JIMMY NICHOLL casts his eye around a mostly deserted Stirling Castle car park and recalls that one of the greatest nights of his life took place at this very spot.

“Van Morrison played right here, I have all his stuff, I'm a massive fan, and he was brilliant;” says one Northern Irish legend about another. “But then he played Glasgow, I took a mini-bus of pals to the gig, and he plays two hours of jazz.”

It is the only moment of our time spent together when Nicholl looks anything other than happy with life. If Van the Man is Belfast’s most curmudgeonly son, Jimmy Nick is perhaps its most cheerful. He has even more lot to smile about right now.

As assistant to Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, he has been part of a campaign which saw his country qualify for their first tournament in 30 years, this summer’s European Championship in France, having topped their group. The football also brought together divided communities and made the national team something the whole Province could get behind.

None of this has been easy. All of it should be celebrated.

With Celtic and Rangers meeting on Sunday, when so many songs will elude to the Troubles, it is perhaps fitting to talk to a man who, unlike the vast majority at Hampden this Sunday, actually lived through and played football at the height of what was a war.

The former Rangers and Manchester United player, who became a legend at Raith Rovers, starred in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups at a time when all of us were a little bit Northern Irish, and not just because it was an excuse to sing a few ditties.

“When we were playing, half the team were Catholics, the other half Protestants,” Nicholl tells me during a highly entertaining chat. “We never bothered. I get asked about this a lot. It was almost like an unwritten rule that we never spoke about what was going on. All we cared about was playing.

“There was a survey around that time asking whether people would welcome an all-Ireland football team. The Republic then had Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O’Leary. I thought we could have that because it would be a good side although chances are I wouldn’t have got a game so I was unsure whether to vote for it or not.

“But if it brings people together, then it’s worth thinking about. There was a problem over where the games would be played, Dublin or Belfast, who would be in the committee and what-not, so it never came to fruition.

“Big Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Martin O’Neill, all those lads were Catholic. We thought nothing about anyone’s background. We were all the same and very much together. There was no singing or anything like that. We had a sing-song, just not those type of songs.”

Football just like Van Morrison has a way of bringing people together in Nicholl’s homeland. But while the Northern Ireland team always had Catholics, the same could not be said for the fan-base.

O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s worshipped manager, is from a Catholic background himself and his mantra has been that the country as one must get behind the team this summer. His words are working.

Nicholl said: “Let’s say Catholics, for whatever reason, previously didn’t want to go to Windsor Park because it’s where Linfield play and all the other stuff, and so if more want to come to our games because they now feel part of it then that's brilliant.

“Both sides of the divide can see what’s happening is great. Michael is doing his best to bring everyone with us. If we can fill Windsor Park when it is redeveloped with 22,000 at every game, and from every community, that would be wonderful. It’s what we want to see.”

Belfast today is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. However, you don’t have to wander far before a reminder of the not too distant past appears on a gable end, but it’s hard in 2016 to comprehend what has gone before.

“I was captain of Northern Ireland schoolboys in 1971 and Scotland wouldn’t come to play us,” Nicholl said. “We offered them a game in Larne, they could have jumped on and off the boat, and still they said no. We had to go to Stranraer.

“Spain wouldn’t come to Belfast. We had to play them in Hull! You don’t see that now. You don’t even feel it. Belfast is an incredible city and the way the country has transformed itself makes me proud.”

Nicholl was born in Canada and was three when the family moved to Rathcoole, an estate six miles outside of Belfast’s city limits. He loved the place, still does, but this was the early 1970s, bombs were going off, shootings an almost daily occurrence.

In 1972 ,when a youth player at Manchester United, over 500 people lost their lives. It was the greatest loss of life in all the years of the conflict.

“Tommy Docherty, who was United manager, pulled me aside one Friday and asked if I was going home for a visit,” said Nicholl. "I said yes he said; ‘When you get back, tell yer ma and da there are flights for them on Wednesday. We are getting you a club house and getting you out of there.

“I was 16 coming up to my 17th birthday so I hadn’t even signed my pro forms yet. Bill Foulkes has lived in the house but it had stood empty for 18 months. It was in Sale in Cheshire, really nice, with three bedrooms, detached and a garage and in a cul-de-sac. I asked; ‘What’s a cul-de-sac?'

“So my folks came over, the club picked them up and took them to this big house. There were people already there with wallpaper charts. The club organised schools and the whole family, I had two younger brothers and two younger sisters, moved within a few weeks. Our whole lives changed.

“I was on a tenner a week. The club secretary told me that I had to give him a fiver a month in rent until my father got a job. I left eleven years later and I was still paying him a fiver. Ha!”

He did buy that house, although Scotland and not the North West of England was later to become home. He signed for a second time at Rangers in 1986 and his family have remained here since, for many years in Dollar before he and wife Sue settled in Stirling.

There remains an urge to manage if the right job comes up. The now 60-year-old was in charge at Cowdenbeath before taking an unexpected call from O’Neill last March.

“Football gets to you and it’s worse when you are out of it,” he said. “I would love to get back into management or even as a number two. But we have France first and let’s see what happens after that.”