« Jean was a real warrior on the pitch. There is not doubt in my mind that he was the greatest of all Belgian goal keepers. »
– Christian Piot, legendary goal keeper at Standard Liège
At a time when Standard de Liège finds in Arnaud Bodart a goalkeeper coming through the youth ranks and is capable of settling in permanently, reminiscing about Standard’s long tradition of legendary goalkeepers is never far away. Indeed, such is the tradition at Standard that a new goalie always came through its own youth development programme, from the early 50s to the late 90s: Toussaint Nicolaÿ, his brother Jean Nicolaÿ, Christian Piot, Michel Preud’homme and Gilbert Bodart were all part of the youth setup before becoming in turn, guardians of the temple of Sclessin.
Indirectly, the link is established with Arnaud Bodart… and not only because he is Gilbert’s nephew: « I did my tests at Standard at the end of the season when I was seven years old, recalls the current U21 international. If I remember correctly, it was Jean Nicolaÿ who came to my father for information … »
Jean Nicolaÿ. If the impact of a player on the history of a club is measured in details, then nowhere it is more evident than on the banks of the Meuse. Within the Academy, the section of the goalkeepers is called “l’Ecole Jean Nicolaÿ” (the school of Jean Nicolaÿ) and one of the thirty business loges located in Tribune 1 bears his name. He’s in good company with fellow goalies Christian Piot and Michel Preud’homme.
« I would have committed a crime to be a Standard player, he used to say when looking back on his career. I was crazy about Standard, no sacrifice would have discouraged me to earn my place in the team. If football has cemented my family, it has also divided it … »
Nicolaÿ and Standard, a family affaire
The unifying part of the story was the continued presence of a Nicolaÿ at Standard from the early 1940s (with his other brother Adolphe) to 1969, when Jean left for Daring Molenbeek. « In 1951, I was thirteen, I signed my first affiliation at Standard,” he recalled a few years before his death on August 18, 2014. At that time, we couldn’t do it earlier. Until the age of 15 I played as a… striker. Technically it was fine but I didn’t have pace so I changed position. Being a goalkeeper appealed to me because I wanted an individual position where I could manage myself.
Two years later, Jean Nicolaÿ made his debut in the first team (a league game at Waterschei, December 18, 1955) before finally becoming, in 1957, the default backup of his brother Toussaint, already forecasting future issues. While Toussaint had known the first hours of glory of Standard (the first Belgian Cup in 1954, the first Belgian league title in 1958) and was in goal during the first game of the European Cup against Heart of Midlothian, Hungarian coach Geza Kalocsay (who had succeeded Frenchman André Riou) caused a family tragedy by changing keeper for the return leg in Edinburgh. Jean got wind of the decision during a walk with several teammates in the Scottish city 24 hours before the meeting. « I’ve heard the elders talk about it, talking about injustice and scandal. I didn’t know about anything. Myself, I found it logical for Toussaint to play this second leg. Kalocsay felt that I was more powerful than my brother and yet I was pushed around for 90 minutes there! »
Harder and less diplomatic than his predecessors, the Hungarian coach was not there to take into account the moods of each player. The board of directors wanted to prepare a new generation for the realities of European football. Toussaint Nicolaÿ was one of the collateral victims. « The coach could have prepared the succession more diplomatically. I was taking my chance, but I hadn’t really grasped the impact of my brother’s pain and dismay. I loved him, I admired him. If I had had his détente I would have been the best goalkeeper in the world .. but the love for football was stronger than any family ties. ”
If the Nicolaÿ family was divided between the pro-Toussaint and the pro-Jean (before a reconciliation several years later as a promise to their mother), this quarrel did not prevent Jean from participating in the creation of the Standard myth with the European epics (such as the quarter-finals of the C1 in 1959 at the Parc des Princes against Reims in front of 6000 Liège supporters), his national titles (champion in 1958 (as a non playing sub), 1961, 1963 and 1969) and winner of the Cup in 1966 and 1967). He was always dressed in black like the great Lev Yachine and spent his time on the field torturing his body when medical science was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now.
« I lived in Bressoux and at the start of my career I had to take two trams to reach the stadium,” he said while later riding his bicycle to reach Sclessin. “We were training in the smoke of the Walloon steel industry. The fog was often compact and the lighting tough. The balls were coated with two coats of paint to make them easier to see. I frequently took them on the nose because I didn’t see them coming. It hardened the character. Kalocsay taught us discipline and rigor. I was barely 17. The Hungarian took me aside to give me specific training sessions. He taught me how to reduce the angles. I did hundreds of dives in his feet, head forward. My pants were sticking to my butt and thighs. My limbs were burning. The next day, the coach looked at me. When I told him my leg was burning, he told me that we were going exercise the other leg. At the time, I took on any challenge. I was crazy, but I liked it. In order to have people talk about you, you have to make it worth their while. »
It was all happening for Jean Nicolaÿ during the first half of the “Golden Sixties“: championship titles, Golden Shoe in 1963 and a marriage a few months later. The trophy awarded by the Dutch-language newspaper “Het Laatste Nieuws” had special significance. « The first for a goalkeeper and the first for a Walloon player, which was no small feat at the time. »,he used to say.
