For a generation and beyond, Ted Ditchburn was the yardstick by which all Tottenham Hotspur goalkeepers were judged. Even now, more than half a century on from his pomp, there are shrewd monitors of White Hart Lane who maintain unswervingly that he remains the most accomplished custodian in the history of the club. Though never flamboyant in the style of his extrovert contemporary the Manchester City veteran Frank Swift, Ditchburn was tall and imposing, muscular and utterly fearless, his very presence engendering a feeling of security among defenders and supporters alike. For more than a decade after the Second World War, he reigned majestically between the Tottenham posts, making a colossal contribution to Tottenham's lifting of the Second and First Division championships in successive campaigns, 1949-50 and 1950-61.
Ted Ditchburn was one of the outstanding goalkeepers of the 1940s and 50s, tall and well built, fearless, acrobatic and a long-range kicker. But for all the excellence of his extensive and successful career with Spurs, his temperament continually betrayed him when he played for England, and it was not until his veteran years that he finally conquered it, giving at international level the performances he had so long turned in for Tottenham.
Born in Gillingham, Kent, the son of a professional boxer, Ted had the sort of huge hands that once seemed likely to be dedicated to the ring, until he changed his mind. Fellow footballers were ill-advised to spar with him in the dressing-room. Even Jack Chisholm, Tottenham's massive centre-half, recalled going out on the field somewhat dizzy after a brief exchange with Ditchburn; all in good fun, but none the less confusing.
Ditchburn first played for Spurs in their Second Division side in the aborted 1939-40 season. Then he joined the RAF, with which, at one point, he was posted to Burma. His prowess in the Tottenham goal led to his being picked for England in a wartime international at Wembley in 1944, at a time when Frank Swift seemed an automatic selection (Swift regained his place for several years, but Ditchburn seemed the obvious successor). His first full cap came in late 1948, when, at Highbury, England put out a much changed team against Switzerland, and won 6-0.
The following May, in Stockholm, Ditchburn had another chance, as Swift's international career came to a close, but his anxieties betrayed him. He had a shaky game, Sweden won 3-1, and the England succession went to Wolverhampton Wanderers' goalkeeper Bert Williams, another immortal.
Back Row (L-R)
Alf Ramsey, Bill Nicholson, Harry Clarke, Ted Ditchburn, Len Duquemin, A Willis, W Walters.
Front Row (L-R)
Castle, Leslie Bennet, Ron Burgess (captain), Eddie Bailey, Les Medley
Consolation came in his seasons with Spurs. In that summer of 1949, Arthur Rowe took over the team, introduced his innovative push-and-run tactics and signed Alf Ramsey from Southampton. Nicknamed the General, the player immediately became the largest influence on the team, not least because of his understanding with Ditchburn. Where goalkeepers had long been accustomed, when they took the ball, to boot it long and hard up the field, Ramsey would pass back to Ditchburn, or the keeper would throw it to Ramsey, and an attack would be built up from there. It was a tactic which had its inbuilt perils. In May 1951, during a so-called Festival of Britain match at Tottenham against German opposition, Ditchburn moved out of goal to claim a pass back from Ramsey, and a German forward, lunging at the ball, broke his finger. Fortunately, the episode did not stop Ditchburn from taking part in every league game the following season.
Back Row (L-R)
unknown official, Malcolm Barrass, Ted Ditchburn, Tom Garrett, Ray Barlow, Bill Eckersley, unknown official
Front Row (L-R)
Tommy Taylor, Roy Bentley, Billy Wright, Johnny Berry, Redfern Froggatt, Jack Froggatt
His appearance record was, indeed, remarkable. In the first two post war league seasons, 1946-47 and 1947-48, in the Second Division, he did not miss a single match. In the next five league seasons, he played all 42 games - including throughout Tottenham's promotion season of 1949-50, when they won the Second Division title, and 1950-51, when they won the championship.
Altogether, Ditchburn made 418 league appearances for Spurs, a club record until 1975, the last couple coming in season 1958-59.
The Indian summer of his international career arrived in 1956-57, though in the interim he had played for England just once; in June 1953 in New York, when he was reserve goalkeeper on an American tour. He conceded three goals, though England scored six. In 1956, however, at the age of 35, he was playing so well for Spurs that he was recalled to the England goal, appearing against Wales, Yugoslavia and Denmark, taking his total number of caps to six, a somewhat meagre reward given his consistent excellence at club level. He then spent six years at non-league Romford.
On retirement, he opened a sports shop in the town, and then ran a newsagent's shop not far from White Hart Lane.
Ditchburn's longevity owed plenty to superlative athleticism and strength, towards which he strove constantly and with an almost obsessive attention to detail. He was renowned for daring plunges at the feet of lone marauders; indeed, no goalkeeper of his era was more adept at winning one-on-one confrontations with attackers. This knack was due in part to sharp reflexes and a raw courage which verged on foolhardiness, but also was a result of a rigorous training routine which he devised, in which he dived, saved, threw the ball out, then dived again, continuing the sequence over and over again until he was exhausted. Generally assured when plucking crosses from the air and a fierce concentrator whom it was difficult to drag out of position, he was fiery and aggressive, too, ready and willing to withstand fearsome physical challenges from the bustling spearheads of the day.
His kicking was a slight weakness, but there was ample compensation in his close understanding with the full-back Alf Ramsey - the diffident future knight destined to lead England to World Cup glory in 1966 - which involved the goalkeeper's launching swift attacks with instant throw-outs. When the thoughtful Ramsey spoke of this then-rare manoeuvre as a tactical advance, the irreverent Ditchburn would grin and maintain that he had started doing it merely because his kicks were so poor.
Whatever its origin, the strategy was perfect for the fluid push-and-run style with which Spurs won their two consecutive titles - of Second and First Division - under their enterprising manager Arthur Rowe. There was no other silverware, but there were several near misses, with Tottenham finishing as championship runners-up in 1952 and 1957 and suffering two FA Cup semi-final defeats, both to Stanley Matthews's Blackpool, in 1948 and 1953.