Bill Nicholson: Football’s Perfectionist (Part 1)

This narrative is not meant to record the history of the greatest manager in football, Bill Nicholson, but is for me especially a trip down Memory Lane to recall the highlights and a few lows in his time at Tottenham.  In fact if football fans want to learn the full history about the man I would suggest they read the wonderful book written by Brian Scovell and published by John Blake Publishing Ltd.

As a seven year old boy in 1949 I read an article in the Daily Herald, I believe, about a charismatically named centre forward who scored in the first game of the season for Spurs in a 4-1 victory at Brentford.  He was called Len Duquemin or “the Duke” and he was part of the famous “Push & Run” team managed by Arthur Rowe that won Division 2 of the football league by an incredible 9 points (2 points only for a win in those days).  From that day on I was a Tottenham supporter and although I wasn’t aware of it at the time Len was a teammate of both Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey.  How could a seven year old football mad kid from a small village in North Lancashire not be entranced by names like “Hotspur” and “the Duke”?

This was the team that had me star struck as a small boy and of course they were simply names in a newspaper or on a photograph at that time.  Arthur Rowe’s team were renowned for their flowing football which involved slick interchanges of short, accurate passes as they swept from one end of the pitch to the other.  It was a fresh, swashbuckling approach which lit up the post-war soccer scene and won lavish plaudits for the ball-playing likes of inside forwards Eddie Baily and Les Bennett, the wing-half and skipper Ron Burgess, the wingers Les Medley and Sonny Walters and the hard working Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsey and Len Duquemin.

It wasn’t until much later that I appreciated just how good they were and of course Bill Nicholson implemented all that he had learned a decade later.  What he learned from Arthur Rowe and the wonderful Ron Burgess was later developed to create the foundation of the Tottenham team in the 1960s that has never been eclipsed.

The Nicholson family with Bill being held by his father Joe

Tottenham Hotspur have produced three of the greatest managers in the game in Herbert Chapman, Alf Ramsey and Bill Nicholson.  In the photograph of Bill playing for his school under-14 team it looks very much like he was already taking responsibility by being captain.

Scarborough High School Under-14 team
Bill is sat centre on the 2nd row

So let’s move on now to 1958 and the appointment of Bill Nicholson as Manager of Tottenham Hotspur which would herald an era of football the like of which had never been seen before.  A quote from Danny Blanchflower epitomises everything about Bill Nicholson and his team, “The great fallacy is that the game is first and foremost about winning.  It is nothing of the kind.  The game is about glory.  It is about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

Jimmy Anderson began the 1958-59 season as manager of Spurs but failing health and a single victory in the first seven games of the season brought on the same depression that had dragged Arthur Rowe down and in the first week in October Anderson called Bill to his office and told him that vice-chairman Fred Wale wanted to see him at his company, Brown’s of Tottenham.  Bill said, “What’s it all about, Jim?”  Anderson replied, “You go down there, you’ll soon find out.”

During their meeting, Wade told Bill, “Jimmy Anderson isn’t going to carry on as manager.  Would you like the job?” Bill accepted immediately.  The vice chairman never mentioned a pay rise, nor indeed a contract.  Bill said later, “I didn’t raise the subject either.  I never had a contract in my life as a manager, I reasoned that if I was good enough to do the job, they would keep me.  If I wasn’t good enough, they would sack me.  A contract wouldn’t make any difference.

October 11th 1958, Tottenham were 16th in Division I and would finish the season 18th but Bill was building a team.  The first game was against Everton and a resounding victory by 10-4 in front of 37,794 spectators with goals from Ryden, Medwin, Harmer, Smith (4), Stokes (2) and Robb.  Prior to the game at 12 o’clock Bill attended the boardroom to be told that the directors had confirmed his appointment as manager.  Bill of course was far too busy to tell his wife, “Darkie”, she hated the name Grace and she said afterwards, “It was on a Saturday and he went in as usual in the morning.  It was apparently on the radio but I was rushing around all day with the girls and didn’t have it on.  He didn’t mention it when he came home until my mother arrived and said to him, “Congratulations”, I thought she was saying it because the team had beaten Everton 10-4 but she kept on about it and then it all came out.  I said, “Why didn’t you tell me, ring up or something?”  He said he hadn’t had time, he’d been rushing around all day yet he’d known from 12 o’clock but that’s the sort of person he is.

