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RIP Chris Nicholl A True Southampton Legend
Monday, 26th Feb 2024 12:47

As many Saints supporters are aware Chris Nicholl had suffered from Dementia in his later years and sadly he passed away on Saturday evening in hospital, here we pay tribute to one of the few men who both played for and managed the club.

Chis Nicholl was born in Wilmslow in Cheshire on 12th October 1946, although he represented Northern Ireland at international level and sadly he died on Saturday 24th February aged 77 years old.

Before joining Southampton in June 1977, he started his career as an apprentice at Burnley, but dropped into non league football with Witton Albion before Alan Ball Senior, the father of Alan Ball who would become his team mate on his arrival at the Dell, signed his for Halifax Town, he would spend just a year at the Shay, but in that season Halifax gained promotion from the then Division 4 before joining Luton Town in August 1969, in his first season there Luton also gained promotion and his performances there brought him to the attention of Aston Villa who signed him in March 1972, just in time to help steer them to the 3rd Division title.

At Villa he would become a legend, playing 210 League games for the club over 3 divisions, in 1976 he would score all 4 goals in Villa's 2-2 draw with Leicester City, only the second time ever that this had been achieved, as you can gather two were in his own net, although this was the only time it had been achieved with all 4 goals coming from open play.

!976/77 was perhaps his best season at Villa Park, they finished 4th in the League and won the League cup (they had also won it in 1975, after a draw with Everton in the initial game at Wembley, they won 3-2 in the second replay and Chris scored one of the goals, before stepping up as Captain to pick up the trophy.

He might have thought at the end of this season that at 30 he was at the peak of his game and that he would lead Villa into Europe the following season and perhaps a shot at the Division 1 title, but it was not to be and Villa surprisingly let him go to Saints in the summer of 1977 for £80,000, it would become perhaps pound for pound one of the best signings that Lawrie McMenemy and indeed Southampton FC would ever make.

He came with a big reputation and also the fact that at all his previous clubs he had won promotion in his first season, with McMenemy building for a promotion bid he seemed the ideal choice.

He would indeed win promotion in his first season at the Dell and would go on to be a mainstay of the side over the next 6 years, he would make his debut against Brighton at the Dell on 20th August 1977 and would miss just one game in the League that season.

The following season saw him play 38 out of 42 league games and also a return to Wembley in the League Cup final, alas it would not be a happy day out with Nottingham Forest beating us 3-2.

In his third season he started 33 League games and was again a mainstay in the defence, although at 33 and with the emerging Malcolm Waldron and recently signed England international Dave Watson for competition, his days looked numbered.

But 1980/81 would prove that to be wrong, with newly arrived Kevin Keegan and talk of the League title, or at least another cup win, Dave Watson would start 38 games, but Chris would go 4 better and along with Mike Channon start all 42 League fixtures.

1981/82 would be another strong season for Chris, he played in 34 out of the 42 League games as the team finished 7th in the League.

But the writing was on the wall, a youngster called Mark Wright had partnered him in the final games of that season and when Kevin Keegan left in the summer of 1982, surely approaching 36, he could not keep on going.

The answer was he could, with McMenemy in the process of rebuilding the side after the departures of both Channon & Keegan and also Alan Ball in November 1982, Lawrie needed an experienced head in the team to guide the youngsters coming through and guess what Chris would finish the season as the only player to play all 42 League games.

But the final game of the season against Birmingham City on May 14th 1983 would see him play his final game and whilst the Birmingham hordes in the Archers Road poured on to the pitch to celebrate a last day escape from relegation, Chris trudged off with his team mates perhaps without the affectionate send off he would otherwise have got.

He had played 228 League games out of a possible 252 for Southampton in his 6 seasons at the club, add to that 17 in the FA Cup, 21 in the League Cup and 2 in Europe and his career total at the Dell was 268 games, the most he would play for any club in his career.

You can also add to that the fact that whilst at the Dell he played in the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, featuring in all 5 games for Northern Ireland.

