellington shed much light on his illustrious career. He described many of his lifelong experiences, such as playing against Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford, coping with abuse in a difficult season at Watford, and the story of his conversion to Islam while at Wigan.
“It took a little while, but at that point I said, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim’”
Searching for Islam
Ellington’s most prolific season came while playing for Wigan Athletic in 2004–05, where he scored 24 goals in 45 appearances. With this remarkable feat, he was able to finish the campaign as the League’s top goal-scorer. It was indeed at the end of this very season that the highlight of his career came. “The day we played Reading has to be career defining”, Ellington reminisced. “It was the last game of the season and we needed to win to get automatic promotion to the Premier League. Ipswich had Darren Bent, so we knew they’d win. We had to beat Reading. We were 2-0 up and in the last 10 minutes a cross came in and I scored the header. I knew that was it. That was my childhood dream. That was definitely the defining moment.”
It was also in the same year that the most significant turning point in Ellington’s life came, which would change the course of his life forever. In January 2005, Ellington took the decision to recite the shahādah (declaration of faith), finally embracing Islam after months of searching for the divine truth. Ellington told me how his brother had converted to Islam four years before him. However, he admitted that he did not give this change of faith much attention and did not feel compelled to study the religion himself. It was only after meeting his future wife Alma, a Bosnian Muslim, that his interest in Islam piqued. “We got talking a little bit about Islam and Christianity”, Ellington told me. “Alma explained that my views were actually the Islamic belief, so I began to get more interested. As things progressed, she told me that if things were going to get serious between us, I needed to become a Muslim. I told her I wasn’t going to become a Muslim for anyone else. I had to believe it myself, in my heart. So I decided it was time to find out for myself.”
With the same grit and determination which helped him to flourish in the game, Ellington embarked on his journey to find the truth. “I came to the conclusion that I needed to look at the source of Islam. The Qur’an”, Ellington explained. “I learnt that the Qur’an has never been changed. It’s exactly the same wherever and whenever in the world you read it. I started to learn what was inside of it and when you start seeing all the different signs and miracles that are in there…1500 years ago people couldn’t possibly have known about the scientific miracles in the Qur’an. The formation of the moon and the sky. The shape of the Earth. This convinced me that this could not have come from any human. Who else could have written it, except the One who created the universe?”
Both the passion and reverence towards the power of the Qur’an’s words were evident in Ellington’s voice, as he continued to reflect on his journey to Islam. “There’s the part in the Qur’an that says: ‘And if you are in doubt about what We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a sūrah (chapter) like it…But if you are unable to do so – and you will never be able to do so – then fear the Fire fuelled with people and stones…’ Nobody would have written a book 1400 years ago challenging you like this! There were so many things, one after the other, which cemented my belief that Islam was the true religion. I went onto an Islamic website which listed the beliefs of a Muslim: believing in Allah as the One true God, believing in Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) as the last Messenger, believing in the Day of Judgement. I thought, ‘Yes, yes I have no problem accepting any of this’. At the end of the list, there was a paragraph saying that if you believe all this, then you are already a Muslim! I think that was the ‘light bulb’ moment. It took a while, but at that point I said, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim!’”
“He’s changed, he’s praying in the corners of the changing room”: Challenges after Islam
After embracing Islam, the first few years for Ellington were a time of adjustment and learning. At first, Ellington believed that the declaration of faith was sufficient, without the need for abiding by all the rules and responsibilities that came with accepting Islam as his faith and way of life. It was the actions of his cousin, who had also converted to Islam, which empowered Ellington to step up from the foundations of his belief and attain a deeper and more profound understanding of what it meant to call oneself a Muslim. He had to become a willing and committed servant of Allah.
“My cousin took me to a Pakistani brother who lived in Keighley. He just gave me some more information on Islam, always referring back to the Qur’an. It was a breath of fresh air, the way he explained things to me.” Ellington continued to visit the brother over several weeks, noting the following: “Alḥamdulillah it put me in a great position, learning more and navigating life to find the correct way to understand Islam.” He laughed as he added that the Pakistani food that he was being served with was an extra incentive to keep returning!
I was intrigued to learn the effect that Ellington’s conversion had on his lifestyle as a Premier League footballer. In response to this question, Ellington said: “I never really drank much to be honest. I didn’t need a drink for a good time. I never really ate pork either, so it wasn’t too difficult cutting these things out.” He also admitted that he did not pray for the first 3 years after converting as he did not know how to perform the prayer. Instead, he would follow the lead of other brothers, as he felt that the Arabic phrases could be learnt later. “I didn’t feel that much changed in terms of lifestyle”, Ellington said. “I realised Islam was the right way because it was in line with my natural way of living and thinking. It wasn’t hard to get rid of most things.”
