The Ghost of White Hart Lane

The 2010-2011 English Football Season came to an end on a very hot afternoon in London, on Saturday 4th June, as an average England side came back from two-goals to draw a European Championship Qualifier at home to Switzerland in an early evening game at Wembley Stadium.

I wasn’t at Wembley that day, as I had been a week earlier, when I had a front-row view as Barcelona won the European Cup in style, playing an attacking passing-and-moving game; instead I watched England, playing a game barely recognisable to the one Barca played on the same pitch seven days earlier, in a pub in Stoke Newington.

Also in the same pub were writers Owen Jones, Johan Hari and Suzanne Moore; they weren’t watching the football, but had been at a talk at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival earlier that afternoon. I had also been at the festival: I went to a writers’ workshop in the morning, before having an al fresco lunch with a mate of mine in Mediterranean like weather in N16 ahead of an afternoon talk. When I first heard that Jones, Hari and Moore were going to be at the event, I planned to see them, but that changed when I found out there was a fixture clash: at the same time Rob White and Julie Welch were in another Stoke Newington venue, talking about their book ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’.

The book is the profile of John White, Rob’s father, who died when Rob was just six months old, and a significant member of the arguably the only English team that can be compared to Barcelona side of today – Tottenham Hotspur circa 1960-1963. And after readings from the book, it wasn’t long in the discussion with the chair Danny Kelly on that afternoon in June in the upstairs room of the White Hart pub, that talk turned to how revered that Spurs side still is, by both journalists and punters that saw them play.

Six months on from that talk, I finally got to ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ in my pile of unread books, and have been rewarded with a look at that great side, as well as a detailed and personal insight into the untold story of White, who is almost as famous for the manner of his sudden death at the age of 27, after being struck by lightning on a golf course, as for his talent and achievements.

The book captures the imagination and loss of a child, Rob, and the tragedy of untimely death which contributed to the break-up of the greatest British side of the century, while telling the tale of an obsessive trainer, who at 5ft 7 inches was nearly overlooked by a system that would probably have also later turned down David Silva and Lionel Messi on grounds of size.

An intelligent attacking midfielder, White was not initially appreciated by everyone, something many of his successors including Glenn Hoddle, Michael Carrick, Rafael Van Der Vaart and Aaron Lennon will all appreciate is not unique. But when his movement was recognised, he earned the nickname ‘The Ghost’, which as Rob touches on in the book, was a moniker that carried a dark irony, considering his sad and untimely death.

Welch is of course the author of ‘The Glory, Glory Days’, which was adapted into a brilliant film in the eighties by Film 4. And those memories are evoked here with wonderful chapters on Danny Blanchflower and Bill Nick, as well as Tommy Harmer, who left the club in 1960. And the development of the Spurs side of the late fifties, which flourished into arguably the greatest English club side of all time, is at the heart of the book.

The recollection of the decision of Nicolson to turn down an unsettled Blanchflower’s transfer request two years before winning the title of course could have a modern day parallel in Daniel Levy’s strong stance over Luka Modric in the summer just gone, just as the signing of Dave Mackay could be as significant as the combined return from injury from Ledley King and the addition of Scott Parker may become to today’s team.

Nicolson and Blanchflower’s respective and differing characteristics are of course already well known, but the writing is concise enough to fit comfortably into the greater story of John White. The capture of White, with the aid of Nicolson’s best friend, a journalist (and agent in all but name), is another interesting nugget, as the both-footed rising star of International football had a number of other high-profile suitors all bidding for his services at the time.

Amidst the retrospective the book also touches on modern day football: Rob mentions the unique long-standing relationships of the people you only see when you sit next to them at home games while Julie remarks on the changing face of club grounds.

Drawing on archive footage, old match reports, interviews and previous books on Spurs, ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ is another contribution in the canon of writing about the first golden era of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, while also shedding light on the bigger theme of the book, the life of White. The match reports from the first-half of Double Season in particular show where White earned his ghost-like reputation on the field, why he excited lovers of the game, and why he was regarded as a truly great player of the era.

It is a skill in itself, breathing life into writing on past games, something I am currently working on myself for a book I am writing. And the combination of fast-paced reportage coupled with personal insight work well here. For example, a chapter focussing on White’s role in a strong Scottish squad also gives a good indication of the workings of the SFA (the Scottish Football Association as opposed to the Super Furry Animals), but is augmented by the little details of Bill Nick’s disregard for the colour red and the fact that John and his wife Sandra used to go to the Rose and Crown on Church Street, just a few minutes walk from where Rob did his talk in June.

Of course many of the exploits of that Spurs squad from the early sixties remain unequalled, and it is no hardship for Spurs fans to know their history, or in fact for any students of the game to read this book. But it is the minor details, as well as Rob’s first-hand writing, that means the book is much more than the retelling of one the great Club sides of all-time.

MG

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea as Tottenham Hotspur returned to the European Cup for the first time in 49 seasons, in 2010-11. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.