Of all the footballers to have suffered misfortune during their careers, was there ever an unluckier player than Mel Hopkins?
The lad from the Rhondda Valley would by now be a member of the pantheon of Spurs Double-winners had Jimmy Greaves’ former television sidekick not inflicted the cruellest of injuries upon him.
Neale Harvey travelled to the south coast to catch up with one of our best-ever attacking
AN ACCOMPLISHED AND combative left-back, Mel Hopkins had been a Spurs regular for four seasons before starring for Wales in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where a Welsh side boasting Cliff Jones and Terry Medwin took Brazil to the wire before succumbing to a lone Pele strike in the quarter-finals.
Mel had been an immovable presence in the Spurs back line and would certainly have been a member of our Double-winning side had he not suffered an horrific injury in November 1959 when his nose was shattered in a collision with Ian St John during an international match against Scotland in Glasgow.
Three operations could only partially repair the damage and as well as carrying the scars to this day the affable Welshman could only reflect on what might have been as he reflected on a torrid 18 months out of the game.
"It was a complete accident but, as I headed the ball away from a corner, St John headed me," said Mel, at his home in Shoreham-by-Sea, near Brighton.
"Bits, little bits of bone, kept falling out and I remember other players coming over and going 'Urrgh'. Thanks lads, I thought.
"Bill Brown was in goal for Scotland and he got a bang on the head as well, so we looked a right state coming back on the overnight train, all bandaged up.
"In hospital they tried to settle my nose down and put pieces in but it kept collapsing until finally they put in a piece of polythene.
"If it happened now they’d probably have done a better job and I still have a little trouble breathing properly.
"The Daily Mail ran a story saying ‘Mel wants one like Gregory’, where they showed me looking at a picture of Gregory Peck. But I didn’t get a nose like his, did I?
"By the time things got sorted Ron Henry had got in the side and was playing well, so you don’t change a winning side. Well, not in those days you didn’t. “On the other hand you think, ‘Christ, I’ve been in the side all this time and now I’m out’.
"Even though I was part of the Double squad and wasn't excluded at all, it was very difficult to sit and watch. It’s funny but the first time I saw Ian St John since was when he attended a Welsh sport awards dinner as a guest speaker in November. He mentioned I was sitting at a table and for the first time he said: 'Sorry about the nose, Mel!'"
Born in Ystrad, Mel joined Spurs as a 15-year-old in 1950 after being spotted by Welsh scout Joe Fisher playing for the Rhondda Valley Boys' Club. It was a daunting move for one so young and Mel remains grateful to many Spurs legends for helping him settle in London.
"I stayed in digs with three or four other lads in Ponders End with a woman called Mrs Clark. I was homesick but once you start playing with a team you get over it. There were 12 of us on the ground staff and I’d do all the jobs like cleaning boots and helping out on the pitch.
"You trained with senior people like Ted Ditchburn and Ron Burgess and they were all good to me. Tottenham was always a very good club where everybody mixed in together. They had just won the Second Division when I joined and at the end of my first season they won the First Division. They took us to the dinner at The Savoy and, it’s funny, I’d never had coffee before I went there with Tottenham.
"They asked me if I’d like it black or white? I didn’t know so I think I said black - and it was awful. It’s odd how little things like that stand out."
Two individuals who also stood out for Mel were legendary managers Arthur Rowe and Bill Nicholson. Although many of his appearances came during the ‘stop-gap’ reign of Jimmy Anderson between 1955 and 1958, he has no doubts about where the real power lay as Nicholson began to construct a new side.
"Arthur was a good manager and a gentleman. He played the game simply and there was no cup throwing or any of that nonsense. Obviously, when I went there he had a very good team which made things easier but he wanted to play ‘push and run’, which is what the game’s all about.
"After I finished my national service in 1954, Arthur Willis and Charlie Withers were beginning to finish so I got in straight away. People like Alf Ramsey, Ron Burgess and even Bill Nick were getting on. They were changing times at the club when Jimmy took over from Arthur but Jimmy took Bill on as coach and it was Bill who really ran the football side of it. We struggled while we rebuilt the team, until people like Tommy Harmer came in.
"Tommy was a great little player, a fabulous footballer who would have been a star of the Double team if he had stayed. As a pure footballer he was one of the best I’ve seen and he always used to go into the toilet for a cigarette before games.
"Then came Johnny Brooks, Alfie Stokes, Bobby Smith, Terry Medwin, Danny Blanchflower and the rest. But the luckiest thing they did was get Dave Mackay. Spurs wanted Mel Charles from Swansea but he went to Arsenal instead, where he hurt his knee. Mackay was better so that was a bit of fortune for us.
"But Bill knew the game and he could put things over simply. I don't think I ever saw him get terribly upset. You trained hard under him but everybody respected him because you realised what he was saying was right.
"He liked to play the game simply and the Double team played good football."
Apart from putting together a good team, Mel also emphasises how much our success owed to a good team spirit.
"Guys like Cliff Jones, Tony Marchi, Bobby, Terry Medwin and myself all used to live close. Nobody was better than anyone else and it didn't matter whether you had 50 caps or none, it was a good family spirit that made Bill’s job easier.
"It was much more social in those days. Our pub was the Bell and Hare and we’d all go out together at weekends with our wives, even with the Arsenal lads who lived close.
"The spirit was there and it was an easy game then, with no money worries either because everyone was on the same. Anyway, as far as Bill was concerned you should play for Tottenham for nothing and it was only after the big money came in he started having problems."
After the disappointment of missing out on the Double, Mel never fully recovered his first team place and after a few fleeting appearances he cut his ties after 14 years at The Lane by joining Brighton in October 1964.
He enjoyed three good years at the Goldstone Ground, winning a long overdue medal when the Seagulls won the Fourth Division championship in 1965, but his career tailed off thereafter and he finally retired in 1970 after short stints with Ballymena United and Bradford Park Avenue.
He settled in the Brighton area, where he lives with partner Barbarain Shoreham, and has three sons from his first marriage, Paul, Simon and Mark.
Apart from a stint as a scout for Derby County when Dave Mackay was manager, Mel eschewed a career in football management, preferring instead to work at Horsham Sports Centre while running the successful Shoreham Boys’ Club as a hobby.
He may have missed out on the big prizes at Spurs but no-one can take away Mel’s 34 Welsh caps and he is proud to have played with and opposed the very best.
"I faced Stanley Mathews and Tom Finney - Finney was better because he was more dangerous - but the chap who gave me the most problems was Alan Finney of Sheffield Wednesday. He was very quick and sharp.
"But of all the players I faced, Pele was the best because he had such a good footballing brain and Brazil was the best team I ever played against. There were great players at Tottenham but, for me, Ron Burgess was the best.
"You can talk about Blanchflower and Mackay but Bill Nick will tell you of all the players he’s managed, Ron was the best. Fantastic."
Neale Harvey, Spurs Monthly