Despite starting what you’re about to read about a month before the transfer window’s closing (the delay in part due to laziness on weekends and being busy during the week), if I were to say this year’s summer transfer window marks the 20th anniversary of Aston Villa’s best summer signing of the 21st century, it could be forgiven for thinking I was talking about Juan Pablo Angel or at a stretch, David Ginola. Luc Nilis is the name that should have sprung to mind.
Despite arriving at the age of 33 in July 2000, and although not as high profile as Sol Campbell’s switch from Tottenham Hotspur to North London rivals Arsenal would later become in the summer of 2001, the acquisition of Nilis was a statement of intent from John Gregory’s Villa side that had finished the 1999-2000 season in 6th place; European football was the goal once again.
Being born the year the Bosman landmark ruling was made – 1995 – the player Luc Nilis was spoken more of like an Arthurian legend than a non-fiction figure, spoke of in high regard without a sense of knowing why or whether the tale of him can be attributed to factual records. That standpoint would be quite a reasonable consensus considering his career at Aston Villa and its longevity. Although, when looking back at the footage of his days at Anderlecht and PSV, along with appraisals from former teammates, it’s pretty easy to see why fans were excited about his brief but spectacular time at Villa Park.
Nilis, was nicknamed ‘Lucky Luc’ on account of his ability to pop up in the right place at the right time akin to the famously punctual rail network of Japan. Staying on the railway theme, perhaps his move to England – who, let’s face it, don’t have the best reputation for rail travel – could have been an omen to his eventual fate.
He started his senior career in his native country of Belgium, a market that Villa fans should be well accustomed to with signings such as Wesley Moraes, Marvelous Nakamba joining from the Jupiler Pro League within the last year. The now 53-year-old started out at the club KFC Winterslag (I’m not laughing you are) scoring 16 goals in 47 league appearances. Winterslag do not exist as a singular team anymore due to their merger with Waterschei Thor in 1988 – forming a club much more recognisable these days – KRC Genk. You know, the club Christian Benteke signed from in 2012 and more recently Mbwana Samatta in January 2020. Benteke was a monstrous force of a player; physical, quick, and had a serious knack for finding the back of the net while Samatta impressed in his first few appearances before struggling more recently.
As a young forward, Nilis impressed enough to earn a move to Belgium’s capital-based and premier team: R.S.C. Anderlecht, who had won the title in the two years prior to Nilis’ move in 1985 and 1986. During the early years of his career – in his native country – the Belgian was never recognised as the first division’s top scorer in his decade-long spell there which was surprising considering he bagged 143 goals in 271 games for Winterslag and Anderlecht. One hundred and twenty-seven goals after his arrival in Brussels, the smiling assassin – a bigger beaked version of Robert Carlyle, minus the impulsive temperament of Carlyle’s usual film roles – had outgrown his motherland but chose to stay within touching distance over the border in The Netherlands.
The 1990’s were Nilis’ heyday, featuring for Anderlecht until 1994 as well as – and more notably – PSV Eindhoven. As with many club’s in that era, PSV typically played a 4-4-2 with two strikers, with Nilis being the one constant within the two from joining in 1994 until his departure six years later. A common theme of playing this way would be differing styles of centre-forwards being paired; one, a pure goalscorer with pace and ability to make runs behind a scrambling defence with the other, a forward more adept at introducing others into the game, holding the ball in anticipation of reinforcement teammates and playing balls through between defensive lines whilst also able to contribute handsomely in front of goal. In years to come, this type of player would evolve into the number 10, the playmaker.
This is where Luc was different, let’s just say that Luc could bag them, in abundance. For PSV, he found the back of the net 110 times in 164 league games proved he was one of – if not the most clinical finisher in the Eredivisie during the mid to late 90’s, but in addition to this prowess, the Belgian was a philanthropic figure with his interplay and ability to provide for others becoming a real source for praise from former teammates post-career.
It’s worth noting that Nilis wasn’t doing this kind of work in the Eredivisie of today, this was a Dutch league featuring a Feyenoord side that won the league three times during Nilis’ stint in the Netherlands. The league also featured Amsterdam giants Ajax coached by Louis Van Gaal who had won the Champions League in 1995 against an AC Milan side that were looking for consecutive European Cups, before Ajax themselves finishing runners up the year after their victory, losing to Juventus in 1996. Lastly, completing the Dutch ‘big three’, PSV; themselves European Cup winners in 1988.
From the 1994-95 season to the 1999/2000 edition, ‘Lucky Luc’ won two Golden Boot awards for top scorer and as a testament to his role and ability as a second striker, 3 of the other 4 recipients of the award were from PSV in the form of Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima (often disrespectfully referred to as fat Ronaldo) and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Ronaldo would go onto become the face of the sport in the late 1990’s and early noughties whereas Van Nistelrooy is also arguably one of the best finishers of the 21st century, scoring a goal every 1.83 games from the 2000-2001 season until his retirement in 2012.
