Nicholl waiting for happy hour

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Former Northern Ireland stalwart plots Ipswich's downfall. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Half an hour's satisfaction - that is how Chris Nicholl quantifies the rewards of a week's work as a football manager. Always assuming, of course, that his Walsall team have won.

If that makes Nicholl sound like the dour antithesis of charismatics like Barry Fry and Ron Atkinson, it is misleading. His manner is quiet but warm and his humour self-deprecating, while his love of the game is reflected in the progressive style on which Walsall will stand or fall at Ipswich in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Saturday.

It is just that Nicholl believes running a team to be more stressful than people imagine, and prefers plain speaking to wisecracking as a method of articulating his view. Asked how he filled in the days during the three years between leaving Southampton and resurfacing at Walsall, he replies: "I enjoyed myself."

Yet all the time he was desperate to jump back in, and he still has ambitions to manage a Premiership club. Why? Again he shrugs and smiles. "Mad."

There must be a method to this madness. Last season, his first at the Bescot Stadium, Nicholl took Walsall up to the Second Division. Although below half-way, they are only three points away from the play-off places and well clear of the bottom-four berth they occupied in late October.

None of which is remarkable until you consider that Walsall had previously won promotion only four times. Or that in 17 months at a club surrounded by the big spenders of Aston Villa, Wolves and Birmingham, Nicholl has yet to pay so much as a pound in transfer fees. He is tickled to learn that even the famous Saddlers' side of 63 years ago, who beat Arsenal in arguably the greatest Cup upset of all, cost pounds 70 to assemble.

But then Nicholl, a former Villa and Northern Ireland centre-half who will be 50 in October, had already demon- strated at the highest level his ability to survive - and more - on a shoestring. The young talents he blooded at The Dell included Alan Shearer, Matthew Le Tissier, Rod Wallace and Jeff Kenna. Among those he bought, for a total of pounds 1m, were Tim Flowers, Barry Horne and Neil Ruddock.

"I think I did a good job at Southampton," he says, "and as time goes by I have to say it looks a better job. We never finished below 14th, we were a decent team who scored goals, and I left them with some good young players as well as in a healthy state financially."

One assumes he was bitter about the way it ended. "Absolutely not. Bitterness is a wasted emotion that could drive you round the bend. The board at Southampton are excellent. They sacked me and, yes, I hope to prove them wrong, but they put up with me for six years. That was long enough for anybody. They wanted a change and they were right to do it."

Nicholl is clearly not one to indulge in platitudes. He admits, for instance, that although he enjoyed the leisure time, he had begun "to doubt everything, including myself" before he was invited to succeed Kenny Hibbitt at Walsall (where, revealingly, he is the 34th manager in 68 seasons). Nor has his modest success altered his feelings about his profession.

"Managing is a very stressful job. It doesn't matter how many you've won - we've just won four in a row and not conceded a goal - on Saturday evening you get half an hour of satisfaction. Then the physio comes in and says so and so's got a bad knee and you find another player's going to be suspended. It's then that the worries start to build up for the next game.

"What screws you up is that there's no physical outlet for the tension. The players get their high from running around. We get the adrenalin but we lose control the moment they run out of the dressing-room. And if one of your players isn't feeling right or the referee doesn't like you that day, you're in trouble no matter what work you've done in the week."

The closest he has been to the FA Cup final, the event which hooked him on football, was in 1986 in his first season in charge of Southampton. They took a Double-bound Liverpool to extra time in the semi-final remembered for the horrific broken leg suffered by the Saints' Mark Wright.

This time last year, Walsall led Leeds 1-0 in the third round before conceding an equaliser three minutes from time. They then forced the additional half-hour at Elland Road before, as Nicholl concedes, "we tired and they swamped us".

This season's run includes, bizarrely, an 8-4 win over Torquay on a frost- affected surface, during which Nicholl lost track of the score. Walsall have since tightened up considerably, an improvement to which Derek Mountfield - an FA Cup winner with Everton - has made a major contribution since arriving from Carlisle.

Nicholl had expected to be renewing acquaintance with Shearer et al on Saturday (as did Blackburn, the champions having somewhat prematurely sent Walsall their tickets for Ewood Park before losing a home replay to First Division Ipswich). "In theory, it gives us a better chance," he says. "Still a small chance, but a better one than we'd have had at Blackburn."

The Cup is no place for half-measures. If Walsall win this one, expect Nicholl to relent and enjoy a full hour's satisfaction before the pressure starts again.

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