The Great Managers – Tottenham’s Bill Nicholson: humble, hard and honest

TODAY, football managers are like rock stars; the game revolves around them, their fortunes command many column inches in the media and there is an air of mystique around some of the biggest names. It wasn’t always the case, managers were often low profile, humble and unassuming figures. Some, like Liverpool’s Bob Paisley, lived among their people, close to the stadium and were part of the community, using public transport and local shops. In the modern era, managers are as accessible as the players, in other words, celebrities who jealously guard their privacy.

Bill Nicholson was a great clubman who gave Tottenham Hotspur their finest hours. He set a standard that the club has struggled to live up to ever since. And when he felt football had lost its charm and the players were no longer as committed as they once were, he decided to walk away from the game he loved. Bill Nick, as he was known, left the job saddened and a little disillusioned.

But Nicholson, born in January 1919 in Scarborough, was not a local lad, in fact he was a blunt Yorkshireman and yet he was fiercely loyal to a north London football club for much of his life. He joined Spurs in the mid-1930s but his career was interrupted by the second world war. Nicholson joined the army and this instilled in him a strict discipline, not to mention his trademark military haircut. He guested for a few clubs during the 1939-45 conflict, including Newcastle United.

Push and run

Although he enjoyed a relatively successful career, he was described as being a “bread and butter player” by none other than journalist Brian Glanville. He was a key member of the Tottenham team that won the second and first divisions in succession in 1950 and 1951. This earned him an England cap against Portugal in May 1951 at the age of 32, wearing the number four shirt in the place of Billy Wright, who had been dropped. Nicholson marked his one and only appearance with a goal with his first touch after less the 20 seconds, a shot from 18 yards. England, who had Tom Finney and Jackie Milburn in their line-up, comfortably won 5-2 at Goodison Park.

Nicholson learnt his trade under Arthur Rowe, whose “push and run” tactics had already left their mark on him when he took over at Spurs in 1958. Rowe’s style was pragmatic and relied upon the team ethic. He posted phrases around the dressing room that summed up his ethos: “Make it simple, make it quick”….”A rolling ball gathers no moss”…”The team makes the stars, not the stars the team.” Rowe was a progressive coach, so much so that some credited him with influencing the Hungarian side that humbled England in 1953. He certainly had an effect on both Nicholson and the man who would lead England to World Cup success in 1966, Alf Ramsey.

Nicholson was already Tottenham’s respected coach and had also been assisting with the England team during the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, so when he was given the job at Spurs, succeeding Jimmy Anderson who suffered bouts of ill-health, the players felt they were getting “one of us”. The team was informed just before they were due to run out against Everton at White Hart Lane. “I accepted the managership willingly, but I did ask the boys to pull something out for me, and they responded magnificently,” said Nicholson. Indeed they did, for Spurs beat Everton 10-4 and former Chelsea striker Bobby Smith scored four times. “We were sorry to hear that Jimmy had to quit, but we were pleased for Bill. We won this one for him,” recalled Smith. Nicholson had earlier turned down offers from clubs in the north of England, but the Spurs job was the one he wanted.

At the time, they were struggling after two seasons in which they had finished second and third in the first division. They were 16th in the table with nine points from 11 games when equally troubled Everton arrived at White Hart Lane. The team that trounced the Merseysiders included just three members of the team that Nicholson would lead to unprecedented glory over the next three years: Peter Baker, Danny Blanchflower and Bobby Smith. Others, such as Terry Medwin, Terry Dyson, Maurice Norman, Ron Henry and Peter Baker, were on the club’s books.

Creating a legend

Spurs finished in 18th place in 1958-59, but Nicholson had started to rebuild his team. In March 1959, he signed Dave Mackay from Hearts just before the transfer deadline ended, a tough, inspirational figure who had appeared in the 1958 World Cup for Scotland. Mackay would become a driving force in the years ahead, but he played just four times before the end of the campaign due to an injury. Years later, Nicholson claimed Mackay was the best signing he’d ever made.

A few months later, prompted by some of his players, including Mackay, Nicholson returned to Scotland and signed John White, a young midfielder from Falkirk for £ 20,000. White was his third Scottish signing as goalkeeper Bill Brown had also been picked up for £ 15,000 from Dundee. Another player who had made his mark in the World Cup, Cliff Jones, had been signed in February 1958 from Swansea, denying neighbours Arsenal the chance of securing him, but he broke his leg in pre-season 1958 and didn’t return to action until December of that year. Jones would become another key component of Nicholson’s master plan.

Over the course of 1959 and 1960, the legendary double-winning side was constructed and in the summer of 1960, after Spurs had finished third, just two points off top-placed Burnley, captain Danny Blanchflower, always full of romantic ideas, told the Spurs chairman, Fred Bearman, that the team would win the league and FA Cup for the club. Nicholson wasn’t convinced, knowing that the FA Cup, for example, relied on luck as well as judgement.

