Interview: Steve Nicol on playing and '˜scoring' for Scotland
Didier Deschamps, current coach of France, and Eric Cantona, his critic-in-chief, may be at each other’s throats right now, with the latter claiming players were omitted from Les Blues’ Euros squad on grounds of race and Deschamps threatening to sue – but the pair chimed in perfect harmony in a World Cup qualifier at the Parc des Princes by claiming a goal apiece with the unfortunate Nicol completing the scoring by putting through his own net.
“That was a time in my career when I was all over the shop – I lost the plot,” he says. To this day he’s not sure what happened. He wonders if it could have been some kind of delayed shock after Hillsborough – just one of the football tragedies to which Nicol bore witness – but he doesn’t assert this with any confidence, possibly out of respect for the far greater suffering of others.
More certain than the state of his mind was the state of his body. Though that tie was lost, Scotland would qualify for Italia 90 and Nicol was heading for his second World Cup, but there would be an echo of the previous campaign when he suffered a pre-tournament injury. Despite the problem with his stomach in 1986 he went to Mexico. “The medical advice in those days was the bare bones,” he says, no pun intended. After Scotland exited at the group stage (again), he returned to his club Liverpool with torn muscles in his stomach and a hernia, missed most of the new season and feared he might have to hang up his boots for good. Perhaps understandably, then, he was alarmed when he arrived for a squad gathering for Italy and, having taken a shoulder knock in a league game, discovered he couldn’t even pull on his Scotland training kit. “I’d ruptured something else and needed an operation. It was that or the World Cup and, given that I thought my career might be over the time before, it had to be the op. Andy Roxburgh and I had a conversation. It ended with me saying: ‘Just don’t pick me again’.”
Nicol, now 54, may not have always produced his brilliant Liverpool form for Scotland but he says he was no reluctant patriot. In fact, talking to me down the line from his home in the ’burbs of Boston, he gets quite lyrical about the dark blue experience.
“When I think of the Scotland team, two things come to mind. The first was being at Wembley in 1981 as a punter. Robbo [John Robertson] scored a penalty and we beat England. It seemed like there was 80,000 Scots in the stadium – bloody fantastic. I remember thinking: ‘Imagine being on the field in front of that lot – how great would that be?’”
Five months later Nicol left Ayr United for Anfield and his Scotland debut would come in 1984 against Yugoslavia, and even though the Hampden turnout was more modest for that 6-1 friendly victory, it was an unforgettable night for the new recruit. “These days it’s Flower of Scotland with a professional singer leading the way, but I much preferred Scotland the Brave on the bagpipes, as it was for my first game. My heart was bursting out of my chest.”
You might wonder if it’s because he’s speaking from the Boston ’burbs, 17 years in exile, that Nicol is being so misty-eyed, though I should tell you that after we’re done talking I get a late-night text: “That big crash of drums at the end. Wow! Took the knees clean away. Listen to Scotland the Brave from back then and tell me it’s not the bollocks!”
Once a lad from Troon who looked out to sea and fantasised about the far-off US of A, he arrived there to play for New England Revolution, moved up to coach, became the MLS’s longest serving boss and was voted the league’s manager of the year before quitting in 2011. Currently working with ESPN – and covering tonight’s France-Scotland friendly in Metz – he’s put down strong Stateside roots. “My two kids, Michael and Katie, have grown up in America, and another grandchild arrived for my wife Eleanor and I just yesterday. We’re a pretty good unit, the Nicols, and I reckon if we were dropped into Timbuktu we’d survive, but I do like it here. I know the ‘Have a nice day’ attitude gets mocked but I like America’s positivity. When I go back to Scotland folk seem so miserable.”
He’s not meaning his Honest Men here, having nothing but fond memories of his two years at Somerset. “Ayr are a great club and I still follow their fortunes. I was lucky in having two old heads, Jim Fleeting and Jim McSherry, to look after me. I used to car-share with Fleets, Cashy [Ian Cashmore] and Freddie [Derek] Frye. Ally Love and Stuart Rennie were also good pros at the club. Robert Connor was another young lad making his way and I also played a bit with Nally [Alan McInally]. When I think about Somerset Park it’s of a goal I scored there – a diving header about three inches off the ground. My manager was Willie McLean. When I was back for a holiday a few years ago I played golf with him at Prestwick. He told me: ‘The good thing about you was that, no matter what I told you to do, you did it’.” A very McLeanesque compliment, and Nicol took it as one.
