Football: Nicol clings to his survival instinct

Norman Fox talks to the Anfield old boy about football's flipside
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The Independent Online
THE dream is of drawing Liverpool in the third round. The problem is of beating Rushden & Diamonds in the second next Saturday. Steve Nicol, who in a long career at Anfield helped fill its trophy room, including the FA Cup itself, is not at all sure that in spite of his experience and irrepressible determination to keep on playing at the age of 37, Doncaster Rovers are up for the task.

After years of financial problems Rovers are probably lucky to be where they are: bottom of the Conference after last season dropping out of the Third Division. They could easily have dropped out of football altogether. And just as easily could Nicol. Last year he seemed in that state of decline which sees so many fine but not exactly charismatic professional players retire and drift into other people's fading memories. As it is he is happily taking each bad match as it comes.

"Our best performance this season," he said, "was beating Southend away in the first round." Bearing in mind the club had not reached the second round since 1989 that was an achievement to be celebrated. But it was typical of the team's vulnerability that a week later they got knocked out of the FA Trophy by Frickley Athletic at home. It was a result that really embarrassed Nicol. "One week we had pulled all the stops out, the next it was the complete opposite, but I can assure you we deserved to get beat. We were abysmal, but the crowds at Doncaster are amazing. We're bottom. You very rarely hear anybody complain. We came off after that Trophy match and there were a few upset, but there were loads of families there and they're well pleased with their afternoon. You're going off holding your head and they're clapping and asking for your autograph."

His much-medalled career at Liverpool ended three years ago. He later served Sheffield Wednesday well but last year knew his contract was not going to be renewed. He hoped West Bromwich, where he had been on loan, would keep him on. "I thought I was still good enough but it didn't materialise and from then on no one would give me a game." Why not retire gracefully? Look of horror. "It's not like that. You can't just quit one day and start a new life the next. I finished up playing one game with Stoke. It was demoralising. I kept thinking someone would see something that I could give to their side."

So he went to the Doncaster ground, near his home, just to keep in training. "But I needed to play matches; if someone did make an offer you couldn't do well unless you were match fit." When Doncaster approached he declined, still hoping for something better. No callers, so he signed for two seasons with the proviso that if coaching or management work came up he was free to accept. It hasn't. His only coaching experience is "what I do on a Saturday as the game goes on".

In spite of uncertainty about the club's future and their present position, Nicol retains an Anfield defiance. "It sounds crazy but we haven't met a team this season who deserved to beat us. We haven't been scoring but we don't concede that many. There's not a lot of difference between the Conference and the Third Division."

The difference between Doncaster and the more successful teams in the Conference is mainly one of finance. "Us and Rushden, it's chalk and cheese." Meaning that recently Rushden could spend pounds 100,000 on two players from Northampton while Doncaster know that if two first-team players are injured they are struggling. "Our manager, Ian Snodin [the former Leeds and Everton player], had only two weeks before the season started to get a team together. He didn't have any players at all and no money."

The former Footballer of the Year recalls the squad strength of the Liverpool teams in which he played, adding: "It's plain they are lacking in some areas, especially defence. It was the same at United but the money they paid for Stam was well spent." He never thought that the Houllier-Evans partnership would work. "You've got to have one man everyone knows is the boss," he says. Nicol awaits his chance.