Kindness of Strangers

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My football DNA is pretty clear – it is Hibernian green through and through. However, it gets a little frayed around the edges when you examine my history.

My family started supporting Hibs when they arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland in the mid 1890s, my uncle played for them in the late 20s, and he and my dad took me to my first game when I was not yet four, in January 1956.

However, my dad died the following year and later we moved to the north of England. When I was considered old enough to go to a game alone, in November 1963, it was to watch Southport FC in the old Fourth division, and I developed a lifelong passion for live football in the ten years I lived there.

Naturally, when I returned to Edinburgh in 1970, I became an ever present at Hibs’ games, and now, after a lifetime in teaching, I work voluntarily as Hibernian’s Education and Welfare Officer.

But – there was a gap between our arriving in Lancashire in 1958, and my starting to go to Southport games in 1963. It was the time when I was starting to understand football and develop a love for it, it was the time when we were starting to get the odd highlights of games on grainy black and white television – limited to midweek European games.

It was the time when Tottenham Hotspur were quite clearly brilliant.

And I fell in love with that team with an intensity which only comes with first love. So much so, I can rattle off the line up without pause, over fifty year later: Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, MacKay, Jones, White, Smith, Allen and Dyson.

For me, just recognising football, it was ideal timing: Arthur Rowe had introduced a beguiling style of “push and run” football which was easy on the eye and highly effective; Bill Nicholson – who could have been modelled on any of the war heroes we were still reading about in our comics – had modified the style and was getting together a team who could fully apply its fluency; and there was a mixture of players to satisfy every footballing need. I loved the athleticism of Bill Brown in goal, the reliability of full backs Baker and Henry, Blanchflower’s intelligent probing play and leadership, the uncompromising centre half play of Maurice Norman, and the no nonsense linking play of Dave MacKay. The wing positions were perfectly balanced with the speed of Jones and the brave trickery of Terry Dyson, Allen poached goals, Bobby Smith could have invented the word ‘rumbustious’ at centre forward, and my first proper footballing hero, John White – born a few miles from my home in Edinburgh – could ghost into positions, pinpoint passes, and score goals out of nothing. I’ve no idea how you could play against that team – goals and inventiveness could come from anywhere, and when they were on a roll they were unstoppable.

The magic was enhanced by the film noir productions every few weeks on television, darting figures in all white strips playing against black uniformed teams like Gornik of Poland, snow on the ground, the harsh glare of the floodlights. How many guys of my generation remember being allowed up late, hunched in dressing gowns on the sofa, avoiding parental eyes in fear of the “time for bed” nod? And weren’t that Spurs side just worth it?

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There’s no love like first love they say, and though, naturally, my weekly attendance at Southport and my return to the Hibernian Family inevitably brought a stronger sense of reality to my football supporting, I’ve never quite managed to shake off that Tottenham team of the early sixties: that team provides the default image for every position; their style provides a comparative starting point for every team I watch. Those players hover over my times at football, like benevolent uncles, sharing my joys and woes, they never fade. Each July 21st I make the short trip to Musselburgh and walk from John White’s childhood home  down to the park at the bottom of the street where he first kicked a ball, and I think of  him – and his Tottenham team mates – who fired a young boy’s enthusiasm for football.

And because football – even now – is about people rather than simply trophies and glory and high finance, I share this tale of what made Tottenham so extra special to me.

In August 1965, off on holiday with my mother, we had a stopover of three days in London – to see the sights and take in a show. What would I like to see, she asked me. No hesitation: “White Hart Lane!” Bless her, she agreed.

So, after a brief flirtation with Tottenham Court Rd, we eventually  arrived at a bus stop on the High Rd. My mother thought it an unlikely place for a football ground – but I had studied all the pictures in my copies of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. There was the pub – the White Hart, there was the actual lane!

I think I probably ran through the gates and towards the huge main stand “Tottenham Hotspur Football Club” in large letters. I’d made it to White Hart Lane!

Then, of course, reality invaded the dream moment. It was early August – even if Spurs were back in training, it would have been out at their Cheshunt Training Ground. The place was locked up and deserted. I tried to put a brave face on it, but my mother would have sensed my disappointment.

We returned to the High Rd. There was a row of shops there, among them a newsagent and a greengrocer, if my memory serves, and my mother headed into the paper shop, explained we’d come from the north of England, and asked if there was any way of seeing the Spurs ground. The shopkeeper was not a football fan but thought it would be difficult at that time of year. As we left the shop, he came running out after us and called to a guy passing by: “Hey – Harry – this lad’s from the north and he wants to see the Spurs ground, you’ve got a connection, ain’t you?.”

I must admit, as a 13 year old, I was getting a bit embarrassed by now, and would have let it go, but the man stopped, and said he’d see what he could do, telling us to wait while he had a think. He disappeared down the lane, I dared to get my hopes up. They didn’t exactly say: “Wotcher, mate!” but to my Scottish/north of England ear, the shopkeeper and Harry both sounded like proper Londoners.

Harry returned and told us to come with him. We walked down the lane, across the car park and along the front of the stand. There was a small door in the vast frontage – Harry knocked, it opened, and a voice said: “In ye come – you can show him round, Harry.”

It turned out this was a watchman and Harry knew him, so he’d checked it would be ok. I must have just about been hyperventilating by this stage. It’s worth remembering that “stadium tours” did not exist in those days; indeed, preserving the mystique of “behind the scenes”, was a bit of a priority for clubs at the time, and very few people would get to view the inner sanctum. I’d hoped to get into the stands to see the pitch – now I was heading for the dressing rooms – Spurs’ dressing room! The corridors were dark, there were white painted brick walls and navy blue trimmings. The dressing room was dark wood, frosted windows and navy blue cushions or coverings on the benches round the walls. There was a big bath and some individual baths. This was where the team got ready!

