Originally published on Football Speak on October 23rd 2010.
In 1961 Tottenham Hotspur “proved the doubters wrong” as they enjoyed a glorious campaign, claiming a league and cup Double. Six years ago today, the man who masterminded Tottenham’s finest hour sadly passed away.
Bill Nicholson will always be remembered by Spurs and football fans alike, not only for his desire to win, but also for his desire to win well.
The man affectionately known as ‘Bill Nic’ devoted his life to Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Signing for the North London club on a professional basis at the age of 18, Nicholson soon joined the Durham Light Infantry on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Even though the though the war cost him nearly half of his playing career, the defender said that the experiences were “invaluable”. He explained that: “What I did for six years in the Army taught me how to handle people and how to talk to people.”
Nicholson rejoined the Spurs first team squad in 1946 under Joe Hulme and later, and perhaps most famously, under Arthur Rowe. He played first at centre half and then was moved to right half, where he became a vital part of the now legendary “push and run” Tottenham team of the 50s. The Bill Nicholson Way, a site dedicated to Nicholson, describes him as “a solid, dependable, ball-winning, hard-tackling and robust half back”.
His impressive performances for Spurs earned him an England call-up in 1951 against Portugal. Nicholson made an impressive start, scoring within nineteen seconds with what was his first touch of the ball. Sadly, injuries, amongst other things, prevented the hugely talented defender from making any further appearances for his country. The club vs. country debate creates quite a stir in the modern game, but Bill was quite clear in where his loyalties lie: “My duty is to get fit for Tottenham. Well, they pay my wages, don’t they?” The talent of Wolves legendary defender Billy Wright also prevented Nicholson from making more appearances for England: “they brought back Billy Wright and I accepted that because he was the better player”.
At the age of the thirty-six, Nicholson announced his retirement as a player. He had clearly been interested in coaching and management before he’d even retired, taking Football Association coaching courses and speedily joining the Spurs coaching staff soon after he quit as a player. Even with the small matter of a war disrupting his career, Nicholson played 314 games for Spurs, scoring six goals.
Just three years after announcing his retirement Nicholson was appointed manager of Tottenham Hotspur, succeeding Jimmy Anderson, who had was widely seen as a ‘stop-gap’ manager to give time for Bill to progress from player to manager. Anderson’s record (played 153, won 72, drew 32 and lost 49) was not considered good enough for the ambitious directors and supporters of the club who were wanting nothing short of a First Division Championship Title. It took Nicholson just two seasons to cement Tottenham’s name in history, claiming the first Double of the modern era. “Tottenham quite simply decimated all opposition in that season, winning their first eleven games and scoring an incredible 115 goals in 42 games”, says The Bill Nicholson Way. The next season brought more glory to Nicholson and his side, which featured players such as Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay and Bobby Smith. Spurs retained the FA Cup and narrowly missed out on a place in the European Cup final, falling to Benfica in the semi-final. The 1962-63 season, though, created more history for the club. Tottenham became the first British club to win a major European trophy, as they battered Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the final on 15th May, 1963.
In 1967 the club won their third FA Cup in seven years as they beat London rivals Chelsea in the final, which was followed by a bout of trophies in the early 70s, including two League Cups and the UEFA Cup in 1972. Tottenham would be runners-up in the European competition two years later but this glory is still to be bettered. Under Nicholson, Pat Jennings was the most selected player, appearing 480 times for the club. In total, Bill used seventy-nine players in his sixteen-year reign as manager.
The mid-70s became troublesome to the Tottenham manager, though. “With dramatic changes to the game as a whole taking place during the early to mid-1970’s – in particular negative tactics, player power and general attitudes – Bill felt he could no longer tolerate being in an industry which was in contrast to his upbringing and personality.” Nicholson resigned and soon went on to assist West Ham United for a year. However, in 1976, when Keith Burkinshaw became Spurs manager, one of his first requests was that fifty-seven-year-old Nicholson be brought back to White Hart Lane as a consultant.
In 1975 Nicholson was awarded an OBE and the PFA merit award in 1984. Bill continued to work as a consultant until 1991 when, at the age of seventy-two, he was awarded the title of Club President. In December 1998 he received the Freedom of the Borough from Haringey Council and the road leading to the Club from Tottenham High Road was renamed Bill Nicholson Way. He continued to attend every match that his beloved Tottenham Hotspur played at White Hart Lane until shortly before he passed away on 23rd October 2004, aged 85.
Nicholson has been described as a perfectionist and a born winner and is still loved by Tottenham fans to this day. His status as a legendary figure will never be lost, as he remains one of the most important people in the club’s history. His success and glory as Tottenham manager is not likely to be bettered anytime soon, even after Harry Redknapp guided the club to the Champions League this season, for the first time in their history. Six years after Bill Nicholson’s death, the tributes are still, and will continue to be, ongoing.