NORMAN GILLER’S SPURS ODYSSEY BLOG No 83
Submitted by Norman Giller
One more backward glance - Nicholson and Greaves
Six days to go to the kick-off to the new season, and time for one more backward glance to the great Tottenham servants of the past. And who better to close our Spurs Odyssey portfolio of yesterday’s heroes than The Master, ‘Sir’ Bill Nicholson, talking about the club’s most prolific goalscorer, Greavsie.
This is a rare relaxed photograph of Bill Nick and Greavsie together, and copied by me from Jimmy’s own scrapbook. Now let’s hear Bill talking about what he considered his greatest ever signing.
I am dipping into my Bill Nicholson Revisited book for an edited version of my last ever interview with the most successful and revered manager in the club’s history. To set the scene, it was a double-decker red bus that had taken me to my first meeting with him as a young reporter in 1958 just after he had taken over from Jimmy Anderson …
Now here I was 43 years later in my Spurs-blue 4.2 Jaguar driving to see The Master for what was to prove the last face-to-face interview. It was the week before the testimonial Tottenham were belatedly giving him at White Hart Lane and I was sounding him out for a proposed appearance on a television programme I had devised. This was a series called Who’s the Greatest?, and we were planning to feature Jimmy Greaves against Kenny Dalglish in a revival of the show that had run on ITV in the 1980s.
I wanted to know whether Bill would be prepared to appear as a witness for Greavsie, while also craftily picking his brains for more treasured recollections about all things Spurs.
I prepared to park my flash car outside his modest but welcoming 71 Creighton Road N.17. home, a small, unpretentious house once owned by Spurs and rented to him until he became sole owner in the 1960s “for a couple of thousand pounds.” It was close enough to the Lane that on match days you could hear the roar of the crowd.
Bill opened his front door as I pulled up, leaning heavily on a stick that was his one concession to galloping old age. “I remember you when you couldn’t afford a bike,” was his opening shot, immediately reviving memories of the banter we always used to share when I was doing my bread-and-butter job of football reporting.
“You can’t park there,” he said. “You’ll get a ticket. Drive round the back where you’ll find our garage in a block. I won’t charge you for taking our space. First right and then an immediate left.”
Bill Nick, looking all of his 82 years, was still showing the way; still giving directions. Keep it simple. Give it and go. When not in possession get in position.
The delightful Darkie, Bill’s always-smiling wife, demanded I have a cup of tea and then disappeared to the local shops – walking, I noticed, rather than cycling as in the old days – and leaving her beloved Bill and I to our rose-coloured recollections; or perhaps that should be blue and white.
The Nicholsons, approaching their Diamond Wedding, had one of those end-of-terrace houses that hug you, nothing whatsoever ostentatious about it but warm, welcoming and filled with friendliness. Their snug lounge led into an extension that was decorated with family photographs, mostly of daughters Linda and Jean and much-loved grandchildren. Just a framed photo of Bill proudly showing off his OBE in the Buckingham Palace forecourt gave any hint that this was the home of a hero.
This was the comfortable sanctuary to which Bill used to escape after all those triumphs in vast stadiums filled with cheering, chanting fans. What a contrast.
“Still tending your allotment?” I asked from my seat on the sofa, with him relaxed opposite me in his favourite, well-worn armchair, wearing a cardigan and Marks and Spencer slippers.
His hair was still military-short but the once gingery, then steel grey had surrendered to a whiteness that would have matched a Spurs shirt. “No, the old joints are not up to it now,” he said. “But the neighbours keep it tidy and under control. The blackberry bush I planted is still there and giving us fruit.”
Just a few months earlier during the welter of litigation that tarnished the club in what were uncertain times there had been a tense exchange in the High Court. Former chairman Sir Alan Sugar, in his libel action against Associated Newspapers, denied vehemently the accusation by the newspaper’s QC that, “On one occasion you were introduced to Bill Nicholson and were heard to say, ‘Who is that old git?’”
When it was reported I remember all supporters with Spurs in their soul were outraged. This was like not knowing who lived at Buckingham Palace.
“What did you think of that?” I asked Bill, convinced he would give me one of his famous blanks.
“I thought it was hilarious,” he said, unexpectedly. “I could have said exactly the same thing about Sugar!”
When I tried to press Bill on the subject of boardroom battles and bungs, he waved a finger at me like an admonishing headmaster. “How long have we known each other?”
“More than 40 years,” I said.
