Interview: Watt Nicoll, motivational guru

ALAN Shearer laughed at Watt Nicoll, but Hibs boss John Hughes is one of his many fans. The 74-year-old tells Paul Forsyth why.

MOST OF Watt Nicoll's work is kept under wraps, but every now and then, when circumstances permit, the extent of his influence is revealed, a bit like the snowy strands that lick out from under his tartan bunnet. He doesn't mind admitting that he talks to John Hughes, the Hibernian manager, almost every day. And when this interview is interrupted by a call to his mobile, he explains that it is a client of his, an experienced footballer who plays in England's Premier League.

That, though, is about as much as he is prepared to reveal of his current commitments. "An awful lot of the people I work with, I work with confidentially, and it's important that it is kept that way. In football, they are highly paid, and there tends to be a reluctance to discuss any perceived challenges in life. It's like admitting to a weakness. The rest of the industry would close ranks on them."

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Relative anonymity cannot be easy for a man who doesn't exactly blend into the background. The self-styled motivational guru, whose job is to turn those weaknesses into strengths, hasn't become an adviser to some of the most recognisable figures in sport by hiding his light under a bushel. The 74-year-old former folk musician/zoologist/TV presenter is a character-and-a-half whose life and work has been as colourful and varied as his dress sense. He of the long white beard turns up for this appointment in a harlequin bow tie and cream hoodie. "Let's keep it casual," he says to the photographer.

Nicoll is all smiles, which is what happens when you devote your life to positive thinking. In Las Vegas 13 years ago, he was voted the world's top motivator. On his company website, there is footage of the globe-trotting Dundonian on stage, waving his hands like Billy Graham. "Yes, yes," he cries, and his followers do the same. As the warm-up act for Hillary Clinton, he wasn't quite so successful. Oblivious to the ongoing Monica Lewinsky affair, he addressed a subdued audience by asking them to look upon him as the "foreplay". It was his last brush with the First Lady.

"I used to do a lot in the educational field, and I still do corporate stuff, but gradually, sport has taken over my life," he says by way of introduction to his success stories. In 1999, Kevin Keegan asked him to deliver an inspirational talk to the England team, who went on to beat Poland 3-1. Later the same year, he was working with Craig Brown, who masterminded Scotland's famous win at Wembley. Whether he was a factor in those outcomes can never be established, but some of the game's biggest names have sought to find out. David Moyes, Chris Coleman, David Coulthard, Chris Bonington and Garry Kasparov are among the countless others who have, to some degree or another, given him their ears.

In recent years, his strongest relationship has been with Hughes. Nicoll was a regular in the Falkirk dressing-room on match days, and when he turned up at Hibs' training ground a couple of weeks back, it made the newspapers. He insists that it was nothing more than a routine meeting with the manager, and that the team's subsequent recovery from a sticky patch was not his doing. "They probably needed a little dip, a touch of reality coming back in," he says. "The higher you climb up the mountain, the more you have to work because the fall is harder. I would rather see them getting a couple of negative results at this stage than with six or seven matches to go. I don't think that will happen now."

Nicoll has worked with Hughes for six years, and says he needs no more advice on motivation. He likes the way the Hibs manager uses humour as a tool, the way he has put pressure on his players to finish third - "preparing them to succeed, rather than preparing them to fail" – but, most of all, he likes his background, and how it has shaped his philosophy. "Occasionally, we have this conversation about when he was a boy, running about in gangs, and how they were all there for each other. At no time did he feel like he was on his own. If anybody wanted to take you on, they had to take on all of you, and that made you feel safer. That's the way he runs his football teams."

Nicoll grew up in a Dundee tenement, playing the bagpipes and dreaming of being a vet. He studied zoology, became an apprentice saw doctor and had one short stint as a refuse collector. As well as PR work, speedway riding and periodic attempts at stage hypnotism, he has been through bankruptcy, three marriages and two serious illnesses. His autobiography was called Twisted Knickers and Stolen Scones, whatever that means.

In America, they call him the guru of personal reinvention, and it's fair to say that Nicoll has lived by his own code. "This ability to walk away from a little bit of success because you believe you can have more in another field… that came naturally to me. Very often it means a big financial drop, but I think you have to be big enough to say, 'I'll take my chances'. If it means sleeping rough, as it did for me at one time, so be it.

"I suppose my old man would have described it as unstable, but nowadays, with no stability in employment, the ability to reinvent yourself, to handle change, is probably the biggest asset you can have. A lot of jobs that were here three years ago just don't exist any more. Maybe I was born before my time."

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Nicoll's life has been kaleidoscopic. His music career in the 1960s and 70s encompassed 14 albums, and a partnership with Billy Connolly, which produced If it wisnae fur yer wellies. He was the Pet Man on a children's programme for Scottish Television, and claims that Lionel Blair taught him to tap dance. He also wrote scripts for Norman Wisdom. "My wife and I were over in the Isle of Man just recently, and we had hoped to look Norman up, but he is in an old folk's home, and doesn't see anybody."

For 28 years, Nicoll was married to Doreen Swan, the 1964 Miss Scotland (37-22-36), but when they split up in 1992, he lost both his fortune and his health. Having survived a bout of tuberculosis in his teens, his battle this time was with stomach cancer, which he won by refusing to feel sorry for himself. "If somebody feels that life has been unfair because they have lost their job or their partner or their health, the truth is that not too many people really care. So you have to say 'what can I do about it?' It's not that I don't feel sympathy for people, but you can't help them just by saying 'poor you'."

He has no time for those who lack ambition, for those who produce excuses and complaints. He has invented a character called the Black Abbot, which he says has to be overcome, for it embodies "the right of Scottish people to be depressed". He wants clients, be they sporting or otherwise, to believe that, with the right attitude, anything is possible, within reason. "In life, you don't get everything you want, but strangely, you tend to get everything you need. And that's because we do whatever it takes to get it. If you are prepared to do whatever it takes, you have a right to expect it. And when you expect something, you prepare accordingly. Trust me, there are teams out there who prepare to lose. They've got no chance."

Suggest to him that daring to dream didn't do Ally MacLeod much good, and he has another story for you. In the early 1950s, Nicoll broke his collarbone in a speedway accident at Glasgow's White City Stadium. The primary chain was wrapped round his neck, leaving a scar that remains to this day. In the hospital ward, he had a bed alongside MacLeod, who had broken his collarbone playing for Third Lanark. The two of them, who couldn't raise their arms above shoulder height, spent six weeks forcing each other to do so with a pulley that connected their hands. "I was the first person to give Ally MacLeod a hard time," he laughs.

For some – including Alan Shearer, who laughed throughout Nicoll's speech to the England squad – the Scot is just another of the many charlatans now passing themselves off as sport psychologists, but the man himself makes no such claim. "When I talk to football players I always start by saying I am not a sports psychologist. Most of the people I work with are not attracted to academia. Basically all I'm doing is taking a whole load of experience and making it available to others."

At least he's being honest. Now living in Ayrshire with his wife, Helen, Nicoll is a warm and likeable fellow, entertaining company it has to be said, and if he is able to make a living from what he does, good luck to him. The reinvention will continue in Edinburgh this summer where he and his banjo will take to the Festival Fringe for a gig that combines music with motivational lyrics.

There isn't much he hasn't tried in a fulfilling professional life, but ask him if there is an itch he hasn't scratched, if there is one person more than any other that he would love to have worked with, and the response is immediate. "I think about it again and again," he sighs. "I could have helped Colin Montgomerie. He just didn't seem to be able to get over that final hurdle. It's conceit on my part, but I've always felt that the stuff I do and the way I do it would have suited him." They would have made quite a pair.