John White The Ghost of White Hart Lane

I remember where I was on July 21st 1964 hearing the news that John White had been killed by lightning.  It was a similar feeling to hearing the news about the Munich Air Disaster, it left you feeling quite numb and struggling to comprehend that these tragedies could happen.  Dave MacKay simply broke down and cried as did Bill Nicholson and I’m sure that countless people were affected in a similar way.

Jimmy Greaves has been quoted as saying, “Had John White lived, he could have been one of the greatest footballers of all time”.

John Anderson White was a Scottish international football player who played a significant role for Tottenham Hotspur during their Double winning season in 1960-61.  White had originally played for Alloa Athletic under the management of Jasper ‘Jerry’ Kerr (the John White Lounge is still a feature at the Clackmannanshire club's ground) before being sold onto Falkirk, where he played alongside Dougie Moran, but his lasting fame was assured when Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson took him to London for £22,000 in October 1959.  White’s frail appearance had been the cause of considerable concern resulting in a number of English First Division clubs choosing not to risk the investment but following the reviews received from Danny Blanchflower and Dave Mackay (who had played in internationals alongside him) and information received from the Army that White was a celebrated cross-country runner, Nicholson decided to make good his interest.

At Spurs White initially occupied the inside-left position, having been bought by Nicholson to replace Dave Dunmore, but his talent flourished as an inside right as a replacement to Tommy Harmer. White’s worth to the team could be calculated in terms of goals scored (between 1959 and the conclusion of the Double winning season (a season in which he was ever-present) he contributed 18 goals) but his success mainly lay in a combination of skills: his passing, his ball control which helped sustain the attacking momentum but so too his runs to find space off the ball, arriving unexpectedly in the opposition’s penalty area which resulted in the White Hart Lane faithful giving him the nickname "The Ghost".  With him Tottenham never finished worse than 4th in the First Division and in the 15 matches missed by White while on their books, Tottenham won only once.  That statistic alone shows what he contributed to the success of Tottenham.

Spurs had come unstuck against Benfica in the 1962 European Cup semi-final but the next season White was part of the successful campaign that saw Tottenham become the first English winners of a European trophy when they defeated Atlético Madrid by five goals to one in Rotterdam to lift the European Cup Winners Cup, with White scoring one of the five goals himself. Cliff Jones, his Tottenham teammate, said of him: “He was a great talent. People ask me what he was like. I say that he was like Glenn Hoddle. But he was different to Glenn in some ways. Glenn was someone who you had to bring into a game, whereas John White would bring himself into a game. If you’re not in possession, get in position, that was John White. He was always available if you needed to pass to someone”.

White was killed by a lightning strike at the age of 27 while sheltering under a tree during a thunderstorm at Crews Hill golf course, Enfield, in July 1964. He left a 22-year-old widow, Sandra, daughter of Spurs' assistant manager, Harry Evans, whom he married in 1961, and two children, one of whom, Rob, collaborated with journalist and writer Julie Welch to publish a biography of his father in 2011 (the fiftieth anniversary of Spurs' double triumph).  The book, “The Ghost”, by Rob White & Julie Welch evokes the lost world of football in the 1960s, when Tottenham Hotspur would win the Double and be the most famous and glamorous team in the land, but the team’s full back would still mow the manager’s grass for him each weekend.  Both sets of memories are equally powerful. It is impossible not to feel moved by the story of a boy who, as a child, used to cherish his friendship with his father’s pal, right back Peter Baker, because he used the same aftershave (Old Spice).  The bereaved lad could smell it on his father’s travelling razor, “which had been passed down to me along with a little shaving brush and came in a zipped leather top”.  As he explains, poignantly: “When you have nothing, you’ll grasp at anything. Even a whiff of aftershave helps.

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Forever remembered on the Crews Hill golf course in Enfield

But the most vivid part of the book, for me, was the description of John White’s playing career, and in particular the way he fitted into Bill Nicholson’s great Spurs side.   I particularly liked the passages which describe the relationship between the glamorous Danny Blanchflower, philosopher of the beautiful game, suave man of the world, and the dour Nicholson, a man who panicked when the conversation moved away from football and a manager who knew everything about running White Hart Lane down to the light bulbs that needed replacing.   Nicholson bought White from Falkirk, as a “link man between Blanchflower and the forward line” - a decision that the team’s subsequent success vindicated.   White was the kind of player who could emerge from nowhere, who could find space where none existed, qualities which led to his nickname “the pale ghost of White Hart Lane”.

