THIRTY-TWO years today, Steve Nicol first rippled the net in the Red, scoring the first of his 46 goals for Liverpool as Joe Fagan’s Reds won 1-0 away at QPR.
I first remember taking in his gingery countenance in a January FA Cup game at Anfield in 1984. We were at home to Newcastle, and the game was live on the telly on a Friday night with a 7.15pm kick off. All of these events were rare back then.
Newcastle were a Second Division side then, but they did have a twilight-era Kevin Keegan turning out for them alongside Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle. In fact, this was the game that finally convinced Mighty Mouse (or whatever daft nickname Keegan had given himself) that enough was enough. That he was a spent force. It was Mark Lawrenson, and his telescopic legs and blistering pace that did for the curly legend.
Keegan was later to confess that Lawrenson had so comprehensively owned him during that game, that it had convinced him that the football malarkey was just no longer for him.
Liverpool, as a whole, were a mighty thing that night. Cheeky hopefuls Newcastle were brushed aside, with four goals. Rush scored twice and the team was chock full of the usual 80s superstars.
Still in his first full season as a first-team regular, and starting against the hapless Geordies, was some kid we had picked up for £300,000 from Scotland, where he played part-time for Ayr United and was an out-of-work labourer the rest of the time.
Steve ‘Stevie’ Nicol, also known as ‘Chico’ in later Liverpool years, was white as driven snow. A mop of ruddy hair protecting at least some of his befreckled skin from the terrors of mere daylight. His translucent Celticness aside, the other thing that stood out about him was that he was good. Really good, especially for a kid from Ayr United who cost peanuts.
It was strange, back then — suddenly the careers of young players at Liverpool could just take off. Nowadays we tend to see them in a really long drawn-out procession of dribs and drabs worth of first-team opportunities. In the 80s it seemed as though you would get a mandatory set of three sneak peeks before said kid was suddenly a fixture in your beloved team.
I’m thinking in particular of the likes of Sammy Lee, Ronnie Whelan, Rushie to an extent, and of course, Stephen Nicol.
History should really note that Nicol was perhaps the greatest utility player in the history of the British game. I’ve seen him play left back, right back, centre half, centre mid, left mid and right mid. All the positions. All to an exceptional standard.
From his debut during the 1982-83 season through to about 1987, he was merely really really good. In that array of positions. The arrival of John Barnes in 1987 seemed to help elevate Nicol’s game to what has to be recognised as a world-class level.
My most vivid memories of him were as a full back foil to winger Barnes on Liverpool’s left-hand side from 1987-91. And what a left-hand side that was. There was a telepathy between them that could dissmember at will. The triangles they would work with Peter Beardsley would get that Liverpool team ‘in behind’ more often than…than…(insert innuendo).
Nicol was a very quintessentially German-type of footballer. Certainly the mould of a German footballer from that era. He was blessed with all the technique he needed, yet he was always a model of economy with his skill set. Nicol personified the power, pace, vision, aggression man machine that Deutschland seemed to populate its relentless international sides with at that very successful time in the nation’s sporting history.
Nicol was a maker of goals, a scorer of goals, and a defier of goals. He covered all the bases in a way that made him peerless. His enormous contribution to his club and the game was finally acknowledged in 1989, when he was awarded the Footballer of the Year award. No-one batted an eyelid. It seemed both a contemporary choice and a lifetime achievement award all in one.
Alongside that award, somewhere in the Nicol household, are the trinkets of a staggering series of successes from 468 appearances in the red of Liverpool: League Championship 1983-84, 1985-86, 1987-88, 1989-90; FA Cup 1986, 1989, 1992 and, of course, European Cup 1984.
There are the goals, too. Everyone has their favourites. The hat-trick at Newcastle, the header at Highbury.
In later life, Nicol enjoyed 10 seasons as head coach of New England Revolution in the United States, winning MLS coach of the season in 2002 and the North American Superliga in 2008 before becoming a bit of a blert of a pundit. Many of the best do though, Stevie, don’t let it worry you, lad.
We will remember you for that hat-trick at Newcastle, for that free kick against Palace,for all those wild rampaging sorties beyond Barnsey down our left; for that tackle that knew no tomorrow, and for all those fires you put out and all those matches that you won. For us.
Pics: PA Images