David Williams writes about John Nicholson, a courageous defender who was ever-present for four seasons in the 1960’s and a key member of some of Vale’s most memorable cup ties.
Name: John Nicholson
Cult credentials: Appearances record-holder, cup hero, untimely death
Time at Vale: 1961-1965
By David Williams
John Purcell Nicholson had made just a single first team appearance for his native Liverpool when charismatic Vale boss Norman Low splashed out £2,000 – a decent sum for an untried player in those days – to add the defender to his 1961/62 pre-season summer signings.
Low was rebuilding; the break-up of the famous 50’s ‘Iron Curtain’ side had seen Vale slide two divisions in consecutive seasons, before emerging as the first champions of the newly formed 4th Division in 1958-59 and then consolidating their place in the 3rd Division.
Vale diehards could have been forgiven for not recognising the young fair-haired Scouser as he made his first appearance at Northampton Town on 2nd September 1961, but he was soon to become a familiar face and become the Vale captain for the first of a club record 208 consecutive appearances spanning almost four complete seasons.
The 1961-62 season – Vale’s 50th season as a league club – was an eventful one for the new signing, as he made the centre-half position his own.
Vale had undertaken a groundbreaking tour of Czechoslovakia the end of the 1959-60 campaign, and John enjoyed the occasion when the Czech national team were invited back to Vale Park for a friendly that attracted an impressive 22,895 supporters.
In one of the best matches ever witnessed at Vale Park, 28,226 passionate fans braved a rainstorm to see their heroes claim a famous 3-1 victory, with John playing a vital part in the success…
Sadly, the league campaigns of the early 60’s saw promotion dreams go begging, despite a strong defence and some high profile front line signings.
1962-63 saw Nicholson and his fellow defenders open with three clean sheets before Freddie Steele returned to replace Norman Low in the Vale Park managerial chair, and there were echoes of the great 50’s ‘Iron Curtain’ defence as John stood tall alongside players like Ken Hancock, Selwyn Whalley, Roy Sproson, Harry Poole, and Terry Miles to deny opponents a goal for the first 565 minutes of Steele’s second management spell.
That much-interrupted winter of the big freeze eventually saw Vale finish in third place, but there were no play-offs back then and it was ultimately disappointing as both Stoke City and Crewe Alexandra secured promotions in their respective divisions.
Vale were hotly tipped for big things in the 63/64 campaign, with club captain Nicholson and the back line boosted by the relatively big-money forward signings of Northern Ireland international Billy Bingham and the highly-rated Albert Cheesebrough. John was by now outstanding in a defence that conceded barely a goal a game, but the front line big names failed to deliver. Compounded by injury spells to star striker Tony Richards and Cheesebrough, they managed only 53 goals which resulted in a disappointing mid-table league placing.
It was the magic of the F A Cup that brought out the very best of the commanding qualities of the Vale skipper. His first opportunity to become a Valiants Cup legend came just five months after his debut when Vale were drawn away to highly-rated Sunderland at Roker Park in the 4th round in February 1962.
Nicholson was one of the stars of a resolute Vale defence that denied the Mackems, who included prolific scorer Brian Clough in their front line, to earn a deserved replay back at Burslem. In one of the best matches ever witnessed at Vale Park, 28,226 passionate fans braved a rainstorm to see their heroes overcome an early injury to keeper Ken Hancock before claiming a famous 3-1 victory, with John playing a vital part in the success.
Growing in confidence with every game, the stocky defender summoned up yet another heroic Cup performance to keep out top-flight Fulham in the 5th round, until Vale were denied by a controversial late penalty having themselves scored what many witnesses claim was a perfectly good goal.
John’s golden moment came in the 63/64 season when he learned that his reward for Vale despatching Bradford City, Workington and then top-flight Birmingham at St Andrews, was to be a return to his first and home town club at Anfield (the matchday programme is pictured on the right-hand side).
Liverpool were commencing their dominance of English football, and had thrashed Stoke City 6-1 a few days earlier in a Division One Boxing day clash, but big-hearted Vale stunned the Kop and the 52,327 crowd on Nicholson’s greatest Vale day as he majestically returned home to harnass the League Champions of that season in a well-deserved 0-0 draw.
The legendary replay saw scenes of mayhem and chaos with Liverpool fans crashing through the roof of the Railway Stand and it is often suggested that this match had the biggest ever attendance at Vale Park, with many thousands storming through the gates in addition to the 42,179 official gate. After another scintillating show, there was to be heartbreak for the centre-half and his Vale teammates this time when future England international Peter Thompson crashed home a winner in the very last seconds of extra time to deny the Valiants a lucrative second replay.
Despite the defence staying strong, the ‘Cup hangover’ seemed to last not only for the rest of the 63/64 season, but into the next campaign, when Vale were hit with a series of injuries including a broken leg for Bingham, and suffered a relegation, although the centre-back emerged as one of the few players who performed consistently well.
Vale fans were both astonished and angry when their most consistent player was sold to Doncaster Rovers for a very modest fee of £5,000…
Vale fans were both astonished and angry when their most consistent player was sold to Doncaster Rovers for a very modest fee of £5,000 in September 1965 following the appointment of Sir Stanley Matthews. The player was dropped despite only two goals being conceded in the first four league games and his departure heralded a long period of decline for the Valiants. Thanks largely to his dominating presence at the back, Vale conceded only 58 league goals in each of the 1961/62 and 1962/63 seasons and just 49 in 1963/64. Overall, Vale had conceded just 241 goals in the 184 league games John played between 1961 and 1965.
Vale’s loss was Doncaster’s gain, as John proved a sound signing for his new club and made 41 appearances in the 1965/66 campaign, before fans of both clubs were stunned by the desperately sad news of the road accident near Doncaster on 3rd September 1966 that claimed his life at just 29 years old, leaving a wife and young child bereaved.
The loss of one of lower-league football’s most well-liked and loyal players, who had become a fixture in the Vale defence before being allowed to leave was truly tragic.
John Nicholson will always be remembered by older Vale fans as one of the Valiants’ most reliable and dependable defenders, a splendid captain who led with courage and composure, and especially for the heroics he performed in the F A Cup epics against Sunderland, Fulham, Birmingham and the two unforgettable Liverpool ties.
John Nicholson: 2 September 1936 – 3 September 1966. Forever Valiant. RIP