THE game has changed but the qualities have not. When it comes to setting a standard, to maintaining a level, Jimmy Nicholl knows exactly what is required.
Part of that understanding comes from within, from the years he grew up supporting Rangers and developing the winning mentality that fans share. The other comes from his days as a player for Manchester United and Northern Ireland and at Ibrox working under three men – Jock Wallace, Graeme Souness and Walter Smith – that encapsulate what it means to represent the club.
Nicholl realised a boyhood dream when he put pen-to-paper in 1983 but that short stint in Light Blue wasn’t the end of his association with the club. Three years later, it was Souness that made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and three decades on he is back again.
“My teams were Rangers, Man United and Northern Ireland growing up,” said Nicholl, who was appointed as Graeme Murty’s assistant manager last week. “It was Man United and Northern Ireland because of Georgie Best – and Rangers were what I was brought up with.
“I never got the opportunity to go and see either Rangers or Man United as a boy. But when I became a player, it was about trying to tick all the boxes. I ended up playing for United and Northern Ireland so that was two big boxes ticked. And then I went to Rangers in 1983 for six months. That was the last box ticked.”
It was a case of working for Wallace rather than with him at times as Big Jock looked to replicate his success from the 70s during his second spell as boss. There were moments to be proud of, but the glory days didn’t arrive as often as Rangers expected.
Every player from those two eras will have their own memories of Wallace. As a man and a manager, he had a profound effect on those around him.
“In my last game of that first spell, Big Jock said he was making me captain that day,” Nicholl said. “It was against Celtic at Ibrox and I was flying back to America on the Monday. But I was sent off after 55 minutes and thankfully Bobby Williamson scored with an overhead kick to win it 1-0.
“It was a case of straw hat and trumpets after the game. All the boys were there and Jock slammed the door. He’s shouting at me: ‘You’re the luckiest man in the world, I’m telling ye. You let yourself down, you let the team down and you almost let the club down.’
“Then he says: ‘It’s a good job we won that game because I’m telling you right now, if we’d have lost that game – you wouldn’t have needed a plane to get you to America on Monday. I’d have kicked your a*** so hard you’d have landed in America anyway. But I love ye!’”
Having achieved a long-held ambition and pulled on a blue jersey, Nicholl thought that was that for him at Ibrox. His second spell was even more successful, however, as the Souness revolution started to gather momentum.
He said: “When I jumped on the plane back to America I thought that was it. But I’d ticked the box so it didn’t matter.
“Then I was coming back from Mexico 86 World Cup with Northern Ireland and we were on the same plane as Scotland.
“Graeme was at the back of the plane having a drink with Charlie Nicholas and all those boys. I went to join in with them and he said: ‘You were with Rangers before weren’t you’? I said: ‘Aye, back in 83 for six months and I loved it’.
“Within two weeks later, I’d signed for him at Ibrox. I was at West Brom and it was a straight swap between myself and Bobby.
“I was back again and after Graeme bought Gary Stevens I did a bit of coaching with the reserves at Rangers. That was my first experience of coaching.”
It is his abilities as a tactician and a motivator that have earned Nicholl another return to Rangers after he was named as Murty’s right hand man for the second half of the campaign.
At 61, it was a chance he assumed he would never get but it is one he is determined to make the most of as he looks to impart his knowledge and experience on the players that carry the weight of expectation today.
“It is about motivational qualities,” he said. “Graeme had demands, Walter had demands. It was standards. Graeme surrounded himself with good players, and Walter, who was his best signing. Then he gets the England goalkeeper, the England captain, and he surrounds himself with good players who expect to know their jobs and if you don’t do your job for four or five weeks he’ll go and get someone. Every week you were playing but knowing the standards were bang, bang, bang.
“I remember one Friday morning and wee [Ian] Durrant hits Graeme, then Graeme gets up and hits Durrant, then Derek Ferguson hits Graeme because he hit Durrant and then Graeme gets up and says ‘the two of you, come on then!’.
“Walter got to the stage, and this was the influence he had on people, that someone had the ball at his foot and he just blows the whistle and stops it. He walked over, picked the ball up and said ‘away in, it is getting out of hand now. It is finished’. He finished the session. It wasn’t evil, it was just bang, bang, all the time.”
The world and the game have changed considerably since Nicholl was pulling on his boots at Ibrox but the craving for silverware and the pressure that emanates from the stands hasn’t diminished.
The challenges the current generation face are considerable. Nicholl has seen it and done it all, though.
“You can see how things have turned around,” Nicholl said. “I remember 12,000 at Ibrox and big John McClelland saying to me that I couldn’t go out the front door because they were waiting for us outside.
“Now players should appreciate where they are at this moment in time. There are 50,000 there every second week, 5,000 or more away from home. Brilliant.”