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The Ghost of White Hart Lane

September 24, 2010

I suppose your first heroes remain the greatest. Those you admire when you are nine or ten years old can maintain their position as gods, secure in their pantheon, placed there by a child too excited to be cynical, to young to look for faults.

Football was always in our family. Born in Edinburgh in 1952, the great Hibernian hero, Gordon Smith, was a regular name in our house revered by my dad, my uncle – who had himself played for the Hibs, and even my mother, though she had been brought up an Evertonian in Liverpool. I was taken to see Smith, and the rest of the Famous Five play when I was only 4 and so, chronologically, The Gay Gordon, as he was known in those innocent times, was my original football hero, and still remains so.

However, life is seldom simple. My dad died when I was five in 1957, and a year or so later we moved to Lancashire and I discovered television for the first time. By 1960, though primitive by today’s standards, our 12 and 14″ televisions were starting to show football – in a very limited sense. The only live games we saw were the Home Internationals, Cup Finals and occasional European games. I was very aware that Hibs had blazed the trail for British clubs in European competition, reaching the European Cup semi finals in 1956, but, with the advent of Eurovision broadcasting, there was a demand for live events to beam around the continent, and football fit the bill.

In these days of HD and 3D and Super Sundays, the tv presentation of those days would seem minimalist to say the least. Snowy black and white pictures, a crackly commentary – the quality wasn’t much better than those first grainy shots from Tranquility Base on the moon at the other end of the decade.

But the rarity value made television football riveting, remembering that Match of the Day didn’t start till 1964 – and the team to watch in the early years of the 60s were the double winning Tottenham Hotspur. The first tv game I can clearly remember was the FA Cup Final of 1961 – Spurs v Leicester – a game that attracted huge attention as Tottenham had the chance to be the first team to win the double of League and Cup in the twentieth century.

It was a revelation to me – Spurs ‘push and run’ style was exciting, fluent and modern – even to a 9 year old. I was hooked and still today can rattle off that team: Brown Baker Henry Blanchflower Norman MacKay, Jones White Smith Allen Dyson – which is not bad after nearly fifty years. They were a fantastic team – all internationalists, except I think, Baker, and, a bit like their contemporaries, The Beatles, each had an identifiable personality – the rugged centre half, Norman, bustling centre forward, Bobby Smith (who sadly died in the past week), articulate Blanchflower, iron man Mackay, speedy Welsh winger Jones and, the enigmatic Scot – John White, along with Brown and Mackay, one of three Scots in the side – another reason for my adoption of the Spurs as my team.

I loved John White with the kind of intensity only a 9 year old can have for a football hero. He came from Musselburgh, a small town maybe five miles from my family home in east Edinburgh. He didn’t seem to me to be like other footballers; he was slight, relied on guile rather than strength,and, in my childish imagination, looked like he would be quiet and friendly – not the sort to be big headed or overwhelming. I was shy, the only son of a widow, I wanted a hero to suit me. I was quite proud of the fact that, surrounded at school by Liverpool and Everton fans, a strange Scot, nicknamed Jock anyway, I had a hero, from a distant team, and a quiet player whose name some of my mates had never even heard. And they called him the Ghost, because he flitted about the midfield as an unseen presence – until making the killer pass or the inspired assist. In Spurs epic Double winning season – when they established themselves for my generation as probably the greatest team ever – he is credited with making 70% of Spurs goals in all matches.

Over the next three years I became a huge fan, wrote to Spurs, and got a colour team picture back with facsimiled autographs. There were great European games against teams from God knows where – Dukla Prague, Gornik – If I close my eyes I can still see the stills from the back of the Express, dark figures lying on snow covered pitches, and I can recall the carefully constructed arguments as to why I should be allowed up late on a school night to watch these games.

Then in 1963 Tottenham beat Atletico Madrid 5-1 in Rotterdam in the European Cup Winners Cup Final and John White scored in the 35th minute. I was ecstatic and surely my lifelong love of football was cemented on that May night. My wall was covered with pictures of Spurs and Chalky White – I remember two in particular – one of him playing keepy uppy at Tottenham’s training ground at Cheshunt, and another of him in a Scotland blazer, about to get into his car in the car park at White Hart Lane. And, of course, seeing him play for Scotland only added to my hero worship.

Fitting in with my childish fantasies, he had married Sandra, daughter of the Spurs assistant manager, and though the idea of footballers as celebrities was still far off, there were a few family pictures of him, confirming my belief in him as a ‘nice guy’, a hero to suit me.

Two or three months later, in November 63, I was considered old enough and sensible enough to go on my own to see live football, in the shape of Fourth Division Southport, the local team. I suppose this marked the beginnings of my move from childish fantasy football to the realities of the game. I had started ‘big school’, and the week after my first Southport game, the assassination of John F Kennedy suggested to my generation that maybe the world wasn’t quite the wonderful place we had grown up believing it to be.

So, by the Summer of 1964, though John White was still my hero and the Spurs results anticipated each Saturday, my affection for the team I watched live was growing. I am sure I would have naturally moved away from Spurs as I grew up, but a news bulletin in June 1964 proved to be a traumatic ending to my support for them.

I can remember sitting reading the evening paper while the BBC news was on; glancing up I saw a picture of John White. This was odd, because in those days sports stars hardly ever made the national news, outside of their sporting activities, and, in any case, he didn’t normally attract the same news attention as team mates like Jimmy Greaves or Danny Blanchflower. It struck me that maybe he had become the latest player to win a major transfer to one of the big Italian clubs. I tuned into what the announcer was saying and couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “John White, Tottenham Hotspur and Scotland footballer, has died. It is believed he was struck by lightening while sheltering under a tree on a north London Golf Course during a thunderstorm.”

To say I was stunned would be an understatement; it was literally unimaginable. I knew intellectually that people could be struck by lightening, but I’d never heard of it happening in real life; and to John White – my John White – what were the chances of that? I felt gutted for myself, the club and his family. I never felt the same about Spurs again, and certainly, after Bill NIck, Bill Nicholson, their emblematic manager left, it never seemed to be the same club.

Later in the year I sent away for the programme of his posthumous benefit match – Tottenham v a Scotland X1, of course, and was in tears as I read through the tributes and memories. His loss didn’t seem real even then, and in some ways it still doesn’t.

At 18 I returned to my hometown to university and have lived here ever since. My first love, the family team, Hibernian, are the holders of my affections now, though I still follow Southport, and, while I don’t recognise it as the same club, the Spurs result always resonates when comes over the radio or appears in a Skysports ticker.

But I was absolutely delighted last week when I read that Rob White, John’s son – one of the babies in those family pictures – along with established journo Julie Welch, has written a biography of his dad, which will be published next year in February. It’s about time, and I can’t wait to read it.

As I said, there is no hero like your first hero and I suppose I have gone through a football supporting life of fifty years subconsciously looking for that rarest of players, a slight midfielder with vision and guile and the ability to ghost into the right position and mesmerise the opposition, and preferably Scottish.

I have had plenty of heroes in that time, but never one like Chalky White – the Ghost of White Hart Lane.

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