Jimmy Nicholl, who steered Raith Rovers to cup glory 20 years ago, can summon up a fair few funny voices to brighten a dreich afternoon where the mist has thrown a giant scabby dog blanket over the Forth Bridge.
There’s Danny Blanchflower, his first Northern Ireland manager (“I know you like overlapping, Jim, but have you ever tried underlapping?”). There’s Jock Wallace, his second manager at Rangers (“You’re the luckiest man in the world. I was just about to kick your arse so hard you wouldn’t have needed a plane to get you to Canada”). And there’s the old-school Millwall skinhead who showed him compassion as the lynch-mob gathered (more of this one later).
But by far the most remarkable voice he has at his disposal is the one he was born with, which Scottish football has been unable to dent despite an association stretching back over 30 years. To describe Jimmy Nick as having a Belfast baritone doesn’t do him justice. It’s a voice of quiet thunder. He sounds like he’s shouting when he’s not. Every fifth or sixth word seems to burst into the room, looking for trouble. And the only way to convey this in print is with capital letters. For example: “I’ll meet you at the DAKOTA.”
This will seem perfectly clear to you lot reading at home – he means the big black hotel at South Queensferry. But I have to get him to repeat it a couple of times before my jessie middle-class Edinburgh ears get on the right frequency. Not that this apparent gruffness is a sign of unfriendliness – far from it. Over coffee, he is his usual garrulous self. Indeed he talks for so long he misses market day in Cowdenbeath, his current football abode. “The wife won’t be happy with YOU,” he says. “Sue likes me to look in at the butcher’s because he’s ‘Everything’s a tenner’ and there might be some nice braising steak.”
The voice adds drama to his story, not that it’s required. “…Three-bedroom, detached, in Sale, in Cheshire, in a CUL-DE-SAC.” This is him describing the house Manchester United offered his family as the Troubles spread to the Rathcoole estate back over the Irish Sea. “Last Saturday of the month, the Old Trafford kids went home only this time the club wouldn’t let me go. My dad had phoned telling them to keep me in Manchester. Things were happening on the estate. It became all-Protestant. The picture house was blown up; shops too.
“I don’t like to talk about it but I think I know the kind of life I could have been living if it wasn’t for football. Mates from school ended up in Long Kesh for armed robbery and stuff. I could have got sucked into that which was what worried my dad. Anyway a few weeks later, the whole family, brothers and sisters, were in the new house and my mum was choosing wallpaper while the United groundsman mowed the lawn. If football gave me nothing else it gave the family a new, safe start.”
But football did give Nicholl more: United and his equally beloved Rangers as a player, plus 73 caps and World Cup thrills with Northern Ireland. And as a manager there was the unforgettable 1994 League Cup triumph with Raith after a penalty shoot-out with Celtic. Then known as a Coca-Cola Cup, it was to be the last year of the competition offering Euro qualification. “I told the players: ‘Come on lads, only 90 minutes from Europe’. Then at full-time: ‘Only 30 minutes, lads”. Then: ‘One penalty from EUROPE’.”
He smiles as he runs through the Raith team, including natural-born Celtic fans Shaun Dennis and Davie Sinclair. “I remember us getting good results against Rangers and these two, quarter-to-five, shaving, heading out on the town. And I remember a Charlie Nicholas hat-trick against us and me asking Shaun: ‘Did you not just shake Charlie’s hand at the last goal?’ ” No such issues 20 years ago, as a great Nicholl quote on Sinclair’s Wikipedia page confirms: “Even Sinky was crying and he’s so tough he’s got tattoos on his teeth.”
The line-up gave him headaches: experience or youth at its middle? “In the end I went for Stevie Crawford, Mickey [Colin] Cameron and Jason Dair, hoping the kids would be able to run the legs off Paul McStay and Peter Grant, so I had to disappoint Ian Redford, God bless him.” Shortly before Redford took his own life, Nicholl got a call from a friend. “He asked me if I could have a word with Ian, saying he was worried after their last conversation. I should have reacted right away.”
Nicholl had been making mercy dashes to Sale, his father eventually losing his battle with cancer. James Nicholl was a goalkeeper in Canada who would have moved to Spurs if his new wife Mary, originally from Greenock, hadn’t put her foot down. “I was a babe. Maybe if we’d gone I’d have ended up talking Cockney like that skinhead.” Unlikely, but this was the Millwall veteran of 1970s hooliganism who warned Nicholl after a shock FA Cup defeat that the hardcore were going to beat him up. Never happened, but was that his all-time football low? The former assistant to Pat Fenlon at Hibernian reveals: “Malmo, 7-0, that was the worst I’ve ever felt.”
So, the Ramsdens, two of his old teams – who does he want to win? “Same as ’94, I want 2-2, extra time, penalties, and let’s see who’s the bravest.”