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      'I'm there for the players’: Leigh Nicol's vital role for Palace Women


      While she no longer has to lace up her boots or go through her usual pre-game routines, Leigh Nicol’s matchdays remain plenty busy – maybe even busier than before.

      The former midfielder, who joined Crystal Palace Women in the summer of 2020 from Charlton Athletic, recently announced her retirement from playing football at the age of 27 after health reasons began to restrict her gametime.

      “Things don’t always go exactly how you planned, but I guess that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?!” Nicol wrote in her announcement on Instagram.

      But as anyone who has read even a chapter of Nicol’s story will know, it would take more than a slight detour in plans to prevent her from making a difference in the game she loves.

      The player labelled on supporters’ banners ‘the heart of Crystal Palace’ remains as energetic, driven and optimistic as ever. Palace’s 2021/22 PFA Community Champion – who was also shortlisted for a nationwide ‘Women of the Future’ award – remains an inspiration.

      Her drive is not diminished, merely refocused, as Nicol has channelled her energy into a new calling within the club: Palace Women’s new Player Liaison Officer.

      It is a role which comes to the fore even more on World Mental Health Day (Tuesday 10th October), a day to talk about mental health, the challenges we all face, and show everyone that mental health matters.

      “If you were a player just coming into the football club, my job is to make that transition as smooth as possible,” Nicol explains. “It’s being an extended family member to them, as such, helping them to find properties to live in, setting up bills, making sure that they know the area, and the best coffee shops or food places around, helping with budgeting…

      “That's the start of it. But then there’s the normal day-to-day side of it, making sure that they're comfortable and feel safe and they know where they're going.

      “I'm there for the players if they need a chat, if they've got any problems at home, or any problems relationships or football-based. And I’m also there for staff as well – a person that people can rely on, or trust when they need something.

      “I guess the best way to say it is I just try to make everyone's day-to-day life a lot smoother and a lot easier. I try to take as many problems off of them as I physically can, without babysitting them.”

      Working alongside new Head of Women’s Football, Grace Williams, and new head coach Laura Kaminski, Nicol’s new role sees her help get the best out of Palace’s players.

      And if an unbeaten start to the 2023/24 season is anything to go by – although perhaps a better barometer would be the infectiously upbeat atmosphere within the new-look Palace squad this season – it’s safe to say the heart of Crystal Palace beats as strongly as ever.

      “It’s an honour and a privilege that I'm trusted to be a go-to for these players,” Nicol smiles. “Sometimes a problem can be really, really important, but sometimes it’s the little things that are just as important.

      “It’s not a common role yet in the women's game, so it's amazing that Crystal Palace have seen how important it is. I'm really excited to be the first one to do it here.

      “The girls are really, really switched on and still take full control of their own life, but everyone can use a helping hand. I remember when I first moved down to London from Scotland [in 2013] and, if the role were common at that time, it would have made my whole experience much better.

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      It’s an honour and a privilege that I'm trusted to be a go-to for these players.

      Leigh Nicol

      “I just try to make sure that people are as happy as they possibly can be, allowing them to perform on the pitch really. That's my job.”

      In high-pressure performance industries like elite sport, the value of previous experience – being in a position to impart it and draw parallels of others’ with your own – cannot be understated.

      It is one of many reasons why Nicol, well-connected within the game but also a teammate to many of Palace’s players last season, has already proven an ideal fit as Player Liaison Officer.

      “It’s an area that's been isolated in the women’s game beforefor obvious reasons – because the resources haven’t always been there – but as a player, just having someone to go to for absolutely anything, who can help you find the right direction, I think it's so important.

      “There are plenty of people in the building who work so, so hard in very specific and unique roles, whether that's your head coach, your goalkeeping coach, your set-piece coach, your general manager… everyone has got a very specific role, so it’s great to have someone also focused day-to-day well-being.

      “I just know I would have loved, as a player, if I had someone to go to and tell that I've split up with a partner, or I forgot to pay a bill, or might be struggling for another reason, like not knowing how to speak to the manager… It’s important to help support that conversation happening.

      “I've not always got the answers, but I pretend that I do! I go and try to make as many connections as possible to help the players, and also build up their own profiles.”

      Change has been well and truly afoot in south London at the beginning of the campaign.

      As well as the aforementioned new Head of Women’s Football and new head coach, Palace have appointed a new captain in Aimee Everett; welcomed a new assistant manager in Adam Jeffrey; and began playing their home fixtures at a new home ground, Sutton United’s VBS Community Stadium.

      Having been so deeply connected to Crystal Palace Football Club over the last three years, what has Nicol made of the Women’s team’s bold new era this season?

      “In some ways it feels like I'm at a brand new Football Club,” Nicol beams, “but it still feels the same in my heart.

      “I feel like we've just stepped it up… well, I'd say a ‘notch’, but that wouldn't do it justice – because I feel like the club’s gone way beyond that.

      “The club has shown so much care in their women’s team. They've appointed amazing people to take it forward, andtrusted in the staff on the ground to drive it. They’ve moved us into the Academy’s training facilities [last season].

      “This year, we’ve obviously moved our home pitch onto a fantastic grass facility at Sutton. It's just unrecognisable in so many different ways, and for me to be involved… I don't want to say ‘at the start of this journey’, but it very much feels like it's the beginning of something really special.

      “It's going to take time. Those expectations on the pitch are certainly still going to be there – we want to win every single game. But in terms of what's happening off it… the work that I've seen in the last few months alone is really exciting, and I feel proud and honoured to be part of the Football Club.”

      New eras lend themselves to new opportunities, as well as changing personnel and shifting landscapes – but for Nicol, the joy of being part of Palace remains the same.

      “I knew a lot of the girls very well from being their teammate,” Nicol explains. “I’ve got long-lasting friendships there that will continue. But just to get up in the morning, put on this kit and go and have breakfast every day with people who are fantastic human beings, first and foremost…

      “It's my role to get the best out of them as people, and the fact that I can say that I come to work and everyone I'm surrounded by is just a fantastic person, who fills you with so much joy and laughter… you feel grateful.

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      They are the kindest, but also most ambitious and resilient, group of girls I’ve ever been around.

      Leigh Nicol

      “They are the kindest, but also most ambitious and resilient, group of girls I’ve ever been around. I’m excited to watch them flourish on the pitch, to watch them grow and hopefully watch them really, really succeed.

      “I've got the privilege of watching them in training every day, and that itself makes me smile. I see how hard they work. I see how much they give to the job. They commit their whole lives to it. They take it so seriously. They’re fighting to succeed.

      “And I just can't wait to watch the fans see what I get to see.”

      Tickets for Palace Women's next fixture, against London City Lionesses on Sunday (15th October), are now on sale.