Bill Nicholson

Perfectionist manager of Tottenham Hotspur
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The Independent Online

William Edward Nicholson, footballer and football manager: born Scarborough, Yorkshire 26 January 1919; played for Tottenham Hotspur 1936-55, manager 1958-74, managerial consultant 1976-91, president 1991-2004; capped once for England 1951; OBE 1975; managerial consultant, West Ham United 1975-76; married (two daughters); died Potters Bar, Hertfordshire 23 October 2004.

Despite the avalanche of glib superlatives with which sporting heroes tend to be engulfed, genuine and universally acknowledged greatness remains as properly rare in football as in any other sphere of life. But there can be no doubt that Bill Nicholson attained it with Tottenham Hotspur in 1960/61.

He was the architect of a team as exhilarating, as balanced, as downright beautiful as any British combination in living memory, a glorious fusion of silk and dynamite which became the first in the 20th century to win the coveted League and FA Cup double.

Yet in scaling that lofty pinnacle relatively early in his managerial career, the gruff, deep-thinking, inscrutable Yorkshireman had condemned himself to perpetual frustration in his never-ending quest for soccer perfection.

The names of the class of '61, which read like a sacred litany to Spurs fans of that era, bear repetition here: Brown; Baker, Henry; Blanchflower, Norman, Mackay; Jones, White, Smith, Allen and Dyson. By no means all of them were "great" players; indeed, of the 11, only the wing-halves Danny Blanchflower and Dave Mackay, winger Cliff Jones and inside-forward John White merit anything approaching such an accolade.

But Nicholson's achievement lay in blending disparate talents into a magnificent whole. An impeccable judge of character and ability, he bought brilliantly, got the best out of players already at his disposal and coached imaginatively. The chemistry was right and the rest followed, often sublimely.

The glitter and gloss of White Hart Lane were far removed from Nicholson's beginnings, between the wars in Scarborough, as the second youngest of a hansom-cab driver's nine children. Growing up during the Depression, he became so used to austerity that it was to remain integral to his way of life even when he was earning the wages of a top manager.

Indeed, while his star players would inhabit lavish homes in the north London commuter belt, Nicholson didn't move from a modest end-of-terrace house close to Tottenham's ground, though that was due only partly to his simple tastes and lack of ostentation. The most pressing reason was his utter dedication to his work, which was so near that he could - and usually did - burn the midnight oil disposing of routine matters neglected during the day's tracksuit toil.

On leaving school, Nicholson took a job as a laundry boy and played his football for Scarborough Working Men's Club. In 1936 he was spotted by Spurs and moved south to gather experience with their nursery club, Northfleet, before turning professional in 1938. He made impressive strides, being awarded a Second Division début at left-back that same year, only for his encouraging progress to be halted brutally by the Second World War.

During the hostilities he served in the Durham Light Infantry, being stationed mainly in England - first as an infantry instructor, then a physical training instructor - and found time for guest appearances with Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Newcastle United and Darlington among others.

When normality was restored at the war's end, Nicholson switched to centre-half before a permanent move to right-half, a role in which he excelled until the end of his playing days. He was an unspectacular performer, sturdy, industrious and efficient, his play as unadorned by fripperies as his life style. Playing alongside his flamboyant skipper, Ronnie Burgess, and in front of the enterprising Alf Ramsey, Nicholson acted as an endlessly consistent linkman, becoming a crucial component in the mould-breaking "push-and-run" side assembled by the manager Arthur Rowe.

In 1949/50 he pocketed a Second Division title medal, then went one better the next term as Spurs became League Champions for the first time in their history. Unaccustomed personal glory followed in May 1951 when, at the age of 32, Nicholson was called up for his sole full England cap. He celebrated in untypically dramatic manner by scoring with his first kick, a powerful shot from long range, a mere 19 seconds into the action against Portugal at Goodison Park. The lack of further international recognition could be ascribed to a combination of injuries, advancing age and the excellence of Billy Wright.

Come 1954 Nicholson, whose honesty was a byword, told Rowe it was time to replace him in the team, and he accepted an invitation to join the club's coaching staff. By then he had demonstrated considerable aptitude for passing on his knowledge of the game, gaining his FA coaching badge at the first attempt and working with the Cambridge University team.

