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EYEWITNESS: Fans remember when Champagne Charlie put plenty of fizz into the Dons

Aberdeen's Charlie Nicholas (left) holds the Skol Cup trophy and Paul Mason holds the League Cup trophy after their victory.
Aberdeen's Charlie Nicholas (left) holds the Skol Cup trophy and Paul Mason holds the League Cup trophy after their victory.

The bubbly might have gone a bit flat for Aberdeen fans after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson to Manchester United in 1986.

Yet there was no shortage of renewed fizz when “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas joined the Pittodrie ranks two years later and evoked the sort of excitement which took some supporters back to the Gothenburg glory days.

His recruitment from Arsenal by manager Ian Porterfield for £400,000 happened at a time when Rangers and Celtic were spending lavish amounts in Glasgow.

And, although Nicholas occasionally divides opinion these days when he is working as a Sky pundit – which is his job – there was no denying his qualities as a player, nor the charisma and class which he demonstrated during his time in the Granite City.

He might have been a cavalier character, diametrically opposed in temperament to the redoubtable Roundhead George Graham at Highbury, yet that didn’t detract from the buzz which surrounded his arrival in the north-east, a part of the country with which he still enjoys a close affinity.

In England, he had experienced mixed fortunes, but he was the hero of his team’s League Cup final victory against Liverpool in April 1987.

Ian Rush gave his side the lead, but Nicholas equalised after a frantic goalmouth scramble. Then, with just seven minutes remaining, the Scot received a cross from Perry Groves, his shot at goal took a deflection off Ronnie Whelan, and went into the net, leaving Bruce Grobbelaar stranded.

Just a few months later, Celtic tried to persuade Nicholas to return to Parkhead, but he rejected his old club’s offer and eventually, after languishing in the Arsenal reserves, the stage was set for one of football’s mercurial maestros to arrive in Aberdeen.

Stuart Devine, who owns the famous Ashvale chipper in the city, was among those who were mesmerised by the striker’s flair and flamboyance.

Champagne Charlie pictured in long coat and hat at Alex McLeish’s testimonial in 1988.

He said this week: “I remember well that the signing was a sensation and an amazing coup for the Dons under Ian Porterfield.

“Charlie was a fantastic player and although I think his heart was always for the green and white of Celtic, that didn’t stop him giving his all for the Dons.

“I do remember him frequenting our takeaway in his long leather jacket and his wicked hair fashion. Well, I thought he was super cool!”

Dons star Theo Snelders plants a tree at the opening of Cafe Society, Queens Road, Aberdeen. Looking on are Paul Mason, Alex McLeish, Charlie Nicholas and Craig Robertson.

After a slow start at Pittodrie – 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.

He maintained his prolific scoring record into what turned out to be his final season and, in October 1989, 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 forward Hans Gillhaus in November 1989 led to the pair immediately forming a fluent partnership up front and they complemented each other perfectly and, at their best, were capable of sparking havoc among any opponents.

Hans Gillhaus formed a strike partnership with Nicholas.

The duo were instrumental in Aberdeen winning the 1990 Scottish Cup, both scoring their penalty kicks in Aberdeen’s shoot-out victory against Celtic.

In all, Nicholas played 104 games for the Pittodrie club in two and a half years, scoring 36 goals, but statistics never revealed the whole story with this engaging personality.

On the contrary, it was the little moments to savour, the glimpses of sublime skill and cheeky insouciance, which dazzled so many of the regulars in the Beach End.

Oil worker Willie Irvine, for instance, was among those who witnessed plenty of his acts of derring-do and he still speaks wistfully about those halcyon days.

Charlie Nicholas is on the receiving end of a tackle as he tries to turn a Hamilton defender just outside the area.

He told me: “We had been spoiled for choice and we maybe started taking success for granted, so there was definitely a sense of disenchantment after Fergie went to Old Trafford and the crowds got smaller by the end of the decade.

“But I still think that Nicholas and Gillhaus were one of the best combinations we ever brought together at Aberdeen and they destroyed lots of rival defences.

“Charlie had the reputation for being a showman, on and off the pitch, but we needed a bit of pizzazz and cheek in the team of the late 80s and I thought the world of him.

