Long before Charlie Nicholas was sitting here thinking on Sky Sports’ football scores round-up he was a prodigious footballing talent. Wonderful close control, an eye for goal, and maturity in his play that defied his teenage years. He wasn’t only a top-class talent, he was one who excited fans. Charlie was the kind of player who would make you forget the game as you watched only him.
“He made an impression on fans from day one like no other player of that generation,” Stephen Murray, author of Ten Men Won the League, said. “From his first game, he couldn’t stop scoring, and even with experienced forwards like McGarvey, McCluskey, and Doyle he quickly became Celtic’s first-choice striker. It wasn’t just the fact that he was a goalscorer but it was the way he took his chances, full of swagger and flourish. He was the epitome of the Glasgow word ‘gallus’. The bonus was he was one of our own. Celtic fans have always responded well to home-bred players.”
Nicholas was born on 30th December 1961. While a toddler his family moved from the Cowcaddens area of Glasgow to nearby Maryhill. As a youngster, he and his next-door neighbour and lifelong best friend Jim Duffy were travelling on the supporters’ bus to Celtic games. They played football in the concrete playpen within the housing scheme. Nicholas credited those days with developing all the skills that would later make his name; the close control, the ability to dodge a tackle, and finding space in a restricted area.
Surprisingly, Nicholas actually began playing with Rangers Boys’ Club in Drumchapel, joining up with Celtic Boys’ Club at the age of ten. He was played out on the right-wing, to begin with, finding that a regular place in the team was unattainable, despite regularly scoring six or seven goals on a Saturday morning with his school team.
Billy McNeill was helping out at Celtic Boys’ Club after he retired from playing in 1975. Nicholas quickly took his eye. In his autobiography ‘Hail Cesar’ he recalled, “It was evident that he was a cut above other kids of the same age. He was unquestionably the most naturally skilled young player I worked with, but his flair and ability perhaps partially obscured the fact that Charlie was also a hard worker.”
Nicholas switched to play as sweeper which led to trials at Ipswich Town, Manchester City and Wolves. Bobby Robson at Ipswich and Sammy Chung at Wolves were prepared to offer Charlie a contract. McNeill, by this time manager at Aberdeen, had heard Nicholas had not been made a signing offer at Parkhead, so looked to bring him to Pittodrie. The interest of these clubs combined to force Celtic’s hand, and in June 1977 at the age of 15 ½ Charlie was offered an ‘S’ form.
In June of 1979, McNeill, having taken over as Celtic manager from Jock Stein the previous year, moved to sign Nicholas on a full-time contract.
Charlie was now combining playing for the reserves with work as a car mechanic with the local Citroen franchise. Charlie needed no persuading but McNeill had to convince the teenager’s mother Christina.
Billy visited the family home to assure her Charlie had a better than average chance of becoming a professional footballer. He gave her his home phone number to call if she ever had any concerns, and she gave Charlie her blessing.
“There was a bit of a father/son relationship between Billy and me and I’ll always be grateful for that,” Nicholas said to Alex Gordon for his book ‘In Praise of Caesar’.
Nicholas made his debut for Celtic at Hampden Park, in a Glasgow Cup tie with Queen’s Park on 14th August 1979. He scored in a 3-1 win.
A week later he played and scored in the semi-final as Clyde were defeated 3-0. Childhood pal Jim Duffy made his debut in the same game. ‘Charlie is Celtic’s Darling’ was the headline in the Daily Record’s match report.
The final, against Rangers, was scheduled for May 12th, 1980, but it was never played due to the riot between fans of the clubs at the Scottish Cup final two days prior.
Nicholas went back into the reserves for the rest of the 1979/80 season, finishing as leading scorer with 25 goals.
Charlie made his league debut as a substitute in a 3-0 win over Kilmarnock in August of 1980.
He began to make his mark later that month when a League Cup tie with Stirling Albion, level at 2-2 on aggregate, went into extra time. McNeill put Nicholas on for the extra half hour, where he scored twice and set up the other two as Celtic won the tie 6-2.
Days later Nicholas made his debut for the Scotland Under-21 side in Sweden. On the day of the match, the Evening Times profiled him under the headline ‘A New Dalglish’. McNeill countered, “He is Charlie Nicholas and I would say he looks like a top-class continental forward.”
Nicholas made little impression as the young Scots were played off the pitch by the assured Swedes, who won 2-0.
Back at Celtic, Nicholas was in the starting line-up in Hungary for the European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Diosgyor Miskolc. “At the start of the season I was of the opinion that Charlie was the best front player on our books,” McNeill said, “but I didn’t want to throw him in. However, I can’t overprotect him either and this game seemed ideal to give him his first important opportunity.”
