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Leigh Nicol - Palace's Queen Of Hearts

Now, I don’t want to say that it has been a long time since the last Eagle Eye View article/interview, but since the last one in which I spoke with CPFCW manager Dean Davenport for a second time, autumn and winter have come and gone, and spring is now upon us among a sprinkling of snow showers! A lot has happened in that time, both on an off the pitch. From an EEV standpoint, there were a couple of former player interviews I had lined up, that sadly did not come to fruition, and December saw the launch of the Crystal Palace Women Show podcast, which I host along with fellow fan Phil Huffer. However, the point of EEV is to spread the word and shine a light on all those who are involved in CPFCW as much as possible, and the interviews have always been a great way to do just that.

So, I am really pleased that over the next few weeks, I will be bringing you some fresh new CPFCW interviews, as the season is reaching its crescendo. The first of those is about to unravel on the pages below, and it is with Scottish midfielder Leigh Nicol, who has been nothing but gracious and accommodating ever since she joined the club. One of the many differences currently between the men and women’s game, is the lack of information available to us about the players that we cheer on every week. While at times it feels like we have information about male players almost shoved down our throats when we don’t desire it, the opposite is the case with the female players, where we have to scour the deepest depths for the merest morsel of information. This is just one avenue in which the media coverage of the women’s game needs to improve and do so quickly. For now, though, I am happy to play my part in trying to enhance the knowledge of the Palace faithful, about those who give everything out there on the pitch while wearing the famous red and blue.

Right then, with all that said, are you ready to go on a journey of discovery with me? I do hope so, because I have no doubt that this one is going to be a cracker! Now, all good journey’s always start in one key place, the beginning, and this is going to be no different. So, with that in mind, I started by asking Leigh how she first got into football?”

“My older brother was cool, and I always wanted his attention. So, I thought to myself, if I learn to do kick-ups, that will get his attention. I then fell in love with it, and it became my first love.”

For many of us, our love of football began with a loved one, be it a family member or close friend. I had no idea what football was until my dad introduced me to it, and specifically to Crystal Palace. With Leigh discovering the love of having a ball at her feet, naturally my next question had to be, is there a club, if any, that she supported?

“I support my hometown, Motherwell. I had every season ticket and kit until I moved down South. My other team that I loved and followed was Man Utd but as the years have gone on, I’ve lost touch with them. My English team now is Palace, not just because I play for them, but it’s impossible not to love them when you have the privilege of sharing the same badge, ambitions and involved in the journey of the club.”

I know I speak for all Palace fans when I say that we not only welcome Leigh as a supporter but are bloody relieved that she gave up on Man United! Keeping with her earlier days, I wanted to know about Leigh’s transition from ‘keepie uppies’ to getting out on a pitch and playing a game in anger. So, I asked Leigh how her playing days began?

“My first team was my local boys club, Yett Farm FC. I only had boy mates, so I went to their local team and played a year up. From there, I then joined Motherwell and that was my first girls team.”

Now I am jealous! To get to play for the club you support at any level, it must be an incredible feeling. But while Leigh may have started her career in the women’s game at her hometown club, bigger opportunities would soon come calling. Those ‘bigger things’ came in the form of spells in the youth systems of Scottish giants Celtic(2008-2012) and then down south at Arsenal(2013). I asked Leigh what it was like to learn her trade at such big clubs?

“It was such an honour to play for Celtic and Arsenal, I guess it’s everything that I ever dreamt of. My time at Celtic was particularly special. I got to Captain the squad for most of my years there. We won everything, while playing in several Old Firm fixtures is still my favourite fixture to date. It is the club I made my friends for life at, and it gave me the first glimpse of a professional setup, such as training, facilities, kit, coaching, a winning mentality and discipline.

Arsenal was good, although I joined at the time where the club was going through a transition so the treatment at that time wasn’t the best towards players. Albeit it was a huge honour to follow my dream and I done well in my time there. I was coached and mentored by Jayne Ludlow, and still to this day she made an ever-lasting impact on me as a player and as a person, you don’t get many like Jayne in a lifetime.”

During those early years, it wasn’t just at club level that Leigh was thriving, but on the international scene too as she represented Scotland at U-16, U-17 and U-19 level. I asked Leigh what it was like getting to represent her country, and how it differed from her club experiences at that time?

“I mean, playing for your country is the biggest honour ever.

Wearing the kit and singing the National Anthem will forever give me goosebumps. Playing at the Euro’s and other tournaments, competing against the best whilst getting to travel the world so young is something I’ll be proud of forever.

