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FPs | Barry Nicholson interview

December 22, 2016 12:09 pm Author: Aberdeen FC

Having failed to qualify for Europe the previous five seasons, the Dons arrived at Tynecastle in May 2007 with the weight of hope and expectation from their travelling support that they could maintain their four-point advantage over Hearts to stay in the race to earn their place in the following season’s UEFA Cup.

That expectation came to fruition after a gruelling 90 minutes as popular midfielder Barry Nicholson scored the equaliser that maintained the gap between Aberdeen and the Jambos.

But having sent the travelling Red Army into raptures, Nicholson found himself caught up in the emotions of the afternoon and was sent off for a second yellow card after removing his shirt during his celebrations.

“I remember it well,” he explained. “I got caught up in the celebration of scoring so late in the game, forgetting that I had just been booked ten minutes earlier. That was such a massive result.

“It was coming up to the end of the season, and the lads had been working in the gym trying to get their bodies ready for the summer holidays. We had been taking the mickey out of each other, and agreed that we would take our tops off if we scored.

“Of course when I scored it was right in front of the Dons fans and for a split second I lost it and stripped off. As soon as I had done it, I was trying to get it frantically back on, but Darren Mackie was grabbing me, so I couldn’t.

“I missed the Celtic game at Parkhead the week after because of that, but was back for the Rangers game, the last game of the season.

“Once we got the draw Dnipro were pretty unknown to us. We watched them on video, but it was a case of trying to prepare the best we could. Getting through to the group stages was going to be massive for us.

“We put absolutely everything into the game against Dnipro, and over the two legs we were lucky enough to go through on away goals. When we drew the home leg nil-nil, we were written off a little bit. They had some really good players with them at the time, but when we went away, Darren Mackie scored in the first half, and for the rest of the game we just defended for our lives.

“Once we were in the group stages, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Being drawn to play Athletico Madrid, Panathinaikos, Lokomotiv Moscow and Copenhagen, we thought that if we got out the group we would have done really well.

“I travelled to Madrid but missed the game as I was really ill, but was on the bench and didn’t play. I was really sick in the hotel over there. I had tried to train the night before and did about ten minutes so was put on the bench.

“The game at Panathinaikos was disappointing, because we actually played okay but lost three-nil. They were really difficult fixtures away from home. But getting big crowds behind us at Pittodrie helped us get the four points we needed to get through.”

Having qualified for the knock-out rounds, the club were to meet previous European adversaries, Bayern Munich.

“The Bayern team we drew with at Pittodrie was full of internationals, a really good side, but when we went over to Munich, their side was even stronger,” Nicholson said.

“It was an unbelievable atmosphere to play in in both games. We gave them a bit of a fright at Pittodrie, drawing two-each, and then in the second leg had a bit of a chance with Darren just before they scored the first goal. If we had scored the first goal over there it might have been a bit different, but they ran out comfortable winners in the end.

“It was a brilliant period to be involved at Aberdeen.”

But he admitted that European adventures came at a cost as he added: “To come back and get yourself going after big games on a Thursday night, the boys found it quite tough. A couple of times we’d get back to Aberdeen early on Friday morning, and then we’d be back in for a recovery session on the Friday afternoon before training for the Sunday game on Saturday.

“It was interesting, because a lot of us had never been involved in European competition, so that was a new thing to deal with, but was brilliant at the time.

Later that season, the Dons had – on paper – the perfect opportunity to reach the European arena once more, meeting Queen of the South in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden. But as we all know, football isn’t played on paper, and they came unstuck against a resilient Queens side that day.

“We weren’t over-confident, because we tried to take every game as they came. I don’t think we treated Queen of the South lightly at all, we just didn’t perform on the day, a lot of players just didn’t perform, it was a simple fact.

“We had done our preparation on them, we felt that if we played at our best we would have won the game. The worst thing was that we knew that if we had won that game, we’d have been back in Europe the next season.”

That result had a more profound impact on Nicholson’s own career choice as he said: “I had made up my mind that had wanted to move down south to England and try the game there. If we had beaten Queen of the South that day and got back into Europe I would have had a more difficult decision to make. After that game I had made up my mind that I was definitely going to go.

“Jimmy Calderwood was still phoning me during the summer to ask if I was sure I was making the right decision. I‘d not agreed with any English club that I was definitely going to be leaving, and he was still trying to get me to stay, but I met the Preston manager Alan Irvine after we had a bit of a break after the season finished. He phoned me later, then I went down for a medical and got it all sorted.

“There were a couple of other clubs interested, but I didn’t speak to them. Once I met Alan though, it was a pretty easy decision to play there.

After promotion to the Championship in 2000, Preston North End had made two play-off finals, and were regularly making top-six finishes, with Craig Brown and Billy Davies having led the Deepdale side to the brink of promotion.