“And when have you ever known me get involved in politics? It is just not my scene. All I was ever interested in was the football. Keith Burkinshaw shared my views on that, and it’s why he quit the club. He was a first-class manager and I thought it was bonkers when the club let him go. The only time I got into politics was when I tried to get Danny Blanchflower appointed as my successor as manager, and all that got me was the embarrassment of having the Board completely ignore my advice. I liked Terry Neill as a person but he was never ever a true Spurs man.”
I could sense Bill was uncomfortable talking club matters, perhaps conscious that he was still Tottenham’s honorary President, so I changed the subject.
“We are reviving a TV series I dreamt up in the 1980s called Who’s the Greatest?” I explained, “and one of our first shows will feature celebrities arguing the case for Jimmy Greaves against Kenny Dalglish.”
“Hasn’t that already been on?”
“That was Greaves against Ian Rush. We had a jury of twelve people and they voted eight-four in Jimmy’s favour.”
It set Bill off on the road down memory lane. “Should have been twelve-nought! Jimmy was the greatest scorer of them all. I’ve never seen a player touch him for putting the vital finishing touch. While others were still thinking about what to do, whoosh, he would just get on and do it. He would have the ball into the net in the blinking of an eye and then amble back to the centre-circle as casually as if he’d just swatted a fly. A genius.”
Bill’s mind was now filled with action replays of golden goals from the boots of our mutually favourite footballer, Greavsie. Not the rotund, funny one on the telly. This, the 10st 8lbs lightning-quick, darting, dribbling, twisting, turning and passing the ball into the net Jimmy Greaves, the Artful Dodger penalty area pickpocket who snaffled more memorable goals than many of us have had hot baths. He was signed from AC Milan in December 1961 for £99,999, because Bill did not want to give him the pressure of being football’s first £100k footballer.
“He never gave me a spot of trouble, y’know,” Bill continued, now thinking aloud rather than talking direct to me. I need not have been there. He was wandering around a precious past, and did not need any prompting or interruption. “Even when it came time for us to part company he knew in his heart he’d lost his appetite for the game. People who didn’t know what they were talking about sometimes described him as a bit of a faint-heart, but in all the years I watched him I never ever saw him shirk a tackle. And I’ll tell you what, there were at least ten goals that should have been added to his career total. Time and again he would be flagged off-side simply because his movement was too quick for the eye of the linesman.
“The hardest of all to take was in the 1962 European Cup semi-final against Benfica here (Bill waved a gnarled hand at the wall in the direction of nearby White Hart Lane) when he scored a perfectly good goal that was ruled off-side. That broke all our hearts. We might have beaten Jock (Stein) and his great Celtic to become the first British team to win the European Cup.
“Jimmy had two great partnerships for us, first with Bobby Smith who provided lots of muscle in making openings for him, and then with Alan Gilzean, one of the most elegant forwards I’ve ever clapped eyes on. Greavsie and Gilly together were like poetry in motion. I was hoping for a third one when I put Jim together with Martin Chivers, but by then he was only giving half his attention to the game. He was quite the businessman off the pitch, and that took the edge off his appetite for the game, along with his sudden ridiculous craze for rally driving.
“But even with half his concentration he was still twice as good as any other goal-scoring forward. It hurt like hell the day I decided to let him go in part exchange for Martin Peters. But as a manager you often had to do things that hurt you inside but were necessary for the team and the club.
“Martin was another wonderfully gifted footballer, but completely different to Jim. Alf (Ramsey) described him as being ten years ahead of his time, and I knew exactly what he meant. He was an exceptional reader of the game, a bit like Danny and dear John White, and knew where to be before anybody else had spotted the gap.
“Nothing’s changed. The game is still all about positioning. If you’re not in the right place, then you’re not going to be able to do the right thing. Positioning, positioning, positioning. The three Ps. Now Jimmy always knew where to be to make the most of a goal-scoring opportunity. It came naturally to him. You couldn’t teach it. Quite a few of his goals were tap-ins, and people said he was lucky. He made his own luck by being in the right place at the right time.”
I reluctantly brought Bill out of his golden reminiscing. “Would you be prepared to come to the studio and say that on camera?” I asked. Bill looked at me as if I had just awoken him from a wonderful dream
“You know I hate appearing in front of TV cameras,” he said. “Hated it when I was a manager, hate it now. I’m a football man not a song and dance man. Mind you, I got a lot of pleasure watching Jimmy on the Saint and Greavsie show. Why did they take that off? I thought it was a good thing to show football could laugh at itself.”
My eyebrows reached for the sky. “That’s rich coming from you, Bill. You were Mr Serious throughout your managerial career.”
“That’s true,” he admitted. “I found it difficult to unwind. I could never understand how the likes of Tommy Docherty and Malcolm Allison could sometimes act like clowns. I never had that sort of release. For me football was, still is, much more than just a game. It was my life.”