Up 6-0 from the first-leg Nicholas opened the scoring with a spectacular volley in the 24th minute, only for Celtic to lose 2-1 on the night.
Charlie was now a permanent fixture in the Celtic first team, scoring 12 goals in nine games. Two goals against Partick Thistle prompted the Celtic fans to begin their ‘Charlie, Charlie…’ chant and the Scottish press to compare him with everyone from Gerd Muller to Lawrie Reilly.
SFA director of coaching Andy Roxburgh was another who was impressed by what he saw. “Nicholas has sensational control and dominates his area,” he said. “On top of that, he can finish. He is potentially one of the most exciting players I have seen.”
In November 1980 Nicholas made a substitute appearance at Highbury as Celtic drew 0-0 with Arsenal for Sammy Nelson’s testimonial.
He was also in London that month playing for Celtic in the Daily Express Five-a-Side Challenge Cup.
While these tournaments now are strictly for ex-professionals, at the time the English clubs competing at Wembley Arena packed their sides with first-team players. Bryan Robson and Ray Wilkins were part of the Manchester United team Celtic beat 2-0 in the second round having first defeated Watford.
Highlights of the tournament were on BBC’s Sportsnight programme, and Charlie made the most of the exposure scoring twice in the 3-1 semi-final win over Ipswich. He hit the only goal in the final against a Southampton side which included Kevin Keegan and Alan Ball.
At the end of the year, Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson picked Charlie in his team of the year for the local Evening Express. “A natural if ever there was one,” he said. “This lad is a born finisher. He is a young striker with enormous potential. Nicholas steals goals out of nothing.”
Two goals in a 3-1 win against Rangers at Celtic Park in February made Charlie’s name ring louder. “The world is going to hear a lot more about Charlie now,” McNeill said after the match. The victory meant Celtic went four points ahead of Aberdeen at the top of the league.
Come April, Celtic travelled to Ibrox to play Rangers, six points ahead of the Dons with four games remaining. They also had a far superior goal difference.
“I was ready for it,” Nicholas said of the game to Roddy Forsyth for his book ‘Fields of Green’. “I had gathered a wee bit experience, a wee bit of knowledge, but the big thing was we were going for the tile and the atmosphere had been brewing up for weeks.”
Danny McGrain picked Charlie up to drive him in, and while his captain reassured him that the championship could still be won in subsequent games Nicholas only had thoughts on securing the title against Rangers.
“There had been warnings in the newspapers that morning that if any player scored a goal they had better watch out how they celebrated it because of the tension in the air.”
The game turned out to be far from a classic, but Charlie found a way to light it up. “Davie [Provan] kept coming on, eventually having a run at a couple of defenders and then cut inside along the edge of the box…I had pulled out slightly to the right…Davie angled the pass outside the goal and I just took it in my stride with my left peg and pinged it inside the far post. It was probably as sweet a strike as I ever had off my left foot.”
Nicholas’s 56th-minute goal had won the game for Celtic.
In 2017 Nicholas said to the Sunday Herald, “As a kid coming through the ranks at Celtic, my dream was to score the winner in an Old Firm game and make Rangers suffer every time I played in it.”
Celtic’s thirty-second title was confirmed a few nights later with a 3-2 win over Dundee United at Tannadice.
Nicholas ended the campaign by winning Shoot! magazine’s Most Exciting Player of the Year in Scotland award. “It’s easy to score goals in this company,” Charlie said to Shoot! “My colleagues are all so unselfish. They work hard for you throughout the game. I just hope I can continue to play as well as I can for Celtic. Holding onto my first-team place will be my main aim.”
Nicholas wasn’t an ever-present in the Celtic side in the 1981/82 season. The form of Frank McGarvey and George McCluskey restricted his appearances.
On the 18th January 1982, while playing in a reserve game at Cappielow against Morton, Nicholas broke his leg. “We knew it was a serious injury right away,” McNeill said, “but the break is clean. Charlie will be in plaster for eight weeks and then there is the recovery period.”
“In those days a broken leg was potentially career-threatening,” Charlie said to the Herald in 2017. “The bottom of my foot was dangling so I could tell it was broken. But they didn’t phone an ambulance or anything.”
He went to hospital in the club doctor’s car.
“You had to say three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers before he would start the car. I was trying to hold my shin together in the passenger seat thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Celtic physio Brian Scott devised Nicholas a set of exercises for his recovery in the gym at Celtic Park. “A pokey little dark hole in the Celtic Stand. No lights, no nothing, cheapest weights you could ever believe.”