Food figures a lot in our chat. At Liverpool, where he won the First Division five times, three FA Cups and a European Cup, Nicol lost count of his nicknames but the first was definitely Chopsy, derived from Scouser Terry McDermott’s interpretation of how an Ayrshireman pronounced “chips”. “Playing away, staying in hotels, I was always eyeing the waitress with the chips. My team-mates – these b******s – would tell her I wasn’t allowed any. I’d get irritated and shout: ‘Hey, where’s my chips?’”
Something of a junk food aficionado as a mainly defensive but multi-purpose footballer, Nicol has upcoming memoirs entitled 5 League Titles and a Packet of Crisps. Ah those blissful football days, free from media-training, simulation and nutritional science. “Crisps, pies, pizzas, coke – I was a bit of a human dustbin. But my philosophy was: ‘Ach, I’ll burn it off at training.’ And I did.” Fellow Scot Gary Gillespie roomed with Nicol for a while until he could take no more incessant knocks at the door. “I loved room service,” laughs Nicol, and even the time he broke his jaw down at Norwich was no impediment to his scoffing. “I must be the only guy with a wired-up jaw who didn’t put on a single ounce. I just liquidised my food – eggs, beans and toast, fish and chips, everything.”
Grub also crops up in his memories of home life. “I can still tell you what Dad had for tea most nights: steak on a Tuesday, liver on a Thursday and on Fridays he’d ask: ‘Where’s my fish?’. His father Jim was a surveyor with the council and the household thrummed with sporting activity. “Both my parents were keen golfers and Dad was such a creature of habit that he didn’t see much of me at Ayr United because he always played a round on Saturdays. He was an old-school parent of his time and I’ve no complaints. In coaching, drafting in kids from college, I met a much different kind, very involved and pushy – too much so. Me, I’m one of six. My two brothers played rugby and one of them now caddies at Kingsbarns. My three sisters have moved across to Arran and were all playing for the same hockey team there well into their fifties.”
Though thrilled when Bob Paisley paid £300,000 to take him aged 19 to Liverpool in 1981 – the stuff of dreams – Nicol wasn’t daunted by the move and reckons this was because he’d enjoyed such a good grounding in the football life at Ayr. “Right enough, I joined the day after Liverpool had played AZ Alkmaar in the European Cup as reigning champs. But if I imagined grandeur, there wasn’t any. No airs or graces or anyone thinking they were better than anyone else. In the dressing room I was sat next to Kenny [Dalglish]. Alongside him was Rushy [Ian Rush], then Alan [Hansen]. Wow, I probably thought, and I’m sure I kept my head down for a few minutes. The banter started and never let up. And out on the training field I remember saying to myself: ‘This doesn’t feel any different from being with the boys at Ayr.’
“I’ve never been someone who thinks about things too much. Football’s a dead simple game, you know. At first I couldn’t understand Bob’s briefings. Once I asked Joe Fagan what he meant and Joe just said: ‘Don’t worry, son, go and play.’ Then when I had to play alongside Alan in central defence I thought should ask him how the partnership would work. ‘Ach, let’s just get out there,’ he said. For a simple lad, I was definitely in the right place!”
As well as Hillsborough, Nicol also lived through Heysel and was playing for Scotland in Cardiff the night Jock Stein died. “These were all terrible experiences and Hillsborough was such a raw one that for all those years the guys in the team couldn’t speak about it. I was thrilled about that judgement [exonerating fans of any blame for the deaths and recording a verdict of unlawful killing]. As players we did what we could by visiting the families. We weren’t qualified counsellors but I think we did all right.” I mention the recent calls for Dalglish, then Liverpool’s manager, to be knighted. “Absolutely he should be. When you think of the type of people who ordinarily get given these honours, here’s a guy who held the team and the city together and coped with all that pressure with such dignity.”
