FOXBOROUGH -- It seemed a harmless decision. On a hot April day in 1989, thousands of Liverpool FC supporters were waiting to enter Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, so a gate was opened to allow them to bypass the ticket turnstiles. As the fans pushed ahead to see their team, the overcrowded conditions caused those in the front rows to become pinned against the perimeter fencing at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. There were pleas and screams for help, but only goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar perceived the problem, rushing to open a gate to relieve the crush.
Nearly 100 Liverpudlians died.
Nobody knew what to do after that.
''That was something you could never forget," said Steve Nicol, England footballer of the year for Liverpool in 1989, at Gillette Stadium this week. ''We went back to training but it was a waste of time. People started coming to the stadium. They let them come in and we talked to them. It evolved from there. About two weeks later, they set up tables and we would sit and talk. It was only people from families who had lost somebody in the tragedy.
''We always had a great relationship with the supporters. After that, we all grew up a wee bit more in a lot of ways. All the stadiums you see [in England] came from that. It is unfortunate, but something positive always comes from tragedy."
After the glories and tragedies of his playing career, Nicol is not easily rattled these days. Nicol has brought a calming influence and stability to the Revolution since taking over as coach May 23, 2002. The Revolution seemed like a team on the verge of collapsing for most of their first six seasons. Since Nicol took over, the Revolution have reached at least the semifinals of the MLS playoffs each season, and this year are unbeaten (7-0-4) going into tonight's game at D.C. United.
Nicol is not immune to the emotions of soccer, nor does he try to contain his anger and disillusion on the sideline. But Nicol does transmit the composure crucial for United States players trying to find their place in the soccer world.
Though Nicol is accustomed to success -- Liverpool won the European Cup four times from 1977-84 and holds the England record for championship seasons -- he also knows failure and the deepest of disappointments. Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly noted that ''some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." And Nicol certainly has been involved firsthand in the interrelationship, from the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels in 1985, to the on-field death of manager Jock Stein after Scotland qualified for the 1986 World Cup, to Hillsborough.
Career pathThe road has been long and winding since Nicol's days in Scotland and Liverpool, with late-career stops at Notts County, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield Wednesday, Doncaster Rovers, then a detour to become player-coach of the minor league Boston Bulldogs in 1999.
''I was looking for someone to help me out coaching and to play," said Harvard coach John Kerr, then player-coach of the Bulldogs. ''I called [US national team goalkeeper] Kasey Keller, whose agent [John Mack] was Stevie's agent. John thought Stevie was possibly looking to do something different, and he put me in touch with him. We were playing in Jacksonville [Fla.], and Stevie came with his family and met us there.
''I pulled out all the stops to entice him but he turned down the first offer to come, but I called him back with a better offer. It wasn't a lot of money, but he just wanted to make sure it was going to be OK for his family."
Later that year, the Revolution, eliminated from playoff contention, offered Nicol an audition. Nicol guided the Revolution to two victories, then returned to the Bulldogs, where he earned about half of the Revolution head coach's salary of about $120,000.
''I wasn't ready for it," Nicol said. ''I didn't know enough about the league and I wasn't prepared to take a gamble. Every place I have been, I made a difference and left with a positive. I didn't want to take a chance and fail.
''I made mistakes with the Bulldogs, with how we tried to play, situations with players. You learn from them and take them somewhere else. At the end of the day, I would have been doing the same things I was doing with the Bulldogs had I been with a Premiership club. It is about handling players, understanding why things are going wrong. With the Bulldogs, we were doing a lot of clinics. You had to know if players were too tired or if they were not good enough. And, if they were not good enough, you still had to get something out of them."
It is an indication of Nicol's humility and pragmatism that, though he had been associated with dozens of legendary coaches and players, he did not feel qualified to lead a team that had been in existence for only four years.
After the 2001 season, the struggling Revolution's then-general manager Todd Smith believed Nicol would be a good foil as an assistant to coach Fernando Clavijo. After another slow start in 2002, Nicol replaced Clavijo as interim head coach. The team continued to struggle, but rallied spectacularly late in the season, a trait that would characterize Nicol's teams. The Revolution went unbeaten (5-0-1) in the final six matches, then advanced to the MLS Cup, losing to Los Angeles (1-0 in overtime) before 61,316 spectators at Gillette Stadium.
Athletics a way of lifeNicol grew up in Muirhead, a coastal community some 20 miles south of Glasgow, where ''nobody locked their doors; everybody knew everybody else." Youngsters played rugby and soccer with grown-ups. Nicol's father, a civil engineer, was known for his golfing ability, and Nicol's mother was a badminton player. Nicol's three sisters, Susan, Helen, and Steve's twin, Sandra, played on the same field hockey team, Susan continuing in the sport until she was 50. Twin brothers Ken and Kim played rugby.