Spurs players gather to remember John, including Cliff Jones, 3rd from the right

A report from the Daily Express in May 1962 became uncannily prescient, when he died so young and in such a freakish way (sheltering under a tree on a golf course).   It called him a “frail phantom” and, throughout the book, White emerges like a wraith, his talent and good nature emerging into the light under his son’s firm gaze and diligent research.

John came across as a quiet, shy lad in public but was a prankster and fun loving with family, friends and team-mates with whom he was most comfortable and relaxed.  Cliff Jones was regularly involved with John in such escapades.  John loved football and as a boy played and practised constantly and although lightly built he had great stamina and was an outstanding cross country runner which stood him in good stead for the rigours of playing in midfield.

John White, Tottenham’s highly rated midfield wizard, was in the midst of a glittering playing career when he was suddenly struck down by lightning at Crews Hill Golf Club in Enfield on the afternoon of July 21, 1964.  He had taken shelter from a storm under a tree while out on the course - but was killed at the age of just 27, having helped Spurs claim League and Cup honours just three years previously, in addition to a further FA Cup success (1962) and victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup (1963) in the intervening time.  In 183 League outings for the Club, John netted 40 goals and scored once in 17 FA Cup matches, in addition to six times in 17 European games.

Over 50 years since his passing, John’s close friend and team-mate Cliff Jones paid this tribute to the former Scotland international...

It just seems like yesterday really - it’s unbelievable how quickly time has passed. It was a tragic time not only for John’s family but also for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. I always looked at the glory years and said you had three players - Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay and John White - and if those players played well, the whole team responded and bounced off them. That about sums it all up - John was in there with Mackay and Blanchflower. That was a very special midfield and when John was tragically killed by lightning it started the break-up of that terrific team in the 1960s.  If you’re going to talk about the original midfield dynamo who connected with the defence and the forward line, that was John. Bill Nicholson was one for midfield graft and skills and John had that in abundance. He was great with the ball and he also got his fair share of goals.  As a person, John was happy-go-lucky, a cheerful lad, very positive and never down. He was just great company. Everybody respected that and he was just a special player and a very special character. He was my room-mate, a special pal. We had great times together and of course he’s always sadly missed and fondly remembered.

Ron Henry is carried on the shoulders of John White, Cliff Jones and Dave MacKay with Peter Baker looking on

Another of John’s team-mates, Terry Dyson, agreed with Cliff and said how the former Alloa Athletic and Falkirk player’s untimely passing was the beginning of the end for Tottenham’s all-conquering side of the early 1960s...

John’s death was the start of the break-up of the Double-winning side really. It was such a shock to us all. It happened right at the start of pre-season.  John was killed, then Danny (Blanchflower) had to finish and Dave (Mackay) broke his leg. It was the nucleus of the side, really, and the three of them played a big part. We had other players around them but they were the nucleus of the team, in my opinion anyway.  He was a funny lad, John. I remember one instance at a hotel in Liverpool with a very high ceiling. We started messing around throwing coins and catching them on our foreheads. He got this little orange and we tried to keep it up, but only managed about four or five. But John, he kept it up and kept it up until it was nearly squashed! It was little things like that - he was very clever.  He was a superb athlete. He ran cross-countries and when pre-season training was on he was always at the front with Danny - he was superb in that respect. He used to float about in games - that’s why they called him the “Ghost” because he used to float around and people couldn’t pick him up. He was a crucial part of our team.  It doesn’t seem like 52 years since his passing. I remember the funeral - a lot of people couldn’t get in, it was packed. It was a very sad day.

The only game I ever saw John play, not counting television matches, was the 2nd round, 2nd leg game on March 14th 1963 against Slovan Bratislava in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.  Spurs were 0-2 down from the 1st leg and I was at White Hart Lane with my wife, Margaret, on our honeymoon and watched a magical display from “the Ghost”.  He scored the 2nd goal in a 6-0 victory and his image remains in my mind to this day, ever an Immortal.

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