Debuts Part 15: Luc Nilis

NIKOLAS BOEHM recalls Luc Nilis’ dream debut, and the tragic injury that ended his football career

The summer of 2000 was an exciting time to be an Aston Villa supporter. The club was looking to build on back-to-back sixth-place finishes, as well as long cup runs in the season prior, with some ambitious signings. While the more expensive arrivals of Alpay Özalan and David Ginola took the summer’s headlines, the most intriguing and interesting newcomer was Belgian striker Luc Nilis, on a free transfer from Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.

Nilis, 33, was relatively unknown in England at the time, having played in Belgium and the Netherlands throughout his career. His CV, however, was outstanding, with over a decade of prolific (and often spectacular) goal scoring contributions to six league titles during his time at Anderlecht and PSV, as well as over 50 caps for Belgium. The former Dutch Footballer of the Year arrived in the West Midlands to much excitement and anticipation. Aston Villa fans got their first chance to see their new man in the Intertoto Cup as Nilis scored on his debut against Czech side FK Marila Příbram.

The true unveiling of Luc Nilis came on his Premier League debut at Villa Park against Chelsea, Villa’s nemesis in the FA Cup Final just three months before. John Gregory inserted Nilis into the starting XI in place of the injured David Ginola, pairing the Belgian with Dion Dublin up front. Nilis’ first match in the English game would be against the intimidating French duo of Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf, exactly the type of top-quality opposition Nilis had arrived to test himself against on a weekly basis.

Nilis, in Villa’s traditional claret and blue with the #20 on the back, walked out onto the pitch at Villa Park for the first time in the Premier League to an audience full of questions and high expectations. Could he hack it in a tougher league? Was he too old for the Premier League? Was he physical enough? Not one to be fazed by doubts about his ability, Nilis was blessed with the kind of calm assuredness that only the best strikers have. There was never any doubt in his mind, he was ready to make good on the oath he had made with his former PSV teammate Ruud van Nistelrooy to “wreak havoc” on the Premier League.

It took less than ten minutes for Nilis to answer any questions about his quality. When Alan Wright latched onto a David James goal kick on the left wing, Nilis was a good five yards behind Leboeuf in the Chelsea box. Wright’s low cross to the near post should’ve been a relatively simple clearance for the Chelsea man but Nilis reacted quickest and managed to get a touch on the ball with the outside of his right foot just before Leboeuf could clear, and what a touch it was, flicking the ball up in the air and around Leboeuf taking him several yards wider than the near post and without hesitation, hit the ball full on the volley with his left foot past Carlo Cudicini into the roof of the net.

Villa fans exploded into ecstasy as they watched their new man celebrate with his new teammates. The goal was Nilis personified, showcasing the predatory instinct, ingenuity and peerless technique that had defined his game for over a decade.

Although Chelsea equalised through Marcel Desailly, Nilis’ immediate impact left Villa fans optimistic about the club’s ability to challenge for a place in the Champions League. Having begun the match as a bit of a mystery, Nilis left the pitch in the 70th minute as an instant Villa hero.

Seemingly destined for stardom at Villa, Nilis, would be the victim of one of football’s most horrific and tragic injuries, and would never play another match at Villa Park. Nilis made just two more appearances for the club, playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 loss at Anfield before the tragic match at Portman Road against Ipswich Town.

Minutes into the match, Nilis chased a flicked header and collided with Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright, and it was immediately clear from Nilis’ reaction that he was in serious pain as his leg bent in a terrible way. Nilis was stretchered off the pitch and taken to directly to the hospital where he would spend the night.

Villa’s worst fears were realized as it was confirmed Nilis had suffered a double compound fracture of his shin. The news was devastating, with Nilis commenting: “I know there are worse things that happen in the world, but this has destroyed my dreams.”

Not many players are able to recover from such a serious injury so late in their careers, sadly Nilis was not even given the chance. Nilis’ leg became infected and there were fears of amputation to stop the infection from spreading. While it thankfully never came to that, the Belgian star would be forced to call time on his football career, announcing his retirement at halftime of a match against Leeds United at Villa Park in January.

While Nilis’ time at Villa is undoubtedly one of the saddest stories in football, the man, considered by Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy as one of the best they have ever shared the pitch with, was still able to provide Villa fans with one unforgettable moment on his dream debut.

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