Interview: Jimmy Nicholl hungry for return to management

Scouring the shelves of The Scotsman sports desk library, it seems inconceivable that Jimmy Nicholl, the garrulous Northern Irishman with a thousand and one stories to tell, has not yet put his name to a book.

Jimmy Nicholl will keep an eye on both the Manchester and Glasgow derbies today having played more than 300 games during his spells at Manchester United and Rangers. Picture: Greg Macvean

Not even one of those footballer autobiographies from the 1980s, with the groan-inducing titles. The Nic of Time, perhaps? Or later, during his days at Stark’s Park, and with a nod to the miles he has covered in his career, maybe The Wild Rover?

It seems strange that a publisher, pound signs flashing in his or her eyes, has not been attracted to Nicholl’s tale purely on the basis of two of the clubs that stand out on his CV: Manchester United and Rangers, both of whom are in action today in high-profile lunchtime derby clashes.

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Nicholl played more than 300 games for two of the biggest clubs in the land. He remains a big draw on the after-dinner circuit.

He was once primed to do a book. During those (mostly) heady times in Kirkcaldy in fact.

“We were about three-quarters of the way through,” he recalls. “Then Davie Cooper phoned. ‘I am having my book launch in Edinburgh, come through’. So I went through to Edinburgh. The idea was to have a few beers afterwards. It was on Princes Street, a WH Smith or whatever. We were in the back of the store and the manager of the place told us: ‘Sandy Jardine was here last week and only so many showed up’. And he was a legend, for Hearts as well as Rangers. Davie Cooper was like, ‘well, in that case, what can I expect? I am going home’.

“But by the time his launch started, there were loads there. But you know what I did? I thought if even Coops is worried about people turning up, then I am not going to put myself in that position.”

So he phoned the ghost writer to pull the plug on the project. She’d already been to Belfast, and to Rathcoole, where Nicholl grew up between the ages of three and 15, to diligently research the Nicholl family tree. Fortunately she hadn’t already done the Canada part of the story, where Nicholl was born before later returning to play for Toronto Blizzard. “She was disappointed,” he says. “‘But if you ever change your mind…’ ”

He hasn’t, to date. Any regrets? “No, not really.”

He doesn’t court attention, even though he can still command it. Despite growing up in a city divided by religion, and playing his football for part of his career in another one where the same concerns apply, he seeks universal approval.

“It was the same when a bloke came to see me at Raith Rovers, after we won the cup against Celtic,” he continues. “They were wanting to give me the freedom of Kirkcaldy. I said that’s great. He then said: ‘But I will tell you there were three people who objected’. Is that right, so it is? Well you can forget it. Why did he have to tell me that?!”

So that is why he is not, to date, permitted to graze sheep in Kirkcaldy town centre, or whatever are the privileges bestowed on those so honoured. It seems curious that Nicholl is so sensitive to public approval, or the lack of it, because he has an insatiable appetite for public speaking. He is one of the best after-dinner speakers in the business.

Perhaps he has no need to do a book. Unlike the majority of us, he has the chance to broadcast stories from his life at inevitably boozy soirees every weekend, even if not everyone will be able to remember them in the morning. He details his itinerary for the week ahead.

A few days golfing in La Manga with “a squad from Belfast” and then back to Scotland on Thursday night, when he will await a call from Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill (who Nicholl currently assists, along with Fifer Austin MacPhee). “Then I’m speaking Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” he adds. “Michael will phone me on Thursday to tell me where he wants me to go on the Saturday.”

This afternoon it’s Fleetwood Town v Charlton Athletic, to run the rule over Conor McLaughlin, playing right-back for the home side, and Josh Magennis, up front for the visitors. It’s clear Nicholl has been re-energised by his Northern Ireland involvement.

In light of the struggles of his old pal Jimmy Calderwood to return to football, he is especially conscious how tough it is to secure a manager’s post, particularly now he has turned 60. But his Northern Ireland duties have only sharpened Nicholl’s appetite for a return to front-line management.

“No it’s the opposite,” he says, when asked if his current part-time position with Northern Ireland is satisfying his football craving. “It has made me so hungry now to get into football, at any level. I will certainly never say I am finished with the game. The game will finish with me.”

As for Calderwood, who Nicholl assisted at Dunfermline, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, what’s the answer to his eternal struggle to secure employment, as his record surely merits? “We have spoken about this for the last three or four years. No one has come up with the answer,” he says.

“I saw him a few weeks ago, at a tribute dinner for Chick Young. I hadn’t seen him for a wee while. He was looking well, the same colour as that table! (Nicholl points to the mahogany coloured table) He’d just come back from Majorca.”

Today’s trip south also gives Nicholl the opportunity to visit his 81-year-old mother, Mary, who lives in Warrington, and then one of his brothers, John, who is in Southport and recovering from a significant operation.

This latter detail means he is particularly sensitive to his Manchester United supporting brother’s wishes when it comes to lunchtime viewing. Despite 30 years in Scotland, and two spells at Rangers, he isn’t complaining that the Manchester derby is likely to trump the one in Glasgow on this occasion.

“You know what, if it wasn’t Mourinho v Guardiola, I’d have said I’d prefer to watch Rangers v Celtic,” he says.

“But I will get the best of both worlds. I will watch Man Utd v Man City and then I will see Rangers v Celtic on Saturday night when I get home. I will have one eye on the score in Glasgow. I have got this thing on my phone no-one else seems to have, I don’t know how I got it. I get all the racing and score updates.”

So much for the self-proclaimed “dinosaur of the group”. This is in self-mocking reference to his Northern Ireland duties, where Nicholl finds himself listening in awe to the detailed presentations delivered by O’Neill and MacPhee, young, talented coaches with a thoroughly modern outlook.

