football's perfectionist by brian scovell
I have to be honest in the first sentence of this review, I have to admit that I knew very little about Bill Nicholson. It seems that his spirit and achievements had passed me by over the last thirty years of my seemingly sheltered life. The first time that I had heard about Nicholson was in the fulsome obituaries after his death in 2004. After reading this book, I am left wondering how such a key figure in English football for a large part of the last fifty years and beyond.
In some ways, I am not that surprised. Throughout this book, I got the impression that Bill Nicholson was a strong, efficient, yet quiet manager. He went about his job without feeling the need to offer hourly sound-bites to his friends in the press or crowbar himself into the television studio for another interview in front of the glaring cameras. Why face another round of dreary questions when there was an important match to win come on Saturday ?
We are living in an age when there has been much comment about a lack of English managers that can deliver trophies at the highest level. This book deals with the period when a ‘holy trinity’ of well-known and successful English managers began to make a name for themselves in the game. Bill Nicholson has to be added to this list. Although I was familiar with the double winning Spurs side of the early sixties, I remained ashamed whilst reading this book that I was unacceptably ignorant about the success of Bill Nicholson.
The Bill Nicholson story covers virtually the whole of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first too. From Nicholson’s Scarborough childhood to the heart warming image of a frail Nicholson at his second testimonial in 2001 raising his hands to salute the adoring crowd but being caught by Martin Chivers. His advancing years had made him a little unsteady on his feet. Nicholson was literally being carried away with the emotion from the White Hart Lane faithful that had been part of his life for so many years. However, it is difficult to think of many managers that had two testimonials in their honour.
I got a sense that writing this book was a labour of love for Brian Scovell. Having worked for Associated Newspapers between 1960 and 2000 and having regular covered matches at White Hart Lane, Scovell was able to source a range of articles, quotes, and reminiscences from a range of key people. The range of interviewees for this book is extensive including ex Spurs legends, managerial colleagues with Bill Nicholson, journalists and fans. They all contribute to an exciting story that has a fair amount of highs as well as fair share of lows; a chronicle of Spurs that will ring a few bells with a large group of fans.
When Scovell focuses on this story, the book comes alive with a name check on Spurs players that will retain their place in the club’s proud history. Player power is a hot topic football at this present day. After an eventful career at White Hart Lane with continual complaints from previous managers that Danny Blanchflower was changing the formations on the pitch whilst captaining the team, he was unimpressed with the prospect of Nicholson being appointed at the Spurs manager. Blanchflower demanded a transfer. Nicholson brought in a replacement allowing Blanchflower to sweat out the showdown till the Spurs players relented and agreed to withdraw his transfer. The young manager comprehensively won the trial of strength. Cliff Jones noted that Nicholson “wanted us to call him Bill, which we did, but he was the governor all right. Like Alex Ferguson now at Manchester United.”
As I travelled along the life story of Nicholson, there were periods that became decidedly familiar. A club is frequently defined by their cup exploits and it was refreshing to wallow in the various cup campaigns during the Nicholson managerial regime that have become key features of football in the 60s. However, what became noticeable in this book was the gradual disenchantment of Nicholson for the game that been such a key component of his life. The failure to sign the key players that he believed to be essential for the development of his Spurs side became a key feature in the latter chapters of this book.
The miserable memories of Nicholson trying to reason with the riotous crowd at Feyenoord in the 1974 UEFA Cup Final showed a proud man struggling to understand the depths to which his beloved sport had plunged in the dark days of the Seventies. An uneasy feeling is left in your stomach when you read those words from the Spurs manager and the microphone as he told the fans that “it is a game of football not a war.” He described hooliganism as a “national disgrace.” Nicholson’s proud record of never losing a Cup Final had gone in his last months of full time management. That match is a particularly poignant passage in this book. The book notes that the events of that night were one of the reasons why Nicholson vacated the managerial seat before the end of 1974.
The last chapters focus on what happened next for Bill Nicholson. In a situation that has obvious similarities to the Shankly and Paisley transition that was occurring on Merseyside during the same period, Scovell wondered why the club seemed unwilling to accept Nicholson until he became a scout and adviser to later Tottenham managers. The opportunity to become president of the club that dominated a large part of his life is a fitting climax for this book, as well as the memorial service after Nicholson’s 1974 death. This book profiles an event, which seemed to be an effortless mixture of sadness at Nicholson’s passing, yet celebration about his footballing achievements.
In so many ways Bill Nicholson was a perfect manager for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. This book provides you with an opportunity to understand the genius of the man, if you did not know so already.
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