I was fortunate that my teams at Celtic and Arsenal were filled with international players and elite coaches too, so in terms of quality daily it didn’t change huge a amount. But when you come together with your national team, you are surrounded by the best 16 in Scotland. Our Scotland team was excellent, the best thing about it was getting to play with the players I usually had to play against, like Caroline Weir, Claire Emslie, Lucy Graham and Kirsty Smith etc. They were all at Hibs growing up and we were at Celtic, so it was great to be able to be teammates and not opponents, haha.”

Having enjoyed such success in her early days, the step up to senior level would see Leigh sign for Reading. I asked Leigh how that move came about?

“The move and decision came through Jayne Ludlow, who had left Arsenal and taken the first-team job at Reading. The idea of still being around Jayne daily as well as getting first team experience with a club that was very ambitious was really hard to turn down.”

Leigh’s time at Reading would only last one season, before she moved on to London Bees. Her time with the Bees would also last just the one season, before she moved to Millwall Lionesses(these days London City Lionesses). It was here that Leigh settled and had her longest spell to date. It was a spell that lasted four years and would see Leigh make 28 appearances. I asked Leigh how it felt to have a settled stint at a club, especially one that came with such a good reputation as the Lionesses did?

“Millwall was an incredible period of my life, it felt like home again, and I hadn’t quite felt that since my years at Celtic. We had a great team and great staff. The supporters really backed us and we had such a great run of form for 2 seasons. I never wanted to leave the club, but unfortunately, we were forced to leave after the club was going into administration. It hurt too much to stay when the club had new ownership, as it came too late, the team and staff had all moved on (except Leanne Cowan!). It didn’t feel right for me to stay after the treatment and heartbreak that we were put through, the lack of funding and support cost us gaining promotion to the WSL in 2018.

The club will always hold a special place in my heart, it made me love football again; I moved position and felt like my senior career had really started.”

After leaving the Lionesses, Leigh would spend two seasons at Charlton before then completing the South London trifecta and moving to Palace in 2020. I asked Leigh when did she first become aware of Palace’s interest?

“I had actually stepped away from the game in season 2019-2020 for personal reasons, but I was working with Marrsy (CPFCW head coach) still at an Academy. When he joined Palace in Jan 2020, he brought me in for training so they could do 11v11 in training. I instantly felt the spark in my tummy again when I got to know Dean, Laila, Andy, Chico, Paula and the girls.

Lockdown then happened, and that gave me an opportunity to just get fit. The staff included me in the zoom quizzes and fitness plans from Chico and he was checking in with me daily. That was the moment I thought “I’ll do anything to play for this football club”. The people made me feel loved and appreciated, they believed in me when not many others did. When the club returned to training in July 2020, I went, and had got myself into shape for that. The Gaffer then put his arm around me and told me he wanted me to sign, it was probably the proudest moment of my career so far because of how much work it had taken.”

After what she had achieved up to that point, I asked Leigh if there had been other clubs as options, and what made her choose Palace?

“There were other clubs that offered, but it was never in doubt. I wanted to be at Palace, nowhere else.”

Having signed on the dotted line and made her move to Palace official, I asked Leigh what her first impressions of the club were?

“The people make Palace; the Gaffer lives and breathes the badge and would do anything for it, it’s impossible not to want to play for him.

Every corner I turned I met an even better person that just wanted to support you. I came in at a time where Palace had spent a couple of seasons in the Championship, so they were still finding their feet a little after being thrown into it at such short notice the year prior. But the season I came in there was a belief that we were going to turn a few heads and put Palace on the map for the female side, through graft, resilience and teamwork – and that’s exactly what we did.”

Leigh started in the first five games of the 2020/21 season for Palace, before unfortunately injury struck and she would only feature in two more games for the rest of the season. I asked her what the injury was?

“I sadly fractured my ankle; it wasn’t something we expected and came as a huge shock. I had hurt it playing against London City but continued playing, and the next day I went for a secret scan (behind our physio’s back as I didn’t want her to think I was injured, but I knew something wasn’t right!), and got the worst news at that time.”

It was a bitter pill for Leigh to have to swallow. It has been well documented in the past(including in my interview with Ashlee Hincks) that at most clubs in the women’s game(all those not full time), serious injuries are much harder to deal with due to lack of medical support(through finances), meaning NHS wait times for surgeries. I asked Leigh how she found the recovery process and what it entailed?

