This article first appeared in Issue 17 of The Football Pink fanzine
HARRY COLLINS goes on the trail of a man whose career was tragically cut short in its prime, but whose legacy in North London is grounded in Tottenham’s recently retired stadium.
At 8-years-old, Rob stood in the dusty, cluttered loft of his family’s home wearing his father’s blue velvet Scotland cap, clutching his prized medals proudly to his chest. On his feet were his dad’s size 6.5 leather boots. They had belonged to Tottenham Hotspur double winner John White – the ghost of White Hart Lane.
July 21st, 1964 was the first day of pre-season in North London and a date that will forever remain a pivotal and tragic day in the history of Spurs, for it is stained with catastrophe. An implausible series of events resulted in White’s death at the tender age of just 27.
His tragic early demise – ironic as it now unfortunately may seem – was not the reason for his famous nickname. He became known as ‘the ghost’ due to a remarkable sense of timing and elusive positioning that, paired with his vision and awareness, made him impossibly difficult to contain. His pale appearance – perhaps a by-product of his Scottish roots – served as validation of the epithet.
White was also known for his sense of humour. He was often involved in mischief along with Welsh winger and fellow prankster Cliff Jones. It was this tomfoolery that became the catalyst for the chain of events that began as training finished on that summer afternoon in London.
As Jones drove off with the Scotsman’s trousers, White was forced into making an unplanned detour home to pick up a new pair before continuing his journey to Crews Hill golf course where the former Falkirk player had planned a round of golf post-training.
White had failed to find a partner but remained determined to play despite weather conditions deteriorating by the hour over Enfield.
As the sky darkened, White sought refuge from the incoming storm and found sanctuary under a nearby tree on the footpath alongside the 9th hole. It was while sheltering under this tree that the Spurs midfielder was struck by lightning and killed, leaving a widow and two children. White’s wife Sandra was the daughter of Tottenham’s assistant manager Harry Evans, who married the Scotland international in 1961. When White first signed for Spurs he was still required to complete his national service and therefore travelled down from Berwick at weekends in order to play during his first season. The club usually provided White somewhere to stay but on one occasion there was no arrangement in place and Evans stepped in to provide him with a room.
Sandra had just turned 22 at the time of her husband’s passing. Their daughter Mandy was 2 and son Rob, just 6 months old.
It was his wife and son who were due to pick up the midfielder from the golf course, but arrived instead to a scene of flashing blue lights and police cars.
Rob White never knew his father but has strived to build a relationship with him through conversations and memories with teammates, family and friends. The material and information gathered by Rob has resulted in him co-writing (with Julie Welch) a touchingly personal book entitled ‘The Ghost: In Search of My Father the Football Legend.’ Rob was never fortunate enough to see his father play in real life and has therefore had to rely on old footage and the recollections of others in order to understand the inspirational role his dad played in the great double winning Spurs side of 1960-61.
John White – who also won a second FA Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup – was ever present in that historic season. The Scot had an amazing appearance record: he only missed 15 matches for the North London club, and as if to emphasise his importance, of these 15 fixtures, Spurs only won one. During White’s time at The Lane, Tottenham never finished lower than fourth in a highly successful period for the club.
“Cliff Jones has always maintained that the team had three main stars, Danny (Blanchflower), Dave (Mackay) and my dad. If these players were playing anywhere near their potential then he says that it was hard to see Spurs getting beaten” explains Rob White.
Upon hearing the news of his player’s passing via telephone, Spurs manager Bill Nicholson thought it was a hoax, refusing to believe that such a terrible event had occurred.
‘A player’s player’, that was how his manager described John White in a moving speech at the funeral. Nicholson, described by many as a perfectionist, had signed White from Falkirk as a 22-year-old in 1959 for a fee of £20,000 and held the midfielder in very high regard. Purchased due to his potential, White had blossomed in England largely due to his unquestionable stamina that had proved to be a pivotal factor in his move to White Hart Lane. Despite glowing reports of the Scot’s ability there were question marks over his strength and slight build, which many feared may hinder the player in a tough and demanding league. White’s endurance had convinced Nicholson that the Falkirk man had the physical capabilities to cope with the rough and tumble of English football. He requested a reference from the army concerning White’s physical condition and received a glowing response celebrating his cross-country running ability.
White developed into a key player for Nicholson who saw the 27-year-old as the future of the North London club.
“In the week before my dad’s death”, says Rob White, “Bill Nicholson had called him into his office and told him that he planned to build the next Spurs team around my father. Danny Blanchflower was acknowledged as being well past his prime and Dave Mackay was recovering from a second broken leg, so Bill’s plan was quite natural.”
