Farewell old fashioned and much loved Bristol City and Aston Villa defender Nathan Baker

Physically imposing centre back was announced as retiring from professional football at 31 years old on Monday.

In a time of video assisted refereeing, carefully monitored studs-up tackling and responsibility for a player’s welfare remaining with the tackler, Nathan Baker has been somewhat of a throwback.

Bristol City supporters loved him so for this. The less-cultured centre back offered exactly the sort of physicality that successive Robins head coaches and managers wanted: getting on top of the opposition, often literally, and putting them off their game.

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‘Bakesy’ offered a no-nonsence approach that occasionally led to trouble. But it marked him out as a real character on the grass, and no doubt in the dressing room too, and the list of those paying tribute to the Worcester-born 6ft2’ defender on social media was long on Monday.

From City royalty such as Korey Smith and Bobby De Cordova-Reid to the current squad, the best wishes were in fulsome supply.

Former City talisman Aden Flint thanked his former defensive partner for their times shared at the back, and many more too.

Baker was the longest serving player at Ashton Gate by some margin, if including his loan spell at the club back in 2015, following Callum O’Dowda’s departure this summer.

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Despite the ferocious lunges and high-flying interceptions, diving into knocks, feet and elbows in often selfless mannner, you could not keep the man down. Indeed, comebacks were a recurring theme.

Firstly, there was the second return to the club in 2017, after the previous loan: Lee Johnson adding another strong defensive option at the back, and it was likely no coincidence that Bristol City then enjoyed their best campaign and league finish since Gary Johnson’s play-off final season.

Steve Bruce told this writer after Villa had drawn 1-1 at City in 2018 that it had been a difficult decision to let Baker go: “not very easy”. (John Terry and Christopher Samba had arrived at Villa Park and it was time to balance the books.)

Then there were the many substitutions for injuries picked up in the heat of battle on the pitch, but thankfully few blows kept Baker out for long. He might have been down for a short time but he was soon back charging around.

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Finally, there was last summer, and another comeback, when the club announced Baker as out of contract and leaving BS3, only for manager Nigel Pearson to later bring back the player, with some financial adjustment no doubt from either side, for a new two-year deal. (Which the club will honour; a great touch).

Of course to some supporters, there will be a bit of ‘well he got injured so often and left games in the first half too much’, but this characterised Baker’s self-sacrificing play.

That the former Aston Villa man departs the professional game early may not be lost on some. But that would be to not acknowledge the huge heart of someone who always appeared, from speaking to him at press conferences and more, as the opposite of the untamed menace he offered around the South Stand and Atyeo Stand penalty areas: a gentleman and sensitive soul.

We once asked him on this after a match and there was agreement that perhaps he was too brave at times, so a skydive preceding his engagement to his fiance was in keeping with his style.

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Tackles were full-blooded and relished, such as the red-card for butcher Baker on QPR’s Josh Scowen back in 2018. (It was one of three red cards in his career; the only other while at Bristol City was for two yellows against Blackburn in 2015.) Gerry Gow, Marvin Elliott and others would approve.

The elusive Jack Grealish and Bernardo Silva were others to feel the sting of his sliding challenges, perhaps held back a mite to make sure they took everything: man, ball, dignity and the breath away from onlooking supporters on occasion, as opposition staff remonstrated with the officials mostly unsucccessfully, because that was the skill of the man.

Don’t forget that Baker was a key part of the Bristol City side to make the Carabao Cup semi-finals, and he helped quell stars Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romelu Lukaku and others in the quarter-final of that tournament.

He finishes at Failand two games short of 150 appearances for the club, and having scored four times.

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Head of the academy Brian Tinnion has already suggested going back to help coach young defenders.

“It’s sad to think I won’t be playing football again, there are so many things I am going to miss, such as my teammates, the friendships made, plus a good tackle!” said Baker of his retirement.

“But I must put my health and family first, it’s not worth the risk.”

Too right, after successive head knocks and with a new world upon us where the game must not keep accepting such physicality and keep careful watch for the risk of long-term complications.

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The club says that, thankfully, he is currently well, without any neurological or cognitive issues, but is likely to be monitored with further testing in the future.

And with this, the game outgrew Baker and for once, there was no return.

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