Standing on the shoulders of Celtic giants
Ex-footballer and pundit Charlie Nicholas talks to Richard Purden about his Faith and those he is indebted to
CHARLIE Nicholas was one of the most popular and talented footballers of the 1980s. Starting his career at Celtic, he was soon a target across the border, eventually moving to Arsenal. Since then, Mr Nicholas has carved out a career as a successful football pundit on Sky television.
Despite working in London he regards Glasgow as home and continues to hold the city in high esteem. “I’ve always been in Glasgow,” he explains. “Most people are surprised that’s the case: I work in London but if I don’t need to be there I’m back in Glasgow. I’m born and bred in the city. Yes, some bad things happen but what city doesn’t have that? I love the feeling in Glasgow and the involvement. I like the debates and the football discussions. My two daughters have also got into it.
“There is a fire in the belly of Glaswegians and that is something that I grew up with and throughly enjoyed. I find it an inspiring and truly happy place.”
Mr Nicholas admits he gets ‘stick just walking down the street’ from both halves of Glasgow’s football divide. He remembers vividly the first piece of criticism he received as a professional player: it was from the man he is sharing a stage with later this month, a Celtic great and Lisbon Lion.
“The first person to criticise me was Bertie Auld. He was manager of Partick Thistle at the time. When I went into Celtic Park the next day Billy [McNeill] said to me: ‘I see Bertie had a pop at you.’ My response was: ‘Yes I was quite surprised by that.’ Billy, who was manager at the time, said: ‘Listen, get used to it because I’m going to be giving you a lot of it. Criticism is a sign that people know how good you could be.
If you don’t like criticism then you’re at the wrong club.”
It was a learning curve for Mr Nicholas and his response was to ‘score one of my best ever goals’ against the Jags in the aftermath. The ex-player admits that his life and career was shaped by the Lisbon Lions and other well known Celtic players who taught him about life beyond the game.
He describes his time with them as a ‘gift from God.’ Growing up at Celtic was ‘part of our working class education.’ I used to practice a lot and John Clark would come and watch me. I think he was quite intrigued because I was trying some drills with my left foot and there was not many others doing that. He was very encouraging.
“We had this sofa where players like Tommy Gemmell and Jimmy Johnstone would come in and sit down. Jimmy had retired but he just wanted to be around what was happening at Celtic and he would get involved with the training. There was always a smile and a laugh but they all had this serious side; they would ask you if you understood what it meant to play for this club, what it meant to win the European Cup. They kept the spirit of the Lions around the place.”
Although living in the West End today, he still returns to the streets where he grew up to attend Mass. “I’m a practicing Catholic. I don’t stick it down anyone’s throat but I’ve returned to my old parish, St Gregory’s in the Wyndford. I try to go there most Sundays when I can—sometimes I’m in London but I tend to go back to where I started off. That was the first real church I was brought up in and I’ve started to go a lot more. It’s never changed.
Some of the priests are older or have passed, and the parish has changed in terms of the people that go but being a Catholic and the idea of what Celtic stood for was a true blessing for me.”
Significantly, Mr Nicholas attributes his own understanding of Celtic to another much-respected club hero. “My mentor was Danny McGrain—he looked after me like a father figure. Like plenty other young Celtic players you would get caught up in the emotions of Irish history and the rebellious nature. The Rangers boys I grew up with from the barracks [in Maryhill] went through that too. We didn’t do it in front of each other—some of the songs would attract a glance of the eye from a player like Danny as if to say ‘why are you singing that?’ It was funny but there was a point of principle, we understood and respected that it wasn’t for them.
Danny used to pick me up because I wasn’t old enough to drive. From Monday to Friday he would fit in at least three hospital visits or supporter functions. After training he would ask me what I was doing. My response was not a lot. He’d say, ‘ok, we’re going on a hospital visit, this guy’s lost a leg in an accident.’
“We would turn up and you’d see someone for an hour. I’ll tell you, it’s not easy when you walk into a situation like that but Danny would be straight over to talk to the patient, answer any questions about himself and the fabric of the club. I would sit there and listen to him and eventually you would pick up what Celtic really and truly was about.
“In those moments you would come outside and feel cleansed for just going in and saying hello to someone. When I close my eyes and think about what Celtic is, I think of Danny. I can see the statues of Jock, Billy, Jimmy and Brother Walfrid but I also think Danny has had a hand in those values in terms of his teaching and the ambassadorial role he has played at the club.
“Danny McGrain had it all and a true understanding of everything: that’s why he’s still there to this day.”
Significantly, Mr Nicholas’ most treasured memory is a European tie against Ajax playing alongside his mentor and against some of his footballing heroes. “We got a big scalp that night. It was a game of substance and an emotional breakthrough for me. It was the first real scalp we had claimed as side in Europe. I had watched the history up until that point but that night I got to take part in it.”
Charlie Nicholas and Bertie Auld will be in discussion at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall as part of the Legends of Scottish Football series on April 13. Tickets are from £20 and are available on 0141 353 8000 or at: www.ticketsglasgow.com