Luc Nilis was an outstanding striker for PSV and loved by both Ronaldo de Lima and Ruud van Nistelrooy, but for Aston Villa and English football he was a case of ‘what if’.
A veteran striker in his mid-30s with a reputation for scoring goals for fun in mainland Europe was coming to the end of his contract and needed a new challenge.
He had just plundered in a hatful of goals as his club won the league at a canter and chose to move to England and take the last-chance opportunity to prove himself in the Premier League.
But this is not the story of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his move to Manchester United, it’s the story of Luc Nilis, the Belgian behemoth who bestrode the Benelux leagues for more than a decade before joining John Gregory’s Aston Villa as a 33-year-old in the summer of 2000.
Nilis had just played a starring role in PSV’s Eredivisie triumph with 19 goals, and he arrived at Villa Park with grand ambitions, stating that he wanted to help his new club qualify for the Champions League at the first time of asking.
Such aspirations may seem fanciful now, but Gregory had just led Villa to a second successive sixth-place finish, with only two losses in the final 21 games of the season and an FA Cup final appearance against Chelsea thrown in for good measure.
For an experienced head and proven goalscorer seeking a new challenge in a major league, Villa were an attractive proposition. The deal to take him to the Midlands had been wrapped up in March. Everything was looking good.
But first, back to the start.
Nicknamed ‘Lucky Luc’ for his ability to pop up in the right places at the right time, Nilis began his senior career in 1984 at Winterslag – now Genk – where he made a big impact before joining Anderlecht as a 19-year-old.
The lanky striker spent eight years in Brussels, scoring 127 times in 224 league appearances – a rate better than 1 in 2 – and helping Anderlecht to four league titles and three Cup wins. But Nilis’ best was still yet to come.
Aged 27 and having conquered Belgium, in 1994 he made the short journey across the border to join PSV, where he formed a devastating partnership with Ronaldo de Lima, who joined the club that same summer after taking advice from Romario, who spent five years at the Phillips Stadion himself.
Ronaldo scored 30 goals in his debut season to finish as the Eredivisie’s top scorer, yet it was Nilis that was named Dutch Footballer of the Year – an award determined by a poll of players plying their trade in the first two divisions in the country.
That he won the award despite scoring 18 fewer goals than his strike partner – and the fact that PSV finished third behind Ajax and Roda JC – was testament to his all-round abilities as a footballer.
Nilis was magnificent. Sure, he had the dead-eyed precision associated with all lethal finishers, but there was more to his game than his qualities as a pure goalscorer. He was the striker’s striker, his selflessness endearing him to his strike partners, first Ronaldo and years later a certain Ruud van Nistelrooy.
A serious knee injury marred Nilis and Ronaldo’ second season together, but the Belgian still finished it as the top scorer with 21 goals, though PSV again failed to secure the Eredivisie title.
It seems remarkable they could not manage it across two seasons in which their two strikers scored 75 goals between them, but Ajax were an outstanding side.
They won the Champions League and did not lose a single league game under Louis van Gaal in 1994-95 before winning a third successive Eredivisie title in 1995-96 and again making the Champions League final.
The partnership between Nilis and Ronaldo was broken up when the Brazilian departed for Barcelona in the summer of ’96, but he spent enough time with Nilis to later declare him his favourite ever strike partner.
“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,” Ronaldo said.
Plenty more words could – and will – be written about the magnificence of Nilis, but if Ronaldo says that, what else needs to be added?
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The most fascinating aspect of Nilis’ game was the sheer variety of his goals: he was as comfortable curling one in from the edge of the area as he was embarking on a solo run that involved beating three or four defenders.
He could hit a free kick as well – a number of his efforts left opposition goalkeepers rooted to the spot. Standing at 6ft he was also effective in the air, while his ability to pick a pass was almost unrivalled. Nilis had it all.
Ronaldo’s exit didn’t seem to blunt Nilis’ edge either, as he scored 21 goals again in 1996-97 to lead PSV to their first title in five years.
He scored another 13 in just 24 league appearances the following season before being joined by Van Nistelrooy, who was signed by Sir Bobby Robson as a 22-year-old from Heerenveen. Another divine partnership was born.
Nilis and Van Nistelrooy helped themselves to 24 and 31 goals respectively in their first year as a duo, and in their second they scored another 48 between them as PSV won the league by 16 points from second-placed Heerenveen.
It was then, aged 33, that Nilis took the chance to move to the Premier League.
He had first introduced himself to English football with a goal against Newcastle United during a Champions League group stage game in 1997, and he wasted no time in announcing himself again in 2000 when he scored on his league debut against Chelsea, following up on his goal against Dukla Pribram in the Intertoto Cup.
But that was as good as it got for Nilis, as the charmed boy from Hasselt ran of luck in only his third Premier League appearance, colliding with Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright and suffering a horrific leg injury. It left Nilis with a right calf broken in two places, a season-ending double compound fracture.
Initially the Villa physios were hopeful about his chances of recovery, but it soon became clear there was no coming back for the veteran striker. He even contracted a bone infection that meant, at one point, he faced the real prospect of an amputation.
However, while Nilis’ Villa career may have cruelly cut short, he’ll be fondly remembered by those that got to enjoy watching him play for the goals, passes and selflessness that saw him revered by two of the greatest strikers that ever played the game.
All hail Lucky Luc, the great Aston Villa striker that never was.
By Aanu Adeoye