As the dust settled after a dramatic end to Chelsea’s 2002/03 season, manager Claudio Ranieri called academy graduate Alexis Nicolas into his office.
Having secured Champions League football for the following season, players were preparing to go their separate ways for summer but Ranieri had something he wanted to discuss.
Little did they both know, everything was about to change.
“The last day of training the season before the takeover, the manager called me into his office and told me, ‘the club does not have money to sign players’,” Nicolas recalls.
“Jody Morris had left and he was left with only four central midfielders so I knew I had a great chance of playing.”
Events of the next few weeks rendered their chat redundant.
Roman Abramovich arrived, and it was all change in west London when players returned.
“When I arrived back for the first day of training it felt different straight away,” Nicolas says.
“Nice soaps in the bathrooms, ball boys, double the amount of staff in the canteen. We then started to sign lots of players during pre-season and, before the first game of the season, I think we had a total of eight central midfielders, so I knew my chances had taken a step back.
“It was quite clear that the club had started to become a brand.”
“I started not to enjoy the game so much,” he admits. “I started to see a different side of it.
“All my life I had been a younger player working my way through the different levels at big clubs with nice facilities.
“When I left Brighton I had various offers from clubs in the UK and Europe. At the time, my best offers were from a few League One teams and one of the top teams in Cyprus, so I came out of the game.”
Nicolas turned to an unorthodox career change to become a chartered surveyor, later setting up his own commercial property investment firm with a business partner in 2012.
It was a bold move taken after an honest assessment of his prospects in the game, a brave venture down a path few would have taken at that stage of their football journey.
He hasn’t looked back.
“Luckily, I believe I made the right decision,” he declares. “I looked at the pros and cons. I could have either signed for another team and aimed to get to the point of playing for a club that I enjoyed and would’ve been rewarding.
“Or I had the chance to try to start a new profession at an age where I was young enough to learn from the ground up and have what could potentially provide a very long career path.
“I think one of the hardest things is looking 10 or 20 years ahead, especially when you’re young, and also being honest with yourself about if you have the ability to get to where you want to be in life.
“I honestly thought I wouldn’t have been good enough to play for a top Premier League team every week and would I be happy to be a Championship or League 1 player living in a location I didn’t really want too? Not really, was the answer.”
Despite eventually falling out of love with the game, Nicolas can now look back with fond memories of the spell where he lived the dream.
He also has plenty of stories to tell.
“Ever since I could remember I always had a football with me,” he remembers. “I was obsessed.
“I think anyone who loves something and has the freedom to play out that passion will have good memories.”
At the age of 16, he signed for Aston Villa and moved away from home.
“At the time, I found it a little tough,” he admits, with a broken leg in three places derailing his first year. “But I really think it has helped me in life in all aspects.”
After asking for a return to London, Nicolas was allowed to join Chelsea in 2001.
Soon, he was made aware Ranieri was taking note of his reserve team performances and he was integrated into the first-team fold.
“We lost the game, Paolo Di Canio scored a great volley from 35 yards out, and I actually still have his shirt from the game.”
Just when it seemed his time had come after Jody Morris’ departure, Abramovich’s takeover led to an unprecedented £100m+ spending spree.
By the time the transfer window closed, new midfield additions included Claude Makelele, Juan Sebastian Veron, Joe Cole, Geremi and Scott Parker.
Whilst it reduced his chances of first-team action, it gave the youngster a perfect opportunity to learn from the best.
“It was great to play with players like Claude, Veron and Lamps, who was already there,” Nicolas admits.
“When it has been your aim to play at the highest level possible, and from a young age you have been involved with Premier League clubs, you don’t think it’s anything new to be surrounded by big internationals.
“Looking back now I wish I would have spent more time learning more from these players that I was lucky to be with.
“Now you can really understand why certain players were so successful, and on many occasions the most successful players were not the ones with the most natural ability but had the mindset and work ethic.”
