Advertisement

Chris Nicholl, hard-tackling footballer who won silverware with Aston Villa – obituary

Chris Nicholl with an opposition shirt after Northern Ireland's historic victory against the hosts, Spain, at the 1982 World Cup
Chris Nicholl with an opposition shirt after Northern Ireland's historic victory against the hosts, Spain, at the 1982 World Cup - Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Chris Nicholl, who has died aged 77, was a Cheshire-born footballer and manager who played for Northern Ireland in the World Cup and Aston Villa and Southampton at the top level, belying his reputation as a rugged defender by contributing two remarkable scoring feats to Villa’s history.

When Nicholl captained the club in the second replay of the 1977 League Cup final, Everton led 1-0 after 80 minutes as he took possession on the right. After he cut inside on to his left foot, his 40-yard shot tore past the goalkeeper. Villa won 3-2 after extra time, bringing him a second winner’s medal to add to one from their 1975 success.

In 1976, when Villa drew 2-2 at Leicester, Nicholl scored all four goals, twice equalising after conceding two own goals. He asked for the match-ball only to be told the referee wanted to keep it. “My first hat-trick in a Villa shirt and I didn’t even get the ball,” he said in 2006. “My third goal, Leicester’s second, was the best I ever scored – a diving header.”

With cruel irony, his family held Nicholl’s aerial strength responsible for the dementia which blighted his final years, issuing a statement which said “his illness was caused by his dedication to football”. In a 2017 television documentary Nicholl told Alan Shearer, whose League career he launched as Southampton manager: “My memory’s in trouble… I’m brain-damaged from heading footballs.”

Christopher John Nicholl was born in Wilmslow on October 12 1946. An imposing centre-half, standing over six feet tall, he joined Burnley as an apprentice in 1963 after being spotted playing for Macclesfield Schools. He turned professional two years later but was released in 1966 without first-team experience, dropping into the Cheshire League with Witton Albion.

Alan Ball Sr, father of the England World Cup winner and manager of Halifax, ventured £1,250 to take him to the Fourth Division club in 1968. They were promoted in his first season, as were Luton from the Third Division a year later after paying £30,000 within 24 hours of his subduing their serial scorer Malcolm Macdonald.

Nicholl takes on Manchester United's Gordon Hill in 1976
Nicholl takes on Manchester United's Gordon Hill in 1976 - Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Early in 1972 a further hike in his transfer value saw Villa splash £90,000 on Nicholl, who promptly helped them win the Third Division title. He became a key figure in the claret-and-blue renaissance which led to their return to the First Division in 1975.

When Southampton pursued him in 1977, Nicholl used his “instant promotion” record when negotiating with their manager Lawrie McMenemy, securing double the normal bonus if they escaped the Second Division. Saints duly went up. He was a mainstay over the next five top-flight campaigns, regarding himself as a disciplined counterweight to the team’s flair players.

While on the south coast he represented Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup, during which Billy Bingham’s side famously beat the host nation, Spain, and reached the second stage of the tournament. Nicholl qualified by virtue of having spent his early childhood in Belfast, his father’s home city. He scored on his debut in 1974, against Sweden, and won his 51st and final cap against Turkey on his 37th birthday.

Nicholl with Dennis Mortimer after Villa's victory in the League Cup final second replay at Old Trafford in 1977
Nicholl with Dennis Mortimer after Villa's victory in the League Cup final second replay at Old Trafford in 1977 - Gerry Armes/Birmingham Mail/Popperfoto via Getty Images

By then he had joined Grimsby as player-assistant manager, helping them to fifth place in the Second Division in 1984, their highest position in 36 years. He retired after two seasons there, having made more than 700 senior appearances with five clubs.

When McMenemy left Southampton in 1985, Nicholl was a surprise choice as his successor. However, he maintained their First Division status for six seasons, confounding his cautious image by introducing the exciting attacking talents of Shearer, Matthew Le Tissier and Rod Wallace, before being dismissed in 1991.

He resurfaced as Walsall manager in 1994, winning promotion from the fourth tier at the first attempt but leaving within three years citing “family reasons”. There was also a two-year stint, starting in 1998, as assistant to McMenemy with Northern Ireland, and a nostalgic role as manager of the Villa Old Stars XI.

Chris Nicholl was married to Jane; they had a daughter and a son.

Chris Nicholl, born October 12 1946, died February 24 2024