"The noise came from everywhere," recalled Danny Blanchflower. "A local vicar used to complain that the whole thing was like a substitute for religion, and I suppose it was in a way."
That religion was Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Its minister was Bill Nicholson. A no-nonsense Yorkshireman, he was a physical education instructor during World War II who rose to the rank of sergeant. Accordingly, Nicholson seldom smiled. Those who attended his church, White Hart Lane, nevertheless did with military regularity.
For not only did Tottenham thrive during his 16 years at their controls – they became the first club in the 20th century to do the league and FA Cup double and the maiden British winners of a European trophy – they did so in exuberant style.
"It's no use just winning,” declared Nicholson. “You’ve got to win playing well. You always have to consider the supporters – without them there would be no professional football. And supporters want not only to see their team win, but to be entertained. That’s what they deserve for their hard-earned money.”
Nicholson was already a firm favourite at White Hart Lane when he assumed its hot-seat in 1958. He made his debut for the club in 1938 and, though World War II gobbled a generous slice of his playing career, the Scarborough native returned to perform a decisive function, in a team comprising Ted Ditchburn, Alf Ramsey, Ron Burgess and Eddie Baily, in their seizure of a maiden top-flight title in 1951.
Later that same year Nicholson made his international debut, scoring with his first touch after merely 19 seconds, in a 5-2 defeat of Portugal at Goodison Park. He didn’t represent England again, however, an upshot of sharing position and pomp with the legendary Billy Wright, and of putting club before country: “My duty is to get fit for Tottenham,” he commented frequently. “Well, they pay my wages, don't they?"
Nicholson hung up his boots in 1955, having stayed committed to Tottenham and made 314 league appearances for them. “He was a great player,” said his former Spurs manager Arthur Rowe. “You could always rely on him.”
If he was a great player, he was an even greater manager – and it didn’t take the White Hart Lane public long to find out. Tottenham were scrapping against relegation when Nicholson assumed their reins in October 1958, but, incompatibly, he masterminded a club-record 10-4 win over Everton in his first match in charge.
Danny Blanchflower, an avante-garde box-to-box midfielder, and four-goal striker Bobby Smith were the star performers that day. The following year Nicholson complimented them with two Scots. Dave Mackay, a pitbull of a defensive midfielder who would intimidate opponents into shirking challenges against him and crunch those who dared, proved the ideal complement to Blanchflower, while crafty inside-forward John White, known as ‘The Ghost’, became a regular source for Smith’s strikes.
With wingers Cliff Jones and Terry Dyson, and deep-lying forward Les Allen, also making heavy contributions, Tottenham cruised to the First Division crown in 1960/61, scoring 115 goals in 42 games in the process. One week later Spurs beat Leicester City 2-0 in the FA Cup final.
As his players deliriously celebrated becoming the first side since Aston Villa in 1896/97 to do the double, their manager rued only putting two goals past the great Gordon Banks. “I’m disappointed with the way we played, and I’m disappointed we only scored twice on such a great occasion.” Typical Nicholson.
The man who worked in a laundry in his teens signed Jimmy Greaves from AC Milan in 1961. The prolific striker bagged the opener in the 3-1 win over Burnley in the following year’s FA Cup decider, and a double in the 5-1 thumping of Atletico Madrid in the 1962/63 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final – a result which made Tottenham the first British team to lift a European trophy.
Naturally, age dismantled one of English football’s most successful sides. Nicholson responded by making a crop of excellent signings – including Pat Jennings, Mike England, Cyril Knowles, Alan Mullery, Terry Venables and Alan Gilzean – that turned Spurs into a formidable force once again. They won another FA Cup in 1967, two League Cups at the start of the following decade and the 1971/72 UEFA Cup.
“We had a very good side but we had the greatest manager,” said Knowles. “He even reminded us fullbacks our job was to entertain the fans.” Mullery added: "He was a fantastic tactician, superb coach and probably the best manager I've seen.”
Nicholson vacated the reins in 1974 but returned to White Hart Lane as a scout two years later and persuaded Spurs to sign, among others, Gary Mabbutt and Glenn Hoddle. They both became club legends. Nicholson became its honorary president in 1991 and, ten years ago to this Thursday, left the football world in mourning when he passed away, aged 85.
“My respect and admiration for him just grew the more I saw of him,” said Jones. “He knew more about the game than anyone I ever met, and knew how to convey it. He was the complete manager.”
Gary Mabbutt commented: ”Bill Nicholson is the name that is synonymous with Tottenham. His achievements, and the way in which he achieved them, will always be remembered by anyone with a Spurs connection.”
Even the scorcher machine that was Brian Clough showered Nicholson in praise: "Bill eventually became Mr Tottenham Hotspur, and produced such a dazzling team at White Hart Lane that they won the double and played the game in a way that was an object lesson to everybody."