Tribute to Albion great McNichol

First published in Sport by

Johnny McNichol, that prince among inside forwards, did not make his League debut until the age of 23.

Yet he went on to notch more than 550 first team appearances for Albion, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

When McNichol held sway at the Goldstone from 1948-52 he played 165 games and scored 39 goals and made heaven knows how many.

He was well into his 30s before ending a distinguished career and will be fondly remembered by Albion oldies as the best and most respected forward of that generation.

Johnny McNichol's death at the age of 82 calls to mind an era of great footballers who eked out a living on what today would be subsistence wages. By current monetary standards he would be worth millions but comparisons are absurd and players can only be judged on their own times.

As a creator and finisher of goals, McNichol's reputation rests a great deal on his exploits at Stamford Bridge where he helped Chelsea win the Championship in 1954-55. His reward was £100, the amount based on appearances.

In Johnny's case, he missed only two out of a maximum 42 and, to his dying day, did not belittle the sum.

When we last spoke at his house in Saltdean, Johnny recalled: "Back in those days it was a nice deposit to put on a house. It is ridiculous to compare the values of the 1950s with today."

That conversation was eight years ago and since then top footballer's money has soared into even greater heights of fantasy.

In McNichol's day, a rigid pay structure consisted of a £10 signing-on fee and a weekly wage of £12 in the first team and £10 in the reserves.

Based on immediate post-war economics it was surprising for Albion, always pleading poverty, to splash a club record fee of £5,000 on McNichol in the close season of 1948-49. It was a hefty sum but manager Don Welsh convinced his directors that McNichol was well worth the money.

Born in Kilmarnock and a part-timer at Newcastle United, Johnny only left St James' Park because the manager and he couldn't agree whether he should be paid £8 or £7 when it was time to renew his contract. At the time Johnny, a trained motor mechanic, was earning outside the game and the manager thought this justified offering him a lower wage.

Life at the Goldstone was pretty basic. A broad hint that a player would be retained came at the end-of-season boot fitting.

"You got only one pair to last a whole season and breaking them in took weeks. I managed to hang onto mine for longer than a season." Another good example of the canny Scot.

During the war Johnny served with the Fleet Air Arm mainly in Scotland and came to Newcastle's attention with a non-league club.

Johnny's ball-playing style was first evident at the Goldstone in a typically tough Third Division (South) battle with Swindon on August 21, 1948. The club had to apply for re-election the previous season after propping up the rest but fresh players, including McNichol, created renewed interest and the gate was 21,500.

Johnny settled-in gradually with just two goals from 33 starts and only nine were good enough to make him top scorer the following campaign. Nevertheless, he drew the scouts and Welsh called on him at his club flat while the manager of Manchester City waited in the car.

After listening to what was on offer, Johnny, irked at being interrupted while decorating, turned it down.

"I'm better off staying at Brighton," he told a crestfallen Welsh.

When he did move to Chelsea the fee was £12,000 plus Jimmy Leadbetter and everybody was delighted with the deal. Later at Crystal Palace, McNichol was captain for six years adapting to fullback without turning a hair.

All the time he kept his house near the Goldstone and bought a newsagent's shop in Newtown Road. After getting the paper boys on their rounds he would catch the 8.15 from Hove and be at Stamford Bridge by 10am in time for training. In his pomp at Chelsea it was disappointing for McNichol that he did not earn a Scotland cap.

When his playing career at Palace ended, Johnny had four seasons as player-manager of Tunbridge Wells Rangers in the Southern League and returned to Selhurst Park for 12 years on the fund-raising side. He did the same for Albion until 1992.

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