The master who made the cockerel crow

Homage to a legend: Passing of Bill Nicholson recalls era when White Hart Lane was home of the entertainers
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The Independent Football

Bill Nicholson, who died yesterday at the age of 85 after a long illness, was a legend for what he achieved as manager of Tottenham Hotspur, taking on a struggling team and within 18 months turning them into Double winners.

Bill Nicholson, who died yesterday at the age of 85 after a long illness, was a legend for what he achieved as manager of Tottenham Hotspur, taking on a struggling team and within 18 months turning them into Double winners.

The straight-talking quietly spoken Yorkshireman was no one-hit wonder (even if he was in England terms - one game, one goal). After that 1961 Double he took them to the FA Cup again the following season and a remarkable triumph in the now defunct European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1963, thrashing Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the final in Rotterdam. That accounted for three of the eight trophies he won in his 16 years in charge at Spurs. Another FA Cup followed in 1967, then the League Cup in both 1971 and 1973 and the Uefa Cup of 1972.

But why does that make him a legend beyond the adoring Spurs fans? Tottenham were never European champions, and isn't that the true measure of success for a football manager? These days, perhaps, but Nicholson deserved legendary status in the same way that Roger Bannister did for the four-minute mile, a time that is almost taken for granted these days. Under Mr Tottenham, Spurs were the first team to do the Double in the 20th century and they were the first British team to win a European trophy.

A perceptive, contemporary review of the 1960-61 season, The Big Book of Football Champions, said that after Spurs had broken a "64-year-old barrier guarding the Double of FA Cup and League championship, more clubs will follow their example". That was the view of the Danny Blanchflower, the Spurs captain, and how right it proved.

Dave Mackay was a key member of the squad, 17 of whom played in the Double season. The tough, uncompromising Scot, who became one of the driving forces of that great Tottenham side, called Nicholson a "real gentleman", and said yesterday: "I came down in '59, in Bill's first season. They were fourth bottom when he took over. The team at that time weren't playing well so they might have finished up in trouble but Bill Nic bought one or two players and within a year and a half, they'd won the Double."

Daniel Levy, Tottenham's chairman, paid a glowing tribute to Nicholson and his lasting influence. "His teams played with his own brand of attacking flair, entertaining all the way. Indeed he made our famous old Spurs cockerel crow with pride," he said. "He was a giant of the game and was deservedly held in high esteem and with intense respect throughout football. He was our club president and a man that we all looked up to."

He described Nicholson as an inspiration to his players and he was to those who followed that Double side, too. Alan Mullery, who signed from Fulham in 1964 for a fee of £72,500, said: "When I arrived, most of the Double team were still playing and the esteem they held Bill in was unbelievable."

Nicholson, who lived in a small terraced house close to White Hart Lane from the time he took over as manager until his illness meant he had to move out, made entertainment a high priority, as Mullery recalled. "The rollicking we used to get off him if we didn't play good football! I remember one night, we beat Burnley 4-0 and he gave us such a telling off because we hadn't played good football."

Nicholson began his career at White Hart Lane as a player in 1936 and won back-to-back Second Division and championships titles in 1950 and 1951 in the "push and run" side that had such an influence on his approach to the game. When his playing career ended, he helped out coaching with the England Under-23s in 1954 before being appointed assistant manager at Spurs in 1955. He moved into the senior job in October 1958.

A large part of his success in that role, in which he was aided by the coach Eddie Baily, lay in his demeanour. He left the players in no doubt how he wanted them to play and did not indulge in fussy, tactical team talks. The plans he made on the practice ground, worked on the pitch. But the other reason that he gained the deep respect of his players was that he was a quiet, very personal man off the pitch, keeping his life, his thoughts and his comments to his team strictly private.

An inspiration he was, but also, sadly, a burden to recent managers who have strived to bring success back to the club in an altogether different era. Just how different can be seen in comments, at the time, by Blanchflower, the Double-winning captain. An ever present in the side, he earned less than £2,000 from the club that season for being the source of much of the side's impromptu entertainment. "I am a romantic," the Northern Ireland international said. "Like other members of the entertainment business, we footballers produce an illusion. We give the public something to believe in. The game is evolving through new influences and new people. There are no limits to what people can do."

That was Nicholson's view, too, but sadly for modern-day Spurs fans, Tottenham play in the Bill Nicholson Way, only because that is where their White Hart Lane ground is located. The side that now most successfully displays Bill Nic's approach is the one that plays in red some five miles up the road. No matter how much that might have grated, Bill Nic no doubt privately admired Arsenal.

The Nicholson Years

Born: 26 January 1919 in Scarborough.

Died: 23 October 2004 in Hertfordshire (aged 85).

Milestones: 1936: joins Tottenham as a 17-year-old.

1938: makes senior League debut.

1939-1945: joins Durham Light Infantry after start of Second World War. Becomes sergeant-instructor.

1951: wins League championship under Arthur Rowe. Wins England cap against Portugal. Scores with first touch but never plays for England again.

1954: retires and joins Tottenham coaching staff.

1955: appointed first-team coach.

1958: succeeds Jimmy Anderson as manager. In first match Spurs beat Everton 10-4.

1961: guides Tottenham to League and Cup Double.

1962: Tottenham retain FA Cup and are beaten in the semi-finals of the European Cup by Benfica.

1963: Tottenham become first British club to win a European trophy - the Cup-Winners' Cup.

1967: wins third FA Cup with defeat of Chelsea.

1971: wins League Cup (also 1973).

1972: wins second European trophy - the Uefa Cup.

1974: resigns as Tottenham manager.

1991: named as club president.