“I had a really good first year, we started really well, we got to the play-offs and got beat by Sheffield United in the semi-final. We were really disappointed, as we thought we were good enough to beat them, and that would have meant a final against Burnley. We were confident we’d have won that one as well.

“That first season went well, and then the start of the second season was going well, but I broke my leg about the fifth or sixth game into the season, and then had a displacement later on, so missed about eighteen months all in. I came back pretty strong, it wasn’t a great time, but the fans were brilliant with me.

“When Alan left it was a bit difficult. Darren Ferguson came in and tried to get a few players off the wage bill. He had a way of playing that just didn’t click for us. When he left we had a few players on loan from Manchester United, so they left straight away as Alex Ferguson called the United players back, and Tony Pulis called the Stoke players back off their loans.

“That left us short, so that was a difficult period. Phil Brown came in, and tried to steady the ship a little bit, and to be fair, got us a few results that almost got us safe but in the end we weren’t good enough and were relegated.

“We had a good pre-season and started really well with about six wins on the spin, but we hit the skids a little bit, and didn’t really perform again. Phil left and then Graham Westley took over. I had about a year left at Preston, and he spoke to me and said that he couldn’t guarantee that I would be getting regular football, so it was up to me.

“I wanted to still be playing as much as possible. I bumped into Micky Mellon who was the Fleetwood manager at the time. Our children went to the same school in Lytham, and we had chatted every now and then. During the summer he asked me what I was doing and I said though I had a year left at Preston, I was looking for an opportunity to play.

“He told me to come along for pre-season training, so I went on their trip to Austria, where I signed for them. That was their first year in the Football League and he had assembled quite an experienced squad that had won the Conference easily.

“Micky got the sack in the January when we were fourth in the league, so that was a bit of a shock, and then Graham Alexander came in. I didn’t play as much under Graham, I had a lot of injuries, but he was great. He spoke with me about a possible coaching role, as he didn’t think I would be playing regularly. That was when I went back up to Kilmarnock and had a year there.

“He had already sounded me out about a coaching role. After I left Kilmarnock I came back to Fleetwood and led the new Development Squad that had been set up. I did that for a couple of years, and when the first team coach Chris Lucketti left to join Graham at Scunthorpe in the summer, that’s when I got the opportunity to join up with Stephen Pressley coaching the first team.

”But a few days before the season, he walked away from the job so I took the team for a couple of pre-season friendlies. Uwe Rosler has come in and it has been really good.”

Nicholson’s career had started at Ibrox, where he made only eight first team appearances. He admitted though, that records showing him as scoring for the Gers in Europe were wrong: “It’s down as my goal in the record books, but Jonatan Johansson actually scored it,’ he explained. “I remember it, at FC Haka, and when we were at the airport coming back from the game, I was getting loads of text messages saying well done on your goal, but it definitely wasn’t me.

“I was a Rangers fan as a kid and signed straight from school. It was a great time, there were some class midfielders in the team to learn from, and although I didn’t play a lot for Rangers it definitely helped me, it gave me a really good grounding in my game.

“I had played reserve football for three years, and though Dick Advocaat game me my debut against Dundee in 1999, I just wanted to play first team football. I had to move on for my career. I didn’t see a pathway to the first team to play regularly.”

A move away from his boyhood club beckoned in order to help his career: “Ian Ferguson had told me that going to Dunfermline would benefit me so after I signed for Jimmy Calderwood I never looked back. I played over 200 games for them straight from reserve team football. Later on he made me captain. I loved working for him and Jimmy Nichol.”

Nicholson was part of a Dunfermline side which managed a period of comparative success, reaching the 2004 Scottish Cup final and taking part in the 2004/05 UEFA Cup. Immediately after that cup final though, Calderwood resigned to take over the Pittodrie hotseat.

Nicholson’s move to Pittodrie came the year afterwards, with Calderwood being a major influence in his decision, as he said: “The biggest factor was working with the two Jimmys again. I spoke to them in the January before I came up, and they said that they wanted me to come up in the summer. I had a year on my contract at Dunfermline, but they sorted that. I loved working with them, so it was an easy decision to come up the road.

“Coming to Aberdeen I was a bit nervous about the whole rivalry with Rangers, but I started well, scoring on my debut at Tannadice, but didn’t have a very good spell for about four or five months until I scored again in the Scottish Cup at Tannadice.

“Once I got settled the fans were great. They gave me a great reception at my final game, which was against Rangers. Jimmy took me off with a few minutes to go, and they were great with me that day.

As well as his club career, Nicholson was capped three times for Scotland while a Dunfermline player. “Craig Brown gave me my debut over in Poland and then I played in his last game in the World Cup qualifier against Latvia at Hampden.

“I played in a few B internationals under Berti Vogts but never quite got a regular call-up to the full squad. Jimmy tried making my case in the press, but it’s just down to the manager at the time.

“When he lost his job I got back after that, and played the Sweden game when Tommy Burns was caretaker. I’d have loved to have more caps but I’m delighted to have played for my country.”

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