“There’s no disputing that it’s difficult and we don’t have anywhere near the finances that is required in Women’s Sport. There’s been 1 or 2 moments early in Palace Women’s Championship career that players had publicly criticised in the media, but the treatment I got, and all other players since I’ve been there is the best I’ve ever seen. I had several private scans as there was a lot of back and forth about potentially needing surgery, an injection and daily rehab.

Our physio picked me up for every appointment and took me, taking days off her day job. Our Sports Science coach, Chico, came in 3-4 times per week in the off season to try to get me back to fitness for the 8 weeks the team had off. In terms of treatment at Palace, it’s as professional as it can be, and they make sure we are treated like that. I know it’s not the same at other clubs and I know it’s not always been like that in the past at Palace, but now, it’s one of the club’s biggest assets.”

We have always known that the medical struggles have never been the choice of the club, but one forced upon them by financial restrictions, so it is great to hear that Palace work hard to make sure our players get the best treatment they possibly can, which does not surprise me given how much work and time is put in by all involved in the club. Last season was a real break through one for Palace, seeing the club set several new personal records. This season has seen even more progress, and more new records set in what is shaping up to be our best ever season in the Championship. However, the ability to pick players more consistently this season(due to fitness, form etc) has seen appearances limited for Leigh. I asked Leigh how she has found this season?

“Firstly, it’s been an unbelievable season for us all. I couldn’t feel any prouder to share a changing room with the group.

On a personal note, time on the pitch has been limited and it has been really tough. When I have played, I’ve not been at my best and I’ve been disappointed in myself – it’s been a challenging one if I looked at it completely selfishly. BUT my attitude is, if I’m not able to impact on the pitch, how can I impact off it and what can I do to play my part.

I guess with my own life experiences, I’m a bit older and wiser with my outlook on life (yes I want nothing more than to be on that pitch every minute of every game winning tackles and celebrating goals with the fans – who doesn’t?!), but I get to support Aimee and watch her get better and better and dominate the midfield weekly and I get to play a small part in making sure she continues to do so and make sure she doesn’t take her foot off the gas. I’ll always be ready when I’m needed but I’ll always be the best teammate that I would want someone to be for me.

My happiness comes from giving 150% every training session, keeping our standards high and competitive in training, being supportive, encouraging and enjoying every single win because it’s still what I get up for every morning and look forward to.”

It is certainly a fantastic mindset to have, and one that does not surprise me when it comes to Leigh. It actually reminds me of the docu series Cheer on Netflix, where only 20 from a squad of 40 will ‘make mat’ for the championship performance in Daytona, but the roles of those who don’t are to cheer and support and encourage the team and be ready to step in should the need arise. Such a positive attitude feels so rare, and is so welcome in modern day sport, and it is refreshing to hear.

While as always, there were squad changes this season, one of the biggest changes revolved around training. For the first time, training sessions were upped to four nights a week, and they were moved to the brand new state of the art Academy. I asked Leigh how she has found these changes?

“It’s been hard, especially post-Christmas, juggling a full-time job followed by training each evening at the intensity that we do has definitely taken its toll at times, but how can I ever get tired of walking into that first-class facility and those girls. The facilities are the icing on the cake, they really represent what our women’s team is, professional and classy. I’m living my dream but wouldn’t turn down more sleep!!”

A conversation that often takes place among fans, is one in which we contemplate what individual players bring to the team. If I was asked to describe what I feel Leigh brings to the club, it would be that she is the heart of the squad. Any team content we have seen online as well as seeing her on matchdays, she always wears a huge smile and seems to be the standout bubbly character trying to galvanise everyone. I asked Leigh just how important to her that a good team spirit is?

“Ahh, thank you, I really appreciate those words. It’s everything to me, you have to be a good person to be at Palace first and foremost, player or staff.

I don’t want to be in a changing room that’s not a family, togetherness, winners or vibrant. I don’t think anyone does, but saying it and being able to create it, then keep it consistent throughout the season is a whole different story, it’s the secret ingredient. I believe that every special team has a special bond with special people, and that is everything I stand for and exactly what we have at Palace.

We spend so much time together, we’re challenged every single day and it’s really important to me that I play my small part in trying to keep the culture consistent, win, lose, draw, tired or injured.”

It isn’t just on the pitch and at the training ground that Leigh has been proving to be an inspiration. As well as telling her own personal story in the hope that it may help others with their own struggles, she has also dedicated a lot of her free time to doing great work with the Palace For Life Foundation. I asked Leigh how she found it working with the Palace related charity that do so much good work for the youth of South London?

