Between 1961 and 1963, Bill Nicholson’s Tottenham Hotspur team took football to new levels. The team won modern football’s first domestic Double in 1961. The following year they won the FA Cup again, finished second in the league, and reached the semi-final of the European Cup – further than any British side had been before. In 1963, exactly 50 years ago today, Spurs became the first British side to win a European trophy, beating Atletico Madrid to lift the European Cup-Winners Cup.
The bare facts are impressive enough. But what made this team stand out was not what was achieved, but the way it was achieved. To win the Double, 11 straight wins from the opening day of the season and over 100 goals scored by the end. The football played was sublime, taking the game to a new level. The European Cup semi-final against the Benfica of Bela Guttmann and Eusebio is still described as one of the best matches ever played. And the thrashing of highly-fancied Atletico Madrid in 1963 announced the arrival of British clubs as a force in Europe.
Much has been written about that team, and many memories rekindled in the last two years since the 50th anniversary of the Double. And yet…
The feeling persists that the achievements of that team have not been recognised as fully as they could be by those who currently hold the reins at White Hart Lane. At Manchester United, the Busby Babes are honoured and embraced; at Celtic the Lisbon Lions are revered, at other clubs a statue or a plaque signifies the regard in which the great players are held.
In the corridors of power at Tottenham Hotspur, there seems to be a faint sense of unease. The achievement of the Double side was a long time ago, too much celebration will serve as a reminder of how long it was since the club won the league… These thoughts are among those fed back over the past few years as the question of how to honour the Double side has been raised.
The club has made some effort. A book commemorating the Double win was produced, and the surviving players were brought onto the pitch at half-time. These players, proud men all, were pleased with this and would never think to complain. But Rob White, son of the winger John White – whose talents were extinguished so early when he was struck by lightening and killed on an Enfield golf course in 1964 – is still in touch with many of his dad’s former team-mates and their families and can attest to the fact that there is a feeling among them that their achievement has not been recognised as it might be. “I’ve raised it with the club,” he says, “but they seem somehow embarrassed. If you want my honest opinion I think it’s a bit of a disgrace. This isn’t just any team we’re talking about, it’s the Double team, the first to do what they did.”
That feeling is shared by others. Among them are two Fleet Street legends, Norman Giller and Julie Welch. Giller reported on that great side in his days as a football reporter, before he became chief football reporter with the Daily Express in its glory days and then a prolific author. “It doesn’t seem right that the club has let the Double anniversary pass, and it seems soon the anniversary of the Cup-Winners Cup win, without proper fanfare,” he told me. Julie Welch, as anyone who has seen her semi-autobiographical film Those Glory Glory Days will know, was a schoolgirl when the Double side captured her imagination, sparking a fascination with the game that was to see her become Fleet Street’s first female football reporter at The Observer in 1974. Now an established author and screenwriter, she’s still very much a Spurs fan. “There’s not much time left to do something appropriate,” she says, “but it would be nice to think the club could properly recognise what I still think was the greatest team there’s ever been.”
Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to work, alongside fellow author Adam Powley, on a couple of official books on the Double and Tottenham Hotspur’s European history, which was pioneered by that side. The books themselves have served as some recognition, and some of the surviving players were invited onto the pitch as guests of the club one half-time to talk about their exploits. But this is the limit, so far, of the club’s commemorative activity. Having researched the achievements of these remarkable men and been lucky enough to meet a few of them, it seems to us that there’s something more to be done to give them their rightful place.
As Adam says, “Generations of Tottenham fans have grown up being made aware what the Double team means, not just to Spurs but to English football as a whole. The modern club and current players wouldn’t be in the position they are without the Double side, so it seems only right that their contribution should be better celebrated and marked.”
There’s also a more practical angle. While the Double team were arguably the first superstars of football’s mass media age, what they earned during their career was nowhere near what today’s players get in a year, even a month. So as they age and illness strikes or hard times befall them, they struggle. They are too proud to ask for help, but they should not need to. They were instrumental in creating what Tottenham Hotspur is, the brand that today’s business uses to market this famous old club.
While the Tottenham Tribute Trust, an admirable initiative backed by the club, has contributed to individual cases, this does not represent a total package. Caring for these great men and their families should not be an optional extra.
Soon, the 50th anniversary of this team will pass. But there is still time for the club to do the right thing. Celebrating the past does not, in other circumstances, serve to undermine the present, rather it underlines the value of what we have. With no proper sense of history, we are all the poorer.
Tottenham Hotspur could declare the pre-season friendly at the start of next season the official commemorative testimonial for the Double team. Instead of marking the winning of a particular trophy, the match would remember the team itself, the one that achieved glory from 1961-1963. The money raised would go to the surviving players and their families, and the game would be a proper occasion. The club could also unveil a plaque, statue or other memorial to the team – something permanent that properly acknowledges their achievement for generations to come.
The money involved is insignificant in the landscape of today’s multi-billion pound business. But the goodwill generated by daring to do the right thing would be priceless.