Nilis seemed to have a profound effect on Van Nistelrooy,. “I owe everything in this world to him. There is not another player I respect as much as Luc and I doubt if there are another two players who are as close as we are. He drove me nuts at times. Sometimes I could throttle him and really hate him; maybe the other way round it was the same. But love and hate are always very close and that’s why we became the best of friends,” said Van Nistelrooy.
The stature that Luc’s former disciples have risen to has potentially diluted the memory of the Belgian’s career and sheer skill. His multi-faceted, swiss army like flexibility as a player can also be best personified by his natural ambidexterity; he wasn’t just a one trick pony and according to former German international Andreas Brehme, this natural gift of his is “like choosing a weapon”, of which Nilis had quite a few.
Rather a lazy analogy to use but Luc Nilis, and all players for that matter can be thought of as alcoholic beverages or shorts – Cristiano Ronaldo would be a hard hitting shot of Absinthe; not particularly elegant and doesn’t need to show up for the majority of the night but is guaranteed to pack the biggest of punches. Lionel Messi: a fine wine for the more refined palate, continuing to satisfy with age, leaving those who underestimate its proof tripping over themselves (just ask Jerome Boateng). Nilis, well Nilis would be a proper beer, not a John Smiths, or a Tetley’s found down the local working man’s club, he’d be a Belgian one naturally. One for the cultured people who see more than just a dark pint of fluid that eventually leaves a yellowy brown stain on the thick white moustache upon which it batters with every gulp like a weathered cliff face. Every pub has one. Nilis was someone crafted for the more cultured palette, experiencing the caramel, nutty and floral flavours with every sense humans have. A rounded ale.
Shortly after his transfer to Villa in July 2000, he scored on his full competitive debut against FC Dukla Příbram – now FK Příbram of the Czech First League – in a 3-1 (aggregate) first round UEFA Intertoto Cup victory. Unfortunately, Villa would be knocked out in the semi-finals to Spanish side Celta Vigo but his first league start would capture the imagination, if it hadn’t already, and show Villa Park just what kind of player Nilis was. Of course, he scored on his league debut, and let’s be honest, if he hadn’t I highly doubt any of us would talk about him or seek to write two-thousand word articles on him unless he was the butt of jokes like the infamous Bosko Balaban always tends to be.
Back to the game, Chelsea, at home. Steve Wright cuts a ball from the left touchline towards the penalty area, finding ‘Lucky’ coming towards the ball being harassed by Chelsea’s Frank Lebouef. Nilis gets in front, the ball rolls up his right foot evading Lebouef’s challenge, the ball lingers in the air and no matter how many times you watch the video of the goal back, time slows. Waiting for the ball to descend onto Nilis’ Adidas Predator wearing left peg takes an age and all the while everyone knows what footballing adult material will follow once the ball hits the boot and yet it never ceases to leave you in awe. The only fitting comparison is to think of a video game, whether it be EA Sports’ FIFA Street’s ‘gamebreaker’ goal or a supercharged driver creamed down the middle of the fairway on Tiger Woods 2005, Nilis’ strike deserved to leave a trail of flames coupled with a sonic boom.
For a right-footed player it wasn’t half the finish with his supposed weaker peg. A finish with all the characteristics of a Dennis Bergkamp first touch followed by a Thierry Henry-esque volleyed thwack into the top corner. If ever there was a better way to introduce yourself to Villa Park then I am yet to see it, although there has not been too much to shout about since the turn of the century for Villa fans admittedly.
Nilis’ Aston Villa career ended on the 9th of September 2000 at Portman Road. The first game my dad took me to was on the 16th of December 2000 against Manchester City with Dion Dublin scoring in a 2-2 draw. In my early years of supporting Villa I would adorn the number ‘9’ on the back of my shirt with either ‘Dublin’ or my own surname above, but while writing this I often think would it have been ‘Nilis 20’ had the circumstances been different?
While writing this, Gregg Evans’ interview with Nilis for The Athletic detailed and made those that hadn’t already known aware of the unfortunate events that would transpire on an away trip to Ipswich Town. A challenge that not only cost Nilis his playing career but almost claimed one of his limbs but that’s not what he should be remembered for.
While he may be the Schrodinger’s Cat of all transfers, ‘Lucky Luc’s’ unlucky demise has undoubtedly and unwittingly created an atmosphere of mysticism, giving life to it’s own modern day Arthurian legend that only those select few, for those few matches able to claim it a reality. For those that never got to witness him, myself included, those that did see him will tell you he was a graceful and versatile forward with the ability to play inch perfect passes as well as taking up the mantle of the main gunslinger in the team, capable of firing absolute rockets past helpless keepers.
To put his brilliance into context, the great Ronaldo Nazario is commonly known to have once said, “I’ve played with big players like Figo, Romario, Zidane, Rivaldo, Djorkaeff and Raul, but it clicked best with Luc Nilis, with whom I played at PSV. He was simply fantastic, the greatest partner I had played with, despite sharing a brief time with him.”
And that, is where this deserves to end.
By Jack Cudworth