Bill had married Grace “Darkie” Power in 1947 and they had a wonderfully happy marriage and I like to think that she was the “power behind the throne”.

Darkie on her famous bike
she regularly had bicycles stolen from around White Hart Lane

Bill built a team in the best Tottenham traditions of stylish, attacking football.  Already present when he took over the reins were Bobby Smith, a burly centre forward with a ferocious shot and a surprising touch; Maurice Norman, a rock at centre half; Cliff Jones the brilliant Welsh winger rated number one in the world and noted for his greyhound speed and flying headers; and Danny Blanchflower, that most cultivated and intelligent of wing halves, captain of authority, man of principle and perhaps the greatest of all penalty takers.  Danny was also elected twice as Footballer of the Year in 1958 and 1961.

Juventus were reported to have offered Spurs £100,000 for Cliff Jones, whom most critics rated the finest winger in the country, if not the world. Tottenham, who had paid Swansea £35,000 for Jones in Feb 1958, rejected the offer, and Bill Nicholson called Jones "priceless".

The great Cliff Jones signs for Tottenham watched by Swansea manager, Ron Burgess, left,
and Spurs manager Jimmy Anderson, right

Bill entered the transfer market and bought what turned out to be some fabulous bargains.  From Heart of Midlothian he bought the lion-hearted Dave Mackay; from Dundee the unflappable and secure Bill Brown; from Falkirk he secured the services of the gifted John White, whose ability to create chances through stealth led to him earning the nickname “The Ghost”.

Today’s managers buy their star players through the services of agents and study videos of the players who they rarely meet until negotiations are at an advanced state.  In Bill’s day it was difficult to sign foreign players as they would require a work permit and the Ministry of Employment were very strict about following the rules.  So Bill scoured the home countries for new stars and each week he would drive hundreds of miles to watch players, often standing on the terraces and buying his own programme.  He frequently flew to Glasgow, often with Eddie Baily, to watch a game and took a late flight back to London where they were often the only passengers.  Bill was a good friend of Tommy Walker, the manager of Hearts, who was an honest and reputable man just like himself.  In March 1959 a day before the transfer deadline, Bill phoned Walker about Dave Mackay, a player that Tommy swore he would never sell.  To his astonishment, Tommy indicated that Hearts would accept £30,000 for a player who had won medals in Scottish football and was looked on as someone who would never leave Scotland.  Tommy rang Mackay at his home in Edinburgh and said to him, “Tottenham want to buy you and I can tell you that Bill Nicholson is an honourable man.  Come to my office at 10 am tomorrow and let me know your decision.  Bill is travelling up to Edinburgh tomorrow and you will have the opportunity to meet him.”  Mackay was shocked, “I was born and bred a Hearts fan, when I was a kid I crawled in under a fence to watch their matches.  I dreamed about playing for them and when I did I wanted it to be forever.

Just before the midnight deadline, the two managers shook hands on the deal.  Isobel, Dave’s pragmatic wife, helped him make up his mind about moving to North London.  She said, “You have to go where your work is.”  He was still on the £20-a-week maximum wage but Spurs gave him handsome expenses to move house.