Of Stein, Nicol says: “I’ve never been in awe of anyone in my life but if Big Jock was to suddenly re-appear I’d stand to attention. He saw me play for Troon Thistle Boys’ Club when I was 12 – as an emergency goalie – and it was the most exciting day of my childhood. When he picked me for Scotland the first time I felt like I was 12 all over again.”
Nicol signed up for national service in time for the push to Mexico and played in the famous 3-1 win over Spain topped off by a Dalglish special. He mentions Jim Bett’s contribution, in that game and others, then laughs: “One of the few things I never managed to do in my career was score a goal for my country. That night I thought I’d done it: my terrific left-foot shot was heading for the top corner. But [Luis] Arconada saved it and that wee bugger [Mo] Johnston scored from the rebound.”
Some more stuff you might remember about Stevie Nicol: he cavorted around in a baseball cap to sing The Anfield Rap and almost drowned rescuing his dog from a frozen pond. “Sooty the mongrel was the best dog we ever had – apart from that day. I was playing for Notts County at the time and the daft mutt decided to chase a duck. I went after him across the ice, got 40 yards from the shore and fell in. I couldn’t drag myself out, the water was about nine foot deep and for a moment I thought I was a goner. Thankfully a woman came by and managed to pull me to safety with the dog’s lead.”
Doesn’t he also have size 13 feet? “Not quite. I was size 11 as a boy, all 5ft 2ins of me, which used to alarm the opposition. That was my size at Ayr but when I burst the one pair the club could afford just before a game I grabbed 12s from a sports shop to avoid the blisters you always got with new boots in those days. Liverpool took a photo of my feet when I arrived there and actually ordered me up 13s but I don’t think I ever wore them. I know I said there was no grandeur at Anfield but we did have ‘boys’ and I was able to get my apprentice to break in a pair in my normal size.”
We’re having a good laugh now so this seems the right moment to bring up some of the other mishaps from Nicol’s time in football, when the consolation of a liquidised fish supper simply wasn’t available. There was his missed spot-kick in the penalty shootout to decide the 1984 European Cup final against Roma, which thankfully didn’t prevent another Liverpool triumph. “When we practiced them I was the only guy to score. Phil Neal didn’t fancy taking the first one so I stepped up. I think my attempt is still orbiting Mars.”
Then, two years later at the World Cup, came that chance for Scotland to beat the hatchet-men of Uruguay and get out of the groups for the first time. Because the referee had sent off Jose Batista after just 56 seconds, Nicol believes this persuaded the official to go soft on other gruesome tackles when more should have walked. “Uruguay were the worst of the worst. If someone kicked me while looking me straight in the face I didn’t mind. These guys did it when our backs were turned. And then they started the spitting.”
Nevertheless Nicol blew a diamond opportunity. “I made a great run into the box but didn’t get good contact on the ball, it came off the sole of my big foot. Do I still get reminded about that miss? Every time I meet a Scotsman! [Sportswriter] Gerry McNee annoyed me when he mentioned it in print in an utterly random way. I had to have a word with him about that.”
We wind up as we began by talking about France. Earlier on the qualification road to Italia 90, Scotland beat the French 2-0 despite only arriving at Hampden half an hour before kick-off, with Nicol supplying the cross for MoJo’s clinching second.
For the re-match France introduced Cantona with our boys being assured he was “a poor man’s Joe Jordan”, though he proved better than that. Nicol’s own goal – actually his second in consecutive internationals – bounced off his heel.
“It wasn’t like that diving header I scored for Ayr Utd or anything.”
After seeming to quit Scotland, he would answer the call a year later during an injury crisis and play four more times. He always enjoyed the experience, especially if there were pipers around, and thanks me for reminding him about some good times. “And do you know what?” he says.
“I’ve just remembered that I did score for Scotland. It was only a warm-up for ’86 against the LA Aztecs but I’m counting it, no danger.”
l Five League Titles and a Packet of Crisps (Trinity Mirror Sport Media) will be published on 8 September.