With Mark Wright having won the player of the year in 1982/83 and now experienced Lawrie was again rebuilding and when Grimsby Town came in just before the start of the 1983/84 season Chris moved to Blundell Park as player/assistant manager and in his two seasons there would play 70 League games for the club and although he would not help them to promotion in his first season, the 5th placed finish in Division two was their highest position since 1948.

But he would not be away from the Dell for long, in 1985 two years after his departure , Lawrie McMenemy left for Sunderland, a strange move as Sunderland had just been relegated from the top flight and that McMenemy as a confirmed Geordie was seen as one of the enemy.

He was then the highest paid manager in English football, but it would not be a good time, he failed to get them back up at the first attempt and resigned in March 1987 just before their relegation to the 3rd tier of English football for the first time was confirmed, as we shall see Chris stayed a lot longer at the Dell.

Saints wanted continuity and keeping it in the family, so they called on Chris Nicholl to return to the Dell as manager.

He inherited a side that was breaking up, it had already lost a few mainstays in Steve Williams and Mick Mills and there was little money for rebuilding.

So Chris had to wheel and deal, Glenn Cockerill was his first signing and like Chris himself was perhaps pound for pound one of the club's best aquisitions, it would be a tough season, with a poor start and an even poorer finish, but we were firmly in mid table finishing 14th and also with an FA Cup semi final against Liverpool on Chris's CV.

1986/87 would again be difficult, firstly Chris would have a public fall out with the fans hero Mark Dennis and Psycho as he was nicknamed would play his last games for the club in the Autumn of 1986 , about the same time as Mark Wright would return from breaking his leg in the aforementioned FA Cup semi final, but Wright's head was already turned and he would leave at the end of the season, along with Peter Shilton & Dave Armstrong all of whom would play their final game on the last day of the season.

In truth it had not been a bad year, 12th in the League and another Cup semi final, this time in the League cup, a two legged affair against Liverpool, again we would lose. a 0-0 draw at home followed by a second half collapse at Anfield on 25th February 1987, ironically the 37th anniversary coming just a day after Chris's passing.

!987/88 saw much of the same as the first two seasons, 12th in the League, but there was something brewing at the Dell, Matt Le Tissier had already made his mark and on 9th April Alan Shearer would score a hat trick on his home debut against Arsenal, there would be a second debut 3 weeks later when on 30th April 1988 a fanzine called The Ugly Inside first appeared on the streets around the Dell.

So a little more was expected in 1988/89, a crop of promising youngster and a blend of old heads and new signings might see us push for a top 10 place, but it was not to be, although we topped the Division One table for the first time ever after winning our opening 3 games, and were still 3rd on 11th November, a winless run in the league of 17 games saw us plunge as low as 18th before a last minute penalty winner at home to Newcastle turned the tide and we cruised to a mid table finish, 13th out of 20 clubs.

But 1989/90 would be a success, playing flowing attacking football with a young side guided by the likes of Glenn Cockerill & Jimmy Case we finished 7th in the League, that should be in context in that our final two games were both away in North London, firstly Arsenal & then Spurs, we lost both 2-1, if we had won both we would have finished 3rd.

So more big hopes for 1990/91 as the country rode the wave of Italia 90, but we would never really get going and we spent most of the season in and around the 14th position that we would end up in.

By the end of that season it was clear that Chris's position was becoming a little rocky, on the penultimate game of the season we lost 6-2 at Derby County who were rock bottom and had been relegated long before we arrived at the Baseball Ground.

It was seen as a sign that Chris had perhaps lost the dressing room, or perhaps the ability to motivate it anymore, sadly on that day the Saints fans who had gone in party mood to the last game of the season, turned on their manager.

The final home game was a damp squid, a 1-1 draw with Wimbledon, a win would have moved us up to 12th, indeed a win in both games would have seen a top 10 finish, but football is a fickle mistress and Chris was sacked in the summer, with the fans not being careful with what they wished for as he was replaced by the soon to be despised Ian Branfoot.

