Updated: May 10, 2020
This book is a very personal account of author James Morgan’s efforts not only to discover Gilzean’s whereabouts but also to get the player recognised in Scottish football’s Hall of Fame. Morgan is a Spurs fan, like his father, and his Dad’s praise for Gilzean has obviously stuck with him. Gilly retired from top-class football in 1974, since when he has drifted out of the public eye. In recent years, various rumours circulated that Gilzean was living as a down and out or had somehow fallen on hard times, and an article by Hunter Davies in the New Statesman, claiming Gilzean never cared much for the game, added to the enigma.
Morgan sets out to separate fact from fiction, and in doing so raises some extremely thought-provoking points about the power of the internet to rewrite history and about the value of good, old-fashioned journalistic digging. There’s much here too on the nature of fame and the ethical issues of writing about a life still being lived, and that’s what gives this little gem of a book its unique qualities.
I was also particularly struck by the fact that Gilzean often slips to slip under the radar in the discussions of Spurs greats – although when I was asked to help compile a list of the 51 greatest post-war players for the Spurs Opus alongside journalists Julie Welch, Mat Snow and Matt Allen, Gilly came it at 14, ahead of such greats as Martin Peters, Alan Mullery, Paul Gascoigne, Clive Allen and Chris Waddle. Even though Gilly was a member of the team when I really started following them in the early 1970s, my early heroes were Pat Jennings and Martin Chivers. Like all Spurs fans, I recognise the greatness of the early 1960s side, and I’ll always treasure the great early 1980s side because they were the ones I started watching live.
That regard and affection has helped me in writing books about the 61 team and the early 80s side, but reading In Search of Alan Glizean it struck me again that many Spurs fans – maybe particularly of my generation – don’t give the teams who played between the mid 1960s and 170s the credit they deserve. Gilzean was a key member of Bill Nicholson’s second great side of the 1960s, and that legendary manager’s third great side that won three cups in successive seasons in the early 1970s. We tend to think of the 1970s as the time when Nicholson left and the club went into decline before the resurgence of the early 80s. And while Jennings was the schoolboy’s idol with the largest hands in soccer and Chivers the swashbuckling goalscorer, Gilzean’s talents were of a rarer kind. He’s compared in the book to Dimitar Berbatov, and I’ll leave you to explore why when you read the book. But suffice to say all who knew Gilly say he was better – and he certainly didn’t leave the club in the kind of disgracefully disrespectful way Berbatov did.
Nice too in this book to read of Steve Perryman once again being helpful and straightforward to an author and providing some real insight. Steve must probably be dreading another call from someone saying “I’m writing a book about Spurs…” but Morgan’s account of his dealings with the great man chime with my own experiences of dealing with the man they still call the Skipper.
In Search of Alan Gilzean is a thoughtful, at times moving, insightful and original addition to the library of books on Spurs and is worthy of reaching a wider audience.