Steve Nicol On Liverpool, Representing Scotland And Life In The USA

Steve Nicol On Liverpool, Representing Scotland And Life In The USA
Steve Nicol On Liverpool, Representing Scotland And Life In The USA

You started your career at Ayr United, playing regularly there, before moving on to Liverpool in 1981. What are your memories of your time at Ayr?

“I was at Ayr United Boys Club to start with then when I was 15, I went to play with the Ayr United under 16 team before signing an S form which basically tied you to the club until such a time that they wanted to offer you a contract.

“Thankfully, they did offer me a contract when I was 18 which I signed. The club were part-time but it was a good starting place for me and from signing that deal, I started off in the reserves.

“Teams like Ayr have small squads at first team level and due to some injuries and all the rest of it, I got a chance to play for the first team as a teenager and I never looked back.

“I played about 90 first-team games for the club before I made the life-changing move to Liverpool.

“I will always be thankful for those early days at Ayr because I was lucky that the first team squad had a right good bunch of people within it.

“There were a lot of good players who were also good professionals such as Jim McSherry, Davie Armour and Robert Connor. Happy days for me when I look back.”

When you’re at a club like Ayr United and you hear of interest from a club like Liverpool. What is your reaction? Because it is not the sort of move commonly made by players.

“It all happened very quickly in terms of the interest from Liverpool. I went into training one Tuesday night and as soon as I walked in the dressing room, George Caldwell, who was the assistant manager at the time, came and said, come into the manager’s office. He wants to see you.

“When I went into the office, the manager, Willie McLean, was not there yet so I took a seat and waited on him to arrive.

“I sat there for five minutes and I’m like, George, why don’t I go and get my gear on for training, and I’ll come back when the gaffer comes in.

“He told me, no that I was to just sit there. So, I’m like, I’m thinking, what’s going on here? I had no idea.

“Then, Willie came in, sat down and said, look, we’ve had an offer for Liverpool, and we’ve accepted it. So, I’m assuming that you’re going to take it, what do you think of that?

“All I could think of saying was, aye and he looked at me and he said, aye. Is that all you’re f**king going to say, aye?!

“I was like, well, it is a bit of a shock but that was it, I got my boots and headed home because Ayr did not want any press appearing at Somerset Park during training if they got wind of the move.

“I travelled down to Manchester with Willie McLean on the Wednesday because Liverpool were playing a European tie on the Wednesday in Denmark, so I went to watch a game at Old Trafford in the evening before driving to Anfield on the Thursday morning to meet Bob Paisley for the first time.”

“Honestly, when you walked into Anfield, particularly then, probably not the same now, you wouldn’t have thought they were European champions and all the rest of it.

“I mean, you know, there was nothing fancy about it. There was nothing fancy about the way you were treated.

“You were just a player. You were the same as everybody else. Nothing fancy. No big-time Charlies. There was nothing Hollywood about it whatsoever.

“Basically, myself and Willie and Bob Paisley were sitting in the players’ dining room, because the boys would have something to eat at lunchtime in there.

“Everybody was coming in and going about their normal routine. It was like a normal workplace.

“When I spoke to Bob, there was no kissing my backside, telling me how great I was.

“He told me that we would be pleased to sign you and It was just a case of me saying, right okay, thank you. That was it.

“I basically had something to eat. They called us up and said, right, all the contracts and that are ready. I signed the contract to become a Liverpool player and Willie drove back to Ayr.

“In the afternoon, I was taken 40 yards from the front door at Anfield, round the corner, to the digs I was going to be staying at. And that was it. I was now a Liverpool player. It seems unbelievable but that is how simple it was.”

“Oh aye, big time aye.

“You walk in and you’re sitting next to Hansen and Dalglish and Souness are over the other way then you’ve got all the other household names throughout the dressing room. You get in and just sit there with your head down ready to prove yourself as best you can.

In terms of dressing room atmosphere, it was like being at Ayr United in the sense that everybody was taking the mickey out of each other.

“It was a good atmosphere where nobody was any different to anybody else.

“Settling in became quite straightforward particularly once we started training. You just become part of it and, obviously, the Scottish boys look after you, talk to you, and wind you up.

“You had to work hard every single day across every session because if you weren’t, there’d be more than one person ready to tell you. So, it was straightforward. You knew exactly what was expected and how to do things very quickly.”

“I mean, how do you describe somebody that could do everything?

“If there was one thing you could say, you could say he wasn’t a sprinter, but after that, he could do anything.

“He could hold it up, he could pass players in, he would defend from the front and he could score goals from any angle.

“Back then, the way the game was played, my job as a full-back, a lot of the time would be to play balls from back to front and hit him.

“If I did that ten times, probably three or four of them would be overhit rather than hit to perfection but Kenny would make any pass played into him look as though it was perfect.

“You could give him the ball anywhere and he’d find a way of controlling it and making it work.

“Then, you had his goal-scoring ability. he was a goal scorer in any situation, whether it was inside the box, outside the box or one on one.

“He was able to see things that other people don’t see, and he was also a guy who kept everybody motivated, not just when he managed, but also as a player.

“I mean, if you didn’t give him the ball, you heard about it. He was constantly on it, if you didn’t give him the ball, he was asking you why you didn’t give him it.

“He did not need to be a great sprinter because of his brain. He was too far ahead of everybody else on the pitch anyway. That is how good he was.”

“All of it because we were the team who dominated in the 1980s in English and European football. It’s impossible to pick out just one personal highlight.

