From his partnership with Pat Kruse to working under Dodgin, Callaghan and McLintock, Brentford Supporters’ Player of the Year for the 1978/79 campaign Jim McNichol shares looks back on his time in west London.

The castle crest was used by Brentford from 1975 to 1993.

Promotion was won twice during that period, from the Fourth to Third Division in 1977/78 and from the third to second tier in 1991/92. The other highlight was a run to the sixth round of the FA Cup in 1988/89.

To celebrate the return of the castle crest on our 2022/24 second kit, we’re speaking with those who wore it best the first time around.

Sometimes, all a footballer requires in order to succeed is a manager willing to take a chance on them.

And sometimes, they have to be willing to drop down and find their level to do so.

If you have not guessed it already, that is precisely what Jim McNichol had to do to catch a break and forge a career in the Football League.

The Scot started his professional career with Luton Town at the conclusion of his time as an apprentice at Ipswich Town and broke into the Hatters’ first team during the tenure of Harry Haslam – the former Sheffield United manager who, amazingly, later almost signed a teenage Diego Maradona for the Blades.

But once Haslam departed Kenilworth Road and David Pleat replaced him, a 20-year-old McNichol gradually dropped down the pecking order as Pleat plotted a way back to the top flight.

So when Bill Dodgin Jr approached Luton in October 1978 for McNichol, signing for newly promoted Brentford, albeit in the Third Division, seemed an attractive proposition for the central defender.

That said, the Bees were not settling particularly well to life back in the third tier, and had lost 10 of their opening 15 league games by the end of that month.

But, as if by magic, once McNichol arrived, the slump was swiftly arrested; having kept just two clean sheets in those first 15, they kept 14 in the next 31, equating to an average slightly under one every other game.

“Luckily, I started quite well and the team picked up,” McNichol says, speaking shortly after one of three rounds of golf he tries to fit in every week as a retiree.

Coming to Brentford was great. It was my first time playing regularly in front of crowds and I had a decent first season. Brentford were struggling a little bit when I first went there, but Pat Kruse and I hit it off straight away and we had a good run.”

His words echo those of Kruse who, in his Kings of the Castle interview, said their partnership was the best he forged during his time in west London.

It was a meeting of minds, founded on friendship – and it speaks volumes that the pair are still in regular contact almost 40 years later.

We always played with a back four and two centre-halves; Pat was the one who did most of the attacking and I picked up the pieces,” McNichol continues.

“I’d like to say I used my pace to cover him, but I didn’t – I was more of a reader of the game. The one with pace at the back was Danis Salman, who was as quick as anyone.

“Pat was superb and a great tackler. He wasn’t a giant, but he was spring-heeled and had great jumping and heading ability. He was brave as well; he’d stick his head in where I wouldn’t put my feet! But he was a good player as well.

“We just gelled and sometimes it’s like that. In my career, I had a couple of similar partnerships, but there were some where we just didn’t gel. If you can read each other, it does help and Pat and I just got on. We travelled in together as we lived in the same area, too.

“That’s not to say we didn’t give each other a bollocking if one of us did something wrong, but we’d discuss it after the game and we didn’t fall out about it. It helps in any walk of life if you get on with someone and if you know you work well together, it can help massively.”

Jim McNichol, Brentford, Kings of the Castle

In that first season – 1978/79 – Brentford recovered sufficiently to finish 10th, and, after a poor 1979/80 campaign, finished ninth in 1980/81 – 12 points off automatic promotion – eighth the following year – 10 points off promotion – and ninth again the year after that, in the era before the play-offs were established.

McNichol cannot put his finger on exactly why they never had enough to move up one or two more gears to challenge nearer to the top.

“I came up to the Wolves game in October to watch my first match at the new stadium and somebody asked me that question during a Q&A,” he recalls.

“Maybe it was that in some years the defence was good and we’d struggle in midfield and up front, then we maybe had good strikers and the defence was a little bit shaky in other years. We’d go on runs and go through a period of winning games, then hit a bit of a wall.

“The first season at Brentford, we ended up in midtable and started the following season really well, were up near the top and then we hit a bit of a wall again. I don’t really know why, but we could never really finish the job over the full season.

“We should have done better with the players we had, but it’s hard to say why we didn’t. If I’d have known how to fix it, I’d have become a manager myself!”

Speaking of managers, McNichol worked under three during his time in TW8.

