We all know the folklore that it’s a good season for Tottenham Hotspur when it ends in a “1”. Many years ago, the story held true.
By Dave Bowler
In 1950/51, the famous “push and run” side under Arthur Rowe was a revelation in a more industrial age, their sharp passing and constant moving of the football taking English football by storm as they first won promotion and then, the following year, 1950/51, won the Football League itself, finishing runners-up to Manchester United a year later.
That was the last hurrah for an ageing side, one which needed major rebuilding as a number of stars who had lost much of their football to the war were put out to pasture. Rowe himself moved on, with wing-half Bill Nicholson hanging up his boots to take on the management of the club following a mixed spell under Jimmy Anderson, slowly reconstructing the side around the talismanic figure of captain Danny Blanchflower.
Blanchflower was what we would today term a playmaker. As he admitted himself, it was an expression of his ego that he would touch the ball perhaps twice as much as anyone else in the side, but always it was with a purpose, for a reason. The Northern Irishman was a footballing intellectual in those far off days when players weren’t allowed to train with the ball in the week, doing lap after lap of souls aping running instead. “You’ll be hungrier for it on Saturday that way” ran the argument. “But how will I recognise it on Saturday if I haven’t seen it all week?” was Blanchflower’s retort.
Spurs were ahead of the game. Dour Yorkshireman he might have been, but Bill Nicholson was a love of the beautiful game, steeped in Rowe’s passing philosophy, a philosophy he expanded upon as he set about creating the century’s first double winners.
Training under Bill Nick was all about using the ball, about teamwork, about shape, about building an understanding. Where too many sides were of the traditional English kick and rush, following the powerhouse brand of the game made famous by Stan Cullis’ Wolves just as all too many sides today still do, Spurs were all light and shade, contrasts, intelligence, firebrand movement, elusive, skilful, purposeful.
In a way, they were a thoroughly modern entity, football’s white shirted embodiment of the “white heat of technology” that Harold Wilson would seize upon to try to shape his Premiership of the country. Spurs were playing a new game, moving on the Hungarian model, use bright skills not brute force, creating clever triangles, advancing up the park by passing the opposition to death.
Blanchflower, as we’ve noted, was the orchestrator, the conductor, but all around him were virtuoso performers. Dave Mackay might now be caricatured as the hardman to end all hardmen, but that was just one facet of a multi-dimensional game. Mackay could play too, perhaps without quite the finesse of his skipper, but he was a rare footballer of rare quality with the burning lifeforce of the natural born winner and the quality to impose that competitive streak onto games in myriad ways, be they deft, be they aggressive.
Out on the flanks, there were the quicksilver Cliff Jones and Terry Dyson, a pair of wingers so quick yet so skilful that when given the right service from Blanchflower and Mackay – and that was what they got from those models of consistency- they could destroy any full-back at will. The service they provided for the burly Bobby Smith and the lethal inside forwards who supported him, John White and Les Allen, made Tottenham the most potent side in the land.
And if they ever lost the ball and somehow the opposition did get past Mackay, there was the monumental Maurice Norman to deal with, the England international who was utterly resolute in defence but good enough on the ball to find the midfielders time and again. Full-backs Peter Baker and Ron Henry were all but auxiliary wingers so keen were Spurs to flood forward and entertain, then there was the last line of defence, Scotland’s Bill Brown, drafted in from Dundee and wholly reliable.
But it was Nicholson who should have the lion’s share of the credit. Taking the reins in November 1958, his first season was spent simply keeping Spurs afloat. They ended 18th in a horrible season, but the following year they were third and they were flying. They were ready.
Thy reeled off 11 straight wins to start the season, and by the end of 1960, they’d played 25, won 22, drawn two, lost one. The league was in the bag, they could go all out for the double, the prize no-one had won since the turn of the century. After a close call in beating Charlton 3-2, they were imperious in the FA Cup – Crewe 5-1, Villa 2-0, Sunderland 5-0, Burnley 3-0. Leicester stood between them and immortality and though Blanchflower was characteristically upset when the final didn’t contain the glory and the romance that he demanded from the game, the deed was done with a 2-0 win.
Jimmy Greaves was added to the already high octane mix the following season as Tottenham were again impressive. A second straight title was just beyond them, finishing third behind Ipswich who won the title in their first ever season in the First Division, a side managed, ironically, by Alf Ramsey, a member of Spurs’ push and run maestros of ’51, but playing an altogether more cagey game in Suffolk.
The European Cup distracted Spurs, losing at the semi-final stage to Eusebio’s Benfica, but they’d already booked a place in the FA Cup Final, a trophy they defended in style, picking Burnley apart at Wembley. A year later they became the first English club to succeed in Europe, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup, smashing Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the final.
Tottenham continued to be a fine side beyond that 1963, but that little spark had gone. It was the absence of Blanchflower, football’s great romantic, Scott Fitzgerald with a ball instead of a typewriter. How we could use a visionary like that today.