In 1957 he became assistant to the manager Jimmy Anderson, who had replaced the far-from-well Rowe, and a year later helped the England boss Walter Winterbottom prepare his side for the World Cup Finals in Sweden.

But even that was merely a prelude to the most important moment of his career, his appointment as Tottenham manager in October 1958. The reign got under way with an astonishing 10-4 home victory over Everton, but Bill Nicholson's head was not for turning. He realised there was much work to be done on a flawed team and suffered early setbacks as Spurs flirted with relegation that season, eventually scraping to safety by an uncomfortably narrow margin.

Before long, though, he got it right, extracting the absolute best from Blanchflower - as romantic and loquacious as Nicholson was dour and taciturn - and the rest as he pieced together that most lovely of sides. A stern realist, he was ever a grudging dispenser of praise, and it grated on some observers that even in the hour of his most memorable triumph, when defeat of Leicester City at Wembley in 1961 secured football's most famous double, he appeared unable to relax and enjoy the moment.

Instead he bemoaned the fact that, in a disappointing match marred by injury to Leicester's Len Chalmers, his Spurs had not shown the world how well they could really play.

That summer he strengthened his side by the acquisition of Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan and in 1961/62 Tottenham retained the FA Cup, beating Burnley 3-1 in the final; reached the semi-final of the European Cup before losing narrowly and controversially to Benfica, and finished third in that term's title race. In 1962/63 they were First Division runners-up and, more momentously still, became the first British club to lift a European trophy, the Cup Winners' Cup.

Yet that milestone 5-1 annihilation of Atletico Madrid in Rotterdam proved to be a valedictory triumph for Nicholson's wonderful team. It broke up, as even the best teams must - though the horrific loss of White to a bolt of lightning in 1964 could hardly have been foreseen - and the manager set about rebuilding.

He did so ably, maintaining the Tottenham tradition for attractive football and backing his judgement with a series of big-money signings; but alas, having scaled Olympian heights with his first creation, the only way was down.

True, with victories in the FA Cup (1967), the League Cup (1971 and 1973) and the Uefa Cup (1972), Spurs were hardly on short rations compared with most other clubs, but Nicholson never again presided over a Championship triumph and his teams resembled mere mortals compared with what had gone before.

Inevitably, in view of his perfectionist's outlook, he became increasingly dissatisfied, a situation which defeat in the 1974 Uefa Cup Final did nothing to relieve. Still, few people imagined that the sprightly 55-year-old was on the verge of quitting the job with which he had become synonymous, yet in September 1974, after a run of dismal results, he did just that.

In truth, Bill Nicholson was reacting not merely to current circumstances at White Hart Lane, but to what he considered were disturbing trends in football. He despised the onset of functional modern modes of play, was out of tune with the new, precocious breed of player, was disenchanted at the creeping commercialisation of his beloved game - much later, his condemnation of the avaricious Premiership age was savagely trenchant - and sickened by widespread hooliganism.

Though the board and the players tried to get him to change his mind, in the end Nicholson's departure was handled clumsily. Upset that he couldn't choose his successor - he wanted Blanchflower, the club chose Terry Neill - he took a brief rest (during which he was appointed OBE) before spending a year as an adviser to West Ham United.

Happily for both Spurs and "Bill Nick", he was back at White Hart Lane in 1975, having been requested to return as a consultant by the new boss, Keith Burkinshaw. He continued to fill that role under successive managers until 1991, when he became club president.

During a life dedicated well-nigh totally to football, Nicholson had been fortunate to enjoy the support of a loyal wife, Grace (or "Darkie" as she preferred to be called), who assumed the major responsibility for bringing up their two daughters. Though his habitually stern exterior gave little away, close associates maintained that it masked deep emotions, which were never more apparent than when he weighed up the cost to private life of his work-enforced absences.

Such matters, though, are between a man and his family. As far as the public domain is concerned, Bill Nicholson was a marvellous manager, one of the greatest of them all.

Ivan Ponting

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