ONLY THE LONELY
CHARLIE NICHOLAS ON THE HONEST TRUTH BEHIND HIS RIOTOUS REPUTATION
‘I ONCE ENTERED A DOG AGILITY CONTEST. NOT ON MY OWN’
BETRAYAL, BAD BEHAVIOUR AND THE DAY ELVIS CALLED
WE ALL have a certain amount of vanity,” Charlie Nicholas tells me. “I don’t have very much of it, although people find that quite strange.”
He walks into the restaurant in Hyndland, in the west end of Glasgow. Silver hair, sparkling eyes, white teeth and smiles, a bomber jacket and jeans, sharp shoes, discreet ear stud, looking good on his 55 years. He sits down and orders a ginger beer, and tells me he’s not much of a storyteller and then tells me stories for an hour. He is charming, self-deprecating and, as it goes, fairly lacking in vainglory.
There is, I suppose, a generation now who know Charlie Nicholas as that bloke on Soccer Saturday amiably mangling the English language as he tells you what’s happening in an English Premier League game that you can’t see.
But for those of us who remember him in his pomp he remains Champagne Charlie, the boy who scored nearly 50 goals for Celtic in a single season, the Scot who
chose Arsenal over Liverpool and never lived up to his huge potential unless it was for wine, women and song.
Actually, not the last of the three. He never made a record, although he was asked. “When you’ve been caught doing photographs with Page 3 models in your bare underwear I think that’s enough to humiliate you,” he tells me. But he did once make the cover of the NME back when the NME really was the NME, not a fanboy freesheet. He’s still very proud of that.
THESE days Nicholas is paid to opinionate and he’s happy to do so. In our time together he’s keen to speak up for the newish Hearts manager Ian Cathro (“He is creative. Will he ever be a top manager? I don’t know, but I’m very intrigued in what he talks about”), he will mention that he’s not a big fan of the current Celtic captain Scott Brown (hardly news, he admits), or of Chris Sutton’s new role as pundit cum controversialist. “I don’t see too much method in his breakdown,” Nicholas says using a typically Nicholasesque bit of wordplay. “I find that old-school bullying.”
But, really, it’s how the man he is looks back on the man he was that I’m interested in. Nicholas is a married man with two grown-up daughters. He has lost loved ones (his father, his brother and his sister) and knows that life is not a never-ending night out at Stringfellows (although, to be fair, he once said he was always more at home in the exclusive members’ club Tramps).
There would have been a time when a ginger beer would not have featured on the menu. “The lazy headline was Champagne Charlie,” he says. “I got the reputation of earring and no socks. In those days we were open with the press boys because they trusted us. We could go for a drink with them, whereas now everything is scrutinised. At that time there was Frank McAvennie and Mo Johnston. We were all a bit maverick. The only harm we ever did was probably to ourselves, our own reputation.”
Before that he was a Celtic boy and a Celtic Boys Club boy.
He spent his earliest years in Cowcaddens (“It’s actually the motorway now,” he says) before the family moved to Maryhill where he grew up next door to current Morton manager Jim Duffy in a community that had an equal measure of Rangers and Celtic fans. His mother was a Protestant who converted to her husband’s Catholicism. “It was quite a big step, which proved her determination.”
Nicholas and his mates – three Rangers and two Celtic fans – would go to the Old Firm derbies together. “We used to get the 61 bus to Celtic Park and the three Rangers fans would get off in the town to get the 64 to the Rangers end, then we would meet them back in Maryhill.”
The first game he was taken to was Celtic against Leeds at Hampden in the European Cup semi-final of 1970, sitting on his dad’s
I loved London – I still love London as a place – but I found it incredibly lonely
shoulders in a crowd of 130,000. Nicholas’s hero was King Kenny, and from an early age Nicholas only had eyes for the game. “All my stories were about football. They must have been so boring for the teacher.”