I was surprised to learn of the negative reaction that Ellington’s conversion provoked, even among some of his own team-mates. As he put it: “9/11 was still in everyone’s mind around the time I became a Muslim. When I converted to Islam, people started being a little negative in certain ways. At the beginning it was challenging as I didn’t have that much knowledge or information myself to answer questions. Around that time, I moved from Wigan to West Brom. I still wasn’t practising fully, but my faith became stronger there. It’s weird though, I remember a team-mate telling me that one of our players had said that I had changed and that I was praying in corners in the changing room. I was thinking, I don’t even know how to pray yet! It was just those little things.” Unfortunately, after his move to West Bromwich Albion, Ellington’s playing time also took a hit, as did his overall form. This provoked even further negativity: “Some people started to say that I wasn’t interested in my football anymore because of my religion. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s people getting on the team coach messing around while I’ll just read a bit of Qur’an while we’re travelling’. I didn’t even read much, but I just wanted to learn more. It was exciting, there was all this knowledge, but I was still into my football and doing everything I had to!”
I learnt that a particular shocking incident with a team-mate has stuck in Ellington’s mind. “We had a match against Stoke and once we’d got back into the changing room a team-mate got angry for some reason. He goes to me, ‘Go pray to your Muslim God!’ I got really angry. We had an altercation, and I was going to beat him up but people got in the way. We both got fined two weeks’ wages. I wasn’t happy at all. How is it that he can abuse me, and I get fined? I just thought, ‘If he said that when he was angry, he’d been thinking that the whole time. His ignorance just got him to speak about it at that point’. It was a massive surprise, and it’s shocking and disappointing to think that there’s people who think that about you but stay silent. But he said sorry and that was it.”
“Everyone started to realise that these guys are normal. They’re Muslims and they’re great footballers”: Battling misconceptions
Amongst both players and backroom staff, there were a lot of misconceptions and fallacies about Islam. Ellington tackled these concerns head-on, clearing the misconstructions that some of his team-mates had about his religion. “I would read a bit, I was learning from talks by scholars”, Ellington told me. “I had a really good way of explaining things, so I could clear the misconceptions and a lot of my team-mates felt a lot better after it. I had a chat with one of the coaches on the way to the Ipswich game. He was asking me about my religion and I was just able to clear a few things up. At the end of the journey, he thanked me for the information and said it’s good to understand things in the right way. He mentioned that it was just the misconceptions which make people hostile.”
Despite the early negativity he faced from some of his team-mates, Ellington told me that he nevertheless persevered and saw his īmān (faith) strengthen over time. The arrival of top Muslim footballers into the Premier League, such as Newcastle players Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé initiated further improvement.. “When I came to West Brom, we had Diomansy Kamara, who was a Muslim”, Ellington said. “He took me to visit his family and he’d take me to Birmingham Central Mosque every Friday. For me it was great as I’d never been to a Mosque before. I was kind of scared of the ‘unknown’ before I went, but it was such a nice thing. I also met Mamady Sidibe at his house around the same time and we became good friends. Getting to know all these other Muslims in football, seeing players and praying together was amazing. More big time Muslim players came in and everything gradually became easier and easier. And then it just became normal. Now you see Mohammad Salah in sajdah (prostration) when he scores. Back then Cissé, Demba Ba, and some others would all do it too. Everyone realised that these guys are normal. They’re Muslims and they’re great footballers. It doesn’t matter, does it? Everyone loves football and seeing a player scoring and winning.”
Formation of the Association of Muslim Footballers (AMF)
As one of the most recognisable Muslims in English football at the time, Ellington’s next move was to create the Association of Muslim Footballers (AMF). “It’s an organisation made to represent the various Muslim footballers in the game, promote them, and tackle misconceptions about Islam”, Ellington explained. The Association was made to highlight the positive work and achievements of Muslim footballers. Its other objective was to challenge the negativity and stereotypes surrounding Muslim players specifically and Islam in general. Ellington also emphasised that another aim of the AMF was to create positive role models for the youth. Expanding on this point, Ellington stated the following: “We wanted the kids to look up to the footballers and know that they can make it to the top too, all while still praying, eating halal, and just being practising Muslims.”
I was particularly fascinated to hear that the AMF held promotional games in the Middle East, and even participated in matches in both Makkah and Madinah against the Saudi All Stars. Ellington added that “We had Frédéric Kanouté, Papiss Cissé, and Kamara and a few others in our team. It was just nice to bond with all these players while we were there.”
