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Resident on America’s east coast for the past 23 years, Steve Nicol’s broadcasting work with ESPN doesn’t encompass much coverage of Scottish football.
YouTube was his port of call when Liverpool moved to sign Calvin Ramsay. And what he saw on his screen proved startling.
‘Christ, I’m looking at myself here,’ Nicol laughingly recalls to Sportsmail. ‘He’s getting the ball at full-back and dribbling past people. He runs with the ball a lot. Right away, it reminded me of me!’
Calvin Ramsey admits it will be weird to be team-mates with Mo Salah and Andy Robertson
Nicol means when he was 19, a year older than Ramsay, and playing for Ayr United.
He soon changed. A £300,000 agreement took him from First Division football at Somerset Park to the reigning European champions. Pass it and move was the mantra there.
Nicol was initially signed by Liverpool as understudy to Phil Neal, England’s right-back. Now, 41 years on, Ramsay is heading south to learn from Trent Alexander-Arnold.
The initial £4.5million fee is a record sale for Aberdeen but will be a solid-gold bargain if Ramsay can achieve even a fraction of what Nicol did. Four league winner’s medals, three from the FA Cup and one European Cup. Thirteen years, 468 appearances and 46 goals.
His story is pertinent for more than a shared nationality. Success wasn’t instant. Nicol had to learn and grow.
Also, while Ramsay admits it’s going to be ‘weird’ walking into the dressing-room and realising Alexander-Arnold, Mo Salah and Andy Robertson are actually his team-mates, Nicol was in beside Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen. This trio of Scottish kings soon made him welcome — in their own way.
The 18-year-old defender has moved south to learn from Trent Alexander-Arnold
‘The first time I went in I was changing next to Kenny and two over was big Al (Hansen),’ says Nicol.
‘The fact they were a lot of Scottish guys there, I’m going to say they looked after me — but by looking after me, I mean they wound the c**p out of me relentlessly!
‘I kind of felt at home straight away because of that. That squad of players, as great as they were, European champions, everyone was together.
‘Although there were remorseless wind-ups, it wasn’t done to hurt anyone, it was just all in fun.
‘If they didn’t take the p*** out of you, then they didn’t like you or didn’t trust you.
‘They made it easy for me. And when I look at this Liverpool squad now, they look really together, too. No doubt Robbo will be the first one that will look after Ramsay, so I expect it just to be the same.
‘Once you feel at home, once you get that first training session out of the way, it takes away all the preconceived notions you might have of what to do, what to say, what people are like.’
The initial £4.5million fee for Ramsey is a record sale for Aberdeen
Not everything is the same across the decades. Ramsay was aware of Liverpool’s interest for months before the deal was sealed. Not so Nicol.
‘I knew nothing about it,’ he says. ‘I went into training (with Ayr) on the Tuesday night. George Caldwell, who was assistant to Willie McLean at the time, asked me to come and wait in the manager’s office with him.
‘So we sat there for ten minutes and then Willie came in. He told me they’d accepted an offer from Liverpool and that was it.
‘I got in his car, we drove to my house, got my gear and then we went down to Manchester on the Tuesday night.’
Then there are the two managers. Jurgen Klopp is renowned as one of football’s premier orators, a master of motivating through language. But what was Nicol’s first meeting with the late, great Bob Paisley like?
‘Interesting…,’ chuckles Nicol. ‘A man of few words. I didn’t really have a conversation with him. Willie and I went in to sign on the Thursday. We were basically in the players’ lounge, where they would have their lunch.
‘It’s hard to describe. When I say few words I mean next to no words. It was kind of awkward. We’re just sitting there — me, Willie and Bob. Every so often someone would walk in. Willie would go: “He’s a great player”. And Bob would agree.’
Did the suddenness of the move not scramble Nicol’s head?
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘I’m kinda like that. I don’t overthink anything. I just got on with it.’
He did. Slowly but surely, drawing on the encouragement of the coaches when his role as a first-team back-up and reserve regular meant he almost never had a day off.
‘I signed in the October (of 1981) and my first start wasn’t until the following August,’ reflects Nicol. ‘Then I only played about four games that year. It was ’83 when I started playing regularly. And it wasn’t even at full-back. It was the left side of midfield.’