Obviously, his career could not be envisioned without †alking about the Red Devils, where he experienced in the beginning the rivalry with another Liege based player Guy Delhasse. The first of his 39 caps, he obtained it on May 24, 1959 in a friendly match at the Heysel stadium, against Austria. “To make me feel comfortable, Denis Houf asked to play as a defender …”
During his tenure with the Red Devils (despite the reluctance of Secretary General Roger Petit to release his internationals in response to the “anderlechtisation” of Belgian football), Jean Nicolaÿ had an experience that remained unique in Belgian football until the participation of the Devils in the 2014 World Cup: play on the mythical pitch of the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, he had the honor of playing both friendlies against the then two-times world champion Seleçao. His return to Brazil two years after the first game in Brussels obviously marked him. « To play a game in such a huge stadium was incredible. » he told us shortly before his death.
Even though he conceded five goals on June 2, 1965, Jean Nicolaÿ had an indelible memory of that game. « Despite this loss, the Brazilian press wrote that I was one of the best players in this game. I was quoted in the wake of Pelé, Garrincha and Orlando. A Belgian living in Brazil sent me newspaper clippings from there. I am seen in several photos illustrating Brazilian actions and they speak of me as a lord of European football. »
No particular phase during the match had permeated his memory. « Simply because there were so many during the meeting! He laughed. “The supporters at the Maracana were emotional after the defeat in Brussels without Pelé and Garrincha. After holding on for a half, we broke down. We were very tired to play this game scheduled at the end of the season. We had stayed there for a week spending most of our time on Copacabana Beach, apart from one or the other visit to central Rio. A few had even gained weight on the occasion. Then-coach Constant Vanden Stock had just scheduled one training session at the Fluminense stadium. »
For Jean Nicolaÿ, this match was not the only time he crossed paths with “King” Pelé. « That day, I couldn’t exchange my shirt with him. He gave it to another team mate. That chance came to me later when Standard faced Santos in a gala match. In total, I have met him five times and with every confrontation he would give me a friendly pat on the back, as did Garrincha. »
The match in Brazil was also a special moment in Jean Nicolaÿ’s career. « I was not the only Liege based player to have made the trip. There was also Léon Semmeling, the Sulon brothers and Yves Baré. And I wore the captain‘s armband that normally went to Pierre Hanon. It was a gesture for my 35th selection against great Brazil. »
The first year of the René Hauss era turned out to be Jean Nicolaÿ’s last at Sclessin. In 68-69, Christian Piot does more than being a simple backup. If he won definitively the battle to be number 2 to the detriment of Daniel Mathy (who “killed” himself sportingly in a derby lost 4-3 at RFC Liège), the young keeper from Ougrée ended up taking advantage of a less than warm relationship between Nicolaÿ and Hauss. « I always said I would leave the day when, tired of listening to my advice, Christian would put me straight. » And that’s exactly what happened later. « During a training session, Christian told me where to put it … The time had come and I decided to quit for Daring. I only told Christian Piot and Jean-Paul Colonval. I informed Roger Petit one day when we were in Brussels for a reception. I was not taking the bus back to Liège with the team since I was going to sign my contract in Brussels… »
The transfer was signed for a little over 2 million BF (50,000 Euros) and, suffering from a knee problem, Jean finished his the Brussels chapter two years later before a last stint at Tilleur.
The comparison between different eras is always delicate but those who have known and see him play, do not hesitate to talk about the best Belgian goalkeeper of all time…. In full knowledge of the many others who went through the national team’s goal afterwards (unless Thibaut Courtois makes everybody agree). « Jean Nicolaÿ really revolutionized the art of preparing for a game »,” said Jean-Paul Colonval in tribute to his former teammate. « He did it specifically, which was not a custom at the time. Then he would challenge us, me, Roger Claessen or the other attackers. And please believe if he had decided that we weren’t going to score in training, well … we weren’t scoring! ”
« Jean was a warrior and gave me that aspect of his personality,” said Christian Piot. For me, he is the greatest Belgian goalkeeper of all time. »
The passion for his job never went away as he returned to to the game in the early 1980s. After being called up by Henri Depireux to Winterslag, where he helped shape Jacky Matthijssen, he also went to Mechelen (Michel Preud’homme), to Metz (Bernard Lama) or Seraing (Ranko Stojic). He also coached the keepers in the Swiss national team and the Red Devils before returning to Standard in 1998 at the request of Lucien D’Onofrio, becoming goalkeeper coach with his son Jean and taking Vedran Runje under his wings.
At the head of his training school until his death, he always had a leitmotif for young goalies. « There is everything here. Make the most of it. Make the most of the training sessions you are offered by staying as long as possible in this warm nest. There will always be time, when you have completed your training, when you have reached your goals, to define your next challenge. »
(c) Philippe Gerday – November 2020
Date of birth: 27 December 1937, in Liége
Deceased: 18 August 2014, in Liège
Affiliated at Standard: 24 March 1951 – 30 June 1969
Trophies with Standard: 6 – 4x Champion (1958, 1961, 1963, 1969), 2x Belgian F.A. Cup (1966, 1967)
International games / goals: 39 / 0
1950 – 1955
Royal Standard Club Liégeois (16)
1955 – 1969
1969 – 1971
1971 – 1973
Royal Standard Club Liégeois (16)
R. Daring Club de Bruxelles (2)
R. Tilleur F.C. (21)
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup