Bill Nicholson: Football’s Perfectionist (Part 2)

Bill would now move on to try and emulate what was the perfect season, achieving the double that had been deemed “unachievable”.

Maurice Norman, the tall centre half from Mulbarton in rural Norfolk, believed the master plan was created when the players sat in front of the easel which Bill used to make his points in training and later, before matches.  He recalled, “It was like in a school, he went through all the points, telling each player what he wanted from them, what his immediate opponent would do and he spelled out the routines for corners and free kicks.”  Bill had a great way of handling players.  If he thought someone needed to do more work he would scold him, sometimes a player would forget something and he would tick him off but he very rarely lost his temper.  One player who couldn’t be faulted on his work rate was Terry Dyson, the 5ft 3in winger from Malton, eight miles from Scarborough.  He was the son of the famous jockey “Ginger” Dyson.  “If I had to name a player who had the attitude I wanted, it was Terry,” declared Bill, “He needed no motivation.”  “I was in awe of him”, said Dyson.  “What he said had to go but he mellowed a bit over the years.  He dedicated his whole life to Tottenham and he was so proud of the club that he almost thought we should play for nothing.

Bill doing business at his uncluttered desk, football’s perfectionist

A month after completing the “Double” Bill bumped into Jimmy Greaves, who was now with AC Milan, at the Café Royal in Piccadilly and said to him, “You went to the wrong club, you ought to be with us.”  “I think I will, next time,” conceded Greaves, who had found it impossible to work under the fearsome Nereo Rocco, the AC Milan coach.  Now Milan’s directors wanted to sell him for £100,000 (he cost £80,000 from Chelsea a few months before) but Bill insisted on £99,999 and explained, “I refused to make him the first £100,000 footballer because I didn’t want a millstone round his neck."  Arriving at the door of the couple’s flat in Milan, Bill asked Irene, Jimmy’s wife, “Do you know who I am?”  “Yes,” she replied, “Our saviour!

It was a lot of money but Bill thought the outlay was more than worth it.  “What I liked about him was his attitude, he was always friendly and interested.  Nor did he bear any malice after rows we had about minor matters.  He had this natural gift of timing and the accuracy of his shooting was uncanny and his reactions were fantastically quick.

Jimmy Greaves breathes a sigh of relief on his return to London after his transfer from Milan accompanied by his new boss, Spurs’ Manager, Bill Nicholson

In 1993 Bill Nicholson was given a belated testimonial and I think this photograph shows that he had a special friendship with Jimmy Greaves.

Bill and Jimmy in 1993 at the testimonial

Greaves was happy with Bill’s offer of £60 per week, less than half the £130 he was getting in Milan but his and Irene’s happiness couldn’t be counted in pound notes.  Few footballers could equal the impact Greaves had on his debut at White Hart Lane on December 16th 1961 when he scored a hat-trick in Tottenham’s 5-2 win over Blackpool.  In 22 league games he scored 21 goals and in the FA Cup he was even more prolific as he scored 9 goals in 7 games including one in the final as Spurs defeated Burnley 3-1.  Their progress in the European Champions Cup lasted until the semi-final when confronted by Benfica they lost 1-3 in Lisbon and in a pulsating return match at White Hart Lane won 2-1 and hit the woodwork three times.  The League championship was won, surprisingly, by Ipswich who beat Spurs twice, 3-2 at home and 3-1 at White Hart Lane with Dave Mackay and Danny Blanchflower at odds with Bill when the manager suggested Tottenham amend their tactics to combat the strengths of Ipswich.  Spurs finished in third place, a point behind Burnley.

Season 1962-63 held a special significance for me as it was the year of my marriage to Margaret Onyett and our honeymoon in London would include a trip to White Hart Lane for one of those marvellous European nights, Margaret really appreciated that.