The first was Dodgin Jr.

Bill was great,” he says. “I got on with him and he just liked to play football. Training was great; we did a lot of five-a-side and one/two-touch games, passing and movement. I really enjoyed it with Bill.

“He was one of the first managers who liked me as a player, as previously I’d play a few games and then get left out. I was always a bit-part player. But at Brentford, I felt like I was one of the lads and as long as I did my job, I was playing.

“He knew how to manage players individually, which I’m all for. Some need an arm put around them and to be told how good they are, but other ones need a bit of a rollicking – and Bill knew that. Good managers can see that and he was one of them.

“Bill was as honest as the day is long and if you were doing something wrong, he’d tell you; if you were doing something right, he’d build you up. He was great for me and it was very disappointing when he left, but that’s football.”

Jim McNichol, Brentford, Kings of the Castle - Player of the Year

Next came Fred Callaghan in March 1980.

“Fred was a different kettle of fish altogether. I didn’t know him from before, but quite a few of the lads did as he had been a coach at the club a few years beforehand. I never really got on with Fred; it was always a bit of a battle.

“The first year or so I didn’t really play much under him at all and then I battled my way back and got back into the team.

“He was a decent coach and there was nothing wrong with him in that respect, but I think his man management could have been a bit better. I came across a few managers like that, where it’s just like chalk and cheese, to be perfectly honest.”

The third and final manager McNichol worked under at Brentford was Frank McLintock, who replaced Callaghan in February 1984.

But his fellow Scot did not envisage a place for McNichol, at 26 and reaching his natural physical peak, in his plans going forward.

Having spent almost six years and made more than 160 appearances for the Bees, the defender felt somewhat hard done by.

“I know a new broom sweeps clean when a manager comes in, but I didn’t feel as if I got a full chance when Frank took over,” he says.

“I think John Docherty, his assistant, had a little word with him and fancied other players, which happens.

“I got an injury almost as soon as Frank took over and struggled for about three or four months. That was the bane of my time towards the end at Brentford. I picked up a few injuries, which, nowadays, would keep you out for a couple of weeks maximum.

“The medical side wasn’t the best. The staff did their best, but the facilities were a cold hose, a heat lamp and a bit of rest – that was it! You needed more than that and I always said that, if I became a manager, which I didn’t, the first person I’d bring in would be a proper physio. If you’ve got a small squad, you need physios that can get players back on the pitch.

“If you were injured, it was a bit of a holiday camp for a while, to be fair. Players are a nightmare together if they are injured as they need motivation and you need physios to motivate them and get them back on the right track.

“At the end of the season, Frank just let me go, which was disappointing because I didn’t want to go.”

And so he joined Exeter City, who had just been relegated to the Fourth Division after a seven-season stay in the Third.

“After leaving Brentford, I had a choice of a couple of clubs, but I quite fancied coming down this way,” McNichol adds.

“I was 26, but most players that signed for Exeter were in their late 20s or early 30s and would retire down here. The first few years weren’t too good; we struggled a little bit.

“I then went to Torquay, had three years and some good fun there and then went back to Exeter. We won the league in 1989/90 under [former England international] Terry Cooper and I got on really well with him because he was much like Bill Dodgin in that he liked to play and he liked players that could play.”

He liked living in Devon so much that after joining the Grecians in the mid-80s, he never left.

The family bought a pub in Ashburton in 1986. Playing for the likes of Torquay and Exeter, you’re not going to have enough money to look after yourself in retirement, so you need to look at what you’re going to do after you finish, but football was still my number one priority until I finished in 1991.

“We sold the pub just before the pandemic after 33 years. We were lucky enough that we got out just at the right time. We had a good innings there.”

And though his time ended on a disappointing note, he had a good innings at Griffin Park, too.

The first few years at Brentford were really good. It was the first club I’d been at where the fans took to me, which makes things a lot easier. They were good to me and I never got any stick at all, even though there were many games where I probably should have done. Some of the fans look back with rose-tinted glasses as if I never played a bad game in my life!

“I was playing for Scotland under-21s at the time and with good players at Brentford. I started scoring a few goals as well, which always helps with the fans.

“It was my first introduction to older players who became friends as well and I still talk to some of them now.

“Overall, it was a great time and I look back on it fondly.”

Enjoyed this interview? Read the rest of our Kings of the Castle series.