“I absolutely love the Foundation, they do SO much for our community; I don’t think there’s anyone that they don’t cater for!! I love going to the local schools, kid’s camps, walking football, football for those that have a disadvantage in life, keeping adults/kids disciplined and give them the support they need to stay out of trouble. The work the foundation do is at the heart of our club, without our community we wouldn’t be the club we all love.”

If all of this isn’t enough, Leigh also always finds the time on matchday to come and talk with those of us from the CPFCW Loyal who have attended, something that always means a great deal to us, and that we are very grateful for. I asked Leigh, just how important that connection between the players and the fans is in her eyes?

“It’s everything. We really need the support, and to me the Loyal are the first name on the team sheet this season. Up and down the country, we have your support; we all feel it and appreciate it and it’s really important that you all know that we do. It’s important to the Gaffer, he’s a Loyal himself and he installs it in every player that comes in. It’s important that we get to know those that continue to support us week in week out, we’re all one and we do what we do for you.”

We certainly do feel that connection from the stands, having been part of the team celebrations on social media as well as the first people they applaud after every game, and we certainly hope that the connection will continue to grow. But, while the last few questions have highlighted all the great things that Leigh does for so many, one small area where the numbers are a little lower, is in the goal scoring department! Indeed, not known for her scoring prowess, Leigh is yet to find the net for Palace. I asked her the big question; if a goal does come, just how will she celebrate it?

“Hahaha, I have no idea. It’ll either be towards the dugout or to the fans!!”

For some reason, the amount of energy Leigh has, I kind of expect a full lap of the pitch! Moving away from the Palace element of her career, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the person herself. Firstly, I asked her who were the best players she has played with, and best players she has played against?

“The best I have played with, would be Fran Kirby(England & Chelsea currently) or Caroline Weir(Scotland & Man City currently). As for the best I have played against, well that would be Vivianne Miedema at Arsenal!”

Most certainly some of the top players plying their trade in the WSL right now! Next, I asked Leigh who inspired her?

“My brother, he’s my idol in life.”

It does not surprise me that Leigh’s answer would have such a personal connection to her. Moving away from the past, my next few questions I wanted to turn towards her future, starting with her international career. Having played for Scotland at Youth level, I asked Leigh if she still held aspirations of playing for the Scotland senior team?

“I don’t, my path in life has changed and I enjoy focussing on club football and my career away from the pitch.”

So, with no international football in her future, just where does Leigh see her career going in the next five years?

“Ideally I would love to be part of the journey that Palace are on for as long as possible.”

While talking about the future, one thing that is become a big talking point and a growing topic, is the future of the women’s game. Improvements are slowly starting to happen, including last summer’s Sky/BBC TV deal for the WSL, and the recently announced increase in FA Cup prize money, after campaigning by those of us in the Women’s Football Fan’s Collective, among others. More, however, can be done and needs to be done. I asked Leigh a question I like to ask everyone that I interview, and that is, if she could change one thing about the women’s game, what would it be?

“It would be great to share the same stadium as the men to increase fan bases and media exposure.”

Stadium’s have certainly been part of the discussions among us fans, that is for sure, and Palace did make one appearance at Selhurst this season, against Sunderland in a 1-1 draw. Hopefully the fanbase will continue to grow and make such an idea a real possibility in the future, especially seeing the recent record-breaking attendances in Spain. With that question done, the interview is almost at its end, although there was one vital question I still had to ask Leigh. She has tuned into our Crystal Palace Women’s Show podcast several times, but never spoken. Molly Sharpe became the first player to do so back at the end of February, taking part in an entire show. So, the big final question was a simple one; will Leigh ever make a speaking guest appearance on the show?

“I would love to; I listen to most, but I never like to do something without the club’s approval in case I say something I shouldn’t ha!!”

Personally, I see the hopeful side in that, and I know I speak for Phil when I say that Leigh would be welcome to come on any time! Alas, with that question gone, the interview draws to a close. I must say, it has been great to get back to a bit of article writing and getting to know more about one of our very own eagles. I hope that this has been as informative for those of you reading, as it has for me writing it. I would like to end this by saying a huge thank you to Leigh for not only taking part in this interview, but for all that she does for the club and those involved in it. I hope that I get to be there on the day that she finds the back of the net and sets off on the longest celebration ever seen, and I hope that many more of you will start to get down to Hayes Lane and become part of this incredible Palace journey!

*All Photos Courtesy Of Stephen Flynn Photography*

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