At the time he told the Celtic View, “After the exercises, I head upstairs to the multi-gym and this part I thoroughly enjoy. I’m concentrating on building up my stomach muscles and strengthening my shoulders and I reckon by the time I get back on the playing field I’ll be a much stronger player.”
In his autobiography, McNeill confirms that was indeed the case. “Charlie worked hard to regain his fitness and he returned fitter and stronger.”
Unhappy at losing his first-team place Nicholas claimed in his 1986 autobiography ‘Charlie’ that he had been contemplating a transfer request that season, asking his sister to type out the letter.
But the leg break forced him to abandon all thoughts of a move. For the time being at least.
McNeill remarked in his book, “I believe the experience also had the effect of making him realise the precarious nature of a career as a footballer and may have contributed to his desire to cash-in on his talents as quickly as possible.”
The 1982/83 season would be the best of Charlie’s entire career.
He made his competitive return as a substitute against Dunfermline in the 6-0 League Cup win in August of 1982. In the return match a fortnight later Charlie scored four in a 7-1 rout.
In the First Round of the European Cup Celtic had been drawn with Ajax. In front of 56,000 fans at Celtic Park the Dutch side took an early lead through Dane Jesper Olsen. The equaliser came after Johan Cruyff tripped Tommy Burns in the box and Nicholas tucked the resultant penalty away after 14 minutes.
Soren Lerby chipped Pat Bonner to make it 2-1 to Ajax four minutes later only for Frank McGarvey to equalise on 27 minutes. Ajax felt that the 2-2 away draw was enough to see them through.
The second-leg was played at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. The 35-year-old Cruyff was on a 40 per cent share of the gate receipts, and with a 65,000 capacity crowd expected he was on course to pocket around £150,000.
Celtic went in front after 33 minutes, through a moment of magic from Charlie.
Paul McStay began the move, finding Graeme Sinclair with a fifty-yard pass. Sinclair played the ball into Nicholas from the left, Charlie weaved past two tackles before moving the ball on to McGarvey who returned the pass, on receiving the ball again Nicholas chipped over goalkeeper Piet Schrijvers.
“It was maybe a poor man’s Archie Gemmill goal like his against Holland,” Nicholas said to the Daily Record in 2015.
“It was a similar scenario with a couple of tackles and a couple of nutmegs to get through and then just when the keeper was coming out I chipped it. As soon as I did that I knew it was going in and I just took off to celebrate with the Celtic fans who were up behind that goal. There were about 5000 of them. I just remember this Celtic fan running the whole way down the terracing like an aeroplane. He’d had his arms out and was trying to get to me. The night was pretty special.”
Ajax levelled after 65 minutes through Gerald Vanenburg. With two minutes remaining the 1-1 scoreline looked to be taking Ajax through on away goals.
But then the ball was played into Celtic substitute George McCluskey who fired past Schrijvers into the corner of the net.
“We were going for it but that was the way the Celtic side played in Europe then,” Nicholas said to the Record. “I guess in Amsterdam it was just meant to be our night. Ajax were the first big side Celtic had knocked out in my time. Cruyff was the greatest European player I had seen.”
“I was very impressed by some of their young players,” Cruyff said of Celtic after the game, “particularly Charlie Nicholas who took his goal brilliantly.”
A run in the European Cup wasn’t to be as Real Sociedad knocked Celtic out in the next round.
On a dreich, rainy afternoon, at Hampden in December Nicholas opened the scoring as Celtic defeated Rangers 2-1 in the League Cup final. He won a Grundig video recorder from the sponsors for his effort.
On New Year’s Day, 1983 Celtic were at Ibrox, where they hadn’t won on that date since 1921.
With the game poised at 1-1 in the 70th minute, Nicholas received the ball from a throw-in. He glided past a couple of defenders before turning away from goal, just as the Rangers defence relaxed he hit a left-foot shot which flashed past Stewart into the net.
It was his only chance of the game, but he had scored the winner. It would be a goal that defined his days at Celtic in the 80s; skill, swagger, and a flash of inspiration only he seemed capable of.
Charlie’s first full Scotland cap came on 30th March 1983 against Switzerland at Hampden. He would partner his childhood hero Kenny Dalglish up front.
“Charlie is confident he will do well and he’s a player the Swiss don’t know much about,” Scotland boss Jock Stein said ahead of the match.
Scotland went 2-0 down after Andre Egli and Heinz Hermann scored.
With twenty minutes to go, John Wark pulled a goal back.
Six minutes later it was Charlie’s turn. With two defenders around him, Nicholas took a through ball down on his right foot before switching it to his left and lifting it high into the net.