After the raft of new arrivals, Nicolas was still given his chance by Ranieri on their pre-season tour, heading to Malaysia for the Premier League Asia Cup.
It proved to be the first silverware lifted in the Roman Abramovich era, but a moment of embarrassment saw Nicolas attempt to shy away from any attention during the celebrations.
“I remember it was the first pre-season after the takeover by Roman Abramovich,” he says. “On the trip I think we started to sign players and some players joined us out there.
“I remember standing in tunnel and looking at Sir Bobby Robson telling his players to tuck their shirts in before the game and noticing the level of respect he had from all players.
“In the game, I played up against Kieron Dyer who was a good player and made a lot of forward runs in the game which as a midfielder is always hard to play against, we swapped shirts after the match.
“That meant I didn’t have my Chelsea top on in the team photo with the trophy so I tried to hide as I felt a bit embarrassed about that!”
After their eye-catching spending spree, Chelsea were instantly transformed as their marquee signings made an impact.
Whilst it meant limited opportunities for Nicolas, he got into the ear of an injured Makelele to ensure he got his chance in a narrow 1-0 win over Scarborough in the FA Cup.
He says: “The week leading up to the game Claude had missed training so I got the feeling if he was not fit that I would be starting.
“On the Thursday, I remember speaking to him and trying to work out if he would be fit and trying to convince him to rest so I could play! Claude was great and basically asked me if it would suit me if he was not fit.
“I felt really confident going into the game. We had a strong team and we scored early so it was looking like we would win well, in the end we just managed to hold on to the win and I remember thinking, ‘that would have been embarrassing to have lost’.”
Despite the uninspiring Chelsea display, Nicolas was solid in midfield and did himself no harm, later earning a first Premier League start in a clash with Charlton as the title race stepped up a notch.
“It was probably the most nervous I felt before any match,” he admits. “We were trying to compete with Arsenal for the title, who were unbeaten. It was a must win for us as I think both them and Manchester United had won on the Saturday.
“My concern was that we had some injuries and if we lost perhaps the title chase was over and maybe the blame would be on the fact I had played.
“When the manager named the team a few hours before the match he referred to me as ‘The Rotweiller’, which was a nickname I had been given by some of the team players for the way I played in training.
“I think the combination of his accent and the surprise that he used that name did break the tension and nerves a bit looking back.
“Lamps played a more defensive game that day to support me and we had won the game which was good.
“I never really felt like I made it but I do remember thinking that was the feeling of what football’s highs can provide and how would I feel if I could repeat that feeling every week?”
Nicolas left Stamford Bridge that day dreaming of more big occasions, but was restricted to just one more appearance as a substitute late in the campaign.
After being on the fringes of the first-team, he headed on loan where he played regular football at Brighton in an effort to find his groove.
It was after almost two years on the South Coast that he made what he believes to be a mistake with a premature exit from Stamford Bridge.
It was a mistake which cost him the chance to experience Chelsea’s first ever Premier League title.
“I don’t regret my initial loan period but I do regret being so eager to leave,” he concedes.
“Following a successful loan period I should have gone back to Chelsea to take my time deciding where I would move to at the end of season when my contract was due to expire.
“But as young person you listen to people around you who maybe aren’t able to look at the bigger picture.
“My regret is only down to that missed life experience of not spending the rest of the year being part of the club who went on to win their first title. That would have been nice to be part of, even with the fact I wouldn’t’ have played that season.”
Instead of celebrating Chelsea’s new-found success, Nicolas found himself in limbo and threw himself into a new life away from football.
But the influence of his time in the game has remained present, helping Premier League stars earning millions to make the right investment choices to provide a good income stream beyond their careers.
“Football is something I understand so well and can relate to,” he explains. “I am fortunate enough that I have had the experience of being the young player working his way up to the first-team and also having the business education to match.
“I like to pass that knowledge on because I feel many players don’t get the right advice from people completely independent and who have no invested interest.”
Whilst he only worked with him for a brief spell, Nicolas has also taken inspiration from former manager Jose Mourinho.
