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John Nicholls: VFL Ruckmen Great

John Nicholls was a former Australian Rules football player.

He was born on 13th August, 1939 and is considered as one of the greatest ruckmen in the history of the Australian Rules Football. Throughout his career, he played exclusively for the Carlton Football Club in the VFL (Victorian Football League) from 1957 to 1974.

John Nicholls

John Nicholls was nicknamed “Big Nick” because of his strong legs and massive size. He was known to have penetrative and accurate kicking in addition to good ball handling skills. He was made captain of the Blues in 1963 for one season and then again in 1968. Afterwards, he held that position from 1968 till his retirement. From 1972 till his retirement, he added the title of coach to his existing captaincy position He continued coaching the team after his retirement in 1974 albeit only for one season.

As a captain, John Nicholls played three premierships, which included one of the highest scoring games in the history of VFL against Richmond. John Nicholls scored six goals in that game. He also led the team in three Grand Finals. In his career, John Nicholls has booted a total of 307 goals.

John Nicholls is one of only twelve football players named as “Legend” shortly after the formation of the Australian Football Hall of Fame. He retired from the game in 1981.

Career as a Football Player

John Nicholls initially played for the Maryborough Football Club, which used to compete in the Bendigo Football League. In 1957, he was recruited by Carlton after the club had also signed up his brother, Don as a centre man. He was 17 when he was recruited by the Blues and played his first senior league game before he turned 18.

He played as a ruckman for the Blues, which is a key position on the field. However, while traditionally ruckmen were above 200 centimetres or 6.5 feet tall, John Nicholls was 189 centimetres. He did compensate for his height with his big size and strong legs which were known as “tree trunk-like” legs during his glory days.

John Nicholls was called “Big Nick” because of his physical attributes. After playing with Carlton for six years he was made the team captain in 1963, but only for a single season. The same year he won the club’s “Best and Fairest” award for the second time, the first being in 1959.

In 1968, John Nicholls was handed the position of captain for the Blues for the second time in his career. He remained captain till his retirement. During the time he was captain, he led the team to three Premiership wins from 1968 to 1972. John Nicholls played the 1973 Grand Final against Richmond as the captain plus coach for Carlton. He was not able to perform to his full potential in the game because of an early fall which caused him to suffer from double vision and a concussion. Still, his performance has been applauded in the game throughout.

Games Played As a Captain

John Nicholls captained the blues for a total of eight years, one year in 1963 and then consecutively from 1968 to 1974.

1968 Game Against Essendon

The 1968 season was the fifth time Carlton was facing Essendon in a Premiership game since 1897. John Nicholls was not able to score any goals in this match, but the Blues won the game by a margin of only three points. Essendon scored more goals then Carlton; however, they were still able to claim victory based on points. This premiership was Carlton’s 9th victory and the first since the Grand Finals of 1947.

1970 Game Against Collingwood

John Nicholls’ led the Blues in the 1970 VFL season. In the second semi-final, Collingwood defeated the Blues by 10 points, but the two teams met again in the Grand Final. The 1970 Grand Final between Carlton and Collingwood was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Blues claimed victory in the Grand Final after going head to head with Collingwood for the second time since the semi-finals. John Nicholls scored two goals in this game and made this the club’s 10th Premiership victory.

1972 Game Against Richmond

In 1972, John Nicholls was the captain and coach for Carlton. He led the team to make the highest score in VFL history. The Blues played against Richmond in the 76th annual VFL Grand Final. The 1972 Grand Final marked the club’s 11th victory as they won the game by a 27-point margin.

Carlton had faced Richmond in the second semi-final as well. The first game turned out to be a draw and a replay was held.

In the second semi-final replay, Richmond was able to beat the Blues by 41 points and landed in the Grand Final. After being defeated by Richmond, Carlton managed to gain a 16 point lead against St. Kilda and made it to the Grand Finals where they would face Richmond once again. During John Nicholls’ career, Carlton made it to six Grand Finals. John Nicholls led the club to five of the six Grand Finals of which the club won three.

1962 Game Against Essendon

The Blues faced Essendon in the 1962 Grand Final. John Nicholls scored two goals, but the team was not able to make up the 32-point lead earned by Essendon. This was the 66th VFL Grand Final and Carlton’s first appearance since 1949.

1969 Game Against Richmond

As captain, John Nicholls led the Blues to the 1969 VFL Grand Final. The club had already bagged a Premiership in 1968 and were in the Grand Finale the following season as well. Carlton was the reigning team and they faced Richmond, which was the underdog of the season. Richmond only made it to the Grand Final on their percentage. The 1969 Grand Final was an unexpected defeat for Carlton.

1973 Game Against Richmond

The 1973 season was John Nicholls’ second year as captain and coach for Carlton. He led the team to the VFL Grand Finals and the Blues were expecting yet another victory against Richmond. However, things took an unexpected turn as John Nicholls took an early fall in the game and ended up with a concussion and double-vision. Richmond seized the opportunity and marked this as their 8th premiership victory by a 30-point lead against Carlton. John Nicholls was not able to score any goals in this game.

Career as a Coach

In 1974, he retired as a player, but stayed with Carlton as the club’s coach till 1975. In his final year of coaching the Blues, John Nicholls managed to bring them up to the 4th position. Alex Jesaulenko took over as captain for the team after John Nicholls stepped down. After leaving Carlton in 1975, he joined the SANFL’s Glenelg Bays in 1977 and coached them for two seasons till 1978. After he left Glenelg, John Nicholls took a 3-year break and returned to football in 1981 as coach for the Coburg Football Club of the VFL. He only coached the team for a year after which he retired from football.

Honours and Achievements

John Nicholls played with the Blues for sixteen years during which he received many awards. Undoubtedly, he is one of the best ruckmen to have ever played the game. Proving this is the fact that he had won the Robert Reynolds trophy five times from 1959 to 1967, which is a club record. This award was later named after him in appreciation of his contribution towards the game.

He ranked in the top three for the Robert Reynolds trophy for 11 consecutive seasons between 1959 and 1969. He captained the Blues for eight years during which he led them to three premiership wins and two VFL Grand Finals. In 1968, he was awarded the Simpson Medal for best player in a WAFL (West Australian Football League) Grand Final. He was the only player to have represented the Big V or the Victorian Australian rules football team 31 times, a record which is still unbroken.

In 2000, Carlton announced their team of the century and John Nicholls was named as first ruckman. In addition, he was named as resting ruckman in the AFL Team of the Century.

All in all, John Nicholls was a prominent member of the VFL, which is why his fan base hasn’t receded despite his retirement almost three decades ago. In addition, with the medal of his first club named after him, it is no wonder that old teammates and newer members of the club respect and appreciate him.

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