All credit to Nicholl, because he accepts how things are far better now, for those prepared to listen and improve. “During the Euros I am sitting at the back having these flashbacks to when I was a player,” he says. “If I had all this information and preparation would I have been better? Too right I would have been.

“Billy [Bingham] would tell me the Albanian outside left has a good left foot, that’s it. Is he good at the back post? You worked most of it out yourself. We didn’t have match analysis people going to watch Albania v Algeria, because one of them was playing Northern Ireland next. Billy had to convey whatever information he could and away you went.”

It isn’t always better now, as the story earlier this week about the removal of Sir Matt Busby’s plaque in the Old Trafford directors’ box confirms.

But despite the sense of a club being up-rooted from its past, Nicholl still feels a deep association with Manchester United. It’s easy to understand why. The club shaped not only his life, but also the lives of two brothers and two sisters, as well as his mother and father.

His prowess with the ball at his feet as a teenager was the entire family’s ticket out of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.

Before they moved lock, stock and barrel over to Manchester, Nicholl was making trips back to Rathcoole, on the northern outskirts of Belfast. Even these journeys home were hairy enough.

“On the last Saturday of every month we were allowed to go home,” he recalls. “I was just 16, playing every Saturday morning, watching the first team in the afternoon if they were at home. After the game I’d get a train to Liverpool to get the overnight boat to Belfast, then bus to Rathcoole.

“Then, on Monday night, I would get the boat back overnight. And I was doing this from 15! That is why I am short with kids now, they don’t know how good they have it! I was seeing Man United and Liverpool fans fighting on the boat going over, people getting thrown overboard!”

All this was before he even made it to Belfast, where Manchester United were alert to the worsening situation. “If football’s done nothing else for me, it got my family out of Northern Ireland,” says Nicholl. “And that’s nothing to do with where I was brought up – I loved Rathcoole, still do. I still go back there now but it was getting a bit naughty in 1971.”

On one of those trips home to Rathcoole, Tommy Docherty, the United manager, phoned a neighbour (the Nicholls did not have a phone) with a message: plane tickets were booked for Jimmy and his family to head to Manchester the following day. “We flew to Manchester and they told us they were taking us straight to this house in Sale, Cheshire, with three bedrooms and a garage. It was in ‘a cul de sac’! What’s a cul de sac?!”

The Nicholls arrived to find the groundsman from Old Trafford cutting the lawn while a woman from the club office was standing with a book of wallpaper samples. This agreeable scene only made the young Nicholl more determined to make the breakthrough at the club.

And he did, winning an FA Cup winner’s medal as well as a loser’s one, but not before one of two enduring Manchester derby memories. One was scoring a 35-yard raker over Joe Corrigan’s head, notable, as the clip on Youtube confirms, for an outstandingly underwhelming celebration. One handshake and that’s it. “It was the consolation in a 3-1 defeat,” Nicholl notes.

He was relieved to avoid any headlines after his derby debut at Maine Road, however. He scored an own goal by lobbing his own goalkeeper, Alex Stepney, after being put under pressure by Joe Royle. “Wee Dave McCreery had a different type of debut the same day,” recalls Nicholl. “He came off the bench to grab the equaliser. So thankfully the story was all about him coming off the bench to score the equaliser rather than me scoring an own goal.”

Years later, just before he left for Toronto, he was invited on to a Piccadilly Radio show, to reminisce about his Old Trafford career. “It was going all right, the phone calls were fine. Until the very last one: ‘Nicholl, I don’t care what sort of career you had here. I will never ever forgive you for scoring that own goal’. It didn’t matter what I did afterwards!”

The circumstances surrounding his Old Trafford departure, in 1981, left a sour taste. But not so much to impinge on his feelings for the club, who’d done so much for the Nicholl family. His two sisters, Catherine and Barbara, still live across the street from the house they moved into from Belfast all those years ago.

Nicholl had already agreed a new contract with Dave Sexton when the manager was sacked, despite United finishing runners-up in the league in 1980. Despite their similarly outgoing nature, it’s fair to say Nicholl and Ron Atkinson, Sexton’s successor, didn’t hit it off.

“I told him [Atkinson] I’d been offered a three-year contract,” recalls Nicholl. “’Yes, I know all about it’, he said. ‘I have put the block on it’. He then asked me: ‘You think you are fast?’ I said, ‘Well Tony Morley of Villa is quick, I have to give myself a yard with him maybe, but apart form that, yes, I think I am pretty quick’.

“‘Well I don’t think you are quick’, replied Atkinson. ‘And you can’t defend properly and you can’t tackle. I am just being up front. John Gidman from Everton is coming for a straight swap with Mickey Thomas to replace you.’”

Nicholl thanked Atkinson for being so honest. “Stick me on the transfer list and I will try and find a club in the summer,” he told the manager.

There was one final surprise; Atkinson told him he didn’t rate Martin Buchan, the club skipper, either, and was going to try Nicholl at sweeper, despite having just delivering a withering assessment of his talents. “I told him to catch himself on,” says Nicholl. “Stick me on the list and get me out of here.”

Next stop Sunderland on loan, where he played with Ally McCoist for the first time, and then Toronto, where another brother, Lawrence, still lives. It was there he reunited with Roberto Bettega, who he’d played against when Manchester United faced Juventus and who he was charged with chaperoning around town.

“I was his PA,” says Nicholl, as he recalls bundling the great Italian striker into a taxi, en route to the Italian quarter, for a night of revelry.

But that’s another story, and we’ve not even got to Rangers, or Raith Rovers, or even Millwall, where Nicholl was himself bundled down the tunnel by security guards in a bid to escape furious [Millwall] fans.

When’s that book coming out, Jimmy?