Remember…Billy Nicholls


Billy Nicholls was one of those rare beasts who exploded onto the AFL scene and straight into our hearts as our next favorite player. An ‘old-fashioned footballer’ (he was no athlete), Nicholls wore the number 1 for Hawthorn and kicked three goals (from 17 disposals) on his debut against Geelong, in round 11 of the 2001 season. At this stage, you could have forgiven us for thinking we had the next Leigh Matthews on our hands; so similar they were in size, strength, nous for goal and both having a brutal attack on the ball (and the man).

William ‘Billy’ Nicholls was born on the second day of 1981 (2/1/81) and was oft-described as ‘a bit of a scallywag’. He was admired for the loyalty he showed (eventually to a fault) to his mates and you could see from early on that he had the potential to be a league footballer. Nicholls made his senior debut for North Shore in the strong Geelong Football League at the tender age of 15.

There never was anything ‘tender’ about Billy Nicholls though; he was seemingly born the size of the proverbial brick outhouse. His weight and conditioning were negatively impacted by a well-known love of a good feed and a drink or three. Maybe if he was born a generation earlier, before there was such a thing as a ‘professional footballer’, he would’ve reached far greater heights; he was certainly more Sam Kekovich than Anthony Koutoufides.

As a fifteen year-old, Nicholls starred in a senior GFL Grand Final and may have been adjudged best on ground, if not for some inaccurate kicking for goal. Nicholls had seven shots at goal, but only two majors (out of North Shore’s nine for the day). Soon the Geelong Falcons came calling, leading Nicholls through the elite underage pathway to AFL football.

Nicholls, described as a ‘likeable larrikin’, was known to like a good night out, but Hawthorn couldn’t pass up on his elite talent and took him at pick 69 of the 1999 draft. The Hawks were only just recovering from the proposed merger with Melbourne (in 1996) and were struggling to replicate the phenomenal success that the club had achieved throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s. Shane Crawford had won the 1999 Brownlow Medal, but he was the only real shining light at the club. Unfortunately for Nicholls, there were probably a few too many of his new teammates who shared his indulgence for a night out on the town; few were as special as Crawford, who could seemingly balance both.

Nicholls took until the second half of season 2001 to prove to the Hawthorn hierarchy that he was worthy of his senior AFL debut. The Hawks were surprisingly flying at this stage, on their way to an inspired Preliminary Final berth under the guidance of former multiple-premiership player Peter Schwab. In a (slightly surprising) loss to Geelong, Nicholls played across half-forward, kicking three goals straight from 14 kicks, six marks and three handballs. The Hawks and their fans thought that they had just seen the rise of a new hero.

It took Nicholls three matches to tally his next 14 kicks. He kicked only two more goals (both in a loss to Sydney in round 15) and he was omitted after totaling just six disposals against Collingwood a week later. Hawk fans thought he might just need to find a bit more footy in the reserves and expected him to return as the player they saw on debut in the (very) near future. And when he was recalled for the 2001 Elimination Final against Sydney, supporters thought he would never leave that senior side again. Little did they know, that the AFL career of Billy Nicholls had already peaked.

Nicholls missed out the next week; a tragic week where we saw the September 11 terrorist attacks, the demise of Ansett Airlines and (not so tragically) another finals choke-job by Port Adelaide (losing to the Hawks at Footy Park by three points). The Hawks would meet their match in the Preliminary Final, narrowly losing (by nine points) to the premiership-favourite Bombers.

Was it Billy’s body or mind that failed him the most? Arguments could be made for both. Nicholls couldn’t break into the senior side in 2002; at times he thought he was close (and probably a bit stiff), but he always fell short. His conditioning was never his strong point and others simply went past him at Hawthorn.

After being delisted by the Hawks at the end of the 2002 season, Nicholls was at the crossroads. Did he have the talent to be an AFL footballer still? Absolutely he did, but raw talent was never an issue. Nicholls was still just 21 years of age; even one of the greatest of all time, Gary Ablett Senior, was given his marching orders (coincidentally also from the Hawks) before he became ‘God’.

With pick 47 in the 2002 draft, Richmond handed Nicholls a lifeline, a second chance to prove he had the commitment to become a fit, disciplined, professional footballer.

Nicholls made his debut for the yellow and black in round seven of 2003, with little of the impact he showed in his first game for Hawthorn. Tallying just four disposals (and one goal), he returned to the reserves until his recall in round 16. From there he managed a career-high seven games in succession, equaling his career high of 17 possessions in the final round, opposed to his old Hawk teammates.

The 2004 season was to be his last in the AFL, not appearing in the seniors until round 21 (again against the Hawks). He tallied a combined 20 disposals in those final two games; a once-promising career terminated at just 16 games (and seven goals).

Rarely do we hear from players who have all too briefly flashed their talent on the AFL stage. Unfortunately, we’ve heard far too much of Billy, not much of it good.

Billy Nicholls returned to his Corio Bay roots, a ‘scallywag’ once more amongst family and friends. The circles he kept were never the most sophisticated and he soon fell in with some particularly undesirable types.

On Monday Billy was found guilty on two counts of intentionally causing serious injury after shooting two men in separate incidents back in 2012 and 2013. The court heard how methamphetamine has been a big part of Nicholls’ post-football life.

Nicholls did continue to play footy in various suburban and country leagues after his AFL career finished, though at a weight that had ballooned considerably from his playing days of 86kg. He could still do things on a football field that most of us mere mortals could only dream of, even if he was never the best ‘conditioned’ footballer out there. That was never the problem for Billy Nicholls; he could do anything on the football field. But sadly, he’ll now be remembered more for his actions off it.


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  1. I remember the name Billy Nicholls rather than the player.
    Unfortunately, if you surround yourself with crooks you’re going to end up a crook.
    During my first year of university, a lecturer gave the class a caution.
    He said there are 200 of you in this class.
    Half of you will fail.
    Half of those that fail are smart enough not to.
    So look at who is sitting next to you and think about your friends.
    It’s those people who are going to affect your study.
    If you want to succeed, choose your friends carefully.
    Nicholls obviously didn’t do that…

  2. greg paterson says

    just read tthis article on bill nicholls and quite frankly apart from the stats it is the biggest load of garbage full of half truths gossip and slander ive read.. ive played footy with bill and known him since i was elevenand first thing i will clarify for the rather small people who will read anything on this site or forum or whatever the hell you call it it was an incredible amount of injuries thus his body failed him not his mind,to those who have had the pleasure to know the man as a teamate , and close freind it is an insult to question his ability to handle the mental strain of A.F.L football, the way he has conducted himself through far arder times than a footy match is a testament to that,lets not forget he is serving time for a crime he did not commit as both the victims and numerous others testafied to in court but in a staggering decision which leads many to believe there was something utterly corrupt about the verdict,he was marched of to jail and mentally been a pillar of strength not only for family and friends but also from the word of prison employees a model inmate who has a great iffluence in helping young offenders rehabilitate. also if you would be able to access his stats at the box hill hawks were 40 plus posestions were a norm for bill you woyuld also agree he was more than a bit stiff in an era were his v.f.l teamates in the middle were sam mitchell and chance bateman to name a few.what i believe held him back in that era is that everyone wanted an athlete typy player rather than a genuine footballer like a swany or a diesel…. anyways check the box hill stats and throw em up and perhaps timing/luck has as much to do with success and failure to make it in the afl

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