He wasn’t very academic, Nicholas admits. He was offered a job in a garage the
day he was to sit his English exam. He didn’t bother with the exam. He was a car mechanic for four months before football took over.
Nicholas made his competitive Celtic debut while still a teenager against the mighty Stirling Albion on September 9, 1980, scoring twice. There were many more goals to come.
What does he remember best? His first goal or his first kiss? “By a mile, first goal.” Does he even remember his first kiss? “She was taller than me, dark hair. How can you forget a Sheree from Ruchill? Up by the canal. I was a bit shy then.” That would change, of course. At Celtic he’d come under the wing of Danny McGrain. McGrain would pick him up and drop him off every day. “Danny was born and bred in Drumchapel. He knew what hardcore living was.”
For him McGrain is the greatest Celtic man of all time. “Not the greatest Celtic player,” he adds, but “as a man, as a Protestant who came into the fraternity. Danny gave three days a week to charity.”
He speaks of McGrain with great affection. His mentor, he says. “Danny educated me,” he says, recalling how he would be dragged into hospitals to visit fans. “He was determined that we should always do that. That kept your feet on the ground, your humility, your understanding of working-class society.”
And yet Nicholas and McGrain were cut from different cloth. As players and as men.
McGrain hid in plain sight. Nicholas? Well, hiding away was never part of the process. That said, the Nicholas legend almost ended before it began. At the age of 20 he suffered a broken leg and, as he points out, “in those days a broken leg was potentially career-threatening”.
It was during a friendly against Morton. An accident. “The bottom of my foot was dangling so I could tell it was broken. But they didn’t phone an ambulance or anything.”
The club’s doctor took him in his car. “And 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?’”
He worked on his recovery in Celtic’s gym, “a pokey little dark hole in the Celtic Stand. No lights, no nothing, cheapest weights you could ever believe”. It’s possible you can hear his disdain for the club’s parsimoniousness which would eventually drive him away.
Before that, though, back on his feet he scored four goals at East End Park in a 7-1 League Cup rout over Dunfermline near the start of the 1982-83 season and never looked back. He bagged 48 goals that season, was named the Player of the Year and even scored (“one of my all-time favourite goals”) in a European Cup win against an Ajax side that contained Johan Cryuff; a victory that remains his fondest memory of his Celtic years. That said, all Celtic won that season was the League Cup.
And already he was being linked with a move away from Glasgow. There was interest from Manchester United – but he wasn’t impressed by the club’s then manager Ron Atkinson – from Italy, from Liverpool, led by his hero Kenny Dalglish, of course, and even Spurs, then the team of Ossie Ardiles and Glenn Hoddle (“the best British player I ever played against. And I include Dalglish in that”). This is the point where I show him my Spurs beanie. He is not impressed.
Nicholas, instead, opted to go to “boring, boring” Arsenal. He has not a bad word to say about Arsenal the club. The team, not so much. Moving to Highbury was, he is not afraid to admit, a mistake. “The Arsenal style didn’t suit me. I should have went to Liverpool but would I have got a game with Dalglish and Rush? I don’t know.”
THE Arsenal of the early 1980s were a far cry from George Graham’s stuffy title winners of the early 1990s, never mind Wenger’s Invincibles. In his five years at the club Nicholas would pick up a League Cup winner’s medal and a rather more celebrated reputation as one of football’s wild boys.
There’s a small irony in Nicholas’s Champagne Charlie tag in that Graham’s title-winning Arsenal side of the early 1990s had a ferocious drinking culture (which would see Tony Adams end up in jail and Nicholas’s Soccer Saturday colleague Paul Merson go wildly off the rails). And the truth is during his first year at the club Nicholas’s main problem was loneliness.
“I loved London – I still love London as a place – but I found it incredibly lonely. My teammates were predominantly settled down and married.”
And so he’d spend his weekends often not in London but in Wolverhampton or even Blackpool. How long would that take, Charlie? “I used to get up in two and a half hours.” What? Two and a half hours?
