Craig Nixon played for Bury once, just the once, but for the ten minutes or so he was on the pitch in that single appearance he gained legendary status amongst the fans that witnessed the appearance. For Craig Nixon it was truly his Andy Warhol moment, although he probably fell a minute or two short of his fifteen minutes of fame, even if you include injury time.
The date was 17 August 1993; the venue Burnden Park – then home to Bolton Wanderers. The occasion, the first leg of the first round of the League Cup. Bury and Bolton were bitter rivals at the time and for some fans from that era, they still are. The two Lancashire sides had gone toe-to-toe in the years leading up to this match in search of promotion to the second tier. A financial meltdown for Bury saw them exit the division, but the wrong way; investment for Bolton led to promotion and allowed them to enjoy many years at the top table before their own recent money problems. The differing economic situation of each club at the time meant Burnden Park eventually become home to some of Bury’s better players. One of them, Scottish forward John McGinlay, would play a major part in Nixon’s moment in the spotlight.
Bury, clear underdogs, were leading 2-0 at half-time on the night, their second coming from none other than Luther Blissett, his San Siro days long behind him. The Shakers had a firm grip on the tie at this point, though by the end of the second leg things Bolton had turned it around and ultimately progressed following a penalty shootout. But not before Nixon made his mark.
The home side came out for the second half fired up, with McGinlay particularly keen to make an impression, which he did – literally – but perhaps not in the way his manager wanted. The Bury defence had continued to frustrate Bolton and as another attack ended in the hands of Gary Kelly, McGinlay launched into a challenge which left the goalkeeper in a heap. Local television pictures later showed several gashes in his right knee from where the striker’s boot had connected but, after lengthy treatment, Kelly amazingly seemed able to carry on. McGinlay, had never been the most popular player in his brief spell at Gigg Lane but his stock fell to an all-time low with the Bury faithful, who proceeded to boo him for the rest of the night. Kelly limped on, looking far from comfortable but ably supported by his defence had little to do.
With around ten minutes to go Bolton pumped another aimless ball into the box which Kelly collected with ease but then crumpled in a heap on the floor again as he landed. This time he wouldn’t get back up. After several more minutes of treatment the stretcher was summoned for, as was Craig Nixon.
With finances still tight for Bury, Kelly was the only experienced keeper on the books, the infamous former Oldham Athletic stopper Andy Gorton having been sacked by the club in the summer following one too many breaches of club discipline. It left Bury manager Mike Walsh needing a keeper, any kind of keeper, to fill the bench. League rules had recently changed, allowing three substitutes but with the stipulation that one had to be a ‘keeper. Enter Nixon, a 22-year-old originally from Blackpool who had previously been on the books of Preston and Rochdale without making an appearance, whom Walsh admitted post-game he had never actually seen play prior to McGinlay’s intervention.
The manager knew about as much about his substitute keeper as the Bury fans gathered there that night. Nixon was there just to make up the numbers and, given the fact he didn’t have his own set of gloves, wasn’t expected to emerge from the bench. As Kelly was stretchered off the young replacement stopped next to him, seemingly to enquire about his well-being, but then began to remove the stricken Geordie’s gloves. With an unknown in goal and another Bury old boy – winger David Lee – beginning to cause problems it was probably just as well the whole truth about the ‘keeper wasn’t known at that point.
In the end the worries proved futile as the defence protected their rookie with calm assurance. When the young stopper was called into action he didn’t disappoint, fearlessly fielding a couple of dangerous crosses as well as pulling off a superb block to prevent Lee giving Bolton a lifeline for the second leg. The novice custodian hadn’t let his team-mates, or fans, down and had the clean-sheet all keepers crave, even if his contribution was just ten minutes.
As quickly as he was thrust into the spotlight, he was out of it again. Kelly was effectively ruled out for the season, but a more experienced ‘keeper was sought by the Bury management. Despite his heroics, Nixon wasn’t seen as the long-term solution. Lee Bracey was signed from Halifax, with Nixon assuming bench duties once more before disappearing.
Being a keen amateur keeper myself Nixon’s story always stayed with me and the question of what happened next still nags me to this day. In researching this tale a friend suggested I reach out to social media to try and track down the young hero of Burnden Park, and finally get the answers I craved. Via a Facebook group dedicated to his home town I found him but, despite repeated requests to the man himself and those that know him, he didn’t get in touch. In the end Craig Nixon remains as much a mystery now as he was on that August night back in 1993.
By Rich Beedie
Part of our Number Ones series