From Sutton United beating Coventry City in 1989, to the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club. From Shrewsbury knocking out Everton, to “that goal” by Roy Essandoh against Leicester in 2001. The FA Cup always provides thrills and spills, as well as the occasional cup upset.
One particular fixture this weekend had all of the ingredients for a perfect cup tie. League Two Exeter City, a side who held Manchester United to a replay 10 years ago, against the seven-times winners of the competition: Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
History repeated itself for the Grecians and for one particular player the fixture had added significance. Tom Nichols was 11 when the Devon Club held Man Utd to a 0-0 draw at the Theatre of Dreams, and bleeds red and white.
Shoot takes a look at the fans’ favourite who is being idolised as a club legend already, even at the age of 22.
Where did it all start for Nichols?
Born in Wellington, a small industrial town in Somerset less than half an hour away from St James’ Park, Nichols’ ability was clear from a young age. At the age of 11, he was snapped up by the then Conference club’s academy after impressing at local Sunday league side, Twyford Spartans.
Under the guidance of academy director Simon Hayward, Nichols exacerbated the minds of the management staff and it was apparent that he would one day play a influential part in Exeter’s first team.
His chance initially came at the age of 17. Nichols came on as a substitute for Exeter in their final League One game of the season against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough in May 2011. The youngster described it as an “amazing but surprising experience”. He continued to remain grounded, however, and was ready to prove Paul Tisdale that he warranted a place in the starting XI the following season as the Grecians aimed for a play-off place and perhaps promotion to the Championship.
That looked to be the case as he played a part in five of Exeter’s opening eight fixtures of the 2011-12 season. During that spell, he accomplished another of his childhood dreams: to a score a goal in professional football, as he banged home a goal against Chesterfield at St James’ Park just a day before his 18th birthday; it was the perfect birthday present for the academy product. Whatever he achieved in the game now, if it involved triumph or failure, this was certainly a story to tell the grandchildren about.
What happened next?
Such is the competitive nature of English football, it was hard for Nichols to contemplate that he would no longer be involved in the starting XI. His competition, Guillem Bauzả, a former Swansea star who signed for the Devon Club in pre-season, was preferred to the young attacker.
It was still imperative, however, that Nichols played regular football. As a result of him wanting to develop his game, he made the brave move to drop down three divisions to the Conference South where he linked up with Dorchester Town. Nine goals in 12 appearances showed the Magpies, as well as Tisdale, that he was good enough. So a return to regular League One football with Exeter was inevitable, surely? Maybe not.
How did he get to this point?
Despite him impressing on loan at non-league level and Exeter slumping to relegation back to League Two, Nichols continued to play an ineffective role at St James’ Park.
So much so that he found himself back out on loan. This time he made the switch to the now defunct Hereford United, who found themselves playing Conference football as they continued to battle financially of the field of play. Primarily joining for a month only, Nichols amazed the Edgar Street crowd so much that then manager Martin Foyle had no choice but to extend his spell on the River Wye.
A month after his return, he was on the move again. This time it was a drop in division to another Conference South outfit: Bath City. Despite scoring once in only six league appearances, Nichols could not help Bath end their inconsistent run, playing in defeats against Western Super Mare and a Billericay side who would eventually be condemned to the seventh tier of English football.
A return to Dorchester Town throughout the early months of 2013 eventually caught the eye of Exeter “gaffer” Tisdale, and by November 2013 he began to make a huge impact in the Grecians’ side. He became a fans’ favourite and by the end of the 2013-14 season was joint top scorer alongside current Notts County man Scot Bennett – he had scored sic goals in 28 appearances. The following season he became the club’s top goalscorer again, this time with 15 goals from 36 appearances as Exeter missed out on the play-offs by only seven points.
How much of a shock was his goal against Liverpool?
A Friday Night FA Cup tie in front of the television cameras against a side who have an illustrious record in the best cup competition in the world.
It would therefore be understandable that you could shy-away from the big occasion. Not Tom Nichols. He came into the fixture on Friday night in not the greatest of form – only scoring 2 goals in his previous seven games. However, being the star man in the Exeter City side, he needed to stand up if they could pull of a shock like they did against Manchester United 10 years ago. He certainly did that with a fine finish just nine minutes into the clash against the Premier League giants, eventually winning the man of the match award.
Why is he so dangerous?
At the age of 22, Nichols possesses all of the key attributes that makes him a fantastic League Two striker. His pace and flair give him the chance to put the ball past defenders and allows himself to create room so he can strike at goal.
He is as much of a threat outside of the box as he is in it, and has also shown he is good in the air as well. Nichols also has a great talent at set pieces as well. His free kicks are synonymous with the style that Cristiano Ronaldo takes.
Super Stat: Nichols has now scored in successive games for the first time since November.