''All the kids played sports. Growing up, there wasn't too much else to do," Nicol said. ''We would play until it was dark and then we would stay out longer until your mom came shouting to get you in. I left when I was 19, so I don't know how it is now. But it couldn't happen now because there are houses on every bit of green grass there is. Everything was all innocent then. It is a stranger world now.
''I remember playing ball my whole life, kicking and heading it against a wall for hours on end. We played badminton, table tennis, golf. Fridays was gymnastics with Boys Brigade. Everyone in Scotland was doing the same thing. I had a paper route starting at 7 in the morning. Then I would come home, eat breakfast, get to school by 9. Then you came home, get changed, go back out and play. Come in and have tea, go back out.
''Once, I was at a clinic with the Bulldogs and one of the mothers asked me what her son could do to improve. I said he should get a pal and pass the ball back and forth, or use a wall and kick the ball against it. She looked at me like I was off me head."
Nicol insists soccer is the simplest of games. Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner display a fine touch and consistency in practice drills and in performing for local amateur teams.
''It's because we've done it millions of times," Nicol said. ''You can look at tactics all you want, but if you cannot pass the ball consistently you are in trouble. It is like having an accountant who cannot count. The game has always been about passing the ball. If you pass the ball properly, it means your team has the ball and the other team can't hurt you. Basic fundamentals. It is consistency and having the right mentality.
''Having games continually on TV is going to make a huge difference here. When I was a kid I watched games every chance I got. Then you can take the things you see and put them into practice. But it's not about going out one hour a day with your club team -- you have to enjoy it."
Nicol played with the Troon Thistle Boys Club team from age 9, then moved to Ayr United at 16, signing an S Form contract that tied him to the club with little pay.
''My first contract was worth pennies," Nicol said. ''It was 25 quid a week, plus 20 pounds a point. I had a job washing walls in a factory, then delivering milk at 4 in the morning -- that lasted a week."
Glory daysIn 1981, at the age of 18, Nicol went to Liverpool on a 300,000-pound transfer, still an Ayr United club record.
Nicol was 22 when he joined Liverpool's first team, winning the European Cup in Rome a year later. That would be the peak of Liverpool's glory. The next year, 39 spectators died before the start of the Juventus-Liverpool final in Brussels, and British teams were barred from European competitions for five years. Later that year, Nicol was performing for Scotland as it won a last-gasp qualifier in Wales to advance to the Mexico World Cup, a dramatic conclusion during which Stein died of a heart attack.
''That is the only person I would still be in awe of," Nicol said of Stein. ''If Big Jock told you to jump off something, you would say how high and how far. He was sensible. They say the game today is spoiled by coaches, but to him it was a simple game. Do the basics, make the game simple. Every player knows what is expected of him, so you do that and build off it."
For most of the last century, Scotland produced some of the best players in the English League and top-notch coaches. Shankly and Bob Paisley started the modern Liverpool tradition. The coaches were from mining towns, and they believed in the Socialist ethic -- you cooperated with your teammates to get the job done, picked them up if they were down, just as they did to survive in the mines.
''To have a good team, you had to have Scottish players," Nicol said. ''They would fight to the last breath, put the ball in the net, they had a great tradition. Stein won the European Cup [in 1967] with Celtic, the first British team to win it, and he did it with all Scottish players."
Nicol might represent the end of the line. Scotland has not been a factor on the international stage recently and its domestic league has regressed.
''Guys used to go to the lower leagues after playing at the top," Nicol said. ''At Ayr United, 80 percent of the team were older professionals and I learned off of them. Then, I played two years with the reserves [at Liverpool]. I was one of the last ones that did that."
Nicol understands the game from a player's perspective. His physical preparation has become a trademark of the Revolution.
''Coming from [Liverpool], we were playing every Saturday and Tuesday, so you were always thinking ahead," Nicol said. ''If you are putting in the work and going about it properly there is no point in doing it for the sake of doing it. Teams are training for four weeks of two-a-days, I would argue about what you are getting out of it. You are building up stamina but maybe wearing down mentally.
''The players on this team know what it's like to struggle and they don't want to struggle again, so they will do that extra to make sure. We are undefeated but if you go to practice, you see guys getting stuck in. A lot of people might think we could be taking it easy, but that is certainly not happening. Everyone is fighting for a game. We have five or six who could start and aren't, and they are pushing the ones that are starting, and it's great for everyone."
Should the Revolution's success continue, Nicol is bound to be noticed by British clubs, which can offer huge contracts. Nicol does not appear eager to move, though, while son Michael is attending Springfield College and daughter Katy is a senior in high school.
''I have always only thought about winning the next game we are involved in," Nicol said. ''Do that and keep winning, and it will take you where it takes you."