Johnny McNichol was a Scotsman who came south of the border to try to make it in a career as a footballer, and succeeded by the bucketload. An inside-forward, he was known for his stylish and exciting attacking-play and as such caught the eye of many a supporter during his time playing for Brighton, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.
However, McNichol’s upbringing is hardly that of your average footballer. Tragedy struck early when his father died when he was only five, leaving his mum to raise all their eight children alone, including one of his sisters who would not survive infancy.
These were sadly common statistics in 1930’s Scotland. The infant mortality rate was around 1 in 10 compared to the rate today of around 4 in 1,000. Furthermore life expectancy for males would have been in the mid-50’s compared to the mid-70s life expectancy of today.
1930’s Scotland certainly were tougher times and they were made even tougher when just after Johnny turned 14, World War II broke out. And during which further personal tragedy struck when his eldest brother was killed during the final days of the war.
Being 14 when the war broke out Johnny was too young to serve initially. Despite this, with the professional football league’s in Britain officially stopping to aid the war effort it made it harder for young aspiring footballers like him to make it as a pro. So he began playing for Hurlford in the Scottish junior football leagues from age of 16 whilst working in a local bus garage as an apprentice mechanic, until he was called up as a mechanic for the Royal Navy with the Fleet Air Arm.
After the war ended he resumed playing for Hurlford until he was signed by Newcastle United in 1946. But despite the then Second Division club seeing enough of him in a trial to sign him, he didn’t play once for the first team. Mainly not getting into the team due to the tough competition of the then England International Len Shackleton.
Whilst at Newcastle, in part due to his reserve team status, he was supplementing the income he earned from football by utilising the skills he had learnt during the war by working as a mechanic for a local undertaker. A trait of supplementing his income with additional work that stayed with him throughout his career and demonstrated a work-ethic that he no doubt earned from his tough upbringing and helped him succeed in his career.
After two years in the North East of England he moved to the South East to play for Brighton. Despite his lack of first team experience the club set a then record fee of £5,000 (equivalent to £180,000 today) before the start of the 1948-49 season to bring him to the club. Brighton were then playing in the third division, a level they had played all their football since the formation of that level of the Football League in 1920. And so this was a bit of a step down for McNichol but one clearly, in part at least, made to get first team football. In fact because of the war and competition for places at Newcastle, he was 23 when he eventually made his League debut with Brighton.
Indeed Brighton were a small club who wouldn’t taste Second Division football until 1958 and First Division football until 1979. And compared to Newcastle who at the time would regularly attract attendances of over forty-thousand and at times even over fifty-thousand, Brighton’s average attendances were in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands. Much less than the reported fifteen thousand Newcastle attracted to a pre-season friendly between the reserve team and the first team back in 1946 that formed a part of Johnny’s trial at the club.
Whilst at Brighton he continued to work as a mechanic, this time at a local garage which was situated conveniently close to the Goldstone Ground. It’s not a surprise given that at Brighton, in no small part due to the clubs relatively lowly status, he earned a £10 signing-on fee and a weekly wage of £12 (equivalent to a £22k a year wage today), in what were tough post-war economic conditions.
Indeed the country in general as well as English football was still recovering from the Second World War, and the Albion were no different. In fact the low attendances already mentioned are representative of the fact that the club was at rock bottom when he signed. Having finished 22nd and bottom of the Third Division (South) at the end of the 1947/48 season, they had to apply for re-election to the league for the only time in the clubs now 118-year history. But as Dick Knight says in his Autobiography “MadMad” that “it was usually a case of turkeys not voting for Christmas. All the football league teams ganged up together and decided that they were going to retain the clubs that were in the league already and not bring in outsiders.”
