Carlton, Nottingham born goalkeeper Joe Nicholls joined the Grenadier Guards in 1922, where he played Army football and became the heavyweight boxing champion of his battalion. In 1924 he had a trial with Notts County but without success. He went on to play for Darlaston in 1925 before joining the Tottenham Hotspur nursery club Northfleet in 1926.
Nicholls joined the White Hart Lane club in 1927 and made his Football League debut at Liverpool in April 1927, initially as understudy to Cyril Spiers, but after four seasons he became the principal glovesman in 1932, playing 37 times as they were promoted to the First Division and holding the gloves for three years, during which time he was an England triallist in 1934, before losing them in December 1934 during their relegation season.
He featured in 130 matches in all competitions for Spurs before he moved to Bristol Rovers in the 1936 close season and played a further 123 games for The Pirates by the time the outbreak of the Second World War forced the abandonment of peacetime football in September 1939.