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Past Times

Why Aberdeen’s Red Army loved Champagne Charlie Nicholas

Graeme Strachan
Charlie Nicholas was a big favourite with the Red Army during his spell at Pittodrie. Image: DC Thomson.
Charlie Nicholas was a big favourite with the Red Army during his spell at Pittodrie. Image: DC Thomson.

The Red Army popped the Champagne corks when Arsenal and Scotland striker Charlie Nicholas joined Aberdeen in January 1988.

It was a transfer that captured the imagination of Dons fans like no other.

Nicholas was box-office.

Securing the services of one of the star players in England’s top flight for £400,000 was a major coup for Aberdeen manager Ian Porterfield.

The birth of Champagne Charlie

Nicholas burst on to the scene as a teenager at Celtic and scored big goals from an early age including an unbelievable strike against Ajax in a European Cup tie in 1982.

He moved to Arsenal in 1983 after scoring 84 goals in 117 games for Celtic.

He was soon nicknamed Champagne Charlie because he took to the lifestyle that comes with playing for one of England’s biggest clubs.

Nicholas struck twice at Wembley to give Arsenal a 2-1 win over Liverpool in the League Cup final in 1987 following the arrival of George Graham as manager.

It seemed that nothing could go wrong for Nicholas.

Within six months, after a poor start to the following campaign, Nicholas was banished to the Highbury reserves and knew his chances of a regular game were virtually nil.

Nottingham Forest, managed by Brian Clough, expressed interest, as did Derby County.

The Gunners boss wasn’t keen on selling him to a rival club in England.

The Evening Express broke the news when Nicholas arrived at Aberdeen Airport for signing talks. Image: DC Thomson.

Aberdeen made the first concrete offer – £400,000 – which was accepted.

News of his imminent arrival broke on Hogmanay 1987.

The 26-year-old striker arrived at Aberdeen Airport, in his Dick Tracy trench-coat and trendy hat, where he was whisked into a waiting Mercedes through a side exit.

Nicholas took a wage cut to sign

The signing was officially confirmed on January 5 1988.

Nicholas accepted a wage drop and signed a three-year deal at Pittodrie.

He insisted he was motivated by a desire to force his way back into the Scotland international team after months of “sheer hell” in the Arsenal reserves.

Nicholas took a wage cut to enjoy first-team football again when he headed north in 1988. Image: DC Thomson.

Nicholas admitted the move “came as a bit of a surprise”.

He said: “I came up to meet Ian Porterfield and Dons chairman Dick Donald.

“We sat and spoke about trying to get the club back to ambitious levels again, competing with Celtic and Rangers.

“It got me thinking it would be a nice challenge.

“I was given two or three days to think things over but I was being messed about at Arsenal by that time.

Champagne Charlie Nicholas enjoyed a fantastic two-year spell at Pittodrie. Image: DC Thomson.

“The decision had been made because my agent, Jerome Anderson, was captivated by Dick.

“Anyone who met Dick will understand that. He was a fabulous guy, a lovely man.

“We hadn’t even discussed contracts.

“I wasn’t going to make it difficult, anyway. I just wanted to get back to playing football.”

The signing raised expectations on the terraces, with 20,000 turning up at Pittodrie when Nicholas made his home debut against Dunfermline.

After a slow start – with just three goals in 16 league games in the 1987-88 season – Nicholas rediscovered his best form and found the net 16 times in the 1988–89 season, finishing joint top-scorer in the league alongside Celtic’s Mark McGhee.

Nicholas regained his international place after a two-year gap.

His performances for the Dons saw him win the last of his 20 senior caps for Scotland on April 26 1989 during a 2-1 victory over Cyprus at Hampden Park.

Aberdeen were now managed by Alex Smith and Jocky Scott and Nicholas maintained his prolific scoring record in what turned out to be his final season in 1989-90.

Double cup winner with the Dons

In October 1989, Nicholas picked up his first silverware since returning to Scotland, when Aberdeen defeated Rangers 2–1 in a hard-fought Scottish League Cup final.

The arrival of Dutch international forward Hans Gillhaus from PSV Eindhoven in November 1989 led to the pair forming a feared partnership up front.

The strike pairing was dynamite and got the whole of Scottish football talking before Nicholas announced his intention to go back to Parkhead at the end of the season.

Champagne Charlie’s last act as an Aberdeen player was to score a spot-kick against new club Celtic in a 9-8 penalty shoot-out win in the 1990 Scottish Cup final.

Aberdeen’s victory also stopped Celtic qualifying for Europe.

Nicholas recalled later: “Walking up to take that penalty, knowing I had agreed to go back to Celtic, there was a heck of a lot of pressure on that one.

“It’s a thing I’m very proud of, scoring that penalty and helping win the trophy.

“All the fans knew I was a Celtic supporter, I didn’t celebrate when I scored against them.

“But the Aberdeen fans gave me great respect for that.

Charlie Nicholas holds aloft the Scottish Cup in 1990 at Hampden. Image: DC Thomson.

“Never was there a negative word about it.

“Nobody was trying to change me, they knew the situation.

“One of my proudest days was when we had the open-top bus trip through Aberdeen with the cup.

“I was moving back to the club I had been brought up with, but I’d helped them win the cup, helped put Celtic out of Europe for the first time in about 40 years, and they respected that.

“I took great professional pride in that.”

Charlie Nicholas remains a hugely popular figure among Dons fans of a certain generation. Image: DC Thomson.

Nicholas played 105 games for the Pittodrie club and scored 36 goals.

He spent five years at Parkhead before leaving for Clyde on a free transfer in July 1995 after scoring 125 goals in 249 appearances in his complete Celtic career.

Since retiring following a season at Broadwood, he has worked in the media as a pundit and was part of the iconic Soccer Saturday line-up until leaving in August 2020.