Whitburn, West Lothian born centre forward Tom Nicol began his football career with Cardross Swifts and Broxburn Athletic, joining Mossend Swifts in 1890 before heading south to join Football League club Burnley. Making his Football League debut on 7th March 1891 he replaced leading scorer Claude Lambie, who had returned to Scotland, and scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 victory over the mighty Preston North End. Preston had won the Football League in each of the two preceding years, but the defeat at Turf Moor consigned them to finishing the 1890-91 season as runners-up, two points behind Everton.
In 1891 a team representing Canada embarked on an extensive tour of Britain, playing over twenty games against both club and national teams. The match against Burnley took place on 31st October 1891 at Turf Moor, and at the time Burnley were lying eighth in the Football League. Despite fielding England goalkeeper Jack Hillman, Burnley were held to a 2–2 draw, even though Nicol twice had given Burnley the lead. Nicol finished as Burnley’s leading goalscorer in 1891-92 with 19 goals in 28 League and Cup games including a hat-trick in a 9-0 win over Darwen in January 1892. For the next two seasons, Nicol played at right-back before moving forward to outside-right for the 1894-95 season. Nicol again found his goal-scoring form and was the club’s top scorer for the season with 11 League goals from 22 appearances. He made a further contribution of 11 goals in the 1895-96 season including a hat-trick in a 6-0 defeat of Blackburn Rovers on 13th April 1896.
The following November, Nicol joined Burnley’s arch rivals, Blackburn Rovers having scored 47 goals in 150 appearances. Nicol stayed with Blackburn Rovers until the end of the 1896-97 season, scoring twice from 19 league and cup appearances, before moving to the south coast to join Southern League Southampton in the 1897 close season.
At the Southampton, Nicol reverted to the right-back position lining up alongside Harry Haynes; their defensive prowess helped Southampton to retain the Southern League Championship, conceding only 18 goals from 22 matches. He made his debut on 2nd October 1897, with Samuel Meston moving forward to right-half to accommodate him, thus displacing William McMillan, who had been ever-present in the previous season. The Saints also reached the 1898 FA Cup semi-final, where they were defeated by Nottingham Forest at The Crystal Palace in rather controversial circumstances after goalkeeper George Clawley had his eyes “choked with snow” and conceded two goals in the final minutes of the game.
Nicol was “completely fearless, even reckless (and) usually won the ball irrespective of obstacles” and became “one of the finest backs ever to don the cherry and white shirt”. Injury resulted in him losing his place to Peter Durber in October 1898, although he did make two appearances at outside-left later that season (replacing Tom Smith), in which the Saints claimed the Championship for the third consecutive season. He retired at the end of the 1898-99 season, having made 37 appearances for Southampton, scoring twice.