Spurs were excellent in the first few months of 1960-61, winning their first 11 games, including a 4-0 trouncing of FA Cup holders Wolves at Molineux. “Super Tottenham march on,” screamed the headlines, but the 100% record went in their next game against Manchester City. The unbeaten run ended in their 17th game, a 2-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday. “I think my side were awful. We allowed them to rattle us,” admitted Nicholson. The media loved the fact that Wednesday’s team just around £ 17,000 whereas big-spending Spurs’ team was put together for £ 200,000.

Spurs recovered and won seven of their next eight games and didn’t lose again in 1960. They were 10 points ahead of second-placed Wolves at the turn of the year after beating Blackburn Rovers 5-2. The next stage of the double was about to begin, the FA Cup. Spurs won through two rounds, beating Charlton Athletic and Crewe Alexandra at White Hart Lane and were drawn against Aston Villa in round five. Meanwhile, in the league, Manchester United, despite having goalkeeper Harry Gregg filling an outfield position due to an injury, inflicted upon Spurs their second league defeat.

For a few weeks, Spurs seemed a little off colour, but they won through to the FA Cup final by disposing of Villa, Sunderland and, in the semi-final, league champions Burnley by 3-0. In the league, they were surprisingly beaten by struggling Newcastle United at home. They were still below their best at Fulham, a 0-0 draw and as a result, the situation at the top was becoming more tense. Spurs were three points in front of Sheffield Wednesday, who had beaten Manchester United 5-1.

But an intense Easter period changed the narrative as Spurs, who were supposedly stumbling won three times to open up a five-point lead over Sheffield Wednesday. On April 8, Spurs won again, at Birmingham, but Wednesday drew. It was now six points with four games to go. The decider, ironically, was Spurs against Wednesday. The public had decided that it was Spurs’ destiny to make history with the double and 61,000 crammed into White Hart Lane. Spurs won 2-1 to become champions and Nicholson targeted beating Arsenal’s record points haul of 66. But they lost two of their last three game to finish on that total, eight points better off than Wednesday. Interestingly, Spurs lost six of their last 17 league games, underlining how commanding they had been in the first half of the season.

There was some suggestion they were worn out and the FA Cup final almost confirmed that, for Spurs were far from their best against Leicester City at Wembley. They won 2-0, but Nicholson was disappointed with his team’s performance: “It was a hard, defensive game more than anything else. It was bound to affect the game as an exhibition.”


The pundits proclaimed Spurs the greatest team of the century – they were after all, the first double winners since Aston Villa in 1897. Nicholson, as understated as ever, didn’t agree. “There have been some very good teams in the past and the double has always been on the cards. I think Manchester United would have done it in 1957 but for a mishap when Ray Wood was injured.”

What made Tottenham Hotspur’s 1961 team so special? Nicholson was all about doing the simple things very well. He had supreme talent in his side, notably Danny Blanchflower, who even in his 30s was inventive and influential. Dave Mackay and John White would have walked into any team, while Nicholson got the best out of two former Chelsea forwards, Bobby Smith and Les Allen. And Cliff Jones, the Welsh wizard, was one of the best wingers around. Spurs were also canny when it came to set-pieces, being one of the first teams to send their tall centre-halves up for corners. They also developed the habit of placing a marker on the man taking a throw-in. They also benefitted from stability and continuity, using just 17 players in 1960-61, including eight who made more than 40 appearances.

Nicholson always regretted that in 1961-62 his team didn’t win a second double even though they went very close. He admitted a tactical error in the way they confronted shock champions Ipswich Town, who were managed by his old team-mate, Alf Ramsey. Spurs lost both games against the East Anglian side and this effectively cost them the league title in 1962. There were further setbacks in the European Cup where Spurs were beaten by Benfica and Eusebio in the semi-final after having a goal disallowed. In theory, the team was stronger than the previous year as they had signed Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan for close to £ 100,000. Greaves had left Chelsea at the end of 1960-61 but it had not worked out well and the Italian club were prepared to let him go. Chelsea wanted him but Spurs were prepared to outbid their London rivals. Eventually, Nicholson, who had been deeply involved in negotiations with Milan, won the day, although some people were concerned that Greaves, who had acquired a reputation for being something of a non-confirmist while in Italy, might not be the ideal man for Spurs. “I have always found Jimmy to be a good player and a good lad. I don’t see why he shouldn’t fit in,” said Nicholson.

Greaves eventually had the Football League’s approval to resume his career in England and he marked his first appearance with a hat-trick against Blackpool on December 16. By the end of the season, he had scored 30 goals in 31 games for his new club. Spurs had to settle for a second successive FA Cup, won 3-1 against Burnley with Greaves scoring the first goal.

