Tommy Harmer: Spurs 'charmer' of devilish skill

Thomas Charles Harmer, footballer: born London 2 February 1928; played for Tottenham Hotspur 1948-60, Watford 1960-62, Chelsea 1962-64; died London 25 December 2007

'Harmer the Charmer" was the evocative nickname, and it summed up the spindly little East Ender's footballing persona admirably as he captivated Tottenham Hotspur fans of the late 1950s with artistic sleight-of-foot and an almost brazen audacity which belied his rather anxious off-the-pitch demeanour.

Tommy Harmer was the archetypal ball-juggling inside-forward, and had he enjoyed his pomp in the first half of the 20th century he would have been hailed as a national treasure. As it was, he was born too late to be a soccer superstar, the game having changed to place increased emphasis on steelier, more muscular attributes than he possessed, but there remained few more subtly beguiling manipulators of a football anywhere in England.

Even discounting his devilish skills, Tottenham's "Tom Thumb" was unmissable on the field of play, with his jerkily inelegant mode of running, his voluminous shorts and his mop of thick black hair crowning a head which appeared fractionally too big for his puny pipe-cleaner of a frame. When Harmer's creative muse was with him, though, all notions of awkwardness dissolved. The nervy individual, who maintained a tense ritual of smoking half a cigarette before every game with the rest saved for the interval, was transformed into a bold enchanter of devastatingly assured touch, a dribbler and passer sublime who was adept at escaping from the tightest of corners.

When Harmer dispatched the ball, every manner of trajectory was his to command, his repertoire containing back-spin, swerve and one or two impudent incantations of his own invention. Yet for all that technical mastery, he was never a self-aggrandising trickster better suited to circus ring than football field; rather he was an instinctive improviser whose subtle wiles were employed faithfully in his team's cause.

Born in Hackney, east London, the son of a French polisher, Harmer honed his remarkable natural abilities in traditional manner, kicking a tennis ball around the streets near his home at every opportunity. His talent first became apparent when he played for London Fields School. He moved on to a team of naval cadets, with whom he was excelling when spotted by a Tottenham Hotspur scout during the Second World War. After joining the White Hart Lane club as a 17-year-old amateur in 1945, he was farmed out to non-league Finchley to gain experience, and to grow physically. A beef-steak-and-milk diet failed conspicuously to flesh out that gaunt outline, but he continued to develop as a player and signed professional forms for Spurs in August 1948.

Under the guidance of the new boss Arthur Rowe, Tottenham were developing an exhilarating push-and-run style which would earn them the championship of the Second and First Divisions in consecutive seasons, 1949/50 and 1950/51. The deep-thinking manager understood Harmer's exceptional quality, but he believed that the diminutive play-maker interrupted the rapid flow of his successful system. Accordingly, it was not until September 1951, at the age of 23, that Harmer made his first-team dbut, at home to Bolton Wanderers, when he made up for lost time by delighting supporters with a dazzling performance in a 2-1 victory.

However, that did not cement his position and for nearly five years he was reduced to a peripheral role on the fringe of the side, enormously frustrating for a performer in his middle twenties who should have been nearing his peak. Maddeningly, too, when he was picked he did not always show himself to best advantage, sometimes being brushed aside by more vigorous adversaries. So disenchanted did he become that he asked for a transfer, but the only firm offer came from Cardiff City, who were located too far from London for the home-loving Harmer.

His moment arrived in mid-decade following the departure of the veteran midfield general Eddie Baily and Rowe's retirement through ill health. The new boss Jimmy Anderson rated Harmer highly and employed him alongside the recently acquired wing-half Danny Blanchflower, the two of them melding magnificently to become one of the most creative centre-field pairings in English football. With the eloquent Irishman prompting intelligently and inspirationally at his shoulder, Harmer switched play constantly like some gawky but increasingly self-assured signalman on rush-hour traffic duty.

Largely as a result of this happy liaison, Spurs were transformed from the lower-to-mid-table mediocrities they had become into championship challengers in 1956/57. That term Harmer played in every match, and answered the criticism that he was a lightweight luxury by scoring 17 league goals, including 10 penalties, as the side finished as title runners-up to Manchester United's Busby Babes.

He continued to thrive as Tottenham took third place in the next campaign, and even though he had entered his thirties by the time another new manager, Bill Nicholson, embarked on radical team reconstruction in October 1958, it did not seem fanciful to suppose that Harmer might play a central part in the fresh era.

However, his prospects dimmed when the gloriously gifted John White was signed from Falkirk in October 1959. At first they were used as twin inside-forwards, then they were employed in tandem on the right flank (with Harmer on the wing), but the balance wasn't quite correct and, by the decade's end, the older man was out of the team for good.

In October 1960 the "Charmer" was sold for 6,000 to Watford of the Third Division. He had been courted by bigger clubs in the Midlands and the North, but he remained loath to stray far from London, to which he returned in September 1962 to enlist with Second Division Chelsea. Tommy Docherty's precocious young bloods benefited only briefly from the 34-year-old's experience, but although he made a mere handful of appearances for the Pensioners, he did contribute the goal which kept their promotion hopes alive with a win at Sunderland's Roker Park.

After rising to the top flight with Chelsea that spring, Harmer played three more times for his new employers, notably engineering the two goals which beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane in February 1964. Thereafter the still-skinny veteran coached at Stamford Bridge before leaving the game in 1967, later working as a bank messenger.

Ivan Ponting