Closer than you’d think
On Tuesday night my son and I went to the Falkirk Community Stadium to watch Hibs play a pre-season friendly. It was fairly typical, lots of players used by each side, bucketing rain, a good first half by Falkirk, with Hibs pulling the fat out of the fire with a late equaliser. I have to admit I was a little less than fully engaged with the game; indeed, the competing attractions of the on-off flare at nearby Grangemouth oil refinery, and the occasional goods train rumbling past the stadium, were more than enough to turn my head. However, in truth, my thoughts were elsewhere all night – catapulting between Musselburgh East Lothian, the Bairns’ old ground at Brockville, and north London.
Today marks the 47th anniversary of the death of John White, of Spurs and Scotland, struck down by lightning at the age of 27, while sheltering under a tree at the Crews Hill Golf Club in Enfield. Although remembered as a Spurs player, John also played for Alloa and then Falkirk, and, as I have written before, he was also my first ever favourite footballer, from when I was 9 until his death three years later.
The Falkirk Community Stadium, completed on three out of its four sides now, is an encouraging monument to the modern way of surviving in professional football, but, out of town, in an industrial estate, and with no history, it struggles to compete with the Bairns’ original home at Brockville, nestling as it did in the midst of residential streets, built on girders cast out of the steel of the town’s great Carron ironworks. I used to love Brockville which, to the end, remained exactly as it had in the days when John White starred there in the 1950s. It was hopelessly outdated by the end, but even as I queued to get into the one urinal and strained to hear the roars of angry half time managers rumbling through the bowels of the old stand, the discomfort seemed a fair price to pay for the tradition.
Over a year ago I was lucky enough to make email contact with John White’s son Rob – he confirmed that many people still tell him how much they thought of his dad – and I was delighted to hear he had a book on his father’s life coming out. I bought ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ on its publication day, eagerly looked forward to reading it, and intended to review it as soon as I’d finished it. But then I found that was more difficult to achieve than I had thought.
The book moved me in so many ways that I really didn’t know how to react. Written with accomplished author, Julie Welch, the book is really the story of a search for a father who Rob, 5 months old when his dad died, never knew. There was a certain resonance for me in that I lost my own dad at the age of five, though, unlike Rob, at least I had some memories of him. I did recognise , however, that need to know what the person who was your Dad was really like. People seldom speak ill of the dead and you tend to build up a picture of perfection that is hard to live up to.
For Rob, of course, there were cuttings and a few scratchy bits of film, given his dad was a famous footballer, but footballing fame in those days was nothing as compared to now. John White went to play in games for the mighty double winning Spurs on the bus. I once worked out that, in the three years I idolised him, I never heard John White speak, saw him play live on the television no more than a dozen times, read around twenty magazine or newspaper articles and, indeed, saw such a limited selection of pictures of him, that, when I look through the footballing shots in the book, I can actually remember where and when I first saw each of them.
All of this meant a more difficult search for information for Rob, but at least he didn’t have to sift through the kind of tabloid rubbish that surrounds today’s stars. He made discoveries through talking to relatives and colleagues of his dad, and in the end I think he was comforted by what he found; at least he came to an understanding of what sort of a man his father was, a more 3D version of the clippings and black and white tv clips with which he had grown up.
The trouble with reviewing the book was that I made discoveries too, because to have a hero in 1961 was to know very little. Rob felt his dad in some ways was not just ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ for his ability to drift into space on the pitch, but also in his life because of his lack of knowledge about him. In John White, I hero worshipped a ‘ghost’of whom I knew virtually nothing, and around whom I created a persona and hoped it was accurate. In addition, the many issues of growing up without a dad and coping with the effects are raised in the book. My personal experience has been that the older I get the more I realise what I missed, and this is reflected over and over in Rob’s book.
I made more factual discoveries too. In the 1980s I lived in Musselburgh for three years or so. I knew, of course, of the link with John White. I thought of him every time I passed Olive Bank, the local football ground, and whenever they publicised the annual John White five aside tournament, driven by his brother Tommy, in John’s memory. Beyond that I had no knowledge of his actual Musselburgh connections.
Now I know I lived within 100 yards of his childhood home at 14 Links St; when I went out for a run I passed his front door and saw kids kicking a ball on the same patch of ground at the end of the street on which he had perfected his skills. It would never have occurred to me at the time, but I must have passed his aunts or members of his family, on the street, at the bus stop, in the supermarket. In retrospect I think I’m glad I didn’t know at the time, but it’s a strangely comforting discovery that I walked the places of his childhood, even without realising it.
The book also gave me pause for thought on the effect our childhood heroes have on our psyche. To idolise someone from the age of 9 till 12 is no minor undertaking. At that age such thoughts are huge in your daily life. He is still my ideal footballer, I still measure others by his standards and I never forget how lucky I was to have John White as my first footballing hero.
When I look at today’s superstars and the cuttings their fans must collect, the example they set, and the lives they lead, I recognise all that I gained from going through that phase when I did and with whom I did.
The John White I admired was, in my eyes, a quiet but cheerful guy who wouldn’t let people down, and was loved by all who knew him. He was content to play a crucial part in the team without drawing attention to himself but he was the heart of that great Tottenham side.
When I started reading ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’, I was worried that I might discover differently. I was also nervous for Rob that he might be asking questions, the answers to which would be ultimately unwelcome. Happily, it seems, just like my time in Musselburgh, by good fortune I got it right about Chalky White – he was all the things I wanted him to be, and, it appears, all that his son needed him to be.
Rob clearly and understandably is hugely proud of who his dad was and all he accomplished. Having read the book, it’s nice to be able to suggest that there’s no doubt John White would be similarly proud of his son.
There were many times when reading this book that I wasn’t sure whether my tears were for John White, his widow Sandra, or his children Rob and Mandy. At times they were for Rob the adult, and sometimes for me, for the dad I lost, and in recognition of the happy childhood I enjoyed despite my loss and my mother’s devastation. It was that emotional.
In places in the book Rob hints that The Ghost soubriquet has sometimes had a greater force than merely that of a sports sub’s imagination back in the early sixties, and I understand his feelings in that direction.
At some point later today I’ll take a walk down Links St, and if I see a wee boy playing with his two brothers while their mum looks out on them from a ground floor window, I’ll be fairly sure who they are. And, if on the grass at the end of the street, a seagull’s cry from the harbour, there are some lads kicking a ball about, I’ll look for the slight and diffident one who is spraying passes, quietly controlling the game, and scoring sublime goals, and I’ll know, as Rob suggests in his book, that, for those of us who idolised him, the Ghost of White Hart Lane is never far away.
The Ghost of White Hart Lane: In Search of My Father the Football Legend [Hardcover]
Julie Welch (Author), Rob White (Author)