The Spurs double winning side of 1960-61 was full of gifted footballers who would be forever famed for their historic domestic achievement and also for becoming the first British team to win a major European trophy in 1963, beating Atletico Madrid 5-1 in Rotterdam. Terry Dyson and Jimmy Greaves both scored braces that night in the Feijenoord Stadion. White scored the other.
White originally occupied the inside left position at White Hart Lane but his positional sense allowed for greater balance in the side when Nicholson switched him to the right.
A successful club career ran parallel to a stint in the Scotland set-up that began against West Germany at Hampden Park where ‘the ghost’ scored just a minute into his international bow. He would go on to earn 22 caps for his country, scoring three goals in a career cut unforgivingly short.
“Denis Law, and others, maintain that my dad was way ahead of his time, and Jimmy Greaves says that had my dad lived he could have been ‘one of the greatest footballers of all time’. As my dad has always been a player who had a playing style that was hard to define, I often wonder whether we could have added a ‘White’ to the list of ‘Best’, ‘Cruyff’, ‘Maradona’, and other stars whose names are used as their own defining categories”, says Rob White.
On November 10th, 1964, just months after his death, White was remembered with a testimonial at White Hart Lane with a Spurs XI facing a Scotland XI in a game that finished 6-2 to the international side. The highlight of the match was the opening goal scored by John’s younger brother Tom, who captained the Spurs side. Tom, who was playing for Hearts in Scotland at the time, finished off a fine move after a superb assist from Greaves.
White’s death is not the end of the mystery surrounding the midfielder. His ashes were thought to have been scattered post-cremation on the turf of White Hart Lane, but to this date, and despite much searching, nobody can be sure of the whereabouts of White’s remains.
Rob White explains; “There has been no change on the ashes, which doesn’t really surprise me. Like a few things to do with my dad, I think that will always be in the ‘not resolved’ box. Maybe it’s part of the lesson that life is not perfect, and that not everything can be explained. What I have found is that having a small memorial to visit up at Crews Hill has given me a focal point, and some sort of peace.”
The memorial in Enfield is one of numerous tributes to the Scotsman who also has a lounge named after him at Alloa Athletic, where he began his career. His portrait also hangs in the Scottish FA’s hall of fame.
As Spurs fans celebrated the end of an era at White Hart Lane in May, they welcomed former players onto the pitch in a farewell ceremony that provided an emotional closure to the famous North London stadium. Paul Gascoigne was unable to attend, deciding to focus on his health but that did not stop his name being chanted to the rafters by thousands of Spurs fans on their special day. Among the players in attendance was White’s former teammate, the Welsh wizard Cliff Jones, who was part of a list of names that celebrated the history of Tottenham Hotspur. Rob was in attendance that day as his father’s former colleagues were remembered for their outstanding achievements under Nicholson and is looking forward to the new stadium, ensuring that the history created at the old ground remains a prominent feature in the future of Spurs.
“My hope is that the rebuilding of White Hart Lane will give the club the opportunity to reflect properly on the part that my dad and so many other players have played in creating the wonderful history and heritage of Tottenham Hotspur. It would be amazing to think there might be some sort of permanent memorial or statue, but I’m not sure that will happen. It’s more likely to be one of Bill Nicholson if anything. I was amazed at how the last game at White Hart Lane made everyone very aware of all the history and we all seemed to take time to appreciate exactly what the ground meant to us as individuals”, said Rob.
As the old incarnation of White Hart Lane is stripped from the skyline of Tottenham it provides us with an opportunity to reflect. With many clubs reaching the same tough decision when faced with the choice between modernisation and the preservation of that which is historically important, it seems increasingly necessary that the prestige and achievements of players and teams are remembered. There can be no doubt that Nicholson’s Spurs side will always rank among the most successful squads to grace English football and they will be forever indebted to the technical attributes that made their ill-fated midfielder the heartbeat of the side. The players and fans that were lucky enough to have witnessed the talents and attitude of the slight and pale Scotsman will forever remember the elusive qualities of the ghost of White Hart Lane.
“A strange thought occurred the morning after the final game at White Hart Lane”, explains Rob White. “At the end of the match I’d been one of the fans lucky enough to get onto the pitch, and had grabbed a small section of turf and soil, which I’d put in my jacket pocket. Next morning, whilst emptying my pocket onto the kitchen table, there was a small amount of sand, earth and dust and I was suddenly struck with the thought about what micro atoms of matter that could be contained within those fragments…”
HARRY COLLINS – @HarryCollins9