What it takes to be a professional football player
One of the most common criticisms against any professional footballer relates to their wages. We see the money, the fame, and the glory, but what are the actual challenges associated with being an elite professional player? “How hard training is!” was the emphatic response from Ellington. He explained further by saying: “You always hear people saying: ‘I wouldn’t mind training two hours a day and going home with all this money’. I’m like, ‘Come and try then!’ People wouldn’t even be able to get through a five-minute drill! They’d be dead! People don’t realise that you have to do this day in, day out, every week to get to a certain level. You love football as a youngster and could go to the park every day, now you go to training and you’re told what time to be there, rain, sleet and snow. It does become a job, even though you love the game. Secondly, you have to be disciplined, the spotlight is on you all the time, you can’t just do whatever you want. There are repercussions for everything. Then there’s consistency. Application has to be there, 100 percent all of the time. There’s no slacking for the players that really want to succeed. It’s really a lot harder than people think.”
Career Highlights: Playing against Cristiano Ronaldo and bursting onto the scene at Bristol Rovers
It was interesting to learn of some of the highlights of Ellington’s career. As a Leeds United fan myself, it was slightly disappointing to hear that Ellington is a lifelong supporter of Manchester United (although I think Bielsa-Ball is beginning to grow on him!). It then becomes unsurprising to know that one of his most memorable career moments occurred against Manchester United, when he faced Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford. Ellington laughed as he told me, “Playing against Ronaldo was weird!” He continued by stating: “He’s the best player I’d played against. It’s just like, ‘Wow I’m here, playing with you guys’. You feel like you’re supposed to be there with them, as a Premier League player, but it still feels like privilege to compete with them.” As a Manchester United fan, Old Trafford was naturally his favourite away ground, but his best away day was a surprising one: “I was at Bristol Rovers, we were in League Two and we had a match against Derby who were in the Premier League at the time. They had Ravinelli, who I watched growing up. I scored a hat-trick and we won 3-1. It was the first time a League Two team had beaten a Premier League team. That was when I really burst onto the scene and everyone started knowing who I was. It was a great away-day, a great stadium, and a great goal!”
Career regrets? Watford
Despite having a successful career, a season to forget came in 2009 after Ellington made the decision to move to Watford. “I needed playing time, which is why I left West Brom”, Ellington explained. “I was promised that I’d play. Watford started off really well, winning I think the first 10 games on the trot so I couldn’t get in the team.” The frustration was evident as he continued to say: “I kept waiting and Christmas came but I still wasn’t playing. It was a nightmare because I was losing fitness. As players left, we were playing more and more direct and that didn’t suit my game. I was just getting more and more frustrated. We ended up fizzling out the season, not even winning the playoffs. The fans were not happy with me. Everywhere else I’d been, the fans loved me. But not this time. It was not a nice feeling – on social media you see a hundred good messages, but then you see one saying that he’s rubbish or he’s fat. That sticks in your head and you tell yourself you’re going to avoid social media, but when the fans get mad in person, that’s really hard. You have to try to win them back over. Sometimes you don’t get the chance though and so I had to move on.”
Life after retirement
I’ve always wondered how a player adapts to life after retiring. It must be difficult to suddenly be out of the spotlight and adjust to a completely new routine, where one no longer has to train, travel, and play matches. In addition, one no longer enjoys the company of their team-mates.. Reflecting on this, Ellington said: “When you play your last match, you don’t even think that you won’t ever play in front of a crowd again. When you don’t play again, you just have to accept it. It feels weird but I just tried to keep a similar lifestyle, training with friends nearby.” Ellington had tried to prepare himself for life after retirement by investing in the property market. The devastating 2008 financial crash had huge implications on his investment plans. He needed to think of a new industry to dive into following retirement. “I just thought I’d use the same type of work ethic I had [as] a player. I’d push myself to become successful again. For years I worked hard on my own in the park, in the rain. That’s what got me to where I was when I first became a pro. I had to work hard again to find a way where I could have a similar lifestyle to when I was a pro. I started my own football academy with a friend of mine, Adnan Ahmed, an ex-Pakistan international who came up through the Man Utd youth team. We made a football academy down in Blackburn. Apart from that, I’m also an agent. Me and my business partner represent players. To begin with, it was just parents asking us if we could coach their kids – two became four. Four became eight, and it just expanded from there. It’s a really good group of players. Now we have Tyrese Sinclair, son of Frank Sinclair and Serhat Tasdemir, who signed for Peterborough’
Advice to young British Muslims looking to enter the professional sports sector
To wrap up the interview, Ellington gave some words of wisdom to anybody looking to enter the professional sports sector: “Everything you do, make sure there’s a way to work around your prayer. Prayer is most important. Prayer must take preference over everything. It is possible – I did it throughout my career. You just have to be assertive and make sure things don’t interfere with your career or your religion. Work hard and strive for the best you can every day.”
I would like to thank Nathan Ellington for offering me so much of his time to make this interview possible. I hope that this discussion will be of benefit for youth looking to enter professional sports, as it highlights the positive role of Muslims in the English game, and acts as a firm reminder of the true blessing of Islam.