By Paul Gardner
Steve Nicol, the now-departed coach of the New England Revs, had a liking for soccer with a physical edge to it. As I take rather a dim view of that approach to the sport, Steve and I never exactly hit it off.
Which was a pity for me, because there was at least one aspect of Steve’s soccer personality that I found immensely attractive. I mean his willingness to speak his mind, and to do so in blunt, understandable English. Or Scottish, if you prefer.
Probably “willingness” is the wrong word -- I can’t imagine that Steve ever had to consider any other possibility than coming out with his uncensored opinions. That was part of the man, and a highly likeable part, too.
But there were occasions when Nicol clearly did modify his opinions. Not to alter them, but to soften them slightly, or to avoid having to express them. I did -- inevitably -- find watching Revs’ games something of a chore, but there was always something to look forward to, and that was Nicol’s live interview with the TV commentators -- particularly when he was confronted with one of the specialist know-nothing sideline reporters who plague the sport.
During his 10 years with the Revs, Nicol must have endured hundreds of those brief Q&A sessions, but he never managed the art of giving a vapid answer to a vapid question. As soon as the dopey question was asked, the struggle was on, Nicol trying either to keep a straight face, or to resist the urge -- this was in the middle of a game, remember -- to tell the questioner to get lost.
It meant that what is known as a “pregnant pause” usually followed the question, while Nicol formulated a suitably polite answer. Those answers deserve to be preserved -- on tape. It was not only the words that Nicol used, it was his ability to get over -- subtly -- just how silly he considered the question.
But Nicol’s answers were always soccer answers. He was always pretty honest about his own team’s performances. Lately, as the Revs’ play got increasingly disjointed, Nicol’s comments reflected his growing exasperation as the Revs seemed unable pass or to shoot straight.
I have no idea whether Nicol had a sense of humor, but I felt he did. There was surely something mischievous in those answers of his. Why else would I find myself grinning contentedly as he dispatched yet another inane question with a softly spoken but heavily barbed reply?
Of course, Nicol’s success with the Revs is indisputable -- six straight Eastern Conference championships is a mighty achievement, and when you add four appearances in the MLS Cup final, you have a record that belongs to a dynasty.
But that word was rarely, if ever, applied to Nicol’s Revs. Because, somehow or other, all four of those finals were lost. Nicol never won the big one.
It’s tempting for me to put that down to his stylistic persuasion, to suggest that his physical game was always an unreliable one. I could make that case if I could show that the refereeing in the finals was stricter than in the regular season, and that this upset the Revs’ play. But that was not the case -- nor do I recall Nicol ever using that as an excuse.
What, then? I don’t know. Difficulty scoring? That was certainly a problem -- in its four finals, the Revs scored only two goals. Which tells only half the story, because the Revs’ opponents didn’t light up the scoreboard either, managing to score only five times. The games, then, were constipated affairs, and I would definitely level a charge of overly defensive play against Nicol particularly in those finals. Then again -- how many teams approach finals these days in a high-scoring frame of mind?
Perhaps what irked me most about Nicol was that he clearly espoused the British game. How could it be otherwise? He had been a top defender with Liverpool -- and I mean top, he was voted Player of the Year in England in 1989 by the Football Writers’ Association. He was capped 27 times by Scotland. With Liverpool, between 1981 and 1995, he won five First Division titles (the highest title in pre-Premier League days). In 1984 he was a member of the team that won the European Cup.
I was at that 1984 final, in Rome, and, all unawares, I got a taste of things to come, or of Revs to come. A truly dour 1-1 game, in no way worthy of a final. Liverpool won 4-2 on PKs -- though Nicol, entrusted with the first kick, thumped it powerfully over the bar. During that shootout, Liverpool put up some sort of record because all five of their kickers were left-footed. At least, that was how I recall it.
But the negative Liverpool tactics, particularly the concentration on shutting Roma’s Brazilian star Falcao out of the game, carried the day.
Maybe Nicol learned something that day, something negative, about South American players. Because South Americans have been glaringly absent from the Revs during most of Nicol’s tenure. A shame, that.
Good luck Steve, whatever you may get up to. The next time I’m listening to a coach’s pseudo-intellectual sideline wafflings, I’ll be thinking of you and your down-to-earth soccer answers delivered with that patiently waspish Scots accent.