Those Villa fans who recall ‘that’ day will recoil, wince and glaze over at the mention of Luc Nilis. A superb striker, arguably one of the finest European strikers of his era, was not to be remembered at Villa Park for the quality he possessed or the partnership he held the promise to foster. Instead, he will be remembered for suffering one of the worst injuries on a football field.
Nilis was the top scorer in the Dutch Eredevisie in 1996 & 1997, forming a deadly partnership with rising star Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The latter would go on the win Dutch domestic, English, Spanish & European honours with Manchester United & Real Madrid respectively.
Nilis’ fortunes could not have contrasted further to that of his former strike partner. Just three games into his contract with Aston Villa, his career was ended.
Nilis had already scored twice for the club, firstly in the Intertoto Cup & then an outrageous flick and strike against Chelsea at Villa Park
I remember thinking at the time how like Dennis Bergkamp the techique and finish were. The goal and his celebration are recalled fondly by many Villa fans, whilst not necessarily as Bergkamp-esque, but for the quality & promise that was there for all to see. Villa had, without doubt, secured a supremely talented footballer.
A matter of weeks later, Nilis faced up for Villa in an away Premier League fixture versus Ipswich Town. Chasing a through ball in the fourth minute, he collided heavily with Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright. Nilis’ committed chase and Wrights attempt to clear resulted in a horrendous double break of the Belgian’s right leg, shattering the bone & calf muscle upon impact.
His injury was immediately apparent as very severe & Luc was promptly aided by then veteran physio Jim Walker (now retired). Dion Dublin was the nearest player to the incident & had the previous experience of having been the closest to arguably the worst injury ever suffered (David Busst). In a bizarre twist of fate, Dublin’s Man Utd career was also ended after only 3 games when he too suffered a leg break [*Dion went on to play just 12 times for United].
Walker, both a retired footballer & an experienced physio said;
“Nilis’ injury was a bad one.’’
A normally upbeat Walker recalled various serious injuries, Gary Charles, Wilfred Bouma & Riccardo Scimeca who all went on the further their careers after serious leg breaks.
The severity and life changing impact of Nilis’ injury was captured in early statements released via the media. Little was discussed in terms of the Belgian returning to action, with the focus initially upon saving his awfully damaged leg, then progressing him to a state of normal quality of life.
In addition to the terrible break, the medical staff had to battle an infection which itself threatened to result in amputation. This type of news brought confirmation & some perspective to Nilis’ predicament.
A further quote from Jim Walker, early into Nilis’ rehabilitation;
“It was a nasty injury but his leg will get better.
“His leg is no longer in plaster as he had an aluminium nail hammered down the bone and that will stay in place until it heals.
“The last thing on Luc’s mind at the moment is playing again and we have not even spoken about it.
“When you talk to people who have had serious injuries, their utmost thought is being able to walk again and lead a normal life.
“As their rehabilitation progresses, they start to talk about it.”
Nilis was a realist from the outset. The severity of the injury was such that it appeared extremely remote that he would ever play again. He instead, focused upon getting well, primarily for the sake of his children;
“Over the next two months [September 2000] things could change but I fear that could be it for my football career,” he said.
“I should be grateful I still have my leg. The most important thing is to get well again and do the things every normal person can do, such as playing with the children. Football? Right now, I’m not thinking about it.”
The 33 year old striker was also a gentleman & quick to admonish Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright of blame stating;
“It was just one of those things and he (Wright) didn’t do it deliberately”.
However, Nilis’ father was less than convinced, voicing his views on Wright’s challenge upon his son;
“The goalkeeper was wild and he came out at Luc with too much force – and I am very upset about that.” [Source]
Nilis, who underwent two specialist operations to save his leg was more reflective given the situation that he ultimately found himself in;
“It was the worst moment of my life to be told I might have to lose part of my leg – that will live with me forever,” he said.
“It was such a bad break that it led to complications – and it was nearly a disaster. I cried when I was told. It has been a nightmare and sometimes I wonder how I can get through the day – it has affected me very badly mentally.
“It saddens me so much that Aston Villa never saw the best of me, but despite that they have stood by me and given me their support.”
When his recovery allowed, Nilis was accompanied onto the Villa Park pitch by then chairman Doug Ellis to announce his retirement following medical advice and said;
“For the short period I was employed by Aston Villa I enjoyed every minute and am bitterly disappointed I could not continue to score goals.
“But having taken medical advice I will be unable to continue.”
Ellis, in his usual uncompromising style made distasteful reference to Nilis being suitably insured by the club, whilst also recognising that a world class striker had been lost by both Aston Villa & the wider game;
“Whilst being covered by insurance, that cannot compensate him for not being able to play for Aston Villa.
“It is also hugely disappointing for Aston Villa, who have lost the services of a world-class striker.
“Luc has been a well-liked member of our playing squad and will always be welcome at Aston Villa.”
Nilis scored 288 goals in 503 club career appearances & 10 goals in 56 outings for Belgium. The Brazilian Ronaldo & Dutch legend Ruud Van Nistelrooy both list him as the best player they have ever played with. Since retiring from football, Nilis has coached at PSV in Holland and further afield in Turkey. Presently he is back in Holland where he works as a personal trainer [as of July 2015].