In an exclusive interview with Shropshire Live, former Shrewsbury Town striker Stuart Nicholson reveals the reasons for his difficult time at the club.
He was affectionately known as “the knife” for his potency in front of goal and it’s easy to see why. Nicholson had the knack of getting in between centre halves and reading the line well – a skill some current strikers could learn from.
The Geordie began his career at then Premier League outfit West Bromwich Albion arriving as a substitute in a 3-2 FA Cup defeat to Reading. Days later he achieved what all football fans fantasise about – a Premier League appearance as he replaced Nathan Ellington during a 1-0 defeat against Sunderland. Speaking exclusively to Shropshire Live, Nicholson said: “Making my debut in the Premier League was a dream come true. Coming from a working-class background in the streets of Newcastle and still playing Sunday league at the age of 16 – I thought my dream had ended.
“But 18 months later I’m playing against Sunderland in front of the Sky cameras; and being a Geordie that was very special although we lost the game 1-0.”
He would continue to impress at the Baggies and was awarded the club’s Young Player of the Year award for the 2005/06 campaign. Nicholson was handed a place in the first team squad for the 2006/07 campaign and notched a goal on his first start in a League Cup tie against Leyton Orient. During his spell at the Hawthorns, he played under the tutelage of former Manchester United and England great Bryan Robson.
“Let’s be honest, Bryan Robson is an absolute legend. I would love to meet him and ask all sorts of questions about his career now – he would be fed up of me! Back then, I was far too shy to come forward and ask anything. I had this terrified feeling when I was around him, as part of me just didn’t think I deserved to be where I was, but he had faith in me.
“He started me twice, and I scored in both games in the cup. No one remembers this and I can’t find footage, but we played Everton last game of the season at Goodison, and I actually scored to make it 2-3; but it was ruled out for offside – and it was clearly on! Bryan Robson came out in the (post-match) interview after the game and backed me saying I was robbed of a Premier League goal. Still hursts to this day.”
Following nine appearances in the league for West Brom, Nicholson was loaned out to Bristol Rovers in November 2006. Surprisingly, Stuart developed an affiliation with The Gas as a teenager. He said: “Tony Mowbray (then West Brom manager) came in and basically said to go out on loan and get some games and goals under your belt. I asked which clubs were interested and as soon as he said Bristol Rovers, I just had this urge to make it happen.
“There were bigger clubs (interested) at the time as well as some in Scotland, but I was focussed on Rovers. I would go and watch them once a month home or away when I was 12/13 and never saw them score for the first six games!
“I met supporters, they gave me flags, scarves, the lot. They thought I was mad (supporting Bristol Rovers). But to actually make my debut against Bury, go over and meet all of them again in the stand was an unbelievable feeling and surreal. Playing at the Memorial Ground was just fantastic – I scored on my home debut against Barnet and went mad with the supporters. Bristol Rovers will always have a place in my heart, it’s a great family club.” His happiness culminated into goals, with Nicholson scoring 10 times in the league during 22 appearances.
But joining Town on loan in August 2007 would pave the way for a sour experience. Former Shrewsbury manager Gary Peters has divided opinion amongst former players that have played under him. Scroll through the archives of the Shropshire Live website and you will find ex-players who praise his meticulous attention to detail, and others who berate his bizarre methods and approach to the game. Nicholson falls into the latter category. He said: “It was strange with Gary Peters. We played against Shrewsbury whilst I was at Bristol Rovers and drew 0-0.
“I thought I didn’t play that great but after the game he was shouting toward me “you’re coming here next season” etc. He would send me letters to the Bristol Rovers ground addressed to me showing Shrewsbury’s project and their hopes for the future. I thought this bloke’s mad!
“He would give us homework after each game and fill out how many touches/shots we had. If we didn’t hand the sheet in, we wouldn’t be picked for Saturday. When he put me in the Reserves against West Brom at the Hawthorns I wanted to jump in a hole and hide, it was very embarrassing for me. Yet he started me in the first team after that game, and I got my one and only goal against Accrington.” That goal would prove to be Nicholson’s only strike in 14 league appearances.
“I got the feeling as soon as I met up with the squad and manager that I had made the wrong decision. It was nothing like how I’d imagined. Different cliques in the squad and the training ground was not great at all. The manager building me up to that I’m some kind of genius didn’t help. We won a penalty in the first game against Bradford, which I wanted to take so badly to kick off my time there with a goal, but I wasn’t allowed to take it and all the lads shouting “no let (Dave) Hibbert take it” – just shot my confidence. I had a few off the field problems during my time at Shrewsbury which did not help at all and you can’t become a bad player overnight.
“I would actually like to thank some of the supporters who backed me and would write to me as they understood (my situation) as word got out. And I would like to apologise to the supporters as my performances were not what I expected and not good enough at all when I look back.”
Stuart would later join Wrexham and Tamworth on loan either side of a spell in Australia with Newcastle Blue Star. Speaking of his decision to move Down Under where he now permanently resides, Nicholson said: “I was going to sign for Luton the year after and in a training session leading up to signing the contract I had torn ligaments in my knee and they sent me back up to Newcastle on the train in my kit.
“I just had had enough, and no one would give me a chance – to an extent I don’t blame them. I decided to get away and I chose Australia as I had a contact there who believed in me called Andy O’Dell. Playing in the National Premier League, I almost signed for A League clubs, but they didn’t know I was English and a Visa player at the time. You could only have two Visa places at the time, and they were all full up. I have retired now as I tore my ACL and need a full knee reconstruction to play again. “I’m 34 now, but in my head I’m still 18 playing for West Brom. I haver my beautiful wife here in Australia – she is called Estelle. We have been married for eight years now.
“I have huge regrets from my time in football but if it wasn’t for those mistakes, I wouldn’t be in the best country in the world and happily married moving on with my life.”