He explains: “It’s very strange as I was only with Jose for a short period but he is the one person that I can relate to now in my current profession.
“At the time it was less noticeable but, looking back, he was the first person I had come across to really use psychology with people in a big way.
“His due diligence was at the highest level. He came prepared for every situation and gave no one an excuse to not perform, even in training.”
Whilst Nicolas has made a success of his career path, he could well have carved out a creditable career in the Football League after leaving Chelsea.
The majority of youngsters, whilst holding aspirations of going to the very top, would snap your hand off for a professional career of any form.
Why did he feel differently?
“I knew I wanted to be successful at whatever I did,” he explains. “I wanted to decide where I lived and I wanted a situation that I could control and I didn’t think football could assure me of that.
“I felt that at best I could play until my early 30’s and I didn’t want a situation where I carried on playing and just earned a living, leaving the game with no options or enough money to give me financial freedom.”
Aside from the financial aspect, he also recognised the dangers of walking away from the game with nowhere else to go later in life.
He says: “I felt the game was starting to become volatile where a player can quickly drop down the leagues so I made the decision to leave football more on my terms, and while people outside of the game were still interested in me because I was still young and I knew this would open other doors.
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“It was a hard decision as football was something I knew well and felt so comfortable doing but I certainly think it was a wise and mature decision as I have managed to be successful in another industry that if I choose can do for many years to come.
“I think having the ability and purpose to wake up and keep achieving something is so healthy for our mental state. Unfortunately, a lot of athletes end their careers and lose purpose and this has a bad impact on all aspects of their lives.”
Even during his playing days, Nicolas was preparing for a life and career away from the pitch.
He sought connections in the real estate investment industry, shadowing them on his days off.
“That really helped me have the confidence to take the jump and I would encourage young pros to also look to gain experience like this when they have time off,” he says.
“What was interesting while playing football is that when you get towards your mid-twenties you have this feeling that you are getting old, but in reality most people at that age are just coming out of universities and are starting at the bottom with internships at companies.”
When he left football, he joined a leading company in the industry before taking the plunge by co-founding a “niche boutique firm which focuses on sourcing commercial real estate investments for investors of all kinds which includes athletes”.
Nicolas’ route from football to business has been unorthodox, but he hopes his pro-active approach can serve as a lesson to those within the game to make such transitions less rare.
A friend and former team-mate at Brighton, Maheta Molango, has taken a similarly less-travelled route to now be appointed head of the PFA after undertaking legal studies alongside his career.
It is a move Nicolas believes can be a starting point for positive change.
“It’s a a positive situation for football as Maheta is a young honest person, well educated and has experienced the game in different situations,” he says.
“I do think the PFA should bring in a board of ex-professionals of all kinds, not just players that have good football careers.
“Ex-players that have succeeded in other forms or have been brave to battle mental health, addictions and discrimination, people players today can reach out to for advice.
“That includes young players who spend their whole time growing up trying to be footballers but get released before they get to first-teams and are lost in life.
“These ex-players can give the advice that agents can’t and won’t give and that family members and friends are unable to.
“Someone who has been there and is giving that advice, knowing they don’t need anything back in return, can be so important.
“In most cases, young players who get to the point of playing in the Premier League have spent a big part of their lives working hard, making sacrifices and adapting to pressure situations, and those are skills that are required to succeed in the business world as well.”
Nowadays, Nicolas is relatively removed from the game he dedicated his life to growing up.
He still tries to stay involved when time allows and, after obtaining his coaching badges, he had a spell jointly running a non-league side.
Time is at more of a premium since starting his own family, but he retains fond memories of the game which offered him
“I have many fond memories,” he concludes. “And although you don’t keep in touch with lots of people, it’s always nice when you do see old team-mates.
“You had a lot of good times and experiences together and that’s what is important in life.”
Whilst Nicolas’ experiences in professional football did not last as long as most, they certainly serve as a fascinating and important tale.
[email protected] (Rich Jones)