Mel Hopkins: Footballer in the great 1960s Spurs side who also excelled for Wales in the 1958 World Cup
Saturday 23 October 2010
A sickening, albeit accidental clash of heads cost Mel Hopkins his likely place in one of the most lionised football teams of the 20th century.
When the Tottenham Hotspur and Wales left-back went up for an aerial challenge with Scotland's diminutive but unfailingly pugnacious centre-forward Ian St John at Hampden Park in November 1959, both men had eyes only for the ball. But St John's forehead made high-velocity contact with Hopkins' face, shattering his nose and breaking his jaw, forcing him out of immediate first-team contention and allowing his English rival Ron Henry to usurp his club place in the long term. Thus the Welshman was confined to the sidelines in 1960-61 as Spurs became the first side in modern times to win the coveted League and FA Cup double.
In fact, although he resumed his international career and remained at White Hart Lane until mid-decade, Hopkins never regained regular custody of the club's No 3 shirt from the immensely efficient Henry, instead switching to Brighton and Hove Albion, whom he helped to lift the Fourth Division championship in 1964-65. The son of a coal-miner, Hopkins grew up in the rugby heartland of the Rhondda Valley, yet he was always so keen on the round-ball game that as a teenager he formed his own team, and before long he was reaping the benefit of his single-mindedness.
After moving up to the Ystrad Boys Club he was spotted by a Tottenham scout, and although at that time he had never travelled further from South Wales than to Bristol Zoo, he accepted a trial in north London. The upshot, after spurning interest from Matt Busby's Manchester United, was a Spurs contract as an amateur in May 1951, duly followed by a professional deal a year later.
This was a period when Arthur Rowe's exhilarating push-and-run combination, which had lifted the championships of the Football League's top two tiers in 1950 and1951, was beginning to decline, so there was ample opportunity for promising rookies to make their mark. Accordingly, Hopkins made his senior debut as a 17-year-old at Derby in October 1952, soon emerging as a natural successor to the two men who had previously contested the left-back berth, the ageing Arthur Willis and Charlie Withers.
By 1954-55 Hopkins was the regular incumbent and when he earnedhis first cap for Wales, against Northern Ireland at Ninian Park, Cardiff,in April 1956, he was hailed as one of the best young flank defenders in Britain. Immediately he became an automatic selection for his country, embarking on a sequence of 23 consecutive appearances, including five in the World Cup finals of 1958 in Sweden, where Wales bowed out at the quarter-final stage to the eventual winners Brazil.
That day in Gothenburg Hopkins shone against his direct opponent, the brilliant but bewilderingly unorthodox winger Garrincha, known in South America as "The Angel with Bent Legs", a bamboozling dribbler with a deformed spine of whom the Welshman remarked: "His legs went one way and his body went the other. It was difficult to know whether you were coming or going." Jimmy Murphy's gallant side, shorn of their own star player, John Charles, through injury, and also facing the teenage genius Pele, lost by the game's only goal but covered themselves in glory for their spirited display.
Now Hopkins, who had helpedTottenham to finish second and third in England's top flight during the previous two League campaigns, while resisting what proved to be anominously persistent challenge from the erstwhile understudy Henry, was at his zenith. Standing an inch under six feet and with a loping, almostspidery gait, he could appear awkward, but that was deceptive. In fact, he was an accomplished all-round footballer, quick and tenacious, strong in the air, a perceptive passer and a brisk tackler.
Certainly Hopkins was rated highly by both his international manager Jimmy Murphy and new club manager Bill Nicholson, but then came that fateful collision with St John, then of Motherwell but destined for lofty heights with Liverpool, and his career impetus was halted in cruel fashion. Thereafter he regained his regular slot for Wales, but never for Tottenham, a colossally frustrating circumstance for a stylish performer who would have walked into most teams in the top division.
Several transfer requests were rejected, but when young Cyril Knowles was recruited from Middlesbrough in the summer of 1964and quickly proved his mettle, the picture changed and Hopkins was dispatched to Fourth Division Brighton for £5,000 in the following October. At the Goldstone Ground, where his former Tottenham team-mate Bobby Smith – who died last month – was in prolific scoring form, the 30-year-old demonstrated all his old poise in helping the Seagulls to become divisional champions in his first season on the south coast.
That medal was the least he deserved after his ill fortune at White Hart Lane, but there were to be no more gongs for Hopkins, who was unable to hold his place in the Third Division and in July 1967 he departed to non-League Canterbury City. There followed a stint with Ballymena in Northern Ireland before he returned to England in January 1969 with Bradford Park Avenue, remaining with the Yorkshire club while they twice finished bottom of the basement division before being voted out of the League in favour of Cambridge United in 1970.
Next came a spell with Wimbledon during their Southern League days, then he scouted for Derby, where his former Spurs comrade Dave Mackay was the manager, and made his living as a sports officer and coach for local authorities in Sussex.
Melvyn Hopkins, footballer; born Ystrad, Glamorgan 7 November 1934; played for Tottenham Hotspur 1951-64, Brighton and Hove Albion 1964-67, Ballymena of Northern Ireland, Bradford Park Avenue 1969; capped 34 times by Wales 1956-63; married twice (two sons); died Worthing, Sussex 18 October 2010.
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