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Steve Nicol Turns Water into Wine at Foxboro

By Emlyn Lewis

October 20, 2002 - For six years the New England Revolution looked for a savior. After their woeful performance in 1996’s inaugural Major League Soccer season, they fired Irish legend Frank Stapleton and turned to the coach of the moment, Thomas Rongen. When Rongen failed they tried inspirational Italian Walter Zenga, who flopped even harder than his Dutch predecessor.

For about a year it looked as if Fernando Clavijo might walk on water. It turned out he was only wading in the shallows. Though he hung on a bit longer than the others, seven games into the 2002 season he too went the way of all coaches.

Enter Steve Nicol. Once Clavijo’s wise-cracking assistant, Nicol took on the title of ‘interim head coach’ and set about the task of trying to mold his former boss’ squad into a serviceable soccer team.

For the first few months of the Scotsman’s tenure things looked bleak. The defense was leaky. The midfield was weak, and despite scoring goals by the bucketful, they just couldn’t win.

Then it all changed.

By now you’ve read innumerable accounts of the turnaround. Goalkeeper Adin Brown went from injury plagued wreck to mighty man mountain. The backline, bolstered by an unknown minor leaguer from Mali and a few starters returning from injury, turned rock solid. Daniel Hernandez and Leo Cullen struck up an effective midfield partnership that introduced stability and a little bit of style in the middle of the park. Taylor Twellman continued to be…well…Taylor Twellman.

And all the while Nicol stood by and grinned his impish grin, spitting trite soccerisms at the media mixed in with sly one-liners. It was all a bit difficult to figure. No one in New England had ever met a savior like this guy, and they weren’t quick to recognize what was going on.

In retrospect you need only read some of the things the coaches were saying in the press in early July. The team was moving to a block-style defensive scheme that focused everyone on keeping the team’s shape as they soaked up attacking pressure. They were preaching patience and swore the results would come.
Steve Nicol
Nicol and his coaching staff stayed on message throughout the 2002 and eventaully led the Revs to MLS Cup

Though they continued to lose matches, the coaching staff stayed on message and did their best to keep the team’s spirits up. Slowly, ever so slowly, the results did start to come. National Team defender Carlos Llamosa returned from injury. Then Rusty Pierce came back. Nicol benched Jim Rooney and went to the Hernandez/Cullen tandem in midfield. Twellman just scored and scored and scored some more.

The rest is, very recently, history, with the Revs winning through to the MLS Cup Final and losing at the ultimate moment to a Los Angeles Galaxy team who had been there and done that just one too many times for the only recently arrived Revolution.

Still, Rev fans have their man, and the coming weeks will certainly see the interim tag removed from Nicol’s job title. The man from Irvine, on the southern coast of Scotland, has earned his chance, been reborn if you will, to lead the team out for another season.

So what is it about Nicol that allowed him to perform this soccer miracle?

He started off as a raw talent charging up and down the pitches of Scotland’s second division with Ayr United and getting stuck in with a rough lot of Scottish bruisers. Then he moved on to Liverpool where he was plucked, polished and set into a system that churned out championships. They played a classy, flowing style that brought results not only in the rough and tumble of league play but also on the continent against more artistic Italian and Spanish sides.

It was at Anfield that Nicol learned the meaning of the word humility. From the earthy smell of the boot room to the unquestioned authority of managers like Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, Liverpool weren’t in the business of making stars. They were in the business of making teams.

And during more than a decade of service, Nicol learned to make himself useful in any way his team needed, playing matches in every position in both midfield and defense. He made a name for himself by running his lungs out and keeping it simple.

It would be easy to cast back into this history and say that the erstwhile Scot is only replicating the Liverpool system at Gillette Stadium. More than a decade at the top of English soccer must teach a man things. Is it possible that he’s brought a little bit of that Anfield magic to Foxboro?

“I wouldn’t say I was trying to be as clever as that,” he says, shaking his head. “I certainly wouldn’t stand up and tell you that I’m trying to get players who are not well known and turn them into superstars. I guess I’m like every other coach. If you see somebody who you think you can develop and he can not only help yourself but the rest of the team, that’s what I’m about.”

