Luc Nilis: The PSV Eindhoven Hero Who Ran Out Of Luck At Aston Villa

The Belgian lit up Villa Park during his brief spell with the club which ended tragically.

Luc Nilis playing for PSV Eindhoven.
Luc Nilis in his pomp

New York mobster Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano earned his nickname through a life spent narrowly escaping the clutches of his many enemies.

For ‘Lucky’ Luc Nilis,  however, the moniker was forged through a football career that saw him constantly pop up in the right place at the right time.

Born in Hasselt, Belgium, Nilis came through the ranks at Genk before being snapped up by Anderlecht as a teenager. It was here that “Lucky” Luc was first handed his nickname, scoring 127 goals in 224 games to earn a move to PSV Eindhoven in 1994.

As a striker, Nilis had a bit of everything: strong, skilful and with a decent burst of pace. At 6ft he wasn’t necessarily the tallest but his movement saw him develop a knack for finding pockets of space at the perfect time.

But it wasn’t just that Luc was always the “lucky” one who was always in the right position: he was a superb link-up man too.

“I’ve played with big players like Figo, Romario, Zidane, Rivaldo, Djorkaeff and Raul,” Brazil icon Ronaldo once recalled.

“But it clicked best with Luc Nilis, with whom I played at PSV.”

Together for two seasons at PSV from 1994 to 1996, it may have been Ronaldo who moved on to Barcelona but Nilis more than matched his achievements on the pitch in Holland winning Dutch Football of the Year in 1995 and finished Eredivisie Top Scorer in 1996. 

A year later and with Ronaldo now at Barcelona Nilis helped PSV to a first league title in five years and finished top scorer once again in 1997. On the international stage, goals home and away in a qualifying play-off against Ireland saw Lucky Luc guide Belgium back to the World Cup, having missed out on Euro 96.

“Luckily for us, Roy Keane was not available,” Nilis would quip years later but, to ex-Belgium national coach Robert Waisege, there was nothing lucky about Nilis’ approach to the beautiful game.

“He’s important for us on the training field with his technical possibilities and he’s very good with two feet,” he once told the BBC on the eve of Euro 2000.

It seemed like there was no end to Luc’s luck either after PSV added a young striker from Heerenveen to their ranks a year later. A striker by the name of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

To say Nilis and Van Nistelrooy made for a good partnership would be an understatement: over the next two seasons, the pair bagged 103 league goals between them, finishing first and second in the Eredivisie scoring charts.

Luc Nilis and Ruud Van Nistelrooy

This wasn’t down to luck though: to this day Van Nistelrooy considers Nilis among his best ever strike partners. “He was the master for me,” the Red Devils favourite would later recall.

By the year 2000, however, it looked like the partnership was about to break up with Van Nistelrooy targeted by Manchester United and Nilis coming to the end of his contract with PSV.

With Van Nistelrooy seemingly on the way to Manchester, a Premier League move was the most appealing prospect with Aston Villa offering Nilis big-money move that would allow him to follow his friend over to England.

He probably couldn’t believe his luck – a veteran forward enjoying something of an Indian summer, Nilis was getting the opportunity to test himself in the much-vaunted English top-flight.

Things started well enough too: Nilis scored on his debut for the club in the Intertoto Cup and then followed that up with an absolute screamer against Chelsea on his Premier League bow.

Then, all of a sudden, Lucky Luc Nilis stopped being lucky.

Facing off against newly-promoted Ipswich Town in what was only his third Premier League appearance, the Belgian collided with goalkeeper Richard Wright and suffered a broken leg that still ranks among the worst injuries ever witnessed in the English top-flight.

The accidental clash left Nilis with a right calf that was broken in two places, a double compound fracture that ended his season in an instant.

Luc Nilis suffers a horrific leg break.

At first, Villa’s medical staff were optimistic. Nilis underwent three operations with an aluminium nail inserted into the bone to help it heal.

“He’s not walking yet and won’t be doing that for a while,” Villa physio Jim Walker told Sky at the time. “The leg should have healed by the time pre-season training comes around next year and hopefully, he’ll be ready to join in with us.”

Out for the rest of the campaign, Nilis wasn’t the only one that was suffering: a cruciate anterior ligament injury days before his proposed move to Manchester United, had seen Van Nistelrooy sidelined at PSV.

But while Van Nistelrooy had youth on his side, eventually moving to Old Trafford a year later, the veteran Nilis’ would not be so fortunate.

Complications saw Nilis contract a bone infection that, at one point, meant the Belgian was facing the very real prospect of having his leg amputated.

“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 later recalled. “It was such a bad break that it led to complications – and it was nearly a disaster. I cried when I was told.”

Though this hypothesis would eventually be ruled out, one thing was for sure: Nilis would never play again.

“It has been a nightmare,” he told the BBC at the time. “Sometimes I wonder how I can get through the day – it has affected me very badly mentally.”

Nilis’ bad run of luck wasn’t finished there though.

Recruited by Beringen-Heusden-Zolder as technical director in 2005, Nilis signed up for what he thought was one of the most exciting projects in European football at the time and a chance to write a new chapter in his football story.

The club had already made history after claiming five promotions in the space of 10 years without being relegated in a rise not dissimilar to the one witnessed at RB Leipzig.

But all was not what it seemed. With money promised to players and officials suddenly absent, financial meltdown ensued with the club losing it’s playing license, resulting in a demotion to the third-tier and eventually liquidation.

Nilis had friends though, most notably at PSV who recruited the Belgian to work at the club, first as a scout and later assistant manager.

Spells working as an assistant in Turkey followed before Nilis returned to PSV in 2015 to work under former teammate Philip Cocu as a striker coach.

PSV went on to win two Eredivisie titles, ending a barren spell of some seven years with Nilis helping Newcastle flop Luuk de Jong rack up 26 league goals in the 2015/16 campaign.

Despite his new lease of life as a coach, Nilis still looks back on his spell at Villa with a tinge of regret. “It saddens me so much that Aston Villa never saw the best of me,” he would later reflect.

Now a little older and wiser with PSV enjoying success once again on the pitch, Luc Nilis might finally be starting to feel a little lucky again. Few could begrudge him that.

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