From Halifax to immortality

Dave Woodhall pays tribute to Chris Nicholl, whose death was announced on Sunday.

The quarter of a century after the end of World War II was a time of gradual decline for Aston Villa as the situation at Villa Park gradually worsened until reaching the nadir of division three in 1970. And yet, as we now know, relegation marked a turning point in the club’s history. As supporters returned in their droves, the situation of being the biggest fish in this small pond’s history and the self-belief running throughout the club gave Villa the sort of financial clout that enabled them to buy players good enough for a much higher level. One of these was Chris Nicholl, who cost a record fee for the third division when Villa bought him from Luton Town for £90,000 in March 1972.

Chris had been born in Wilmslow, Cheshire, on 12th October 1946 and spent his early years living in Belfast. He began his career with Burnley, but was released without playing in their first team and moved to Witton Albion of the Cheshire County League. He spent two seasons there before returning to full-time football with Halifax Town, then of division three, stepping up to the second division with Luton Town in 1969. Three years later Villa manager Vic Crowe saw Chris as an integral part of the team that was to complete the first stage of recovery and paid £90,000, at the time a third division record, to bring him to Villa Park. Despite dropping down a division it was still a jump from Kenilworth Road to appearing in front of the forty thousand-plus gates that were being attracted to Villa Park and Chris admitted that the adjustment took some time. “It took me a year to get used to the size of the club, the vastness of Villa Park overwhelmed me,” he said later.

But whatever misgivings he may have had about settling into his new surroundings, no-one would have noticed as Chris immediately formed a formidable partnership with Fred Turnbull, one of the few remaining Villa players from the pre-relegation side still to keep their place in the first team. Chris made his debut in a 2-0 win against Rotherham in March 1972, taking over from the veteran George Curtis, and scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Shrewsbury four days later. Chris played thirteen of Villa’s final fifteen games of the season, from which they took 26 points to win the third division title with a record haul and record-breaking crowds at home and away to match.

A second successive promotion looked likely for much of the 1972-73 season, but Villa eventually ran out of steam and finished third in the table, unluckily in that from the following season three clubs would be promoted. Chris missed just one league game all season and played in all of Villa’s cup matches, but his partner was beginning to pick up the injuries that would prematurely end his career and the versatile Ian Ross, signed from Liverpool a week before Nicholl arrived, began to find a regular place in the centre of defence. Hotly tipped for promotion once more, Villa struggled to rise above mid-table in 1973-74, eventually finishing fourteenth. Despite the team’s drawbacks Chris was again a regular in the side, missing two league and cup games and scoring in Villa’s win over Chester in the FA Cup.

In 1974-75 Villa finally returned to the top flight, finishing second division runners-up and Ron Saunders’ free-scoring side had the reliable pairing of Nicholl and Ross at the heart of its defence. Ian Ross, now the team’s captain, was an ever-present while Chris again missed just one league game and the FA Cup fifth round defeat at Ipswich. Together they made the ideal partnership, the ball-playing Ross combining well with the raw-boned, dominating Nicholl. Chris chipped in with four goals, the first he had scored in the league since the third division promotion season three years earlier, and also had a hand in the one that won Villa the League Cup final against Norwich City. His powerful header was goalbound when punched off the line by Norwich defender Mel Machin, leading to the penalty that Ray Graydon scored from a rebound.

Villa’s return to the top flight was fairly uneventful. They finished sixteenth in the league, never looking in any real danger of relegation but scarcely troubling the better sides. Saunders used the early part of the season to assess the suitability of his players to the higher standard of life back in the first division and was busy replacing those who were unable to make the step up. Chris certainly passed his test, missing just two games all season, one through suspension and the other when he injured his shoulder on an icy pitch during Villa’s defeat at home to Queens Park Rangers.

He also chipped in with another five goals in all competitions, including the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Coventry during a time when Villa were in danger of being involved in a relegation battle as they went ten games without a win. Chris also scored two in a league game at Leicester City. Unfortunately for Villa’s attempts to get that elusive away victory, he also scored two own goals in that game. Such a feat hadn’t been achieved in the top flight for almost fifty years and no-one has managed it since. Almost as remarkable for such a combative player was Chris’s ability to remain relatively free of injuries.