And that’s exactly what happened, but the Albion still recognised some change was needed and the defence-minded coach Don Welsh was appointed manager. Welsh would go on to manage Liverpool from 1951-1956, albeit not particularly successfully taking them down into the Second Division and then failing to achieve promotion back to the First Division. But he stabilised the Albion during his three-year period in change and went about doing so by spending heavily in his first 12 months in charge. And it was the signing of Johnny McNichol’s that was the biggest coup, who became the attacking inspiration for the team during his time with the club.
After initially taking time to settle into first team professional football, in his second season with the Albion (1949/50), McNichol was the club’s top scorer with nine goals as Albion made an ultimately fruitless push for promotion to the Second Division. Then into in the 1950/51 season whilst the team slipped into the bottom half of the third tier, he stepped it up top scoring again, but this time with fourteen.
In his Autobiography Dick Knight says Johnny McNichol was his “all-time favourite Albion player”. He went onto praise him saying: “He was brilliant, mesmerising. He would show the ball to a defender, nutmeg him, go either way, and he was a goalscorer.”
And it wasn’t just Dick’s imagination he caught with his ability to both score and create goals. Particularly during his later years with the club McNichol really started to catch the eye. Appointed Brighton manager in March 1951, Billy Lane’s attacking style suited McNichol and he was given the captaincy in an exciting team. As such he started to attract interest from many club scouts but stayed loyal to the club turning down First Division Man City because he believed he was better off staying put.
Despite the four years he spent with the club being fairly modest days in Albion’s history, as Dick Knight’s account attests to, McNichol is still remembered fondly by many at the club to this day. And it’s no wonder, as his obituary in the Brighton Argus says Johnny was: “the best and most respected forward [at the club] of that generation.”
But it was a matter of time before McNichol went onto bigger and better things. In the 1951/52 season he scored a hat-trick for Brighton in a 4-1 win against Reading who were promoted to the second division as runners up at the end of that season, whilst the Albion finished a more modest 11th. And it was apparently that game when he caught the eye of Chelsea manager Ted Drake, who signed him for the Blues for £12,000 in the summer of 1952. By the time he left for Chelsea, he’d not only scored 39 goals in 139 appearances, but he’d built a reputation as an Albion great. And the fact his legacy still lives to this day was demonstrated by the fact he was invited to represent that generation of players at the club’s centenary celebrations nearly half a century after leaving the club.
Those who watched him at Brighton wouldn’t therefore have been surprised that when at Chelsea he was most notably a part of their 1955 First Division title winning side. It was the first league title in the clubs history and as it would turn out their only First Division title in the 20th century. And he was a crucial player in that side, playing all but two of Chelsea’s league matches that season. Reports of the bonuses received by the players range from £20-£100 for winning the club its first honour, which whilst a significant sum at the time (and equivalent to £500-£2,600 today), it’s small change compared to the amount the team that won the clubs second top tier title in 2005 would have received.
These were very different times for footballers earnings. Per an article in the Telegraph: “The Professional Footballers’ Association say that in 1957 a top England player would have earned a total of a year £1,677 in wages, bonuses and international match fees. In today’s money that is the equivalent of about £75,000 – the kind of salary a GP or senior manager would earn but also the amount that many average Premier League players would earn in a week.”
Indeed this was still before the abolishment of the maximum wage in English Football, which didn’t come until 1961. Prior to its removal, players could be paid no more than £20 a week in standard wages (excluding bonuses and international match fees etc and equivalent to about £850 a week today). Strikingly low compared to today’s multi-million pound annual earnings, which are common place throughout the Premier League and beyond.
After Chelsea won the title in 1955, they controversially turned down the chance to play in the inaugural European Cup, something Johnny admitted was the “one big disappointment” of his career. And the fact he also never got the call up to represent his country due to them favouring player’s from the Scottish League at the time, shows how much of a big deal for him that it was to him.
According to the Guardian “Isolationist Football League secretary Alan Hardaker “advised” Chelsea against taking part.” Whilst according to Rick Glanvill the Chelsea historian the Football League committee, took a vote and vetoed Chelsea participating in the competition. Hardaker was quoted as saying that the committee saw the European Cup as ‘something of a joke’ and ‘at best, a nine-day wonder’. The irony now is that it’s now become a competition that the clubs at the top echelons of English football are obsessed with, and no club less so than Chelsea themselves.
