Ken Jones: Limited players can become the greatest managers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A curious fact about football management is that its practioners are sometimes contradictions of themselves as players. Men who were graceful on the field often impose intensely practical values; artistry is awakened in essentially dour performers.

A curious fact about football management is that its practioners are sometimes contradictions of themselves as players. Men who were graceful on the field often impose intensely practical values; artistry is awakened in essentially dour performers.

Looking back over more years than I find comfortable to remember, nobody has represented this transformation more vividly than Bill Nicholson, who didn't thrill many hearts on the field but is synonymous with the most romantic period in Tottenham Hotspur's history.

At White Hart Lane tonight, Nicholson, 85, becomes the first to be enrolled in Tottenham's newly formed Hall of Fame. A richly deserved honour, it recalls not only the great success of 1961 when Spurs achieved the first modern Double but Nicholson's insistence on entertainment and his reputation for unswerving integrity.

While Nicholson kept in the forefront of his mind a conception of the whole game, a conception which enabled him to produce one of the 20th century's greatest teams in three years from being made manager in 1958, and handled affairs with Yorkshire bluntness, he made a virtue of improvisation much as Arsène Wenger does at Arsenal today.

It would be understating the case to call Nicholson a hard taskmaster. As many of his players testify, praise was seldom forthcoming. The great driving force Dave Mackay recalled Nicholson's gloom after the Double was secured by defeating Leicester City in the 1961 FA Cup final. "The excitement was lost on Bill because we were well below our best," he said. "It was enough for the players to win, but not Bill who felt that we had let ourselves and our supporters down. He was that much of a perfectionist."

And honest. Mackay spoke of his first meeting with Nicholson in the spring of 1958 when Tottenham were in the midst of a struggle to avoid relegation. "I had no serious thoughts about leaving Hearts, although but for the fact that Matt Busby was in hospital recovering from his injuries in the Munich disaster I would probably have signed for Manchester United. Then Bill showed up to try to sign me for Tottenham. It was his honesty that persuaded me to go there. In all my time under him I never knew him to break his word, to promise something he could not deliver. I could not have played for a better man."

Over the years I got to know Nicholson well, if not intimately. His press relations were frequently subject to emotional disturbance but the effort was invariably educational, utterly devoid of deceit. Standing outside Tottenham's dressing room following an away defeat against Slovan Bratislava in the European Cup Winners' Cup - overwhelmingly reversed two weeks later - he said, bristling, "You're always telling them how good they are now tell them how bad they were."

For such a common man Nicholson could be uncommonly dramatic in his moves to maintain Tottenham's supremacy. The inspired purchase of Mackay came out of the blue when the target was supposed to be Mel Charles, of Swansea, who instead joined Arsenal.

The gloriously talented, ill-fated John White was snapped up from Falkirk while on National Service, ultimately to the embarrassment of Glasgow Rangers who had expressed doubts about his stamina. Taking the trouble to check with White's commanding officer, Nicholson discovered that he was a cross-country champion. Later, with a minimum of fuss, Nicholson successfully pursued Jimmy Greaves, bringing him back from Milan for a £99,999 fee, one pound below the existing British transfer record.

Few men have been as immersed in a football club than Nicholson. Throughout his career, first as a player with 341 appearances, winning one cap for England, he lived less than a half-mile from White Hart Lane. And, of course, like Jock Stein at Celtic and Bill Shankly at Liverpool, loyalty was thrown into Nicholson's face, his grand vision of the future bluntly rejected by a feeble board of directors.

It would have included Danny Blanchflower who was Nicholson's opposite in almost all things but their shared belief in the glory of football. During the relegation crisis of 1958, Nicholson dropped his captain, explaining, "In a good team, Blanchflower is an exceptional player, in a poor team he is a liability." After a month in the reserves, during which he asked for a transfer, Blanchflower was restored to the team. He would have Nicholson to thank for the signings and the philosophy that made the autumn of his career comfortable and filled with renown.

Many years later, when Tottenham had changed hands, I became involved in Nicholson's belated testimonial. There was a distinct change in him; he was easier in conversation, warmer. "When I think what a miserable so-and-so you could be," I said. He looked surprised. "What, me miserable?" he replied. "Yes, you," I said, smiling. It made me think about what the pressures of football management can do to a man.

If admitting a prejudice, Mackay, who piloted Derby County to the Football League Championship, rates Nicholson among the top-six managers in the history of English football. He is of another era, one before ubiquitous agents, salaries out of all proportion to ability, suspicious deals and escalating greed. Today, if somebody were to ask what a true football man looked like, whose image would come to mind?

Comments