Chris Nicholl won two League Cups but paid a high price... I used to head 100 balls a day and I don't remember good times so wellby Rohan Toure 10/01/2017 19:05:00 0 comments 1 Views
- Southampton take on Liverpool on Wednesday in the semi-finals of the EFL CUP
- Chris Nicholl tries to remember the last time Saints made the League Cup semi-finals, which was against Liverpool in 1987
- Nicholl enjoyed success as a footballer and as a manager but adds it's tough to remember the old days and the good times
- He sat with Sportsmail's Sam Cunningham to go through the second leg of Southampton's Cup semi with Liverpool
By Sam Cunningham for the Daily Mail
Published: 17:30 EST, 10 January 2017 | Updated: 19:05 EST, 10 January 2017
Chris Nicholl is trying to recall a couple of football matches 30 years ago, but the memories don't come so easily these days.
They were the last time Southampton played in a League Cup semi-final and the 70-year-old was in charge when they met Liverpool, their opponents on Wednesday night.
This was no ordinary Liverpool side. It included player-manager Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Jan Molby, Mark Lawrenson, Alan Hansen and Bruce Grobbelaar. Yet when Sportsmail runs through those names with Nicholl on the phone a week previously, he cannot remember the goalless draw at home in the first leg nor the 3-0 defeat at Anfield, so we arrange to meet to watch the decisive second leg back.
Chris Nicholl goes up to head the ball during Southampton's game with Coventry in 1982
Nicholl, 70, sits at home as he watches Southampton's tie with Liverpool 30 years ago
'I know I'm brain damaged from heading footballs,' Nicholl, a tall, formidable centre-back in his playing days, says. 'I used to head 100 balls almost every day.
'When I was at Aston Villa I would watch all my team-mates going home in their cars and I would still be there on the training pitch with Ray Grayden who used to send them long. It's definitely affected my memory. The balls were a lot heavier then.'
Nicholl points to his nose which is unnaturally curved and crooked. 'Maybe you can tell, I used to head more with my nose,' he adds. 'It's not recommended.'
Nicholl has invited Sportsmail to his one-bedroom flat in the Midlands, where he lives alone, so he can relive the highlights. 'Sorry it's messy,' he says. 'There's not much room in here.'
Nicholl prepares to block a shot from going into the Saints goal against Everton in 1981
NICHOLL'S PLAYING CAREER HISTORY
Burnley - (1965-66)
Witton Albion - (1966-68)
Halifax Town - (1968-69)
Luton Town - (1969-72)
Aston Villa - (1972-77)
Southampton - (1977-83)
Grimsby Town - (1983-84)
A carpeted staircase leading from the entrance has baseball caps full of DIY paraphernalia on random steps. Off the landing are a bathroom and bedroom and the main kitchen-living room, which we enter.
Inside, a small old-fashioned electric heater, with light shimmering behind fake flaming logs, warms the cramped room. Stuff is everywhere. A laminated 2005 Moor Hall Golf Club Millennium Trophy winner certificate sits on the mantelpiece, alongside a black and white photograph of himself as a child and one in colour of his daughter at school.
'I'm divorced,' he says, then jokes: 'No-one will have me now!'
A long cardboard box in the middle of the room acts as a coffee table and is piled high, so Nicholl pulls out a wooden stool to put the laptop in front of his black two-man sofa. We sit back and click play.
Nicholl was crucial to Southampton's defence between 1977 and 1983 - he always worked hard
Dalglish is warming up, shortly before kick-off. 'They don't make shorts that short anymore,' Nicholl says, chuckling. 'Dalglish was always one of my heroes. But he was a bit difficult. I tried to engage him in conversation but he gave nothing. That was the way he played — and I played against him a few times — he wouldn't give you anything.'
Nicholl's captain Jimmy Case ambles into view. 'He was a rascal,' Nicholl says. 'A real Scouser. A brilliant player and knew the game so well. Liverpool were possibly the best team in Europe then. Definitely the best in England. It was an honour to run out there.'
Liverpool dominate possession in the early stages. 'As you might expect we're taking a beating here,' Nicholl says. 'It's all Liverpool. They were like that at Anfield then.'
But then Case plays a wonderful ball inside Mark Lawrenson — with a thick moustache and floppy mullet — and Danny Wallace sprints in from the right channel and seems to be winning the race until they tangle inside the box. Nicholl leans in. The referee gives nothing. 'We could've had a penalty there, it would've made a big difference,' Nicholl says.
