Express & Star

Chris Marsh pays touching and emotional tribute to former Walsall manager Chris Nicholl

It says much about Chris Nicholl the football manager that more than a quarter of a century on from his last job, his wisdom is still being passed down.

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You can certainly hear it at Coventry where Chris Marsh, the legendary Walsall full-back now Sky Blues kit man, never tires of telling the club’s younger players advice given by the former Saddlers boss.

“There are things he said which have always stuck with me,” says Marsh. “I tell the lads at Coventry the same thing.

“The gaffer would say: ‘People make mistakes, whether it is hitting Row Z or controlling the ball out of play and I will take that all day. But you have to come off that pitch with sweat, blood and everything else wringing from that shirt. If you do that, I can’t say nothing’.

“That is what he was all about, hard work and effort. The lesson was always if you give that, your talent will come through.”

Nicholl managed Walsall between 1994 and 1997, winning promotion from Division Three in his first season at the helm. In the space of three years, he left an impression those who played for him will never forget, just as he did during an earlier, six-year tenure at Southampton where he handed Alan Shearer a senior debut.

The Premier League’s all-time leading goalscorer was among those leading the tributes when news of Nicholl’s death, at the age of 77, emerged on Sunday evening.

“We have a WhatsApp group of former Walsall players and I have never seen an outpouring quite like it,” says Marsh.

“I had more than 20 managers in my career and Chris Nicholl was the No.1 for me.

“He was the hardest man I have ever met in my life but also the fairest. If you combine those two things, you have a great manager.”

Life playing for Nicholl was never easy.

“Anyone who claims they weren’t scared of him is lying!” laughs Marsh. “You could have an argument with him. You could almost have a fight with him!

“But it would always end in a handshake and never be mentioned again. Things were dealt with and we moved on. The respect we had for him was unreal.”

Supporters of Villa and Southampton in particular will recognise the uncompromising style from a playing career which saw Nicholl make more than 250 appearances for both clubs. So too might members of Spain’s 1982 World Cup team, beaten 1-0 in Valencia by a Northern Ireland side which had Nicholl at the heart of its defence.

He joined Villa in 1972 when the club was in the Third Division, winning two promotions and two League Cups during a five-year stay, scoring one of the most iconic goals in club history in the 1977 final second replay.

“For those of us fortunate enough to have known and played alongside Chris, we all will have shed a tear at this news. Love you Big Man,” wrote Brian Little, scorer of the winning goal in that match.

Marsh and his Walsall team-mates would later get a taste of Nicholl the player during training sessions at freezing cold Aldridge Airport, where the wearing of woolly hats and jumpers was banned.

“It was like being on the North Pole, the place was so cold,” he says.

“I remember the gaffer’s first day. He had the shortest shorts on, ankle socks and a T-shirt. It must have been about minus-120!

“He said: ‘You can take all your hats off, all your tops.’

“Then we play a game and I remember turning into him by accident, headbutting him in his cheek.

“I absolutely smashed him. My head felt like it had gone into a wall. The gaffer just looked at me and said: ‘Carry on’.

“He didn’t even flinch. He was like granite. I would have dreaded being a striker playing against him.”

After leaving Walsall, Nicholl spent two years as assistant to Lawrie McMenemy with Northern Ireland, before making a brief return to Bescot as No.2 to Ray Graydon in the final weeks of the latter’s celebrated reign.

Yet while he never managed again, he remained hugely respected. Nicholl’s impact on the burgeoning career of Dean Smith, who drafted him in as an adviser after taking charge of Walsall in 2011, should not be underestimated.

The tragedy is that having left his mark on so many, Nicholl spent his final years with memories fading or lost. In 2017, during an appearance on Shearer’s documentary Football, Dementia & Me, Nicholl admitted to regularly forgetting where he lived.

Announcing his death, daughter Cathy confirmed Nicholl had been suffering with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of dementia caused by repeated head impacts which has affected an increasing number of former players, including Jeff Astle.

Aware of his plight, his former Walsall players organised several charity events in recent years to help with his care.

“The last few years, he wasn’t the same man,” reflects Marsh. “We tried to help him along the way and as a group of players we know we have done everything we could for our gaffer.

“That’s the other thing. No-one ever called him Chris. He’ll always be the gaffer.”