This story was originally featured in the book Out of The Blue, published 2009.

Big Nick signs on

Centre Road, Bentleigh, Victoria, late 1956

He is an Australian Football Hall of Fame Legend, the most capped Victorian representative in the history of interstate competition and a triple premiership-winning Carlton captain and coach.

He is a five-time Carlton best and fairest who wore the famed No.2 in 328 matches through 18 seasons of League football. And his name now graces the coveted medal which hangs from the neck of the latest club champion.

To think that John Nicholls – long regarded as the greatest footballer ever to lace a boot for the old dark Navy Blues – first signed with the club as he stood on the footpath by the branch of an E S & A bank.

It was there some time in late 1956 that the 17-year-old kid from Primrose lent his moniker to a Form Four thrust into his hands by Carlton captain Ken Hands, the man Nicholls would later declare as his great mentor and greatest influence.

“John Nicholls came to Carlton in 1957, his first year and my last year as a player. I signed John Nicholls outside the bank in Centre Road, Bentleigh,” Hands says.

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Hands makes no secret of the fact that Don Nicholls, John’s older brother, was the chief object of the club’s attention in the lead up to the 1956 season, when he and former coach Perc Bentley made the long trek to the old goldfields town of Maryborough, some 168 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.

“In those days the coach, the captain, the secretary and a few others used to do the running around Victoria trying to sign players,” Hands says. “I can recall going up there not long after Don had won the best and fairest in the Ballarat League when he was 14 or 15, and that’s who we went up to sign.

“We were at the Nicholls farm outside Primrose talking to the boys’ father when John and Don got off the bus. I can still see John now with his short pants and great big tree trunk thighs and I can remember saying to Perc Bentley, ‘God, have a look at him!’ And the old man said, ‘Well, if you get one you’ll get them both.’

“We got Don okay. In those days he was one of the youngest qualifying mechanical engineers from school and we set him up in a job. I can remember taking him back to my home, putting the Form Four in front of him on the dressing table and saying, ‘I’ll pick it up in the morning’. And he signed it that night.

“John was also down in Melbourne but we hadn’t signed him at that stage, so I continued to pursue him and finally got him out the front of the bank. I handed him the Form Four and I signed him there.”

Nicholls confirms this story, scotching the suggestion that Bentley, on catching first glimpse of the Nicholls brothers on that landmark visit to Primrose, reportedly uttered the words, “I hope we don’t have to take that fat little bugger”.

“I think there’s a lot of folklore around,” Nicholls says. “It was at a time when open recruiting was happening, my older brother had one of the best reputations in the country and we had most of the Melbourne clubs coming up to recruit Don. At 15, he’d won the best and fairest in the Ballarat League, which was unheard of in those days, mainly as a full-back/centre half-back with Maryborough.”

Nicholls is also adamant that, while Don’s senior League career spanned 77 senior matches in six seasons, “he was a 200-game player if he’d been managed properly”.

“He [Don] was a natural athlete who struck a couple of bad ankle injuries and they weren’t fixed properly. The club was probably unprofessional in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but had he been playing in current time he would have been a genuine 200-game player. He was a good athlete whereas I was probably just a young, fat country kid,” Nicholls says.

“My father was a good tennis player and a good footballer. He was nine and a half stone wringing wet but he played with Castlemaine in the Bendigo League and won the goalkicking around 1925. In those days he was also captain-coach of a team called Balloort; these country teams don’t exist now.

“I took after my mother’s side of the family who weren’t so much tall but very big-boned people. That’s where I got my big legs from I think.”

Nicholls readily concedes that, “I wasn’t really talked about in those days when all the recruiters were up – and at Carlton they were blokes like Ken Hands, Perc Bentley and Larry Floyd.

“There wasn’t a lot of money around to entice players. It was mainly employment and with Don he was more interested in whether the club could get him a job in engineering,” Nicholls says. “I had started working in Maryborough with the E S & A Bank, which was later taken over by the ANZ, and after about 12 months was transferred down to Melbourne. I was on relieving staff there, and in my first year, when I was nearly 17, I was picked up every week and taken back to Maryborough. In 1956, Don was already here [at Carlton] and I was going back. That year I was working at all the various banks in different suburbs, and once a week Ken [Hands] would turn up to have lunch and talk to me about joining the club. That’s the way Ken was. He was the best recruiting officer we’ve ever had.”

Nicholls concedes that he was “probably always going to join Carlton”.

“Don was already there, Carlton was a good, well-known and respected club and Ken Hands followed me around everywhere,” he says. “But in those days, until such time as you signed a Form Four, it was open slather as to where you wanted to go.”

John Nicholls followed Ken Hands down the race and into football immortality for Carlton in the opening round of the 1957 season. It happened at home to Hawthorn, in a match that also saw Leo Brereton and Denis Strauch complete their senior debuts. Nineteen fifty-seven also saw Hands turn out for his 200th game – the fourth Carlton player to do so – in a year in which he also captained and coached Victoria.

Carlton ended its season a creditable fourth to complete its return to the final four for the first time since 1952. As for No.2, an extract from the club’s annual report of that year reads as follows:

“John Nicholls repeated the effort of his brother Don in 1956, winning the Terry Ogden Memorial Trophy for the Best First-Year Player. From the first game John showed above average ability and, as he gains added experience, promises to develop into an outstanding ruckman.”

Nicholls tipped the scales at 13 stone nine pounds (86kgs) in that maiden season of 1957, and stood six foot two inches (188cm) in his high cuts. Despite these apparent physical limitations for ruck play, Nicholls was a quick learner who turned to Hands to help him perfect the craft. In his biography, Big Nick, which he penned with Ian McDonald back in 1977, Nicholls wrote;

“Ken Hands was a valuable mentor in his five years from 1959 to 1964. Apart from his coaching, he showed me by example what a good captain should be; of the advantage it was for a team to have a strong leader. A ruckman for preference, but a leader who sets an example, who will protect the players, who will kick that valuable goal when needed and will give the necessary lift to a side. Certainly Hands did this. In his years as coach, he taught me the importance of the use of the body in marking duels and ruck duels, and how to go about getting your body between your opponent and the ball.”

Hands, a member of the famed Carlton premiership teams of 1945 and ’47, believes Nicholls coached himself. “John was only six foot two and there weren’t many others around of that build. ‘Polly’ Farmer and John were always great to watch. Farmer was perhaps more of a natural talent and had much more spring than John, but come that game you could see that John was lifting himself to get there.

“It was obvious that he had a good brain and positioned himself well, and he’s been a magnificent player for the club.”