Gilzean, King of the Lane who conquered San Siro

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The Independent Football

It was nearly 40 years ago now, and though the memories inevitably disperse like dried leaves on the winds of time, some images persist. The European travels of Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions' League this season, with their next visit to Internazionale on Wednesday, can't help but evoke the aura of one man in particular.

"Gilly" was different. So distinct from the norm, in truth, that it took many years before a man who bore comparison to Alan Gilzean would emerge in that quarter of north London, in the form of Dimitar Berbatov.

For those of us who watched Gilzean during a decade under Bill Nicholson, there was an incongruity about the Scotland striker. Nicholson bought him from Dundee to replace Bobby Smith for £72,000, a sum that would have been considered extravagant in 1964, had he not been one of the manager's finest signings, who that same year scored the winner against England at Hampden Park.

With his slicked-back, receding hairline and urbane demeanour, he could have wandered in off the Tottenham High Road en route to a gig as a nightclub musician. He could play all right, producing a stunning succession of goals and assists with a forehead that glistened under the floodlights.

"He was quietly spoken off it, but came alive on the field," says Steve Perryman, Gilzean's former room-mate and captain. "I don't mean dashing around. He had charisma and a style, almost a classic style. He wasn't going to be hurried, and had an amazing touch."

There was a conviction about his play that was encapsulated by a night at White Hart Lane in early April 1972, the Uefa Cup semi-final first leg against a talented, over-physical Milan, captained by that supreme midfielder Gianni Rivera.

Romeo Benetti had scored for the visitors after 25 minutes. Perryman, now director of football at Exeter City, recalls: "Just imagine Italian defenders at that time looking to defend a one-goal lead away. They were rough and robust and cynical, but 'Gilly' just took it all. He ventured into places where they didn't want him to go. He caused them so many problems in the air, and eventually we wore them down.

"With Mike England, Martin Chivers and Martin Peters we had an unbelievable aerial threat in that team, and Gilly was at the forefront of that. By the end, they were a little bit ragged. You didn't normally see Italian defenders like that."

Perryman's brace ensured Spurs recorded a precarious-looking 2-1 victory, but a 1-1 draw at the San Siro saw them through to a final against Wolves, which they won. It was one of four trophies secured by the time Gilzean retired in 1974.

For a while he took charge of Stevenage Athletic, then he was depot manager of a north London transport firm. But that was followed by anonymity until the summer of 2005 when it was rumoured, erroneously, on messageboards that he had become "a down-and-out".

Sports writer and Spurs fan James Morgan, determined that his memory should not perish in a welter of misinformation, decided to investigate.

His obsessive quest to track down the Scot led to a book whose title, In Search of Alan Gilzean, may not seize the imagination. Yet this diligent search for a man who, after being the undisputed King of White Hart Lane, abdicated to become a commoner before all but disappearing, is strangely compelling. His detective work finally unearths a man living in Weston-super-Mare, quite content as a relative recluse.

Gilzean, who was born a year before the start of World War Two, played in an era when only a few players, such as the Bests and Osgoods, enjoyed off-the-field celebrity attention. Gilzean certainly didn't, and rarely encouraged it, although as Perryman points out, "that didn't mean he didn't have a strong opinion, and he'd hold his own in an argument about football".

You wonder what he would make of the comparisons with Berbatov. Perryman says: "It was true he had this amazing calmness, an almost Berbatov-like casualness, shaped by a total belief in himself. He never looked rushed. Jimmy Greaves drooled about him, having gone on to score many goals from Gilly's flick-ons."

According to Perryman, the players appreciated the fact that he led from the front and there was universal respect for his technique and class. "A terrific man," he says. "He was different. He helped me settle in and was responsible for giving me confidence. Gilly would make you aware that he rated you. And if Alan Gilzean rated you, you'd like to think you were a player.

"When I played with him, he was at the top of his game. Or I like to think he was. If he was ever better than that then, by Christ, he was a player..."

'In Search of Alan Gilzean' by James Morgan (Back Page Press, £9.99)