There’s an indisputable glamour about being a professional footballer in the top ranks of the game. There’s fame, fortune and the adoration of fans to bask in, offering a glowing warmth to soothe away any aches, pains and bruises earned on the exercise of the occupation. Of late, such riches and rewards have galloped away into the stratosphere, a place hardly seen, let alone comprehended by us lesser mortals, standing and watching. Roll the clock back 40 years or so though, and whilst there’s still adulation and at least an element of wealth and celebrity, for so many players of a certain genre from that era – and perhaps others to come – the price now being demanded of them is truly catastrophic. There are many slips and stumbles, often painted as disasters in a career, but it’s only when real tragedy strikes that such things attain their true perspective.
On 13 March 1976, Aston Villa, having returned to Division One following promotion the previous season, visited White Hart Lane to play a league fixture against Spurs. Although Villa would net twice, through Andy Gray and Ray Graydon, the North London team would run out comfortable 5-2 victors, thanks to goals from John Duncan, Don McAllister, Steve Perryman and Martin Robinson – plus, that most unfortunate statistic for defenders, an own goal by Villa centre-back Chris Nicholl.
Scoring for the opposition is always seen as a bit of a bête noire, especially for defenders, whose basic stock in trade is, of course, to keep the ball out of the net, rather than aiding and abetting the opposition. Sometimes such things are unavoidable though, and nearly always the outcome of miscommunication, misdirection or an accidental deflection. That said, when Nicholl was walking from the pitch on that early Spring evening, it’s fairly certain to think that he was resolved to avoiding a similar occurrence any time soon. The problem is that, sometimes, fell fate takes control, removing outcomes from your design, and aspirations are torn asunder.
Nicholl had started his career at Burnley, but dropped into the non-league game with Witton Albion after failing to make a breakthrough at Turf Moor. He was then taken on by Halifax Town, before moving to Villa in his mid-twenties via a stay at Kenilworth Road with Luton Town. Always the sort of stalwart defender beloved of fans, Nicholl would be revered by the Holte End at Villa Park. Perhaps not the greatest technique in the world, but in those days, such niceties were hardly of the utmost concern when selecting a centre-back. A dominating presence in the air and bravery above and beyond the call were far more important attributes. Nicholl had those in abundance. Plus, his aerial prowess was always likely to be an option to loosen the tightest of defences, supplementing the attack at corners or similar set pieces when the ball was likely to be ‘thrown into the mixer’ in such scenarios. It was something that defined his career, and would do so for his later life outside of the game as well.
Nicholl had joined Aston Villa in 1972 when they were in the old Division Three – League One in modern parlance. In his first term, they secured the league title conceding just 32 goals in a 46 games season. It took Villa into the second tier. After finishing in third place, just shy of promotion in their first season there, the next term saw the team struggle to 14th position, a mere seven points above the relegation zone but, conversely, also only eight away from a promotion place.
In 1974-75 however, with Nicholl again commanding at the back, Villa reached second place in the table, and secured promotion to Division One. Again, the defence was outstanding, with just 32 goals notched against them across the league campaign once more. A successful run in the League Cup, culminating in victory over Norwich City at Wembley was the icing on the cake. Villa were back in the big time.
Nicholl would make a total of 650 appearances in his career, and 210 of those would be in league games for the Birmingham club. He was one of the reasons that the Villa’s return to the higher reaches of the English game had been built on the back of a well marshalled defence. Such achievements are guaranteed to endear a player to the hearts of fans, and in the overwhelming number of games when Nicholl appeared in claret and blue, he was reliable and steadfast. One game however, bucked that trend, and it came just seven days after his own goal gaffe at White Hart Lane.
The following week, Ron Saunders and his team faced another away fixture, this time involving a shorter journey to across the Midlands to face Leicester City at Filbert Street. Ahead of kick-off, the match looked to be the epitome of a fairly non-descript, common or garden league match between two sides destined to finish in mid-table mediocrity, albeit that such a finish represented a highly satisfactory state of affairs for the newly promoted club. For Chris Nicholl however, the encounter played out on 20 March 1976 in front of 24,00 fans, would see him claim a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.
