Ted Ditchburn

Majestic and fearless goalkeeper for Tottenham and England
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Edwin George Ditchburn, footballer; born Gillingham, Kent, 24 October 1921; played for Tottenham Hotspur 1937-59; won six caps for England 1948-56; married (one son, and one daughter deceased); died 26 December 2005.

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 a club whose net-minders have included the revered Irishman Pat Jennings and 2005 England incumbent Paul Robinson.

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.

But, although called up six times by his country, he never made a major impact on the international stage, being overshadowed by the popular Swift and, more surprisingly, by the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers' Bert Williams and Gil Merrick of Birmingham City. Somehow he never seemed quite so bold or confident for England, for whom he earned his first cap in 1948 and bowed out eight years later.

The son of a professional boxer, Ditchburn followed his father into the ring and during the mid-1930s he raised money for an early pair of football boots through a series of bouts at Rochester Casino. At that point there were influential voices in the local fight fraternity urging him to make a career out of pugilism, but his heart was set on soccer and, after working in a paper mill, he joined the Tottenham ground staff in 1937.

After toiling single-mindedly to hone his craft during a stint on loan at non-League Northfleet, he returned to White Hart Lane to sign professional forms in 1939, only for his encouraging momentum to be jolted by the outbreak of war.

Service in the RAF afforded plenty of opportunities for football, however, and the big Kentish-man represented Spurs in the Football League South, an emergency competition which ran during the conflict and which he helped them to win in 1943/44.

In addition he guested for Aberdeen, Birmingham City and Dartford, and also excelled consistently for the RAF team, being rewarded by selection for two unofficial wartime internationals, against Scotland and Wales, in both of which he performed superbly. However, just as he was becoming established at that level he was posted to the Far East, and others prospered in his absence.

When peace resumed, though, there was no questioning his pre-eminence back at Tottenham, where he made his senior début in a Second Division encounter with Birmingham in August 1946.

Once in the team, as a succession of reserve keepers discovered to their frustration, Ditchburn was damnably difficult to dislodge. He missed only two League games over the next seven seasons, including an unbroken spell of appearances between April 1948 and March 1954. Until eventually overhauled by Jennings, and then Steve Perryman, he held the club record for senior outings (453), an achievement rendered doubly remarkable by the fact that the war had cost him seven years of action.

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.

Throughout that prolonged quest for honours, Ditchburn was a tower of rock-like stability, though arguably his most memorable display came in less rarified circumstances, during a Second Division defeat at Newcastle in January 1947. Three days after suffering concussion and severe bruising to his hip, he stood defiant as shots rained in on his goal, no sooner making one stupendous save than another was necessary. In the end he was beaten only once, by Len Shackleton, and at the final whistle some 62,000 Geordies treated the limping hero to one of the most moving ovations ever accorded to a visitor at St James' Park.

Ditchburn's unbending attitude on the pitch was underpinned by a forthright character, which occasionally upset those who were shy of home truths, but many of his team mates had cause to be grateful for his willingness to confront authority, and often he was asked to state the players' case in discussions with management.

By the late 1950s, with the team lacking consistency and Ditchburn in his late thirties, he began to lose his place periodically, sharing first-team duties with Ron Reynolds, but he was never heard to complain, always buckling down to fight for the goalkeeping jersey that had been his private preserve for so long.

When his top-flight tenure was ended by a broken finger sustained at Chelsea in August 1958, he was the last member of the 1951 championship side still playing, and his place in White Hart Lane folklore was inviolate.

In the following spring he moved to non-League Romford, where he spent six years, including a spell as player-boss, before leaving in April 1965. By now in his middle forties, Ditchburn still yearned to play and he turned out for Brentwood Town while building up a successful sports-outfitters business, and also becoming involved in an office-equipment venture.

Ivan Ponting