TUCKED out of sight on the professional squash scene, Peter Nicol did so much for Scottish sport globally that before Chris Hoy and Andy Murray came along, he was up there with the most prolific individual athletes the country had produced.
When it came to the Commonwealth Games, however, when the mainstream spotlight was turned upon him, Nicol’s flexible attitude to national allegiance became a hot topic for debate. He may have won a world title in 1999 and been world No 1 for an aggregated total of 60 months, but when you turn your back on Scotland to represent England you waive your right to unconditional support.
We are accustomed to footballers kissing the badge of whatever club is paying their wages but it is rare for elite sportspeople to trade nationalities in the prime of their career. The brilliant left-hander from Inverurie won gold for Scotland in 1998, and that was greeted with acclaim. It was the first-ever Commonwealth title won on a squash court and the first gold won by any Scottish athlete in the Kuala Lumpur Games. He also picked up a bronze medal with Stuart Cowie.
Nicol defeated Jonathon Power in the men’s singles final, and this was no mean feat: the Canadian was the closest thing Nicol had to a nemesis in his career, and he was a formidable foe with a penchant for being physical during points and cantankerous after them.
Wearing a maple leaf on his bandana, Power did his best to distract Nicol with what the great Australian cricketer Steve Waugh would describe as “mental disintegration” – in other words, sledging. He also threw his racket out of the court in one fit of rage.
The unflappable Nicol, then 25, shrugged it all off afterwards as he described what the 3-9, 9-2, 9-1, 2-9, 9-2 win meant to him. “This was firstly for me, because I hadn’t beaten Jonathon in the last six matches we’ve played in,” he said. “But it was also for Scotland, so it’s a bit of a double whammy.”
If Scottish fans had understandable hopes that Nicol might complete a double double whammy four years later and far closer to home in Manchester, the notion was obliterated in early 2001 when, exasperated at what he considered to be a paltry level of public funding to a Scottish squash player, he declared for England.
When Manchester came around, and Nicol turned out in a blue shirt embroidered with a red rose to defend his title, it didn’t work out the way he had planned. This time he was beaten by Power in the final, 9-4, 4-9, 9-3, 9-0 and had to settle for silver.
As Donald Walker playfully wrote in The Scotsman the next day: “Peter Nicol’s shotgun marriage to St George remains unconsummated.”
To Nicol’s great satisfaction and to the disgruntlement of his detractors, he finally won Commonwealth gold for England four years later in Melbourne, six months before he retired.