John White would have turned 79 years old today. Tragically he was killed by lightning in 1964.
John left behind him a legacy of being a key player of the glorious Tottenham side of the early sixties. Loved by those who knew him, adorned by those who saw him play. A timeless master who would grace any generation of the game.
John joined Tottenham at the age of 22 in 1959 from Falkirk. Bill Nicholson had I expect already made his mind about him and had our Scottish scouts watch him when he famously asked Danny Blanchflower, Bill Brown and Dave Mackay about him after they had played in an international together. The various accounts differ slightly but all amount to the same thing, ‘don’t miss the train north.’
It seems Bill’s only concern was that he was so slight of frame would he have the stamina to cope. This was solved when he spoke to John’s commanding officer (he was still in the army) he was told he wasn’t playing this weekend as he was running the cross country for Scottish Command.
Many a fan and player from the time will tell you when White played well Spurs played well. Described as having superb vision he was an excellent passer of the ball (Nicholson called him the best passer in the post war era). He also was a good header of the ball and had a cultured control and touch on the ball that made defenders struggle to dispossess him.
left - John scores against Glasgow Rangers in The Cup Winners Cup.
He started at inside left, moved to the right wing and then for the Double season moved inside to inside right replacing Tommy Harmer. Sadly little film footage remains but re-watching what is available it’s easy to see how he earned his name ‘The Ghost’ he would glide in to position just as the all arrived.
The title had first been given to him after an international game V Czechoslovakia.
John had been an apprentice Joiner before turning to football, having been rejected by Rangers and Middlesbourgh because of his slight frame. He joined Alloa in 1956 and moved to Falkirk in 1958. A year later he moved to Spurs having won his first two Scottish caps and scoring six goals in 27 games.
At that time he was stationed at Berwick, this involved him undertaking a 700 mile round trip to play in home games. He scored on debut in a game V Sheffield Wednesday. When he finally moved south he moved in with assistant manager Harry Evans. John would marry Harry’s daughter Sandra.
John was said to be quiet at first but quickly became one of the practical jokers in the side. One story is that one morning he hung out of a hotel window shouting help, it was Jimmy Greaves’s window who couldn’t understand why so many people were banging on his door at 6am. Bill Brown said of John he had a dry humour and was great company.
Right - With Bill Nicholson.
He only missed a handful of games in the next few years as Tottenham won the Double, the FA Cup and The European Cup Winners Cup.
Then on July 21st in 1964 he went to Crews Hill Golf Club (just around the corner from the current training ground at Hotspur Way) after training. The impending bad weather meant the rest dropped out but John went alone. Sheltering under a tree he was struck by lightning and died at the age of 27. If the story could get any sadder Harry his father-in-law had passed away just over a year earlier.
John scored 40 goals in 183 league games; he also scored in his last game at Leicester. He added another six goals in Europe and one in the FA Cup. He represented the Scottish League and The Football League, Scotland under 23’s and a Scotland XI. This in addition to his 22 full caps.
The club staged a memorial match for him V a Scotland XI. This was delayed 24 hours due to fog but the following night saw nearly thirty thousand pay their respects to John. The Tottenham side had a guest player that night, John’s brother Tommy, from Hearts, who scored a goal. I still have the programme.
When I was researching this piece, I asked a family member who was a regular in those days about John. I saw his eyes go moist, ‘beautiful boy, beautiful player, what a tragedy for his young family.’ Then he added ‘your going to ask how good was he, any team in the world, the Madrid’s anyone, he would fit right in.’
There were countless tributes to John, I’ve selected a few. The Falkirk manager, “the most complete footballer I have ever seen.” Teammate and good friend Cliff Jones said “I always seem to do more running when John isn’t playing. When he is there I know there will be an ‘extra man’ waiting for my pass.” Bill Nicholson “John is one of the most under estimated players in the game” and future England manager Bobby Robson about when playing against him, ‘you could never get near him, I often caught myself muttering why can’t you stand still a moment.’ His funeral was conducted by a vicar who remembered watching John play. ‘I will always remember John White’s slight figure flitting across the pitch at White Hart Lane; the perfect lobbed pass; his unselfish sportsmanship; in fact all the attributes that went up to make a great player. Men would tell their children of his greatness for generations.’
The press equally praised him, The Mail said he was ‘like a chameleon,’ and ‘was a player for the connoisseur.’ Whilst the Sun said ‘he was irrefutable proof you didn’t have to be a giant to make a big hit in soccer.’ The Mirror said John ‘had the traditional skill and elegance of Scottish football.’
I am sorry I never got to see John play and have to content myself with some old VHS tapes and DVD’s. In the words of another fan of the day, ‘He was like a magician, he didn’t grab your attention but would suddenly appear, perform something amazing and by the time you realized it, he had disappeared again.’
His son Rob White has written a book about his father, “The Ghost of White Hart Lane.’ He also wrote an article which he gracelessly gave India Spurs permission to use. Link - http://www.indiaspurs.com/blog/john-white-remembered
Note - The story of that game V Glasgow Rangers and the rest of that campaign can be found in the mini series starting at http://www.indiaspurs.com/blog/ht-glasgow-rangers-part-1
t- Keith 16024542
f- peter shearman (old non de plume)
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Thanks to THFC, Bill Nicholson’s autobiography ‘Glory Glory’, Colin Gibson and Harry Harris.
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