ONLY THE LONELY

CHAR­LIE NI­CHOLAS ON THE HON­EST TRUTH BEHIND HIS RIOTOUS REP­U­TA­TION

The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

ALISON ROWAT

‘I ONCE EN­TERED A DOG AGILITY CON­TEST. NOT ON MY OWN’

LEO SAYER

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: SNS GROUP

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’

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