Ok, so he wasn’t Harry Hampton, Tom Waring, Billy Walker or even Gary Shaw, but Aston Villa signed a fine player in 2000 that had all the attributes to become a legend at Villa Park. Reflecting on a sad anniversary, IBWM welcomes Chris Mayer.
With Euro 2012 qualifying well under way, many Belgians are hoping that the next generation of stars can finally bring some success to a country renowned for underachieving. There’s no doubt that if George Leekens’ side click together, the future is certainly bright for the international side. It just might take a while.
But in my first article for IBWM, I feel it’s only right to look back at the career of, arguably, Belgian football’s finest product, whose career at Aston Villa was cruelly ended ten years ago today. Luc Nilis.
In case you’ve forgotten, before making a move to Aston Villa, Luc Nilis dazzled the Eredivisie throughout the 90’s at PSV, forging superb partnerships with Ronaldo and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Both these players claim that Nilis was the best strike partner they’ve ever had, which is quite a compliment considering the amount of talent they’ve both had at their side over the years.
Nilis was ultimately a very altruistic player, being the perfect foil, being impossible to track and often striking the perfect pass at the right time. But Nilis wasn’t just about a pass; he had superb technique with both feet and could unleash long range efforts at will. Often an opposition keeper would be rooted as one of Nilis’ shots flew over his head into the top corner. He was fantastic at free-kicks too, finding the perfect curve on the ball to leave any keeper in his wake.
Luc Nilis began his career at the tremendously named Winterslag, a second division Belgian side, in 1984. He made an impact immediately and by the time he was 19, transferred to Belgian giants Anderlecht. Nilis spent eight years here, claiming several club and individual honours along the way, winning the league four times and the Belgian cup on three occasions. His goal to games ratio at Anderlecht was better than 1 in 2 (127 in 224 league appearances) but in the 1993/94 he was slightly peeved at the Golden Boot (the MVP award in Belgium rather than top goalscorer) being awarded to a future striker partner, Gilles De Bilde. This snub was a major factor in persuading Nilis to leave Anderlecht for PSV Eindhoven.
Holland is where Nilis’ career really took off. At the time, PSV were clearly the second team in the Netherlands, after Ajax’s Champions League success in 1995. Dick Advocaat was given the unenviable task of knocking the Amsterdam club off their perch. PSV put faith in emerging Dutch talent, a policy that had clearly worked for Ajax. With stars such as Jaap Stam, Philip Cocu and Bolo Zenden emerging along with the strike partnership of Ronaldo and Luc Nilis, PSV were stepping out of Ajax’s shadow. However it was only when Ronaldo left for Barcelona that the Eindhoven club lifted the Eredivisie in 1997. Nilis was top goalscorer in 1996 and 1997 with 21 goals in both seasons.
The World Cup was a turning point for the side. While Nilis’ Belgium were eliminated in the group stage, Holland made the semi finals. Afterwards, PSV was raided for its brightest talents and it was time to rebuild. Fortunately, the late Sir Bobby Robson’s first move as manager, in his second spell at PSV, was to sign Ruud Van Nistelrooy from Heerenveen.
1998/99 is more commonly remembered across Europe for the partnership of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke of Manchester United, but Nilis and Van Nistelrooy were in sensational form too, with the duo grabbing 55 goals between them. The year after, the return was 48 goals.
The summer of 2000 saw ‘Lucky Luc’, now 33, make the move to the Premier League, signing for John Gregory’s Aston Villa, who had just lost an FA Cup Final. Unfortunately, Nilis only played three league games for Villa before his career was ended prematurely. He collided with Ipswich Richard Wright following a corner which broke the Belgian striker’s leg in two places. The images of Nilis’ horrific injury are easy to find, but out of respect I’ll refrain from showing any.
It was the end of such a great career. Nilis never really translated his club form to the international stage, only scoring 10 times for Belgium, but he still made appearances at the 94 and 98 World Cups, plus Euro 2000 which was of course co-held by Belgium. This didn’t mean that Nilis never scored important goals for his country, as Irish football fans will tell you, as he scored a sensational effort at Lansdowne Road in a play-off to make the 1998 World Cup.
Nilis is currently a coach at PSV, hopefully passing on the knowledge that aided him so well at the club to the strikers of the future. His son, Arne is currently in the reserve side and if just an ounce of his father’s attributes have been passed on, then Nilis jnr should be successful too.
Chris Mayer writes regularly for IBWM, but if you’d like to read more of his musings on European football, check out his blog 6pointer .