In the spring of 1954, the boots of the footballer Johnny Nicholls seemed to be sprinkled with stardust. In April, on his 23rd birthday, he made his debut for England, scoring with a brilliant diving header that silenced the famous Hampden Roar and helped to pave the way to victory over Scotland.
A month later the young inside-left's stage was Wembley, where he helped his club, West Bromwich Albion, beat Preston North End - Tom Finney et al - to lift the FA Cup.
Nicholls was part of a vibrant, attacking "Throstles" combination which, under their manager Vic Buckingham, had failed only narrowly to become the first side this century to win the double of the League championship and the Cup.
Nicholls had finished the season as Albion's top League scorer with 28 strikes in 38 outings, just ahead of his club and country team-mate Ronnie Allen, and when he was picked for England's next game, against Yugoslavia, a glittering future appeared to beckon.
But, sadly, that match in Belgrade was to prove his final bow at full international level andNicholls never scaled the giddy heights which had once appeared possible. Despite his knack of cracking the ball cleanly with either foot, admirable aerial ability and a typical goal-poacher's instinct of being in the right place at the right time, Nicholls did not progress as anticipated, his cause not helped by a series of niggling injuries.
Also, competition for places, both with Albion and England, grew distinctly warmer. Come May 1957, Buckingham judged Nicholls surplus to requirements and the striker, who at 26 should have been approaching his peak, moved to Second Division Cardiff City.
However, he did not flourish at the lower level, failing to hold a regular place at Ninian Park, and that November dropped another division to link up with humble Exeter City. Again, he faced injury problems, but made a favourable early impression with a hat-trick in the Devon derby against Plymouth Argyle.
After a knee operation Nicholls recovered something of his early form and played a leading role in Exeter's stirring if unsuccessful bid for promotion from the Fourth Division in 1958-59. The following summer, with a doubt remaining over his fitness, he left the Football League to serve Worcester City, then Wellington Town, Oswestry Town and several amateur clubs in the Midlands.
Memories of Nicholls, who had unsuccessful trials with both Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers before turning professional with West Bromwich in 1951, will evoke in some fans a certain poignancy for what might have been. But he was an integral part of the Throstles' most compelling side since the Second World War.Reuse content