It was also the year of the Great Freeze, week after week, whole programmes of League matches were postponed, causing chaos.  Between Boxing Day and late March Spurs played only two league matches, but managed to lose 0-3 at home in the FA Cup to Burnley on January 16th 1963 on a snow-covered pitch.  Spurs would finish in 2nd place behind champions Everton in division one with Burnley in 3rd.  Reaching the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup meant that Spurs could round off the season in style but Bill’s pre-match talk was on this occasion a mistake that was soon rectified by the cerebral Danny Blanchflower.  In the dressing room at the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam Spurs were preparing to meet Athletico Madrid, holders of this prestigious trophy and Bill started his talk.  He praised Madrid highly until Danny intervened and said, “Hang on a minute Bill.  What is all this?  Can you imagine their team talk next door?  Their coach won’t be saying how great Tottenham are.  For heaven’s sake, you are making them sound like world-beaters!  They’re not world-beaters, we are.  I say, forget them.  Let’s concentrate on our own strengths as a team, which, by the way, are far and away better than theirs.  If their centre half is big and ugly, then ours is bigger and uglier.  If this Chuzo fellow can cause problems in the penalty area, then Jimmy here can cause ten times as many problems for them.  We are the team that’s going to win it!

In his autobiography, "Greavsie", Jimmy Greaves said, “Bill could have felt that his position as manager was being compromised.  It was then that Bill gave evidence of being the great manager we all knew him to be, he held up his hand and fell into line with what Danny said.  Never again did I ever hear him pump up an opposing side.  To my mind this was the greatest game I ever played in.  It had everything.  Silky skills, precise passing and movement off the ball.  It was passionate, entertaining, dramatic, colourful and above all peppered with goals.

The final score was 5-1 to Tottenham with goals from John White, Jimmy Greaves (2) and Terry Dyson (2) and the team that played on this special night was: - Brown; Baker, Henry; Blanchflower, Norman, Marchi; Jones, White, Smith, Greaves and Dyson.  Dave Mackay was injured and although he had been given cortisone injections in the past he felt that he couldn’t risk being injured again and harm the team’s chances.  By eliminating Glasgow Rangers, Slovan Bratislava and OFK Belgrade en route to beating Athletico Madrid Spurs became the first British side to win a European trophy.  The game against Slovan Bratislava I remember so well because that was the one I took my new wife, Margaret, to watch.  What an atmosphere, what a noise, it felt like the whole of London was there to watch Spurs try and overturn a first leg deficit of 0-2.  In the first two minutes Bobby Smith shoulder charged the Slovan goalkeeper into the back of the net and Spurs were in their faces from that moment on.  Goals from Mackay, White, Smith, Greaves (2) and Jones completed an electrifying performance and a 6-0 victory, what a way to celebrate a marriage.

In season 1963-64 Spurs finished in 4th place in the League and went out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round to Chelsea but this time in the history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club is remembered for what can only be called a tragedy.  There are dates when some dramatic event occurs and people remember them, particularly in football.  One such time was July 21st 1964.  Bill was at home when the phone rang and a voice said, “This is Tottenham Police, I am afraid I have some sad news for you, John White has been killed by lightning.”  Bill was asked to attend the Prince of Wales Hospital morgue to identify the body.  Sandra, John’s wife, was so heartbroken that she was reluctant to undertake the task.  Dave Mackay was drinking at the Viking, his favourite restaurant in Edmonton, when his business colleague Jimmy Burton rang to tell him the news.  Dave said, “I walked out of the place in a trance and sat down in my car and switched on the radio.  The music was Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over”.  I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and cried my eyes out.”  Sadly Tottenham’s fabulous side was disintegrating in front of Bill Nicholson’s eyes.  Terry Medwin was injured on the summer tour to South Africa and missed the entire season.  Dave Mackay broke his leg in December and was out for the rest of the season and Danny Blanchflower’s damaged knee from the previous season never fully recovered and he announced his retirement.  Bobby Smith was transferred to Brighton in May and the saddest blow of all came in July with the tragic death of John White.  Bill tried to replace that irreplaceable midfield trio of Blanchflower, Mackay and White but it was an impossible task.  The “Heart & Soul” had been ripped out of Spurs and what we were left with were memories although the club would have further success it wasn’t the same.  Greaves and the others remained, soon to be joined by the wonderful Alan Gilzean.  Over the next 30 years and more Spurs would win many more cups but never the League championship.  And never again could they consistently achieve the sublime combination of breathtaking attack and certain defence that characterised the finest English club of them all.

