Jimmy Nicholl

Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballing legend

On a Manchester United fans forum on the internet recently there was an exchange of views on who had scored some of the greatest goals for the Red Devils.

While the usual suspects, George Best, Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs found their way on to the thread, the name of Northern Ireland fullback Jimmy Nicholl was also mentioned among these more accomplished marksmen.

‘I didn’t score too many, but I remember that one. It was in the League Cup against Newcastle United,’ says Nicholl as he delved deeply into his memory bank. ‘We put seven past them, but don’t ask me which year.’

Nicholl was a fullback who relished the chance, for club or country, to attack whenever the opportunity presented itself. In the 2-2 draw against Austria at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain his scampering run up the flank and rightwing cross set up Billy Hamilton to head into the net.

It is hard to believe that almost a quarter of a century has passed since Nicholl was a member of the swashbuckling crew that took Billy Bingham’s side through the preliminary stages before being knocked out by France. At that stage Nicholl had cut his ties with the club that had taken him on as a 15 year old apprentice in 1972.

‘I went to Old Trafford straight from Rathcoole Secondary and made my first team debut two years later as a substitute against Southampton.’

The boy from north Belfast with the golden curly hair and winning smile was a big favourite with the supporters at Old Trafford. During his time there he appeared in two FA Cup finals against Liverpool and Arsenal.

‘The United manager Tommy Doherty was a huge influence on my career. He gave me my chance in the first team. I owe a lot to him and to my international managers Danny Blanchflower and Billy Bingham. They taught me so much about the game.’

Nicholl sought new pastures in Canada when a transfer to Sunderland fell through. He signed for North American Soccer League side Toronto Blizzard. ‘The move was okay because I was able to come back on loan to play in Britain during their severe winter.’

Jimmy did spend time at Roker Park and at Glasgow Rangers before eventually agreeing a permanent move to West Bromwich Albion. At the end of the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico he called time on his international career and continued at club level for a few seasons which included a second spell at Ibrox.

Since then ‘Nic’ has been carving out a coaching and managerial career for himself. He left Raith Rovers to succeed Mick McCarthy at Millwall but the move did not work out and he went back to Scotland. After service with Dunfermline, he followed Jimmy Calderwood to Aberdeen in 2004 to become his assistant manager at the Dons.

Jimmy freely admits that life in the Scottish Premier League is not that easy. ‘Rangers and Celtic dominate everything here. The gap between them and the rest of us is huge because they have so much more money and support.’

And does that mean that he would be glad to be rid of the Glasgow ‘Old Firm’ to the English Premiership?

‘I wouldn’t say that. If the English game thought that Celtic and Rangers would be an asset, it could happen. However, I can’t imagine some English clubs relishing the thought of playing in front of packed houses at Celtic Park or Ibrox.’

As the Northern Ireland international team’s ranking has spiralled downwards in the last ten years, many supporters have looked to Jimmy Nicholl as the manager who could restore its reputation.

‘I have gone for the job twice before, but wasn’t appointed,’ says the man whose 73 caps were achieved with great distinction. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to do it. It’s just that I can’t imagine getting a third chance.’

By Padraig Coyle