The VTID: Chris Nicholl – a Player Who Laid the Foundations for Greatness

In the latest VTID column, Adam Szreter looks back to his youth and pays tribute to the late Chris Nicholl.

Chris Nicholl’s Pivotal Role in Transforming Aston Villa

By Adam Szreter

The recent sad news of Chris Nicholl’s passing immediately transported me back to the beginning of my love affair with Aston Villa during the 1974-75 season. That year, Villa won promotion back to the old First Division, marking the end of a dark period in the club’s history. The period had seen us fall as far as the Third Division. Nicholl was at the heart of the first Villa team I ever saw in March 1975, and Ron Saunders appointed him captain the following season.

Nicholl’s team was of course the forerunner to the one that went on to win the League and European Cup just a few years later, although their first season back in the big time was hard going. They failed to win away all season, but new signings Andy Gray and Dennis Mortimer began to make their mark and the fortress they built at Villa Park was more than enough to keep them up. 

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During that season, Nicholl remarkably scored all four goals in a 2-2 draw at Leicester. Having won the League Cup the previous season, we also made our European debut against Royal Antwerp in the UEFA Cup. We didn’t make it past the first round, but I still have the programme from the home game and it’s interesting to note that Louis van Gaal was in the Antwerp lineup that day. 

In the following season, our home form went off the charts. We won 17 of our 21 games, drew three and lost one – to the Blues. Trevor Francis and Kenny Burns used to save it all up for us in those days. We finished fourth, six points off the top, and if our away form had been half as good as our home form, we’d have romped away with the title. Gray, Little and Deehan scored an incredible 73 goals between them, and Nicholl himself chipped in with six. Oh for a goalscoring centre-half right now!

One of Nicholl’s goals that season is of course his epitaph as far as Villa fans of a certain vintage are concerned. I’m proud to say I was there that night at Old Trafford. It was the third game of a famously protracted League Cup final against an Everton team, featuring future Villa great, Ken McNaught. The original, a goalless draw at Wembley, was a spectacularly terrible game. When the final whistle went it really was over before it had begun, with no extra-time scheduled for some reason.

We trudged up to Hillsborough a few days later and the football was little better, although at least there were goals this time in a 1-1 draw. It then took nearly a month to find a date and a venue for the second replay, but up the M6 we went to Manchester. Villa had been clear favourites all along but with 10 minutes to go we were trailing to Bob Latchford’s first-half opener. “Everton are Magic, Everton are Magic, La-La-La-La, La-La-La-La!” I can still hear them singing in the Stretford End.

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We were getting desperate when Nicholl picked up the ball midway inside the Everton half, presumably to pass it to someone more likely than him to create a chance. Where I was standing was more or less level with him, and when he took a couple of paces forward and made it clear he was going to shoot from nearly 40 yards, I started shouting, “DON’T F****** SHOO…” But the ball sailed away from his left peg and just kept on sailing, past Lawson’s flailing arms and into the back of the Everton net.

It really was quite unbelievable, and we hadn’t stopped celebrating, when Brian Little put us 2-1 up. Even Everton’s inevitable equaliser couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces, given where we’d come from just a few minutes earlier, and Little, as we know, had the last laugh in the final minute of extra time. Nicholl raised the trophy at the end of one of his last matches for the club before signing for Southampton two months later. 

McNaught swapped sides to replace him but it took us a while to find our way without Big Chris, before Mortimer and a young Gordon Cowans, who both played alongside him in that final, eventually led us to even greater glory four years later.

Without a doubt, Chris Nicholl’s never-say-die attitude, initiative, and leadership were instrumental in laying the foundations for what would become the greatest chapter in the club’s history.


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