The summer of 2000 is now but a distant memory and, put into the context of Aston Villa, it may as well be light years in the past. Our slide into the Championship can often make it difficult to remember how the good times felt, although sixteen years ago there was certainly cause for optimism and excitement.

John Gregory had just led the club to a second successive sixth-placed finish and we had finished the 1999-2000 season extremely well, losing just twice in the final twenty-one games. However, an extra defeat had also come at the hands of Chelsea in an insipid FA Cup final.

The squad looked solid going into the following season but needed a few additions. Alpay Ozalan was recruited from Fenerbahce for £5.6 million and the signing of David Ginola at £3 million – an expensive acquisition at thirty-three years old, but still capable of magical things – raised some eyebrows, although the team’s tendency to be fairly turgid in performances meant that he was welcomed into the fold.

However, the real excitement came in the form of another thirty-three-year-old signing, shrewdly snapped up on a Bosman free transfer. Luc Nilis was a prolific Belgian striker, who was prominent at Anderlecht and latterly of PSV. He scored goals, a total of 237 in 388 for both clubs combined, for fun. He also came with honours, winning four Belgian titles and the Dutch Eredivisie twice, alongside multiple Cup wins and personal honours including Dutch player of the year in 1995 and successive Eredivisie top scorer plaudits for 1996 and 1997.

Wrapping the deal up as early as March 2000 for the following season in a proactive approach perhaps not seen since allowed Villa fans to witness Nilis continue his fine form for PSV and notch up another nineteen goals in his farewell season.

Villa fans were looking forward to some of this free-flowing scoring, especially as in 2000 Villa was seen as a difficult side to beat but one with little cutting edge up front.

The more pessimistic views on the transfer focused on Nilis’ age and the fact that the Belgian and Dutch leagues are noticeably lower in standard. However, through watching Nilis, it was clear that the man was a great player. An intelligent striker, Nilis’ goals were often spectacular. Not afraid to shoot, the Belgian scored free kicks, full volley screamers and edge of the area curlers. He could dance through a defence and apply a delicate finish. His touch allowed him to bamboozle defenders and his creativity saw him improvise finishes that others would simply not even think of.

The positivity from Nilis himself on signing for the club was exciting, with the player stating, “An ambition of mine when I arrive will be to help them earn a place in the Champions League”. In truth, Villa was perhaps only a twenty goals a season striker away from seriously competing in the Premier League at the time. Alpay formed a solid defensive partnership with the wantaway Gareth Southgate, who would get his transfer the following year. An industrious midfield of George Boateng, Ian Taylor and Steve Stone allowed the mercurial Paul Merson licence to create chances. Dion Dublin had done well but after suffering a broken neck in the previous season would never quite be the same. Other attacking options were the largely frustrating Julian Joachim and the emerging Darius Vassell.

Despite finishing sixth, Villa had to participate in the Intertoto Cup to try to qualify for the UEFA Cup. After an early group stage exit with Belgium at Euro 2000, Nilis made his Villa debut in the second leg tie with Czech outfit Dukla Pribram and marked the occasion with the final goal in a 3-1 victory, a first-time shot from a Gareth Barry cross. It was a promising start.

The opening day fixture against Leicester City at Filbert Street saw a drab 0-0 played out. Interestingly, Villa fans would have to wait until the following home clash with Chelsea a week later to see Nilis in action – and worth the wait it was.

The Blues had the intimidating French pairing of Franck LeBeouf and Marcel Desailly who had just won Euro 2000 at the back and perhaps had a psychological edge after their FA Cup victory over us a few months previously. Nonetheless, in the tenth minute of that game, a piece of Aston Villa history was made that has never been forgotten.

