The young Tony Nicholl

Marsa Primary School football team in 1927. Tony Nicholl is squatting second from the right.

Marsa Primary School football team in 1927. Tony Nicholl is squatting second from the right.

In 1956, Tony Nicholl celebrated his 25 years in football.

Many activites were organised for the occasion, including the publication of a book compiled and edited by J. Diacono.

Nicholl was interviewed for this publication in which he gave a very spirited account of his schooldays and his early days in football.

I was surprised to learn that Nicholl was the 23rd son of Mr and Mrs Samuel Nicholl! Families were large those days and the infant mortality rate was very high. Pregnancies were a yearly occurrence but, even so, the chances of the 23rd son seeing the light of day were exceptionally low.

By his own account Nicholl started kicking a tennis ball around in the streets of Sliema in 1922 when he was seven years old.

One day, he took a swing at the ball but missed it completely. He fell down in pain and the next day he could not stand on his feet.

His mother called the doctor who examined Nicholl and ordered him to stay in bed and rest his injury. The pain increased and his leg became swollen. The doctor diagnosed periostitis and a few days later he suggested that the leg had to be amputated.

Fortunately for Tony, and Maltese football, his parents decided to get a second opinion.

They called in Dr A. Azzopardi who, it must be said, later on served for many years as president of Sliema Wanderers FC.

After a long examination, Dr Azzopardi discovered that Tony’s leg was broken. He laid him down on a table and after ordering Tony’s brothers to hold him down he stretched his foot to put the bones in place and applied splints.

Fortunately, Nicholl recovered quickly and it was not long before he could go back to school.

During that period, one of the teachers at the Sliema Government School was Edgar Tonna ‘Id-Dadu’, the famous Sliema Wanderers and Sliema Rangers full-back of the Mile End era.

Tonna organised the school’s football team and knowing that Joe Nicholl, the Sliema goalkeeper, was Tony’s elder brother he wanted the latter to play in goal.

Tony did not want to play in this position. He wanted to run around the field and get into action and not wait between two posts for the action to come. Tonna was adamant, however, and it was either this or nothing for Tony.

Fortunately for Tony, his ‘sacrifice’ did not last long because a little while later his family moved to Marsa. This was in the early days of 1927 and it was not long before Tony was playing for the school’s team at inside-left.

Then, at the age of 12, Tony started attending school at Stella Maris College.

The college had a very good football team and soon Tony was banging in the goals for his new side. He stayed at Stella Maris up to 1929. This was the start of a new period in Tony’s formative years.

He played friendly matches for a number of amateur teams from the Sliema district.

One Saturday he was playing at St Andrew’s against a Service boys team. The opponents were big lads and with their strong shooting and long passing, they pinned the locals in defence. At half-time, however, the boys put their heads together and worked out a plan of keeping close to each other by means of short passing.

The plan worked so well that they succeeded in scoring three times without reply.

Watching the match was the secreatry of Sliema Wanderers FC, J. Mifsud. He was so impressed with Tony’s attacking flair that he approached Tony’s brother Joe with an offer to sign him on with Sliema’s nursery club, Sliema Rovers.

Tony made his debut for the Rovers the following week against the Civil Service Sports club.

He was so excited that his first contribution to the game was to foul the opposing centre-forward, Wilfred Podesta, in the area to concede a penalty.

Fortunately, the player who took the kick shot wide and the Rovers went on to win 7-0.

From Sliema Rovers to Sliema Wanderers was an easy step. By 1931, Tony was on the books of the senior club.

In May 1932, at the age of 16, he played his first competitive match for the Wanderers against Valletta in the MFA Cup final.

This was the start of the long and glorious career we know so well, a career which has made Nicholl one of the greatest Maltese sportsmen of all time.

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