A curious fact about football management is that its practioners sometimes become contradictions of themselves as players. Men who were graceful on the field often impose intensely practical values; artistry is awakened in essentially dour performers.
Nobody represented this transformation more vividly than Bill Nicholson, who didn't thrill many hearts as a Tottenham Hotspur player but is synonymous with the most successful period in the club's history.
Earlier this year, Nicholson, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, became the first to be enrolled in Tottenham's newly formed Hall of Fame, a richly deserved honour that recalled 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, which enabled him to produce one of the 20th century's most appealing teams in three years from being made manager in 1958, and handled affairs with Yorkshire bluntness, he made a virtue of stylish 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 former 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 1959 when Tottenham were struggling 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 a year earlier. Then Bill showed up to try and 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 at White Hart Lane 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, arguably the most influential player in the club's history, 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, to the embarrassment of 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 long connection with the club, first as a player with 341 appearances, winning one cap for England, he lived less than a half-mile from White Hart Lane. First in, last to leave. He counselled against intimidation of referees: "You [the players] make more mistakes." And 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 1959, 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 I became involved in Nicholson's belated testimonial. There was a distinct change; he was easier in conversation, warmer. "When I think what a miserable so-and-so you could be," I said. "What, me miserable?" he replied. "Yes, you'" I said, smiling, leaving him to reflect on the disfiguring effect of football management.
If admitting a prejudice, Mackay, who piloted Derby to the League Championship, rates Nicholson among the top six managers in the history of English football. He was of another era, one before ubiquitous agents, enormous salaries, suspicious deals and escalating greed. But today, if someone were to ask what a devoted football man looked like, whose image would spring to mind?Reuse content