The 1950’s is often described as the heyday of the nation state and these were days when isolationist viewpoints were common place. And the UK being an island off the mainland of Europe, it was naturally at the forefront of this thinking. But the incredible speed of globalisation from that point up to the modern day is illustrated by this change in attitudes over the last five decades. And football has been a big part of this change, with international tournaments like the World Cup and European Championships shaping the views of the general public and leading the way towards a more integrated and globalised world.
Whilst at Chelsea, Johnny again combined his football with another second job. But rather than staying in the auto-mechanics industry, he bought and worked at his own newsagents in Brighton. Meaning that despite signing for Chelsea he continued to live in Brighton commuting to London on the train. Something that didn’t go down well with manager Ted Drake and that McNichol admitted that: “Ted Drake and I had words about my shop”.
It’s the sort of personal sacrifice that modern day footballers wouldn’t dream of. And given the amount of time that the commute will have taken him, the fact he still manage to work another job before he left for training in the morning and then finish training by 2pm is impressive. What is even more impressive is the success he had at the club despite these challenges of his personal circumstances. And I suspect it was tolerated by the club due to his and the clubs success over that period. Indeed McNichol was a key part of the team which won the League.
In total he made 202 appearances for Chelsea between 1952 and 1958, scoring 66 goals. When reflecting on his Time with Chelsea, McNichol said: “Unlike now, no club dominated the league at that time, and anyone could have won the league each season.” And so this is shown in Chelsea’s inconsistent First Division league positions over that period 52/53 -19th, 53/54 – 8th, 54/55 -1st, 55/56 – 16th, 56/57 – 13th, 57/58 -11th.
After his time at Chelsea he moved to Crystal Palace. With Chelsea replacing him by bringing in a young future England international and would-be member of the squad that won the 1966 World Cup, Jimmy Greaves. Johnny admitting himself that: “there was no disgrace in losing my place to him.” And Greaves repaid the favour describing McNichol as “the best player of the team [that won the 1955 title]”.
At Palace he was a key player throughout his four years with the club. He signed towards the end of the 1957/58 season with the club in the Third Division (South). But with the reorganisation of the football league creating a new national third and fourth tier Palace finished below the cut and found themselves effectively demoted to the Fourth Division.
At Palace he was made captain straight after signing and despite moving to full back during his time there, he adapted well and didn’t miss a game between March ’58 and August ’62. Under his captaincy after three seasons in the bottom division, they achieved their first promotion for 40 years back to the third tier. And he was still a first team regular after promotion, but he retired during the 1962/63 season after a fractured cheekbone and broken jaw.
He later worked for the club in their fundraising department and also owned and ran a newsagents in Croydon whilst still living in his house near the Goldstone Ground. He then once again crossed the ‘M23’ footballing divide and worked for Brighton in a similar fundraising role to that of Crystal Palace before retiring in the early 1990’s. At the age of 81 on Saturday 17th March 2007, Johnny McNicol passed away in hospital of a stroke aged 81.
It says a lot of Johnny that at all three clubs where he spent the majority of his career he is still considered a club legend. Football is not a sport about individuals and as such many footballers of decades gone by are often forgotten, but the fact that he is in fact remembered so fondly at three different clubs is a testament to him.
Johnny was a man who would have gained great perspective from his difficult upbringing and that is shown in the way he lived his life. This attitude coupled with his incredible ability with a football is what gained him such a wide-ranging, well-liked reputation. In fact everything I have found to read about Johnny McNichol was incredibly positive, with words like “gent” commonly used to describe him. And amongst the tribalism that often over-shadows modern English football, stories like that of Johnny McNichol’s which spans three very different clubs, including two arch rivals, all in such significant ways, is a lesson to us all.