A long ball by David James was flicked to Alan Wright, who rolled a simple pass into the box. LeBeouf seemed to have the time and should have got there but was caught on his heels whilst Nilis was quick off the mark and got in front of the Frenchman. At the point at which Nilis first made contact with the ball he was facing in the direction that Wright has played it in from. What followed was a superb example of the ingenuity of the player as, with the outside of his right foot, he flicked the ball up and across his own path which enabled him to be at an angle from which he could take a shot at goal. The finish was an absolutely sublime volley, full of technique, power and direction and it flew in past a helpless Carlo Cudicini.

I was there that day and I can remember the feeling when the goal went in and genuinely being incredibly excited at what I had just seen. It was Bergkamp-esque in its skill and technique and Shearer-like in its ferocity. The prospect of watching this man scoring phenomenal goals like I had just witnessed was an incredible sensation and one which I don’t think I have felt since. It felt like a missing piece of the jigsaw had fallen into place. Nilis was undoubtedly the real deal.

But that is as good as it would ever get.

After being picked apart by a Michael Owen hat-trick in little over half an hour in the next game against Liverpool at Anfield, where Nilis was lively enough still, the Villans were on the road yet again, travelling to Portman Road to face Ipswich Town. In just the fourth minute of the game, Nilis suffered the sickening injury that would end his career. A long punt flicked on into the box saw Nilis scamper quickly in an attempt to latch onto the ball. Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright somewhat awkwardly clattered into our new hero and his leg literally bent around the goalkeeper’s own limb. It was a gruesome injury and the official description of a double compound fracture of the right shin actually doesn’t seem to do it justice. It is literally bone shattering.

The horrific injury was serious enough not just to end the career of Nilis but also threatened to make an amputee of the man. First and foremost, we can all be pleased that the eventual recovery was positive and didn’t result in a loss of the lower leg. However, when I think about Luc Nilis, I just can’t help feeling robbed of watching a true talent play for Aston Villa.

That season would see Villa finish a respectable eighth but, at that point in time, it wasn’t good enough and seen as a backward step. The Villa boys continued to be relatively difficult to beat, losing ten times throughout the course of the season, but they ended up drawing a debilitating fifteen games. Dion Dublin ended the season as our top goal-scorer with just eight league goals, which tells us everything we need to know. A productive striker who can get you at least fifteen goals makes a huge difference.

In my mind, Nilis could certainly have turned some of those draws into wins and reached at least a dozen goals, probably more. Juan Pablo Ángel arrived in January of 2001 but, coming from Colombia, could not be expected to settle in quickly and it was May before he broke his duck for us.

However, it wasn’t just the goals we missed from Nilis. His overall play would have been so important. An always willing runner and a creator of chances also, it is genuinely sad that we saw only the briefest glimpses of greatness from a player who the original Ronaldo hails as one of his best ever strike partners, which is also a sentiment echoed by Ruud Van Nistelrooy who says he is one of the best, if not the best, players he ever played with. These are guys who have played for Barcelona and Manchester United, yet it is Nilis who is right up there in their adulations.

If you are in any doubt as to the talent of the man, I strongly suggest getting onto YouTube and having a look at some of the compilations of his goals. It will probably make you feel devastated that what we had in our grasp was so cruelly taken away from us but the man’s goal-scoring prowess should most definitely be recognised and admired.

Nilis made one more appearance at Villa Park, during the half time interval against Leeds United on 24th January 2001, to announce his retirement, saying, “For the short period I was employed by Aston Villa I enjoyed every minute and am bitterly disappointed I could not continue to score goals.”

You and me both, Luc!

4 COMMENTS

  1. Absolutely agree. I think he would have won us the league, which means CL football and all the money and players that attracts. Being a Villa fan seems to be always be about ‘what if’. The season we finished second to Man Utd with GT, if CL went to four teams like now, again a very different future might have been. GT went for the England job and we went backwards compared to Utd who kept Fergie. Let’s hope that this time it is not another false dawn. Bloody frustrating being so close to the promised land and then so far away.

  2. I love this post. I remember being equally excited about you about the Chelsea goal and those awful pics of his injury. As you say those YouTube montages show what a great player he was. Would have been a cult hero no doubt.

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