Jimmy Nicholl: an unabashed Rangers man with Ibrox in his DNA
If Jimmy Nicholl had been put forward by Rangers as a possible seven-month stand-in manager when Pedro Caixinha was dismissed last October, it would have likely induced apoplexy in the Ibrox legions.
Such is the dysfunctionality of the club, there will be many now feeling that the 61-year-old former Northern Ireland player is far from the worst option to guide their team through the final three games of a sanity-scorching season following the news yesterday that Graeme Murty had gone the same way as his Portuguese predecessor.
The gregarious Nicholl – brought in to assist Murty in January – may have had a near three-decade coaching career more chequered than a Formula 1 finish-line flag. His experiences in the game, though, make him a man who is seasoned and who knows what it is like to win silverware as a manager in Scottish football.
Incredibly, these facts set him apart from every individual Rangers have put in charge of their side since bringing back Walter Smith in 2007. Nicholl’s League Cup triumph with Raith Rovers might be almost quarter of a century ago, but at least he has it on his CV. He also has in there decent stints riding sidesaddle to Jimmy Calderwood at Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, and as lieutenant to Kenny Shiels when he brought the League Cup to Rugby Park in 2012.
In addition, he is No 2 to Michael O’Neill in the Northern Ireland set-up, a post he has held since 2015. During that time he has helped re-establish them as an international force, qualifying for the second phase of Euro 2016.
Nicholl – who will work alongside first-team coach Jonatan Johansson – has more time and more good moments in the dug-out in Scotland than Ally McCoist, Mark Warburton and Murty put together. Caixinha’s attraction was his exotic outsider status but, as with Warburton and Murty, the absence of a natural feel for the Ibrox institution made life altogether more difficult.
Nicholl’s two spells as a Rangers player, and his turns on the after-dinner circuit, can leave no-one in any doubt that the Ibrox club is part of his DNA. He is an unabashed Rangers man.
That, of course, offers no long-term solutions to the myriad problems besetting an organisation that seems to be made out of straw from top to bottom. And which no-one seems capable of binding into something more robust.
But Nicholl isn’t for the long term. He has been placed in position in the hope that he can elicit some reaction from a bedraggled squad that face up to Kilmarnock, Aberdeen and Hibernian over the next week-and-a-half in three games they must win to guarantee second place.
Rangers look in no fit state to recover from the beatings handed to them in recent weeks by Celtic. And as Murty’s sounding board, Nicholl can’t be absolved of all blame for the 5-0 record league derby defeat that on Sunday confirmed a seventh straight title for his club’s ancient foes... or the 4-0 battering in the Scottish Cup semi-final that has placed Brendan Rodgers’ men within one game of an unprecedented double treble.
Now, though, Nicholl will be driven to ensure that these debacles do not carry terrible extra costs. For if he cannot finish above both Aberdeen and Hibernian, the price will be more than simply the £500,000 difference in prize money between what is banked by the Premiership runners-up and the team finishing fourth.
Should Rangers have to settle for the latter placing it will put them and their followers in an invidious position. They would then be left actually praying Celtic achieve a never-before-achieved honours clean sweep in successive seasons when they meet Motherwell at Hampden in little over two weeks.
If the Fir Park side claim the Scottish Cup Stephen Robinson’s men will be Scotland’s fourth European entrants next season, not the team finishing fourth in the league. It is unthinkable for Rangers to miss out on a tilt at the Europa League when chairman Dave King has acknowledged that cash from continental competition is central to transforming the Ibrox club’s fortunes.
As a Rangers man, Nicholl will understand the full horror of being left with such a Hobson’s choice come Scottish Cup final day. Whether he can provide the spark to avoid it happening is another matter. In between sleepless nights as he ponders this nightmare scenario, what can be assured is that Nicholl will put every scintilla of his know-how into preventing the ultimate in no-nos for all those of his footballing persuasion.
This story first appeared on our sister site, The Scotsman.