Dave Mackay proudly parading the FA Cup after the “Cockney” cup final
with Jimmy Greaves, Alan Gilzean, Pat Jennings and Jimmy Robertson in attendance

An all London derby meeting with Chelsea in the 1966-67 season FA Cup final was an opportunity to parade their skills once more.  Chelsea packed their midfield in an attempt to stifle Spurs but Tommy Docherty’s strategy badly misfired as Tottenham played a classical 4-2-4 line-up and had all the space they needed to run at Chelsea.  Jimmy Robertson made one flank his own and put Spurs ahead just before the break and with Frank Saul prowling the other flank Chelsea were completely outplayed.  Saul scored the second goal and Jimmy Greaves (with Mackay the only man to have played in Tottenham’s last FA Cup winning side) and Alan Gilzean tormented the heart of Chelsea’s defence.  Bobby Tambling scored a consolation goal in the 86th minute and the 2-1 scoreline hardly reflected Tottenham’s superior skill & tactics.

Dave Mackay was a dynamic and inspirational wing half who provided the steel and drive in the Spurs side of the early 1960s.  His career had looked in serious doubt as a result of two broken legs in the space of nine months in 1964 but the indomitable Dave fought back to captain Spurs to another FA Cup triumph in 1967.  The following season he transferred to Brian Clough’s Derby County where he led the team to the Division Two championship in 1968-69, an achievement which earned him the footballer of the Year award, an honour he shared with Manchester City’s Tony Book.

There would be one final piece of silverware to add to Bill’s collection and it came in the UEFA Cup in 1971-72 when the final tie was between two English clubs, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers.  Spurs won the first leg at Molyneaux 2-1 with a brace from Martin Chivers and a 1-1 draw in the 2nd leg at White Hart Lane was enough to win the day but the Spurs team showed just how much the pendulum had swung from the days of having at least five world class players in the side - Blanchflower, Mackay, Jones, White and Greaves, simply irreplaceable.

Spurs lined up as follows: Jennings; Kinnear, Knowles; Mullery, England, Beal; Gilzean, Perryman, Chivers, Peters and Coates

In season 1973-74 Tottenham despatched Grasshoppers, Aberdeen, Dinamo Tbilisi, Cologne and Lokomotive Leipzig in the UEFA Cup and faced Dutch champions Feyenoord in a two legged final.  A difficult game at White Hart Lane in the first leg sent Spurs to Holland level at 2-2 but midway through the first half what appeared to be a good goal from Chris McGrath was disallowed and mayhem broke out on the terraces.  When police with batons decided to intervene a riot developed and not even a personal plea from Bill Nicholson and Chairman Sydney Wale could calm the fans.

Feyenoord won the match 2-0, aggregate score 4-2, but the repercussions were immense as I believe Bill found it very difficult to continue after this sad event.  He had been finding it hard to cope with the changing face of football.  A firm believer in entertaining, loyalty and playing the game for its own sake he had become disenchanted with the attitude of players, the press and the authorities.  When Spurs opened the 1974-75 season with four straight defeats he decided he had seen enough and resigned and it seems the Tottenham directors simply said thank you and waved him on his way.  It was a sad end to a truly magnificent era where he had created a team that made the game a spectacle of joy and entertainment the like of which we have not seen in the ensuing decades.

Two final images that are a perfect end to this narrative, one showing the great man in 1950 as he prepared to win the First Division with Spurs and the other showing a photograph with a “family” feel as Bill and Darkie enjoy the company of players and their wives.

Bill in 1950

The Tottenham Hotspur family with Bill and Darkie centre of the front row

Back Row (L-R)
John Smith, Peter Baker, Tony Marchi, Maurice Norman, Jacqueline Norman,
Johny Hollowbread, Lynne Baker, Terry Medwin, Elaine Brown, Bobby Smith,
Vera Hollowbread, Mel Hopkins, Barbara Hopkins, Bill Brown, Ron Henry, Cliff Jones,
Danny Blanchflower, Les Allen, Terry Dyson

Front Row (L-R)
Edna Henry, Marie Marchi, Joyce Medwin, Darkie Nicholson, Bill Nicholson,
Joan Jones, Kay Dyson, Pat Allen

Names kindly supplied by Cliff Jones

I make no apology for using the words of Brian Scovell that ended his book on Bill, “No man gave more, and took out so little, to compose and conduct glorious football that will never be forgotten.

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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