“And then drive down Monday morning to make training. How I did it I’ll never know.”
In Birmingham he and his former Celtic teammate Danny Crainie, then at Wolves, were chased from a pub by a gang of black Birmingham City fans who called themselves the Zulus. “I was faster than Danny but Danny was away quicker than me.”
The wrong pub is still a pub of course. “I wanted to go out and party. I was 21 and single,” he says in his defence. He never stinted on training. It was just that a glass of wine made life less lonely.
Eventually he found his feet socially and things kicked up a gear. He’d hang out in the bars of Highgate with members of Spandau Ballet. (“A couple of them were Arsenal fans,” he tells me. Another reason to not like them, I point out.)
After training he’d head into London and pop into a bar in Mayfair called Blondes to see if George Best was in. The bar’s owners used to give Best £300 if he showed his face.
“In the end I got quite pally with George. George was the most timid superstar you’ve met in your life. He was insecure. No real ambition about being seen or heard. He used to just sit there and drink. His head would end up in a plate of chips swimming in vinegar. He would wake up like that and still look as handsome as hell and these
I got quite pally with George Best. My god, the women who used to come around him … And sometimes I got the benefit of that
superstar women were hanging about.
“My god, the women who used to come around him … And sometimes I got the benefit of that.”
Well, yes. In his time in London Nicholas was linked with Suzanne Dando, former Olympic gymnast, Janis Lee Burns, the Cadbury’s Flake girl, and even, she later claimed in a tabloid kiss-and-tell, Thereza Bazar, better known as half of the pop duo Dollar. Was that the case, Charlie? “Yeah,” he says, looking, if it’s possible, slightly abashed. (In true tabloid style Theresa claimed: “He certainly scored a hat-trick with me that night.”)
Which reminds me, that picture of him in his “bare underwear”. It’s all over the internet if you google him. Charlie in a pair of the briefest budgie-smugglers you’ve ever seen. I’ve kindly printed off a copy to show him. “That’s shambolic,” he laughs. “My daughters absolutely cane me when they see that. I’d been in London for two weeks and I was offered quite a bit of money.
“That was done with a couple of Page 3 girls. Good memory of it in some departments. Not so much in others. I’ve probably still got that underwear.”
All of this wouldn’t have been a problem, of course, if Arsenal were winning anything. But, that League Cup victory apart, that was never on the cards. And so the Champagne Charlie tag became a rock to beat him with.
Here’s the thing, though. George Best in the end would eventually drink himself to death, while at one point Frank McAvennie ended up bankrupt and drugged out (this is in the days before the Saltire boiler ads, obviously).
The truth is Charlie Nicholas’s biggest failing was that he never quite fulfilled his potential. After Arsenal he came back to Scotland to play for Aberdeen, before heading back to Celtic and then finishing his career at Clyde. He scored goals everywhere but never enough and never enough to win much of anything.
HE stopped playing in 1996 and has spent
the last two decades developing his career in the media. And pursuing various business interests in Glasgow bars. “They didn’t finish particularly well with my other partners,” he admits (one former partner ended up in court for forging Nicholas’s signature). He’s now working on a new clean energy business.
He still loves football, he says. Given everything, can Nicholas say the game has given him any lessons for life? “Absolutely. We sometimes had a saying. We used it a lot in London. ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice.’ Fairly simplistic. I’m a fairly simplistic guy. In more ways than one.”
He laughs at himself as soon as he says it. That’s one ability time has never robbed Charlie Nicholas of.
Above, from left: Nicholas takes tea with Frank McAvennie; playing up to the Jack the Lad reputation; with one-time girlfriend Suzanne Dando. Left: in 1981 with Celtic teammates Willie McStay and Danny McGrain. Below: after scoring against Ajax in the European Cup. Bottom: an ill-advised photograph which still amuses his daughters
Besides his TV punditry Nicholas is currently working on a clean energy business. ‘I’m a fairly simplistic guy,’ he says. ‘In more ways than one’