Chris had been only the 3rd manager of Southampton Football Club since Ted Bates was appointed 36 years earlier, Ian Branfoot would be the first of 25 (permanent rather than caretaker) managers who would be appointed in the following 32 years.

Thus ended Chris Nicholl's time at The Dell & Southampton Football Club.

Six years as a player and another six as a manager and although his time ended on a sad note in 1991, the fans back then did appreciate what he had done, but we were approaching a different age in football, one where managers come and go frequently, he was not hated as was Ian Branfoot & Nathan Jones , the fans just saw the need for change.

So the news of his death is a sad one for all Saints fans, the older ones who say him play and you would need to be around 50 to have memories of that, to those who knew him only as a manager, to those who are younger and to whom he is just a name in the history books, perhaps only known because of his recent fight against dementia.

But he was much more than that, the word club legend is bandied about a lot, but it should be used a lot more selectively, it is not just about the number of games played or the goals scored, it is about the overall contribution to the club, many players could be called club legend's but are not because aside from playing football they gave nothing to the club or it's supporters, Chris is not one of them, he truly deserves the title Southampton Football Club Legend

On a personal note I had the pleasure to play alongside Chris in the spring of 1989, I was playing in an inter office football match on the all weather pitch at the Sports Centre one morning, when someone pointed out that watching was the then Saints manager Chris Nicholl.

Losing at half time someone asked him if he would like to turn out for us in the second half, as he was wearing trainers, he jumped at the opportunity and for the second half I had the distinction of playing sweeper behind the first knock centre half Chris Nicholl, you will perhaps need to ask your grandads about those positions.

As a player Chris was always seen as one of those tough central defenders who didn't stand on ceremony, win the ball at whatever cost and leave the fancy stuff to others.

But at the level that we were playing at, Chris had the chance to show what he would do, in simple terms he was like Matt Le Tissier in his skill levels, chesting down long drop kicks from the goalkeeper or trapping them on his knee, defence splitting passes, little dummies and shimmies, it showed the gap between professional football and the amateur game.

So RIP Chris Nicholl, not only a great player and manager for Southampton FC but a decent human being as well.

Photo: Action Images

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ItchenNorth added 13:11 - Feb 26
Loved the 4-2-4 !

A really solid player, a good manager at Saints and will rightful be remembered as a great man in my eyes for everything he did for Southampton FC.

Block8 added 13:20 - Feb 26
Really good article Nick & well justified for a great servant of our club.
Saw him a few times as a younger man (me that is) and liked what I saw. As a manager he let us play football and we were a good watch!
RIP Chris!

Farlow added 15:13 - Feb 26
I loved Chris Nicholl thought he was a great Centre Half and as a manager did a great job
without spending hardly any money.Unfortunately he was not great with dealing with the media at a time when that side of things was just developing.Then we got Branfoot who could deal with the media but could,nt manage a football team.

SaintPaulVW added 16:18 - Feb 26
Great tribute. RIP Chris

IanRC added 18:23 - Feb 26
As you say a true legend.

Boris1977 added 22:04 - Feb 26
Brilliant article Nick, spot on. Saw him as player in his later but great years and appreciated his thankless task managing the club on a very limited budget. Sad news Indeed.

SanMarco added 23:02 - Feb 26
Yes - brilliant tribute Nick. Very sad news. I do remember being pleased when he was sacked and Branfoot was my (and our) punishment.

RIP Chris

highfield49 added 12:54 - Feb 27
Indeed, very sad news, but you've left us older supporters with so many happy memories of your successful years at our club. Thank you Chris, RIP.

harrapuk added 09:20 - Feb 29
Great tribute. Top man.

I worked in the same office as his ex wife and son. Became very good friends with his son and and I also coincidentally played with Chris on the all weather pitch at the Sports Centre-although it didn't involve him loitering on the sidelines.

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