Despite having the better of the early exchanges in the match, Villa fell behind on the quarter-hour mark. It may have been a cross or a shot by Brian Alderson, but whatever the intent, contact with Nicholl’s head steered the ball past John Burridge, in goal for Villa, and the visitors were on the back foot. Pressure mounted though as the Saunders’s team responded, in typically belligerent manner, and following a scramble in the Leicester goalmouth Nicholl hit a low shot past Mark Wallington to bring the Birmingham club level. The strike would surely have made the half-time break a little less unpleasant for the defender, having now erased the cost of his earlier misdemeanour. Although any player tempted to remonstrate with the teak-tough defender would surely have been wise to consider a more cautious counsel. The early minutes of the second half though would quickly dissipate any thoughts of relief that Nicholl may have been feeling as he sipped his half-time beverage.
Eight minutes after the restart, Leicester striker Frank Worthington, lofted a ball into the Villa area. With Bob Lee threatening to convert, Nicholl threw himself forward to intercept. He succeeded in that part of the endeavour at least, but also managed to fire the ball past Burridge once more to gift Leicester the lead back that he had snaffled from them just before the break. Nicholl would later, much later, with the passage of the years surely easing the agony of the moment, describe it as the “best goal I ever scored.” It would have been of little consolation to the hapless Burridge that Nicholl self-deprecatingly hailed the quality of the header, declaring that “no goalkeeper would have saved it.”
Despite leaving the pitch seven days earlier, somewhat annoyed at having conceded an own goal, albeit in a defeat where it hardly contributed to the result, Chris Nicholl had now surpassed that indiscretion, and put Villa behind for the second time in the game. The centre-back, although perhaps chastened at the time, would also later say that he had few regrets about the brace that he steered past his own goalkeeper on that day. As with so many centre backs of the time, Nicholl considered that any ball into the area required his attention and that he would always seek to deal with it. More often than not, any contact would clear the ball and, with it, also dismiss the imminent threat to his goal. It’s the sort of attitude that fans understand and admire. On this occasion, it had led to the opposite effect however, and Villa were trailing again.
Towards the end of the game, it looked very much like the two own goals would doom Nicholl and his team to defeat, but with just four minutes remaining, Villa forced a corner, and up went Nicholl to support the forwards. The ball was crossed in, and for the third time it found the back of the net via the centre back’s head. The scores were level again and Nicholl had reprised an act not seen since 1923, when Sam Wynne also managed to score twice, for Oldham Athletic, but also added a couple for Manchester United with a brace of own goals at the other end. At least Nicholl had the marginal comfort of knowing that his four goals had not been a unique occurrence.
It’s the rarest of scenarios for defenders to score four times in a single game. Many have failed to achieve such heights in an entire season, and Nicholl at least sought compensation by asking the referee for the match ball as a souvenir. Unfortunately, as it was the official’s final game as a top league referee, he refused, declaring that he was keeping the ball for himself. In a way in-keeping with his fortunes of the day, it neatly rounded off the afternoon for the unfortunate Nicholl.
The following year, Villa repeated their League Cup Final success of 1975, lifting the trophy for the second time in a couple of years. Again, Nicholl, by now with all thoughts of any Filbert Street follies cast into the pit where no-one ever ventures to look, was in the thick of things, and another epic goalscoring moment would accrue.
Facing Everton in the final, the clubs played out a goalless draw on 12 March, before achieving a 1-1 deadlock at Hillsborough four days later thanks to a late Latchford equaliser, after another own goal – this time not by Nicholl, but Everton’s Roger Kenyon – had put Villa ahead in extra-time. A third match would be required to settle things, but with fixtures already set for the closing part of the season, it would be 13 April at Old Trafford before the fate of the trophy was settled.