My last view of Bill that memorable day that I visited him at home was him leaning on his stick, waving me goodbye with a wide smile on a friendly face far removed from the ‘dour Yorkshireman’ description that accompanied so many of his interviews in his managing days. He was enjoying the last of the summer wine, and it was vintage Tottenham.
He had one parting shot, delivered with a twinkle in his eyes. “You know what was the hardest thing about my job? It was being told how to do it by people who couldn’t trap a bag of cement.”
Just for the record, my revised Who’s the Greatest? idea morphed into Petrolheads, a series I devised for BBC2. I could not see Bill appearing in that. The panel, headed by Top Gear’s Richard Hammond, would have mocked him unmercifully for driving an unfashionable Vauxhall Cavalier.
Bill would not have cared less. After all, he had driven the best: a Rolls Royce of a football team called Tottenham Hotspur.
As I drove away from Creighton Road, the thought sat in my mind: Shouldn’t the people of Tottenham put up a Spurs-blue plaque outside No 71: Bill Nicholson, Mr Spurs, lived here.
You can read the entire interview in Bill Nicholson Revisited, which is on sale here and with ALL profits going to the Tottenham Tribute Trust to help our old heroes who have hit difficult times: www.normangillerbooks.com.
To close this flashback Spurs Odyssey series, a word on the progress of Greavsie following his recent violent stroke. He hopes to return home in the near future to continue his rehabilitation, but there is still a long recovery road ahead. Jimmy is up for the fight.
So it’s almost certainly adios Roberto Soldado, the unexploded Spanish bomb who failed to go off for Tottenham.
Rarely on the football field has one player had so many goal-scoring chances and taken so few. It was heart-wrenching to watch, particularly as it was obvious that Bobby was a class act but just could not get it together in front of goal.
Hopefully as he heads back home to Spain (or to Benfica, if their last-minute interest pays off) he will recover his confidence. We will always have a fondness for Bobby at the Lane, despite the power cut. I am told his transfer to Villarreal is virtually finalised but there could yet be a change of mind.
Transfer speculation continues to burn like one of those campfires that keep going out until somebody throws another log on. There have been more than 40 forwards signed for Spurs so far this summer by the In the Knows, who in fact know nowt. Typical of a Daniel Levy build up to a new season, the rumours will continue to fly until the last minute.
It will be the old familiar faces against Real Madrid in tomorrow’s showpiece friendly in Munich. Spurs Odyssey followers are wise enough to keep a balanced view of a game that carries little but prestige in what is phoney war time.
The only match that matters is the season opener at Old Trafford on Saturday. That’s when we can start having our nervous breakdowns, not before … and when we will discover if we are loading too much responsibility on the young shoulders of the incredibly exciting Harry Kane.
Watch this space.
THE GILLER TEASER
Welcome to the last of my teasers before the second Spurs Odyssey Quiz League kicks off next week.
Most of you were correct with last week’s teaser: Who was capped 28 times and was in the 1998 World Cup finals squad, and played for Chelsea and Leeds after becoming Tottenham Payer of the Year; and with which club did he start his career?
Yes, it was Surrey-born Scot Neil Sullivan, who followed Ian Walker between the Tottenham posts. He would have won many more Scottish caps but for the dominating presence of Man United’s Jim Leighton.
First name drawn from the correct answers is Bob Seekings, who flies the Spurs flag from far-off Baku in Azerbailjan. I will email a screen version of one of my Tottenham-themed books to Bob, who shares this fascinating background on his support that goes back to 1962:
“I am a Transportation Consultant (Highways, Bridges etc) for the World Bank, based in Azerbaijan but travel all round the Southern Caucuses, Central Asia and the Balkans. Everywhere I go everyone wants to talk about the EPL. Its popularity is quite staggering, hence all the TV money pouring in. The downside is that the majority are glory seeking Chelski fans. I have strongly pointed out to them the error of their ways and am hoping this will translate into more fans for Spurs. We get most matches on the TV, often Turkish commentary but occasionally in English from Qatar, where Andy Gray and Richard Keys have ended up following their ‘gender issue’ with Sky a few years back.”
Spurs Odyssey draws a worldwide following thanks to the conscientious and authoritative foundation work put in our by chief guru Paul Smith. I hope you stay with us throughout what is going to be a fascinating season.
This week’s teaser: Who is the Geordie-born striker who scored 48 League goals for Spurs between 1995 and 2002, and with which Welsh club did he start and finish his career?
Email your answers, please, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t forget to add your name, the district where you live and how long you’ve supported Spurs.
Thanks for your company. See you same time, same place next week. COYS!
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