This was still in the days of only one substitute being allowed. On October 22, 1983, Nicol was summoned from the bench to replace Craig Johnston and scored an 83rd-minute winner against Queens Park Rangers.
Steve Nichol says Scotland skipper Andy Robertson can be a brilliant mentor for Ramsey
Two years after putting pen to paper, he was up and running for real. He missed the League Cup final but won the league and European Cup that season. Welcome to Anfield.
With Ramsay about to enter his own period of acclimatisation, what advice would Nicol offer?
‘Just work hard and always remember that,’ he responds. ‘I think back to one day in training after I’d started playing every week. We were doing doggy runs, back and forth. Short and sharp.
‘I’d done this run and as I stopped, Roy (Evans) came up to me and said: “Is that it? Is that all we’re getting from you? Let me tell you something, every day here, we’re watching everyone. All the time. You can’t take days off”.
‘That was just one run. One run. But they were on it. I got the message. If you work hard every day at a place like Liverpool, with the players they have, then it’s impossible for you not to get better.
‘It doesn’t happen overnight. But it happens. Good coaches, good players and the brains to take it on board. It’s not rocket science.
‘In the early days, I was told: “Look, make sure you are ready. Because if you get a chance and you make an a*** of it, you’ll never forgive yourself”.
Nicol was initially signed by Liverpool as understudy to Phil Neal, England’s right-back
‘That kept me going. I kept thinking about it.’ His mind was also kept active by the aforementioned wind-ups. Who was the master of that dark art?
‘Oh, Hansen,’ replies Nicol immediately. ‘He would sum up a situation in seconds. He wound the whole club up.’
The whole club? Nicol is referring to when Dalglish stepped down as manager in 1991 and Hansen, getting ready to retire, was the bookies’ favourite to take over.
‘I was sitting in the dressing room and he asked if he could have a word with me: “Come down to my office”,’ says Nicol.
‘Straight away, I’m going… “my office?” But we go to the manager’s office and my head is spinning.
‘Big Al tells me he’s got the job. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not but he’s like: “What are you on about? I got the job. You’ve just seen me with Sheila (Walsh, the manager’s secretary)”.
‘He tells me I’m going to be made captain — Glen Hysen was the captain then — and that I should say something when he gets all the players together.’ Five minutes later, all the pros are gathered in the dressing room when Hansen makes his announcement.
‘Bruce Grobbelaar started clapping,’ continues Nicol. ‘But he’s the only one. It was like four claps and stop. Awkward.
‘Hansen tells Glen he’s sorry but that he’s going to make me captain. He asks me if I want to say something but I’m like, no, I’m all right.
‘Then he starts to talk about changes. He mentions a few pubs in Southport, where some of the boys lived, then he comes on to where myself, Rushie (Ian Rush) and others lived.
‘We used to go to the Hotel Vic. That’s all got to finish. We need to start acting professionally. Also, Sundays will be video sessions, going over the games.
Nicol had legends such as Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness in the Anfield dressing room
‘He asks if anyone has questions. Nothing. And he walks out.
‘Rushie and others are like “Who the f*** does he think he is? He can’t tell me when I can go to the pub?” There’s all this going on.
‘Two minutes later, big Al walks back in the dressing room. Silence. All he says is: “Just kidding, lads”. And walks out again.’ What elevates this further is that Hansen did the exact same routine on the coaching staff the previous day.
‘That’s the kind of mind we’re talking about,’ laughs Nicol. ‘We also had a load of young Irish apprentices at the time.
‘There was only one phone in the building, a pay phone in the players’ lounge. The apprentices were all queued up to tell their folks to get money on Hansen being the new manager because it hadn’t been released yet.’
Maybe Ramsay will have to navigate his way around elaborate schemes plotted by Virgil van Dijk. Whatever fuels the dressing room these days, Nicol is happy it will echo again with Scottish voices.
‘There were six of us at one time, I think,’ he recalls. ‘It’s absolutely great to see the Scots back at Liverpool.
‘Robbo is a good guy as well, so I don’t think there’s any danger. As I said, he’ll look after Calvin.’