Shortly before the break, Latchford put Everton in front, and inside the last ten minutes it looked likely to be the deciding strike. Cue Chris Nicholl, striding forward from the right flank towards the centre of the pitch some 35 yards or so from David Lawson’s goal. It was one of those ‘Oh no. Please don’t shoot!’ moments, when a defender full of eager anticipation and an inflated idea of his goalscoring prowess launches a shot that manages to hit Row Z behind the goal; the line of seats highest up in the stands being the only thing stopping the effort achieving escape velocity and entering a geostationary orbit around the planet. Nicholl gave it a go though and hit the ball left-footed. It flew past Lawson and into the net. It was a rocket of a shot, and it put the Villa fans – rather than the ball – into orbit. Nicholl’s goal had levelled the game.
It was the sort of strike that could turn any game, and so it turned out. Less than two minutes later, Villa were ahead. A deflated Everton side who had seen the cup dashed from their lips, conceded again when a low effort from Brian Little eluded Lawson. Now it was Villa’s turn to hang on. Their efforts broadly succeeded, if only for sixty seconds or so, before Mick Lyons squared things again. It would take another period of extra-time before Little would scramble home a late winner and take the trophy back to the Midlands. It would mark the end of Chris Nicholl’s time in claret and blue.
Defenders aren’t supposed to be judged by the amount of goals they score, although, the nature of the ones they do get can often speak of their attitude and commitment to a cause. Strange to say perhaps, that despite the importance of his long-range effort against Everton at Old Trafford, the goals in that game against Leicester are perhaps more telling of Chris Nicholl as a player – the own goals in particular. This is not for any negative reason, but because here was a player who identified his task as being addressing potential problems for his team. If he saw something happening, he would seek to deal with it. Sometimes things didn’t pan out for him, and in that 90 minutes, that certainly appeared to be the case. Consider however, that not only did he go to the other end of the pitch and wipe out the cost of those errors with strikes at the right end, but even after his intervention had caused an own goal in the first half, he would not be dissuaded from his task afterwards. After all, as he said, that’s what a defender should do.
Although the years at Villa Park were probably the zenith of his career, his departure wouldn’t mark the end of it. Moving to Southampton, he would play 228 league games for the south coast club, slightly more than in his time in Birmingham, across a six-year term, before seeing out his playing days at Grimsby Town. Later, he would move into management, firstly with Southampton and later with Walsall.
Whilst with the Saints, he brought a number of youngsters into the first team, that would go on to be stars of them game, including Alan Shearer, Matt Le Tissier and Rod Wallace. Three years after being sacked by Southampton, he returned to management joining Walsall. In his first term at Fellows Park, he guided the club to promotion and the giddy heights of English football’s second tier, before establishing them in a highly creditable top half finishing position in the table the following two seasons. He left the club in 1997, reportedly for family reasons, although the beginnings of other problems may have been a factor in the decision.
Some years later, after also spending a couple of years as assistant to Lawrie Sanchez with the Northern Ireland team, the tragic consequences of Nicholl’s commitment to defending his team’s cause, regardless of thoughts for his own well-being, particularly with regard to repeated heading of the type of heavy balls used in that era became more evident. He was diagnosed with CTE dementia, and his name was added to the seemingly ever-growing list of ex-players now paying a huge price for their dedication to a career where heroics and disregard for health and welfare were lauded by managers, fans and the press alike.
Speaking to the Birmingham Evening Mail, back in 2017, after appearing on a documentary focusing on the issue with his former player Alan Shearer, Nicholl expressed his concerns. “My memory is in trouble,” the newspaper quotes him as relating. “Everyone forgets regular things, where your keys are. But when you forget where you live, that’s different.” Those couple of sentences sadly capture the extent of the condition he was experiencing at the time. He knew however that worse was still to come, adding, “I’ve had that for the last four or five years, it is definitely getting worse. It bothers me.”
Very few fans would ever place the name of Chris Nicholl in the list of the best footballers of his time. Defenders of his ilk are seldom recognised, and yet the dedication and selfless attitude they display are surely worthy of much higher regard. Further, that ‘long goodbye’, as dementia is often described, seems a harsh price to pay for such application and desire. As time goes on, it seems likely that an increasing number of ex-professionals – and indeed members of the semi-professional and amateur ranks as well – will join the likes of Nicoll and Astle as victims of a condition exacting a callous price for being a courageous footballer, and perhaps that is the harshest own goal of all.