Ian Ross was one of the players who Saunders felt need replacing and as a result, Chris found himself team captain as well as having to get used to another defensive partner, this time Leighton Phillips. Like Ross, the Welshman Phillips was a converted midfielder whose ability on the ball complemented Nicholl perfectly. 1976-77 was Villa’s most successful season for decades. They finished fourth in the league, reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup and won the League Cup after a marathon run of games that harmed their chances of also winning the title. The team were thrashing all-comers, beating European champions-elect Liverpool 5-1 in what many described as Villa’s best performance since the war, although Chris was missing in what proved to be his longest spell out through injury in his time with Villa.

While the goals were flooding in at one end, Chris and Leighton Phillips were doing the hard work at the other, winning the ball and allowing team-mates such as Brian Little and Andy Gray to grab the glory. As he later said, “We knew our jobs and we knew what we had to do. Mine was to win the ball and give it to John Gidman or Frank Carrodus,” who provided the width in Saunders’ free-scoring team. Chris scored his best-ever toll for the Villa, netting six times in all competitions including one of the most famous goals in the club’s history. The circumstances have gone down in Villa folklore – a goal down in the second replay of the League Cup final at Old Trafford, there were ten minutes to go when Chris got the ball just inside the Everton half and let fly from fully forty yards. He later claimed that the ball had swerved beyond Everton goalkeeper David Lawson due to the heavy dressing he was wearing to protect an ankle injury but whatever the circumstances, Chris’s place in history was assured as he lifted the League Cup.

Injuries and a fixture backlog caused largely by those lengthy cup runs had prevented Villa challenging more strongly for the league title but a final finish of fourth was still their best for over forty years. The club was undoubtedly back in the big time but Ron Saunders was still not satisfied and began building his third and most successful side. Unfortunately for Chris, despite being team captain he was to be one of the casualties. Supporters were shocked and annoyed to learn that such a popular figure had been sold in the summer of 1977 to second division Southampton for £90,000.

Anyone who knew Saunders, though, might not have been so surprised. Chris was out of contract and had turned thirty, which many managers of the period though was the age to get rid of players who, the theory went, might start becoming difficult to handle as they knew the game too well. Saunders certainly proved that he would never allow any player to become more important than the rest of the team when he sold Andy Gray and John Gidman two years later. Another possible idea was put forward by Chris himself, “We played golf together and he always beat me but that summer, for the first time ever, I beat him. Two weeks later I was sold. That pushed him over the edge.”

Whatever the reason, after just over five memorable years, two trophy wins, two promotions, 253 appearances and 22 goals, Chris was on his way to the south coast and second division Southampton. The players who had helped Villa out of division three all hold a special place in the affections of Villa supporters of the time, as do the 1976-77 team. As a player who spanned both eras Chris will always remain popular, as was proved when he was included in Villa’s Top Fifty post-war players in 2011. His replacement, Everton’s Ken McNaught, had a hard time at first replacing such a Holte End hero.

Chris, meanwhile, soon became equally popular at his new club, helping them to promotion in his first season and his third League Cup final in five years, although this time he finished on the losing side when Southampton were beaten by Nottingham Forest. He spent five seasons at the Dell, helping Southampton remain established in the first division, before finishing his playing days with Grimsby Town in division two. It was here where he began his managerial career as assistant before taking over as boss of Southampton in June 1985.

Despite being born in Cheshire, Chris won 51 caps for Northern Ireland thanks to his Belfast-born father, and uniquely won them all after the age of 28. He made his international debut in a European Championship qualifier away in Sweden in October 1974 alongside Villa centre-forward Sammy Morgan and scored the opener in a 2-0 win, the second goal coming from future Villa manager Martin O’Neill. He played twelve of his games for Northern Ireland while with Villa, then 37 with Southampton. The team had been largely unsuccessful when Chris was at Villa but his Southampton career coincided with one of his country’s golden periods, when they won the Home Internationals in 1980 and took part in a memorable 1982 World Cup finals campaign, beating Spain in the group stages before going out in the quarter-finals to a France side featuring future Villa player Didier Six.

Despite his lack of previous experience Chris spent six years in charge at the Dell, keeping the club safely mid-table and bringing such players as Alan Shearer and Matt le Tissier through the ranks of their youth team. After leaving Southampton in 1991 he was out of football for three years before becoming manager of Walsall, who were then in division three. In Nicholl’s first season he led the Saddlers to promotion and over the next two years established them in the second division before resigning in 1997. He was then involved with the Northern Ireland national side, where he was Lawrie McMenemy’s number two, before returning to Walsall as assistant to his former Villa colleague Ray Graydon in November 2001, but he left when Graydon was sacked three months later. This was his last full-time job in football. Sadly, Chris was diagnosed with dementia and moved back to the south coast to be cared for by his family in his final years. There should always be room in football for such a man.