Nicholl admits he doesn't remember quite as much as the good old days as he would like
'At Anfield you got very little then. Similar to what people used to say about Old Trafford.'
It is goalless at half-time and while Liverpool have had a lot of possession they have had few clear-cut chances. 'We were hanging on a bit but Peter Shilton was doing his thing and we only needed to snatch one goal,' Nicholl says. 'We knew with Shilton in goal we had a chance. He never came for crosses — he was shorter than most but wider — but he was so mobile and flexible.'
Sure enough, early in the second half Ronnie Whelan touches the ball off to Steve McMahon on the edge of Southampton's penalty area and the midfielder hits it first-time on the half-volley, but Shilton dives to his left in a flash and pushes it away one-handed.
Liverpool, however, begin to turn it on. They win the ball back with a superb McMahon tackle and Molby is on the ball and driving with it from inside the opposition half. He has Rush to his left and Dalglish and Craig Johnston to his right; four v two. 'There's trouble here,' Nicholl says, leaning forward again. Molby shoots from the edge of the box and the ball strikes the inside of the left post but canons across goal and away.
Then the first goal comes in the 67th minute; a quick-passing move that Whelan finishes, although Gerry Forrest misses an interception before the Liverpool player stretches to score. Nicholl runs a hand through his hair, fully grey now but still thick. 'That's tough to take,' he say. 'They deserved it, but they were lucky there. We had the chance to clear. At that stage I was thinking it was going to be very difficult at one down.'
Nicholl (second from right) with his Southampton team-mates when Lawrie McMenemy was manager of the club
Nicholl rarely backed out of challenges and would nearly always go up for important headers
Dalglish makes it two, eight minutes after the first, curling into the right of goal. 'That was a great finish. But the defender's got to be clearing that.' It is Forrest again.
The Liverpool scarves are aloft and the crowd are swaying in a sea of celebration. 'In those days the fans were stood up. Now it's all sat down so it's not quite the same. They were packed so close, they've got more energy and emotion. They were waving their hands and calling me names.'
Molby makes it three with five minutes remaining, placing the ball through a crowded penalty area. 'I've suffered again,' Nicholl says. 'I've no regrets about the team I picked or the way we tried to go about it. We went for it.'
The past may come and go for Nicholl but in the present he is still sharp and witty. The photographer asks if he's happy to pose for a portrait. 'A portrait?' Nicholl says. 'I'm not getting my kit off. You didn't tell me that was on the cards.'
Some of his other memories are equally as acute and he has a few special ones from his own playing days in the League Cup, a competition he won at Villa in 1975 and '77. He captained them in the latter, and after two draws with Everton, back when it was called the Littlewoods Cup and they had replays instead of extra time, they went to Old Trafford but were one down with the game close to its conclusion.
'We were pounding their goal but couldn't score,' he says. 'The ball comes out to me on about halfway, I bring it down on a six-pence, took it to my left, took it to my right, back to my left, after about three touches someone runs and I've no more shoulders to drop, I just hit it with my left peg — I'm right footed — and it goes right in the left corner.'
Nicholl controls the ball inside the Everton half before advancing towards goal
He sets himself before meeting the ball with his right foot which propelled in towards goal
The ball hits the bottom right post before rebounding into the Everton net
His memory is a little rose-tinted here; the ball came to him on the ground and he beat one man, but the 25-yard shot is as good as he recalls. 'Brian Little scored two and we won in extra time,' he adds. 'My goal was obviously the best — which I always remind him.
'When I scored I remember Leighton Phillips jumped on me and put his thumb in my eye and my contact lens came out. I played the rest of the game with one eye. It didn't seem to alter my timing as it was crap anyway. After the game I went out looking at Old Trafford trying to find it. I never did. It's probably still there. Great memories.'
Yet Nicholl does not even rate that strike as the greatest of his career.
That he reserves for a diving header he once scored for Aston Villa — past his own goalkeeper.
Sportsmail asks Nicholl about that infamous match in March 1976 when he scored all four goals in a 2-2 draw with Leicester City. 'Keep your voice down,' he whispers. 'The neighbours might hear.
'We had John Burridge in goal and I was always telling him he was easy to beat. I proved it that day. I went to see the referee after the final whistle but he wouldn't let me have the match ball because it was his last game and he wanted it.'
He pauses, ponders, then adds: 'I had a great time everywhere. A lot of good memories, if I can remember them.'
Nicholl was successful in winning the League Cup twice for Aston Villa (pictured here in 1977)