Ron Burgess

Titanic presence at Tottenham Hotspur

In the case of Ron Burgess, mining's loss was football's immeasurable gain.

William Arthur Ronald Burgess, footballer and manager: born Cwm, Monmouthshire 9 April 1917; played for Tottenham Hotspur 1938-54, Swansea Town 1954-56; capped 32 times by Wales 1946-54; managed Swansea Town 1955-58, Watford 1959-63; married (one son, one daughter); died Swansea 14 February 2005.

In the case of Ron Burgess, mining's loss was football's immeasurable gain.

People who knew him as a boy joked that, with his boundless vitality, immense strength and readiness to toil until he dropped, he might single-handedly have emptied the South Wales coalfield in which he grew up expecting to spend his working life. Instead he hewed out a glorious niche as one of the most influential performers in the history of Tottenham Hotspur, emerging as a titanic presence at the heart of the team which took English club football by storm midway through the 20th century.

Burgess was both skipper and midfield inspiration as the north Londoners topped the Second Division table in 1949/50, then lifted the League championship a year later, and, if one man embodied the ethos of the visionary manager Arthur Rowe's exhilarating combination, it was the genial, prematurely balding Welshman.

His perpetual motion and irrepressible enthusiasm, melding potently with the wily passing game of the inside- forward Eddie Baily, facilitated the side's fluid push-and-run style, which highlighted Rowe's credentials as one of the game's most progressive thinkers.

Not that Burgess was merely a workhorse, his characteristic dynamism and resilience being gilded by comprehensive all-round ability; his ball control was neat, his distribution assured, he was positionally astute, formidable in the air and quick over the ground.

He excelled, too, at international level, missing only two appearances for his country in eight post-war seasons, winning most of his 32 caps as captain. In addition he was the first Welshman to represent the Football League and he played for Great Britain against the Rest of Europe in 1947.

Burgess learned the game on rough pitches next to Rhondda Valley slagheaps, shining initially as a prolific centre-forward. Soon he attracted the attention of Cardiff City, whom he joined as an amateur in his mid-teens, but the Bluebirds' interest cooled and he took a mining job while playing for a local side, Cwm Villa. Now a future in the pits appeared inevitable, but after plundering 59 goals in one season he was spotted by Tottenham, who recruited him, again on amateur terms, in 1936.

Initially it seemed likely that Burgess's reprieve from the coalface was only temporary, as he failed to make the grade at White Hart Lane and he was on his way home to South Wales when he stopped off to watch his Spurs contemporaries in a junior game. They were a man short - he stepped in at right-half and performed so impressively that he was offered a place at the club's Northfleet nursery in Kent.

In the new role he progressed rapidly, turning professional in 1938 at the age of 21 and making his senior début in a Division Two fixture at Norwich in February 1939, only for his momentum to be shattered by the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the conflict, Burgess served as a physical training instructor in the RAF, but found there was plenty of time for football, turning out for both Tottenham and Wales in unofficial competition, as well as guesting for Huddersfield Town, Millwall, Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Reading.

When peace resumed, he settled as Tottenham's regular left-half and it was a tribute to his insatiable drive that he emerged as leader of a team which included two men marked out for massive achievements in management - Alf Ramsey was destined to guide England to World Cup triumph in 1966, five years after Bill Nicholson had presided over Spurs's becoming the first club that century to lift the League and FA Cup double.

At first Burgess's determination to surge forward, sometimes heedless of defensive duties, was perceived as a weakness, but after Rowe became boss in 1949 the skipper tempered his adventure with a dash of caution, and became even more effective. Indeed, years later the shrewd Nicholson would describe him as the best midfielder the club had ever known, thus outranking the illustrious likes of Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne.

The back-to-back successes of promotion and League title were followed by a near miss as Tottenham finished as runners-up to Manchester United in 1951/52. Then came two more seasons of top-flight action before Burgess, having entered his 38th year, joined Second Division Swansea Town in 1954. A year later he became player-manager at the Vetch Field, laying aside his boots in 1956 but consolidating the Swans' mid-table position, until a slump in 1957/58 preceded his departure and a fresh coaching challenge with lowly Watford.

In March 1959 Burgess ascended to the managerial seat at Vicarage Road, leading the Hornets to promotion from Division Four and on a thrilling run to the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1959/60. The following term brought more success, with Watford finishing fourth in the Third Division, but after differences with the popular marksman Cliff Holton had cost him the backing of many supporters, the club endured two disappointing terms and he was sacked in May 1963.

Some close observers believed that the amiable Burgess was not ruthless enough for the job, being loath to make crucial decisions affecting players' livelihoods, and their predictions that he would not return to the League scene proved correct. However, he was not finished with the business of gathering silverware, taking over at non-League Hendon and guiding them to FA Amateur Cup glory against Whitby Town at Wembley in 1965.

That Burgess still hankered after the big time was evident, however, in his application to manage Wales in 1964. He was rejected in favour of Dave Bowen, although he took charge of the team briefly when the Northampton Town boss was unavailable because of club commitments.

Later Burgess was a trainer at Fulham under his former Spurs colleague Vic Buckingham, then manager of Bedford Town, and a scout for Luton Town. Also there was a brief stint in charge of a Soccer Hall of Fame in the West End of London before work as a stock controller for a stationery firm in Wealdstone and as a warehouseman in Harrow.

Ivan Ponting



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