You can imagine the effect on a 13 year old boy. I was ecstatic and a little overwhelmed – trying to take it all in, wanting to remember it, but just awed that I was actually there.

We passed the tunnel and then climbed some stairs and emerged in what must have been the Directors’ Box. There below was the pitch! All those black and white nights – Gornik, Slovan Bratislava, Dukla Prague, Feyenoord. There it was below me. Truly magic!

A voice from below broke into my dreams: “It’s alright, mate, “ shouted Harry, “they’re with me.”

After one last look at White Hart Lane – THE White Hart Lane – we headed back down and out of the stand through that same small door.

Back on the High Road, Harry prepared to say his goodbyes – but 13 year olds have no self awareness, and I was muttering to my mother. She took the hint and relayed my wishes to Harry: “He was a big fan of John White – is there any way he could get his autograph?”

Talk about not quitting when you’re ahead!

Harry scratched his head but looked less perplexed than you might expect – given my hero  had died more than a year before. He agreed to ask around and we exchanged addresses. It was a wonderful demonstration of the kindness of strangers. I didn’t really expect anything to come of my request, but was hugely grateful for his generosity in making a dream come true for a small Scots lad he’d never met before.

The next day – obviously on a roll, we went out to see Wembley Stadium. A knock on the door and a well rehearsed tale about our trip from the North seemed to do the trick and before I knew it I was in the Wembley dressing rooms and walking down the famous tunnel. In the modern day world of marketing and commercialism, the idea of walking up to stadium like Wembley and “getting a wee look” seems impossible to accept – and I have to say, on my return to school, when I reported that I’d been in the dressing rooms at White Hart Lane and Wembley, there were more than a few sceptical looks.

I hadn’t expected to hear from Harry  again, but, in mid September, a large packet arrived for me with a return address of 19 Chalgrove Rd, N17. Inside were programmes and a number of A 4 sized –photographs, of the kind displayed outside newspaper offices in those days – all had been signed by the players in the picture, including a number by Jimmy Greaves.  “Up the Spurs! Harry Vickery.”

What a lovely gesture, and one which has stayed with me through the years. As I had his address I was able to write and thank him, and I  sent him a Christmas Card for a good few years.

Whenever I see Spurs on the television I remember those days and I hope they have retained at least some of that north London community feel in these highly corporate times – because, ultimately, that says far more about a club than winning trophies. Harry’s home was a ten minute walk from the ground – which is how the shopkeeper knew him and how he knew the watchman. Clubs need to be rooted in communities in that way – which is one reason I am pleased that the new Spurs ground will be within the footprint of the other one.

I hope Harry’s kids and grandkids are Spurs fans and I would love them to know of Harry’s kindness – which I forever will link with those Glory Glory days.

In the early sixties, there were no substitutes – only eleven men in a team, but when I start off on that familiar list of “Brown, Baker, Henry……”  I always recall twelve names; I always include Harry Vickery!

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Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

11 thoughts on “Kindness of Strangers

  1. I would argue that only one club in the Premier League can be regarded as a ‘community club’, one that has strong links with its supporters, is wholly owned by fans (7 directors who have supported the club since childhood. That club is Burnley FC. Spurs is a travesty of what it was – it’s grown too big, has become disconnected from many of its fans. Burnley last year was voted the top community club in the north-west of England. It’s frozen its prices for a third successive year. The directors, manager players and backroom staff have incredibly close links with the community. But there’s a cloud on the horizon. It’s reported that an American ‘consortium’ wish to purchase the club for 180 million. Burnley fans such as my self, hope the takeover bid is firmly resisted.

    1. Hi Paul, Thanks for your comments – with which I have to say I heartily agree. I have little interest if any in today’s EPL and don’t really recognise “the product”. Always had a soft spot for Burnley – in fact, like that Spurs side, I can just about real off Harry Potts’ fabulous team: Blacklaw, Angus, Elder, Adamson, Cummings, Miller. Connelly, McIlroy, Pointer, Robson, Harris. Great footballers the lot of them. Bob Lord opened Southport’s new stand in 1967 – he’d be an interesting addition to the current scene. I taught Scott Arfield at school – he is a lovely lad and speaks very highly of the club. Turf Moor is on my bucket list of grounds I’ve still to visit! All the best, and good luck with fighting off the consortium! SMcP

  2. Fantastic read that captures what the club mean to me….among my best friends are strangers I met at N17 0AP.

    As I head to Wembley from my home in Paisley today, there’s a year on my cheek but a smile on my face.

    Thanks.

    1. Glad to hear it and thanks for your kind comments. Happy travels and good results to you and Spurs – can’t be too many “Spurs Buddies” – great support!

  3. Brilliant article !

    Always been something very special about the Mighty Spurs and their home White Hart Lane.

    Long may the essence of all you say continue

    Paul

  4. I don’t often comment on blogs. But this one almost moved me to tears. Because not only did you embrace what is important in football. You embraced the fabric of what it means to be “spurs”. It isn’t all about trophies as you say (although a few would be nice). Thank you for sharing this marvellous story

  5. Fantastic read Sean, brings back some great memories, What a great team that was. I remember my brother-in-law taking me in his car to White Hart Lane to cheer Spurs on, his name …… Dave Mackay!

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