Although the home draw dented Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for the 1984 European Championships Nicholas received much praise for his performance.
“This young man is undoubtedly, the most notable talent produced here since Kenny Dalglish,” wrote Alan Davidson in the Evening Times.
By this time it had become obvious that Nicholas was playing out his last days at Celtic Park. It was simply a matter of what side in England he would move to.
In the press, McNeill stated Celtic had made Nicholas a contract offer which would make him the highest-paid player in Scotland.
While Nicholas has nothing but good things to say about McNeill in his autobiography he claimed that Celtic’s initial offer was £300 per week, less than several others at Parkhead and at other Scottish clubs.
“Yet the Celtic fans were conned into believing that I had been made a massive pay offer.” This led, Nicholas wrote, to fans approaching him telling him he must repay the faith Celtic had shown in him and stay at Parkhead. “I made up my mind at that point I had to move on.”
Although the offers increased Nicholas accused Celtic of putting out, “A great deal of propaganda to strengthen their position.”
The three clubs who were seriously in the running for his services were Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
His first choice was a move to Old Trafford.
Nicholas wrote in his book that all it would have taken for United to secure his signature was Sir Matt Busby to have come along to one of the three meetings he had with the club.
“Manchester United were the main attraction,” Nicholas said to The Independent in 1993, “but I wasn’t impressed with Ron Atkinson. He’s a man I respect now – a great character – but at the time I didn’t see it that way.”
Speaking to Graham Hunter in 2015 Charlie outlined what exactly manager Ron Atkinson did to put him off the move, when he met him and United chairman Martin Edwards for dinner.
“It was steak and chips. Ron went into his shirt and messed about with something, and then brought this kind of medallion out. I thought, ‘What’s he got a knife and fork in there?’ He finished his dinner and it was like a little cross thing and he hit a button at the top of it and this toothpick came out, and he started scraping his teeth, and I thought, ‘Oh my God Almighty. I could not play for a man like you. That’s absolutely ridiculous.’ I could not wait to get out the restaurant to get away.”
Although Liverpool went about their business with Nicholas properly he always knew that Kenny Dalglish was several years away from retirement. Despite Scotland colleagues Graeme Souness and Dalglish himself assuring him he was a perfect fit for the club and wouldn’t be sat on the bench.
“For football reasons, I should have gone to Liverpool,” he said in 1993, “but there was no guarantee that I would get in their team. Ian Rush was playing well, and Kenny Dalglish was still there, so I thought it would be difficult for me to break through.”
“After meeting Terry Neill and Don Howe I knew Arsenal were ambitious. At the time they were trying to bring Liam Brady back from Italy, and I joined them because I liked their ambition.”
Neill had been aware of Nicholas’s ability for some time. He had first been up to see him and his strike partner George McCluskey play in October of 1981.
McCluskey claims that Neill actually bid for him first, but the Celtic board, at the time, didn’t tell him of the offer.
Nicholas made his decision in Vancouver, on tour with Scotland. He would sign for Arsenal.
“I’ve got a lot to prove and I want to prove it my way. I feel I have a better chance of expressing my personality, of being myself, at Highbury,” he told the Guardian on signing.
“It’s a big wrench to go away from Celtic,” he told the Evening Times. “You don’t often get a bunch of players who get on so well with each other. They are all great friends and I can’t say enough for the supporters too.”
McNeill didn’t want to sell Nicholas but was told by chairman Desmond White that the striker would be leaving for Arsenal.
“I responded by asking him why he had to be sold in the first place, but I might as well have talked to the wall.” White refused to even tell his manager the sum the club received. “To this day I can’t say with absolute certainty the precise sum Celtic received,” McNeill wrote, “the chairman simply refused to tell me.”
The situation would see McNeill follow Nicholas south at the end of June 1983 when he became Manchester City’s manager. “I considered that my position as manager was being undermined and that my situation was close to untenable.”
“Arsenal are a huge club…a sleeping giant ready to come awake,” Charlie said to the Glasgow Herald, “and I want to help them realise their ambition.”
Nicholas made his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt on a pre-season tour of West Germany, scoring against Meppen in a 4-1 win.
Two goals against Wolves in his second league game seemed to indicate that he’d meet expectations in the English First Division.
However, 11 goals from 41 league games, as Arsenal finished in sixth, 17 points behind league winners Liverpool, was an underwhelming return.
It’s commonly accepted that Nicholas didn’t achieve the success many thought his talents deserved, but he was well-liked by the Arsenal support.
It was at Parkhead though, in the early eighties, where the fans saw the magic Nicholas was able to create.