“Everything about it was magic but the best thing about it was that I couldn’t wait to get in to work in the morning.

“Anything before or after training was a carry-on and a great laugh but when you were training, you were training.

“You could laugh and joke all you wanted. But as soon as the session started, that was it. I mean, our training in those days was a lot of 8v8.

“Some of those games would be ridiculously competitive because everybody was at it.

“As much as we had good players, everybody was ultra-competitive so if we had a possession game with two-touch, it would get fierce. I mean, people would be putting challenges in that you would not believe for training, but we played as we trained, and it ultimately stood us in good stead.

You chipped in with your fair share of goals and assists as part of the teams that won multiple league titles but in terms of the European Cup victory, what was that like for you given your humble beginnings at Ayr?

“At the time, it was just another game, to be honest.

“It’s not until you get older that you start thinking about all these things then it becomes clear just how monumental it was because at the time, you’re too busy doing it.

“You know, if you’re on the periphery and you’re looking in, then it’s a different ballgame because you’re thinking about the crowd and you’re thinking about the game and you’re thinking about the tactics. But when actually there, you’re doing it.

“You know, you’re playing the game and you’re doing this and doing that, like you do in other games. And so, it’s not until it’s all over and done with that you get time to reflect on it.

“Winning the league titles was special but winning the European Cup was extraordinary because it was the trophy that every footballer in the world wanted to win.

“It is crazy to think we made success look really simple things because once you get older and you start coaching as well, you find out that things are not quite as simple to put into practice like we did at Liverpool during that era.”

“I loved my time with Scotland because I started under the great Jock Stein, then I played under Alex Ferguson and before Andy Roxburgh took over the national team.

“Jock and were just real football men who knew the game inside out and I learned a lot from them.

“There’s a different atmosphere to being at Liverpool because it is your national team but

the things that Liverpool were doing were the same things that Jock and Alex were doing.

“Sadly when Jock passed away then Alex left and Andy Roxburgh came in, it changed. I did not enjoy working under Andy as much and his approach was completely different to Jock and Alex’s. It was not enjoyable playing under him like it was under them which was a shame because we had a good group of players.”

Finally, Stevie, you have lived in the United States for two decades, and during that time you played for and managed the Boston Bulldogs before spending a decade managing in MLS with the New England Revolution alongside Paul Mariner, who’s sadly no longer with us. You are now working with Craig Burley, Dan Thomas and many other pundits at ESPN FC. How much have you enjoyed your life playing football as a manager and also as a pundit in the States? 

“Oh, it’s magic and it has been one of the best decisions that I ever made because when you come to the end of your career, you try to figure out what’s going to happen next.

“My era of football as a player was not like today where you’re getting 150 grand a week,

“And you don’t really need to worry too much about what’s coming next. That was not the case for me so I had to carefully think about what came next in my life as I could not afford to to retire based on the money I made in football.

“So, I felt that the next best thing for me would be coaching, I kept playing as long as I could because I wanted to and I was getting paid for it. However, I knew when it was time to think about the future and coaching seemed like the obvious thing.

“Luckily, the opportunity came up in America to join the Boston Bulldogs and I had to take it because the first call I got was from America to coach, the phone wasn’t ringing when I was at home in the U.K.

“It was actually a tough time when I was at the Bulldogs coaching, we were going down the leagues and the owners were backing out.

“We ended up in the third division of American football then and I thought to myself, where am I going here?

New England Revolution were having problems and I ended up going there for a couple of games as an interim manager initially before I ended up being there for 10 years in total.

“In terms of playing and coaching, I always said that playing is the best job and I always thought coaching was the second best job until my last couple of years at the Revs. They were tough because we just didn’t have a good team.

“Particularly in my last season, which is frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it. We could not really go and sign anybody at that particular time as MLS was not the force it is now.

“There were only two teams really spending money on players during that period while the majority of the rest of us were trying to put stuff together as best we could.

“The last six months I had at the Revs was awful. When I was driving in in the morning, I felt at times like I did not want to be there because I couldn’t do anything. I felt helpless and Saturday nights as a manager when you’ve lost are the worst ever.

“It’s great when you win but you do not even want to imagine it when you lose. It is a nightmare when you’re the coach in that situation, especially when you know you can’t do anything else about it.

“Ultimately, I left the Revs in 2011 and fortunately for me, in between coaching at the club from about 2003 or 2004 onwards, I was doing some stuff at ESPN.

“Derek Rae was at ESPN and they’d started a show that was called Press Pass back then and every now and again, I would go in and be on the show.

“So, when I got the bullet from the Revs, that’s when I started doing more there which led to me eventually going full-time.

“So if you ask me now to rank the best jobs in football then the best job is playing, the second best job, no question, is analysing it and coaching would come third. That’s how much enjoy the work with ESPN.

“Because when you’re coaching, winning and losing affect you and your staff. All eyes are on you to come up with a solution whereas as a pundit, you are watching Liverpool against Everton for example, talking about it and getting paid for it. It is a privilege to be able to call it work.

“The best thing about it is not only does everybody have an opinion, but nobody takes the hump. Just because somebody doesn’t agree with you and you go back and forward with it, doesn’t mean anything else.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t like you or any of that nonsense. You know what I mean?

“I think that is why the show is successful as well, because we don’t take things personally. Because I think one way, and the other guy doesn’t, doesn’t make any difference. It just means that we think differently to the next one, which is what football is all about.

“It will always be a game of opinions and I enjoy giving mine too.”