In the close season of 1959, Bill told his staff he wasn’t happy about his two goalkeepers, Ron Reynolds and John Hollowbread.  A Scots journalist called Jim Rodger became one of his chief suppliers of information and suggested he should buy Bill Brown from Dundee, “He’s a bonny keeper and he’s at his peak at the age of 27.”  Bill agreed a fee of £16,500 and caught the overnight train to Dundee to put the necessary forms in front of Brown early the next morning.  Brown signed immediately and was to prove one of Bill’s best signings.  Bill’s recruitment from Scotland continued in October when he signed John White from Falkirk for £20,000.  Dave Mackay called him “the last piece in the jigsaw” and labelled him “The Ghost” a few years before Martin Peters earned the sobriquet.  For weeks the ubiquitous Jim Rodger was on the case and Bill flew up to Scotland to see White in action, “I was excited with the prospect of landing him.  He didn’t make a single bad pass.”  Bill had one reservation as White was slight in physique and he worried about his stamina.  Dave Mackay soon disabused him of that idea, saying, “He’s a champion cross-country runner.”  White was serving in the Army at the time so Bill rang the sports officer at his unit to check.  “That’s right,” said the officer, “He’s so good that he won’t be playing football this coming Saturday because he’ll be running for the Scottish Command.”  So the matter was settled and John moved to North London where he lodged at the home of Harry Evans, Spurs’ popular assistant manager.  It wasn’t long before John fell in love with Harry’s daughter, Sandra, and they were married and started a family in their own home.  The once-shy White entertained his colleagues with his partying antics, including the odd practice of eating chrysanthemums in pubs and was blissfully happy.  The next piece of the jigsaw was the signing of Les Allen, who was playing in the reserves at Chelsea, in exchange for the erratic Johnny Brooks, who had plenty of skill but not too much physical strength.  Bill thought Les was a vastly underrated player, good at sniffing out scoring positions and a sound finisher.  One of the saddest tasks that fell to Bill was that he had to replace him two years later when Jimmy Greaves became available.  Greaves was the best goalscorer of his era and arguably of any era and Bill had to get him.

Bill’s jigsaw was complete and in season 1959-60 Tottenham finished in 3rd place, two points behind Burnley, losing four of their last eight games.  Easter proved crucial, as is often the case, when Spurs travelled to Chelsea on Good Friday and won 3-1 with a Bobby Smith hat trick it seemed like the title was in their grasp. Back to White Hart Lane for an Easter Saturday clash with Manchester City and a 0-1 defeat was followed unexpectedly on Easter Monday when Chelsea were the visitors and upset the odds by sending Spurs crashing to another 0-1 defeat.

In season 1960-61 Spurs swept all before them.  They opened their League campaign with a record 11 consecutive victories, 36 goals for and 11 against.  Such a run of form could not last forever and they drew 1-1 at home to Manchester City on October 10th 1960 before finally losing 1-2 at Sheffield Wednesday on November 12th 1960.  They had 31 victories in 42 games, 16 away wins, 115 goals scored, only 17 players used and the magnificent total of 66 points split evenly home and away.

Final League Table 1960-61

In the FA Cup, Tottenham defeated Charlton, Crewe Alexandra, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Burnley to reach the final against Leicester.  Two late goals by Bobby Smith and Terry Dyson enabled Blanchflower, who 48 hours before had received the Footballer of the Year award, to climb the stairs of the Royal Box to claim the trophy and to fulfil the promise he had made to the Spurs chairman at the start of the season, the League & Cup double.  In lifting the trophy Spurs had scored 21 goals and conceded only 4.  The glory days and nights were just beginning.

The photograph of Tottenham Hotspur Double Winners is more to me than simply an image or a moment in time, it speaks of Bill Nicholson’s dream of playing football at its best or as near perfection as is possible and I don’t believe any other team has dislodged Bill’s wonderful side from the pinnacle of football.

Spurs clinch the League championship by beating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on April 17th 1961

Tottenham Hotspur FA Cup winners 1960-61

To be Continued...

Extracts and photographs from Bill Nicholson: Football’s Perfectionist by Brian Scovell (John Blake Publishing, 2010; paperback 2011) by permission of the author and publishers; copyright © Brian Scovell 2010. All rights reserved.

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