There are more than a few comments about half or so of the present Northern Ireland football team being ‘Anglos’. That is an ‘English’ (of course) player not coming from Northern Ireland but having a blood link be it parent or grandparent to the province. It is a moot point whether they consider themselves English or Northern Irish and that is neither here nor there as long as they give their all for the shirt. These are not necessarily derogatory comments but when the wife notices it got me thinking. It got me thinking back to the days of when the only ‘Anglo’ we had for quite a while in green was centre-back Chris Nicholl.
Back in the seventies, the ‘Anglo’ debate tended to surround Scotland and in a slightly different way. In those days you could play for a team if you had a parent link but not a grandparent link as far as I remember. A lot of this has to do with them not just being the most high profile international team of the decade, but also the amount of Scots playing for English teams. So the term had a slightly different meaning then. Scottish fans had a bit of an issue with those playing for teams south of the border rather than the domestic league.
It was probably a more talked about than actual issue and raised its head usually when individuals weren’t playing well. There were plenty of Anglos. Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer, the Gray brothers, Martin Buchan, Asa Hartford and Willie Donachie to name a few. Captain Bruce Rioch did get it in the neck. A son of a military father his links were more tenuous and the English accent, of course, didn’t settle too well round Mount Florida way. Rod Stewart was able to get away with it though.
Back to our wee province all the same. So now we have the likes of Ollie Norwood, Jordan Jones, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, George Saville and Jamal Lewis playing for us. There are one or two there due to the grandparent link available nowadays. As long as they have a blood link I see little problem. It’s not like rugby who have all sorts playing for Ireland thus making it a sort of Ireland XV. Eoin Morgan captaining the England cricket team is just beyond the pale.
The world is a much more complex place now as far as nationality goes. Official forms really push the envelope and would have you convinced you are a form of minority and even if you don’t think you are, they will give you plenty of options.
But back to Chris Nicholl who spent the first three years of his life in Belfast and whose father was from the city. He didn’t make his debut until he was 28 but made up for lost time by scoring against Sweden in Stockholm in the seventh minute. He was proper centre-back material. He wasn’t quite full ‘growler’ but was never too far a broken nose or two short of it.
He was solid on the ground and in the air and did everything effectively without being unduly demonstrative. I don’t remember him being bothered by referees as he tended to think about what he did. It was no big surprise when he went into management afterwards with Southampton and indeed was assistant to Lawrie McMenemy when he managed NI.
I remember meeting him outside Windsor after a match and he had that big, booming, hollow Manchester echo. He simply got on with it whether he played beside Allan Hunter or John McClelland but was always a certainty on the team sheet. He generally had that sort of ‘explorer’s beard’ and it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the special forces. Without the beard, he could have passed as Tony Adams’ dad maybe.
He caused a bit of stir in his Aston Villa days scoring all four goals for and against Leicester in a 2-2 draw. He also scored a rocket against Everton in the 1977 League Cup Final. His finest hour was against Spain in the epic 1-0 win in Valencia in the 1982 World Cup finals. He was in the way of so much that night. He was simply steady, calm and did it all well and was a natural extension to Pat Jennings behind him.
In total, he scored three goals for Northern Ireland with the other two against Bulgaria at Windsor in May 1979 and on the Australian tour of 1980. He won his final and 51st cap against Turkey on his 37th birthday in October 1983 as BBC Radio Ulster pundit John O’ Neill took his place in the side from then on.
Though he would dispute he was an ‘Anglo’ he was certainly one of the great first ‘English accents’ to have in the dressing room and the modern lads can look up to him with pride. Nowadays English accents are plentiful in the dressing room and as I have mentioned frequently, they follow the same path as Chris insofar as being able to dig out a decent international career for themselves in a great environment.
Sadly these days he suffers from neurological damage he believes from a lifetime of heading balls. Interestingly in an interview in 2017, he says he wasn’t going to see a doctor about it. No fuss, get on with it, move along. Just the same as he was as a player.