He also discounts the idea that he’s trying to mirror what his managers did at Liverpool during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “I wouldn’t say I’m taking what we did at Liverpool and trying to emulate that,” he laughs. “If I could, I’d certainly try it. What you really have to do is get a successful team or a successful side, and then try to keep it going or building on it.”

“That’s when the sort of scenario we’re talking about actually comes to fruition. I really don’t think that’s what Liverpool were trying to do. I think they just basically got themselves a team and were always keen to make sure the worst thing that happened was that the quality stayed the same. Ultimately what they were trying to do was, each time they got a player, to up the quality all the time.”

Still, the seeds of Nicol’s managerial future were planted early on. “I think the biggest influences were Paisely and Joe Fagan,” he says, “who were the guys there that called the shots. Obviously (Kenny) Dalglish was a big influence on me as well.”

“I was an unknown when I went to Liverpool, and he was there. He was somebody who sort of took me under his wing, him and another couple of guys, Graeme Souness and Alan Hunt, but as far as Kenny being the manager I also learned a lot from him.”

Steve Nicol
The "Girls of Summer" were the the focus of a remarkable PR blitz throughout June and July of 1999

One of the things you notice about the new look Revolution is that they are much more professional in their attitude to both training and matches. These are things Nicol certainly got from his time playing for the Reds.

“Everybody knew exactly where the line was pretty much automatically,” he says, “and if you overstepped it, which very rarely happened, then you would be put down rather swiftly. I’m pretty fair, and I enjoy a laugh with everyone else. As long as you do your work, that’s ok.”

Though quick with a wink or a joke to put you at ease, Nicol can also seem terse and evasive. It is not rare for a reporter’s post-match query to receive a simple yes or a no in reply.

But it’s not mistrust of the media that produces classic Nicol one-liners like, “Aye, well we’ve won, so it’s a good result for us. Next?” in the post-match wrap-up. It’s that he doesn’t believe in making things more complicated than they need to be.

When he explains his tactical plan as “keeping the ball as well as we can, and then, when we lose it, getting behind the ball and working hard to get it back,” he’s not patronizing you. He’s telling you exactly what he tells his players.

This simplicity works for him. After all, he has taken the proverbial sow’s ear and crafted a fine silk purse, turning New England, a perennial loser, into MLS Cup Finalists.

Still there were times before the Revolution discovered winning ways when hearing the same answers from the coach’s mouth week in and week out wore thin, despite the charming Scottish burr. He smiles now when he says, “I did come in here a few times and stand up and say, ‘We think things are going in the right direction, and we think we’re doing things right. We just didn’t get the breaks.’”

Then he quickly returns to form with, “Fortunately that’s what’s happened, but it’s been done with a lot of hard work and a lot of faith and a lot of belief and a lot of guts. It’s easy to stand in front of players and tell them they’re doing well when they’re losing, but they took it and they stood up. They deserve all the praise they’re going to get.”

After a brief homily to hard work and a subtle paean to the virtues of patience he says, “I think the crucial thing is that we started to get some breaks. I don’t feel we’d played anything real different from when we were losing to when we were winning. We were doing the same sort of things, but we were finding ways to lose, a mistake here or there.”

“We basically cut out mistakes, and when you do that and you start winning games then it brings everyone together. The results start coming for you, and then all of a sudden you feel as though you’re not going to lose. That’s where we’ve got to. We feel strong, and we feel as though we’re not going to give goals up. We also feel as though we’re going to score goals.”

What is remarkable about Steve Nicol’s story and the things that he has to say is not that he was a great soccer player, that he has turned out to be a great coach, or even that he has restored some faith in New England’s demanding soccer public.

What is remarkable about his story is that, in many ways, he has come full circle. From humble Ayrshire beginnings and a day job as a laborer, he climbed right up the soccer ladder to become a bona fide superstar playing for the top managers of the day. Now he’s the one molding the talent. He’s the one turning the youngsters into professionals.

To New England fans, he is the savior they’ve been looking for all along. For his young Revolution charges he must seem more like Moses coming down from the mountain with the truth. It is a simple truth, and one that they’ve somehow parlayed into a most unlikely visit to MLS Cup 2002.







Return from Stevie Wonder to October 2002 Archive


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