“Some of the more stubborn fans kept telling me he was only in Aberdeen until he could get back to Glasgow, but I didn’t care about that. He was committed, he was wholehearted and he signed an autograph for my wee boy at Pittodrie and kept in touch with some of the fans, so what was the problem?

“Yes, he was a personality, but he was a professional as well and, when you look back, it was pretty incredible that we had Charlie in our team in the first place.”

He wasn’t alone in his critique of the new man’s calibre. After the news emerged that he had joined the Dons ranks, there were no shortage of supporters prepared to embark on an armada of buses to check point Charlie for his maiden outing in 1988.

Dons Brian Irvine and Charlie Nicholas celebrate, but it’s despair for Dundee United goalkeeper Alan Main and his defence after watching Mixu Paatelainen head into his own goal to make it 2-0 for Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Tynecastle.

Jock Gardiner, who is now a stalwart of the Aberdeen FC Heritage Trust, was among their number and spoke at length about being part of the travelling army.

He recalled: “I was part of the massive away support  – from memory, it was around 6,000 people – who filled the Dunbar End terracing at Easter Road for the 0-0 draw to watch Charlie’s debut against Hibs.

“In the post-Fergie era, the club were needing a big boost after the appointment of Ian Porterfield and Charlie certainly brought that. It was quite incredible that the Dons had secured his signing, to be honest, and I thought it was a masterstroke.

“While he had a mixed time at Arsenal, his time with Celtic showed him to be a great prospect and I remember being on the Hampden terracing for his Scotland debut against Switzerland in March 1983 and witnessing his brilliant debut goal.

“He really was a special talent as a young player.

“He might not have been at his fittest when he joined Aberdeen FC, but in the two and a half years he was at Pittodrie, he did a good job for the Dons and in particular linked up brilliantly with Gillhaus.

“The goals he scored against Celtic and Rangers were particularly enjoyable and there was one at the Beach End that never touched the ground between Bobby Mimms’ kick out and Nicholas’s expert finish.

Dons striker Charlie Nicholas (not in picture) beats Hamilton keeper Ferguson with this free kick at Pittodrie.

“Off the field, he enjoyed the Aberdeen nightlife and was a charismatic lad and brought some trendy new fashions to the Granite City.

“I remember buying a trilby hat in Notting Hill market, not wearing socks and wearing an earring – all of which were trademarks of Champagne Charlie in the late 80s.

“He helped the Dons win both cups in season 1989-90 beating either side of the Old Firm in the finals.

“And let’s not forget, we have only won two more trophies since he left to rejoin Celtic in the summer of 1990.

“So, from my perspective, he was a winner, somebody who played for the red jersey at Pittodrie. Somebody who scored a penalty in the final in his last game for us against Celtic when we all knew that he was going there the next season.

“That was a true measure of Charlie Nicholas.”

Charlie’s international career was a tale of what might have been

Nicholas was first capped by Scotland at senior level in March 1983, near the end of his first spell at Celtic.

He was on the scoresheet with a terrific goal in a 2-2 draw with Switzerland at Hampden Park and made a sufficiently positive impression thereafter that he was included in Scotland’s squad for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where he took part in the matches against Denmark and Uruguay.

He won the last of his 20 senior caps for Scotland on April 26 1989 during a 2-1 victory over Cyprus at Hampden Park.

He mustered five goals for Scotland, the final one of which was during the 3-o win over Iceland at Hampden Park early in the World Cup qualifying stages.

And a couple of afterthoughts…

Jock Gardiner has talked about how Nicholas retains an affection for the north-east.

And he backed up that assertion when he spoke to us this week.

Mr Gardiner said: “I had the pleasure of being on Charlie’s table at the annual Cove Rangers Christmas lunch a few years ago when he was the guest speaker.

“He was great company, charming and self-deprecating and he entertained the table with stories of his footballing and partying career. He said he had enjoyed his time in Aberdeen and still has a soft spot for the club.

“During the lockdown period, myself and chums – an eclectic bunch of Aberdeen fans – kept our spirits up by choosing various Best Select XIs.

“In the category ‘Best Aberdeen XI Post Fergie 1986-2020′, Charlie was selected in every single participants’ team and I think that says it all.”