If there had to be sadness at the demeanour and the conduct of almost everybody involved in what was supposed to be the match of the decade at Old Trafford, it could only be compounded by the loss of Bill Nicholson.
Those who knew Nicholson best, who saw close up his brilliant stewardship of that sublime Double-winning Tottenham team, have already testified to his worth as a manager and a man. For me, the news of his death brought back a night in Rotterdam which was probably the least uplifting of his magnificent career.
It was in 1973 and the occasion was one of the first major English fan riots in Europe. All through the afternoon there had been reports of misbehaviour by the Spurs fans; shoppers had been scattered in the city centre, café tables had been overturned. In the Feyenoord stadium, however, the situation briefly slipped out of control. As riot place launched fierce action, and 200 injured were taken to hospital, Nicholson spoke on the public address.
His words were unforgettable because at the time they seemed simply a call to reason, not the forlorn opening lines to more than 30 years of national disgrace. "Stop it," cried Nicholson. "You make me ashamed to be an Englishman."
In another way, Nicholson's retirement as a football man signalled a changing order. For some reason best known to himself, he was under the illusion that when it came to appointing his successor his input would be most valuable. With that in mind, he interviewed John Giles, the field general of Leeds United, and Nicholson also had the idea of appointing Tottenham's revered captain Danny Blanchflower as a general manager. Giles would run the team, Blanchflower would supervise the club's image.
Some days after his interview, which he felt had gone very well, Giles received a phone call from Nicholson. The great man was plainly embarrassed. He had just been told by the board that Terry Neill, who at the time was under considerable pressure at Hull City, had been appointed.
Nicholson, without a pension, spent the next 30 years watching his beloved club, little by little, slide away from the place he had created for them at the top of English football. He never voiced his bitterness. He saw Sir Alan Sugar arrive and take his profit. Finally, he saw the arrival of Jacques Santini, fresh from his disastrous supervision of France in the 2004 European championships. On Saturday, Santini was too preoccupied by defeat by Bolton Wanderers to step forward and offer a few words in memory of the man who had set the standard for the club and all of English football.
I last saw Nicholson at the memorial service for his old team-mate Sir Alf Ramsey. He travelled to Ipswich with the aid of a stick. If he felt that so much of his work, and that of his old team-mate Ramsey, had been betrayed, he didn't say.Reuse content