CYRIL KNOWLES was a stylish, attacking and athletic left-back who charmed White Hart Lane with such confidence and grace that he will always be remembered here as one of the great entertainers.
Knowles, from the Yorkshire mining village of Fitzwilliam, was also a tough competitor and needed all that determination in his early years as first Manchester United, then Blackpool and later Wolves all rejected him.
But Middlesbrough finally took a chance, switching him from winger to full-back, and with less than 40 Boro appearances to his credit, he became one of Bill Nicholson’s shrewdest signings.
That was in May, 1964, and the value of Bill Nick’s £45,000 investment was shown not just in the 13 years service subsequently provided by Cyril but in the supreme quality and consistency shown throughout those 504 games.
Knowles evolved into a critical component of our team at that time as he and right-back Joe Kinnear attacked down the flanks and provided the crosses for the likes of Martin Chivers, Alan Gilzean and Martin Peters who headed many goals from that source. It was the era of the attacking full-backs in the wake of Alf Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ and Knowles ruled supreme.
Oddly enough Cyril started here on the right side of defence but once he switched to his more natural side, he was such a regular fixture throughout the next decade that he only missed the odd game through injury.
Spurs fans who had the pleasure of watching him in typical flowing action, can still close their eyes and picture the effortless ease with which he attacked with pace yet was seldom caught out of position. Nicholson had constructed the team to cover for the positive forays of both full-backs leaving Knowles, in particular, to enjoy some memorable duels with not just the opposing side’s wide man but also their full-back.
And the key thing to Cyril’s persona was that he actually seemed to enjoy what he was doing. His was such a natural talent that he could play with a smile and the respect of his fellow professionals — both team mates and opponents — was immense.
Watching — and remembering — Knowles in full flight draws so many flattering descriptions that those younger fans here tonight may feel that a touch of rose-tinted bins abounds. But he deserved every accolade that came his way because few other defenders at the time — or since - possessed so many individual qualities.
Some are brave, others strong. Some make a skill out of tackling, positioning, distribution. Others are great defenders but seldom give you anything beyond the half-way line, others are continually caught out of position. They can be lithe or powerfully built; some did everything with style, their lessers with efficiency. Knowles was stylishly efficient. In fact at more than six feet tall he had it all — all the positives from that list - and he also had charisma. He was a true swashbuckler in every sense — and the Spurs fans loved him.
And always so cool with those outrageous customised dummies ! Not for him the urgent ‘welly’off his own goal-line. Once the ball had been trapped on that rapier left foot, he was off on the attack — from his own penalty area !
Always quick to recover, he put his early experiences as a winger to good use and unlocked some of the best defences in Europe as the Glory, Glory Nights returned to the Lane.
Yet it is claimed that on his first day in training, the former pitman was so determined to show his tackling strength, that even that acknowledge hard man Dave Mackay had to call for restraint ! No doubt many subsequent opponents wished that they too could have made such a demand for an easier 90 minutes !
Cyril played in Spurs teams that won the FA Cup in 1967, the League Cup in 1971 and 1973 and the UEFA Cup in 1972. He played for Young England and for his country at Under-23 level but won just four senior caps.
That international tally is hard to accept but, as is often the case with such great players, Knowles had the misfortune to be around at the same time as another brilliant talent — Leeds United’s Terry Cooper.
Although the Spurs squad had their own record out at the time, the fans adapted another anthem entitled ‘Nice One Cyril’ which had become a national catchphrase from a TV advert.
He was such a hero of mine as a child in Cheshunt that when I helped the local milkman with his round, enthusiastically taking on the delivery of a couple of gold tops to Knowles’ Hammond Street home was just as important to me as the 2/6 daily rate paid to the local kids ! I had watched him from afar during training at Brookfield Lane and obviously from my regular vantage point on the Park Lane terrace but Cyril had gone from here by the time I started work on the Tottenham Weekly Herald in 1977.
However, the first player that I ever interviewed in my new role as Spurs correspondent was present day assistant manager John Gorman. He had just had an operation and was in the local St. Ann’s Hospital — in the next bed was Cyril Knowles !
Knowles had undergone surgery on the serious knee injury that had plagued him since 1973 and was to force his premature retirement in the summer of 1976.
Yet he still had one last dramatic contribution to make — two goals in the vital final game of the 1974-75 season when we beat Leeds 4-2 here to avoid relegation. One goal Cyril scored that night, bending a free-kick around the wall, equals anything seen in these days of such revered specialist technicians.
Cyril enjoyed a testimonial against Arsenal in 1975 and also made a welcome return a year later to play in a benefit for his old pal Pat Jennings. His equally talented brother Peter, a winger with Wolves and a fellow England Under-23 international, had given up his own promising career at the age of 24 to become a Jehovah’s Witness, but played just once more - as a substitute in Cyril’s game.
After a spell as manager at Hertford, Cyril returned to Yorkshire as a Spurs scout and later coached at Doncaster Rovers. He became assistant manager at Middlesbrough and then, as manager, took Darlington to promotion to Division Three in 1985.
He then joined tonight’s opponents Torquay United as manager but was gone within a year. He subsequently took over at Hartlepool United but later received the diagnosis that he had a brain tumour and died in Middlesbrough on August, 31, 1991. He was just 47.
For his cheery persona alone, Knowles deserved so much more. He too had known tragedy in his life with his young son killed in a freak motorway accident but Cyril gave so much more to the game than he ultimately received in return.
His memorial remains in the hearts of all Spurs fans privileged to have enjoyed his immense talent.
John Fennelly's personal profile on Cyril Knowles in the Torquay programme sparked several letters of commendation from fans who attended the match. With this in mind we felt it deserved a wider readership...