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David Miller on Bill

Posted on 6 November 2004  - 12:00

Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) Football Club is located in North London. The club is also known as Spurs. Tottenham's home ground is White Hart Lane. The club motto is Audere est Facere (To dare is to do).

Highly-respected journalist David Miller wrote about Bill Nicholson for The Times in 1983, an article that also appeared in the book 'Our Sporting Times' - he has kindly allowed us to it run here as a tribute to our greatest manager...


Bill Nicholson, for whom loyalty and a search for style were second nature...

19 August, 1983

With Tommy Trinder busily proclaiming, some 22 years ago, that he would pay Johnny Haynes £100 a week following the abolition of the maximum wage, Bill Nicholson asked Danny Blanchflower into his office at White Hart Lane. He suggested a wage of £68 a week to the captain of possibly the most entertaining team in the history of British club football.

Under the leadership of these two men, Spurs produced football between 1960 and 1963 the likes of which we may not see again, consolidating the club's reputation for creative, intelligent play; begun by Arthur Rowe - who persuaded his directors to outbid Arsenal for Blanchflower by £2,000 specifically to make him captain - and maintained today by Keith Burkinshaw. With a new season about to start under the ever-darkening clouds excessive television (now live), hooliganism and anti-entertainment tactics, Spurs remain an oasis of optimism. It used tobe said that trying to stop Tottenham was like trying to catch sparrows, and happily that is still to some extent true.

When Nicholson offered Blanchflower that relatively modest wage, he patiently explained that he has devised a salary scale of £3,000 a year for the less famous players, rising to £3,400 for the stars, such as Mackay, White and Jones. Greaves was yet to arrival from Chelsea via Milan.The rational offer, and its equally rational acceptance, was typical of both men. Money was never their motive in the quest for unattainable, perfection in a team sport.

Blanchflower, who left Barnsley and then Aston Villa in search of the refinements of the short-ball game which he was to discover and help embroider at Tottenham, whose imaginary captaincy led Northern Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1958, has long ago stated football is not about winning but glory. He was at a small social gathering a few days ago among friends of Nicholson, who belatedly has his testimonial this Saturday at White Hart Lane, preceded by a curtain-raiser from the stars of the Sixties, including Jimmy Greaves. At this get-together, Blanchflower said: "Bill and I wanted three things from the game; a good team; to play our own, entertaining way; and to be fair to all the people in the team. What distinguished Spurs at the time was style and, almost by definition, style is something which is brief and passing. It does not last. That is why I cannot say in all honesty that I think Liverpool have got great style, because they have gone on so long. Because of money, I believe the days of great team sports are numbered."

When such illustrious men such as Matthews, Busby and Ramsey have rightly been knighted for they have given, and many lesser footballers have been honoured, it is remarkable that no formal recognition has come the way of William Nicholson, 45 years with one club since he came to paint the grandstand roof as a 15-year-old apprentice player from Scarborough. 'Nick' represents an era of honesty, patience, devotion and selflessness which has almost gone, still apparent here and there in an occasional player such as Perryman or manager such as Jimmy Sirrel.

It is typical of 'Nick' that a large part of the money he may receive on Sunday is already spent on a party for 300 private guests.Would that, during his active career, the club, notoriously as careful off the pitch as extravagant on it, had been half as generous to him. With his popular, effervescent, London-born wife, Darkie, he still lives where he always has, in the comfortable end-of-terrace house within earshot of the Tottenham roar, tending their allotment between times - a couple rich in contentment.

In the late forties and early fifties I shared a common, fondly remembered experience with Burkinshaw; he in Barnsley, I in London. It was watching the Spurs of Ramsey, Nicholson, Burgess and Baily with its close-spun patterns, as regular as those of a weaver's loom. It was my further good fortune to come under Nicholson's influence at Cambridge University, one of his first coaching appointments. How eagerly we would immerse ourselves, out on the training pitch and later over toast and honey round the gas fire in someone's digs, in his clear, precise, professional's approach to the game.

He did not make us conspicuously better players, because, at 20, we were too ancient dogs to learn new tricks; but how marvellously he simplified the gameby telling us what not to do! Great player that Blanchflower was, he acknowledges the shared affinity with Nicholson of those amateurs 'because our only objective was a higher fulfilment from the game'.

There is no thread of the club that did not come under Nicholson's scrutiny. They say that when the reserveteam trainer came to him to ask for new practice balls, though he might be engaged in the middle of buying Greaves, he would demand to see the old balls, turn them over one by one, and that this one and that one would do for another six months. When a West End store delivered a wedding present which was one size larger than had been paid for, he insisted it be sent back.

What can be done to reverse the present state of rising greed and declining entertainment? At a luncheon given to him yesterday by the Football Writers' Association, Nicholson was in no doubt: "The game today is too stereotyped, because there is more than one way to play it, but everything now is built on the same defensive principles. In my time, I could put on a practice session in which three defenders could hold up five attackers, but now no team is happy unless they have four defending against three. Almost all our practice was directed at attacking; defending is comparitively easy.

"But the other problem is that schoolboys, instead of playing in the streets, which are now full of cars, with a little rubber ball, are playing with those big plastic balls, so they never learn the skills. If I had my way there would be no eleven-a-side football in schools before the age of 12, to give them the time to learn the game, and I would insist on a 35-yard offside line to give them more room in which to play. But it is not just schoolboys who need skills and coaching. We have top-class internationals who don't know it all."