Needless to say, Spurs were among the favourites to win the league title in 1962-63. They finished second, six points behind Everton but were knocked out of the FA Cup by none other than Burnley, their first defeat in the competition since February 1960.  Spurs created history, however, in winning the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. They did it in style, beating Atlético Madrid 5-1 in Rotterdam. “I am tremendously proud of the players and my club for being the first British team to win a European title,” beamed Nicholson. Famous referee Leo Horn, praised the victors: “This is the best performance I have ever seen from an English club. Why doesn’t your national team play like this?”. The fact was a third of the Spurs victorious line-up wasn’t English!

The Cup-Winners’ Cup success was seen by many as the end of an era, but it also gave birth to the famous “Glory, glory hallelujah” nights that characterised the period. There was talk of fresh blood arriving in the summer with names like Terry Paine of Southampton and Rangers’ Jim Baxter among the targets. Neither would join Spurs but the 1963-64 campaign was, by Spurs’ standards, disappointing. They finished fourth, but what was noticeable was the number of goals conceded. They scored 97 in 42 league games but conceded 81. The league programme ended disastrously, a 7-2 defeat Turf Moor which saw Bobby Smith bow out and move to Brighton. Gradually, the double side was dispersing, Blanchflower had gone, White had died in tragic circumstances and Mackay was starting to become injury prone.


Nicholson tried to replace his great side with new men, but it proved to be an onerous task. Half-back Alan Mullery arrived from Fulham in 1963-64, but two more notables were signed in the close season, Pat Jennings, a goalkeeper from Watford and Middlesbrough full back Cyril Knowles, costing £ 27,000 and £ 45,000 respectively. In December 1964, forward Alan Gilzean was signed from Dundee for £ 72,500.

Spurs drifted down the table and in 1965-66, dropped to eighth, partly due to Greaves’ absence from the team through illness. As English football experienced a boom following the World Cup win of 1966, Greaves found himself out of favour with the England set-up. Some would argue that he was never the same player, but in 1967, he was part of the team that won the FA Cup, beating Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley. The last links with Nicholson’s double winners went with the departure of Dave Mackay in 1968 and Cliff Jones a year later. Greaves was swapped for Martin Peters of West Ham in 1970 and the following season, there were signs that Nicholson had stumbled across another decent side.

A key element was Martin Chivers, who had been signed in January 1968 from Southampton for £ 125,000. Since joining the club, Chivers hadn’t really lived up to his price tag due to injury and an apparent lack of confidence. Nicholson was forever frustrated by Chivers, a powerful forward who rarely used his strength to his advantage. The arrival of Peters seemed to help the big fellow, who was switched to centre forward, and in 1970-71, he netted 21 league goals and Spurs won the Football League Cup with his two goals against Aston Villa. A year later, Chivers was pivotal in the club’s second European prize, the UEFA Cup, which was won 3-2 on aggregate against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Chivers scored both goals in the vital first leg as Spurs won 2-1. He also won a place in the England team, but he still frequently annoyed Nicholson as there were many games where he was simply anonymous.

Spurs made it three trophies in as many years with another Football League Cup victory by courtesy of a goal from Ralph Coates, who had been a big-money signing from Burnley in 1971 (£ 190,000). Coates had struggled to establish himself at the club, but his cup-winning goal against Norwich City helped to win over the doubters.

Little did Nicholson know it, but his time at Tottenham Hotspur was drawing to a close. In 1973-74, Spurs had a dire domestic season but reached the UEFA Cup final. They lost 4-2 on aggregate to Feyenoord and in the second leg, Spurs’ fans let their club down by their hooligan behaviour. Nicholson was incensed and his mood dragged on into the following season. There was little doubt the Spurs team needed reinforcing but he seemed unable to find the players he wanted.

The problem of rebuilding had plagued Nicholson since his glory days. Although players like Mullery, England, Coates and Chivers were all fine footballers, they were always benchmarked against the likes of Blanchflower, Mackay, Jones and White. And then in 1974, the latest men in white shirts were struggling to emulate the team of Peters, Chivers and Mullery.

Nicholson didn’t like the way the modern game was heading, the demands of players, the endless talk of money and bonuses and the process of securing talent. He despised the rarely spoken of practice of under-the-table payments. He became disenchanted and after a dreadful start to the 1974-75 season, he called it a day.

While Nicholson’s decision was a shock to some loyal fans, others realised that Bill Nick’s time was over. Spurs had lost all four of their league games, their worst start to a season, and were directionless. “I was simply burned out, I had no more to offer,” he revealed some years later. In his long career at White Hart Lane, he won eight trophies and ended with a win rate of 49.04%. He was involved in both of Tottenham’s league title wins, in 1951 as a player and 1961 as the manager.

Although he recommended Danny Blanchflower or Johnny Giles as his successor, Nicholson left the stage for a while, but he was invited back to play a role when Keith Burkinshaw became manager. For some years, he could be seen at Spurs matches, from youth to first team. His achievements are rightly commemorated at Tottenham and his place in football’s history books secure. Bill Nicholson was a special manager who made history and created a legacy with a much-loved team that every Spurs coach has had to live up to since. It has been a very tough job that nobody has come close to completing.

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