These days with worldwide scouting, football academies and players joining the club at eight years of age and many clubs forming relationships with overseas teams to help nurture young players recruited worldwide its hard to envisage when times were very different.
In a number of previous articles we have mentioned the Northfleet club. Which served as our main nursery and allowed us to nurture young talent until it was ready for the step up into the reserves and first team.
There was a time when clubs looking to develop young players who had left school and before they could sign professional forms on their 17th birthday. This was before various apprenticeship schemes that have been used over the years. Some signed amateur forms and were found employment locally. Whilst others joined the clubs grounds staff. Others were ‘farmed out’ to clubs playing at a lower level to gain their experience. In the early 1920’s Tottenham had certainly used Barnet, Chestnut and Ebbw Vale in Wales amongst other sides. The relationship that the club developed and used extensively during this era was the Northfleet United side in North Kent.
Peter McWilliam the manager of that great 1920’s side said “I am a great believer in bringing in young players straight from school and indoctrinating them with the Spurs way of playing football. That way you get continuity running through every team from youth, through the “A” side and reserves and up to the first-team. We train the players to have only good habits. I always tell them to treat the ball as their best friend and always to pass it with care and consideration. Belting the ball with an anywhere-will-do mentality has no place in the Tottenham way of doing things.”
The first contact between the clubs came in the spring of 1922 when they tried to sign our player, Jimmy Ross, as their manager. They offered to pay him £8 per week. They then suggested if Tottenham paid one pound towards such an arrangement we could have first pick of their young players. Tottenham declined the offer. A couple of months later we did come to an agreement although full details are unknown. By the following year the Kent clubs finances were in a very poor way. The local press describing them as having fallen to their worse point in their history.
Northfleet changed their manager, deposed of the experienced professional players and brought in Jerry Barnet from Spurs to take over. They introduced a policy of playing young inexpensive players.
Tottenham would provide the basis of their team each season.
The two teams also met annually during pre-season in a ‘closed doors’ trial game at White Hart Lane.
left - Alf Day, later to be a Welsh international.
The Tottenham young players would spend the week at Tottenham only going to Kent on match days. One of the Northfleet boys and future Tottenham and Welsh Captain Ron Burgess wrote in his autobiography. “Each Saturday the ground staff who were registered with Northfleet would meet at Tottenham to board a coach and be taken to London Bridge. From there a train took them to either Northfleet or wherever an away game was played.” Burgess says apart from the one experienced player as captain the average age of the team was about 19. The captain would attempt to educate the boys whilst playing against older opposition. He further reports “the standard was higher than I had experienced at that point and this did no harm as it taught the players the value of all-out effort for the whole 90 minutes.” Bill Nicholson in his autobiography skipped over the period describing his time at Northfleet as merely ‘a useful experience.’
Other players to learn their craft on the south bank of the Thames include Taffy O’Callaghan who ended up scoring 99 goals for the club, and would be a Welsh international and the first ‘Northfleet’ boy to win a full cap.
Wally Alsford who would make 90 appearances and was the first ‘Northfleet’ boy to win an England Cap. Les Bennett who netted 117 times for us, Arthur Rowe who would later manage the club and the legendarily goalkeeper Ted Ditchburn amongst others were also sent there in their early days.
Jimmy Anderson who would later became our manager spent time working as a coach. Of the young players sent to the ‘Nursery’ 37 of them would go on to feature in the Tottenham first team and 9 would win international caps. When the clubs first team met Birmingham in August 1946 nine of the side had spent time at Northfleet.
The ‘Nursery’ sides did have the disadvantage that players could be recalled. Then in 1937 the FA banned the ‘nurseries’ from entering the FA Cup. Thus they lost some attractive (both playing and financial) fixtures. These were in most cases outweighed by the advantages.
Firstly they had a young team of talented youngsters who brought the club more success than the previous ‘experienced pros’ era and the clubs overheads went down dramatically. Increased crowds attracted by both the local success and of large numbers of Tottenham fans traveling to Kent when the first team was playing in the north.
Remember long distance traveling for away fans in large numbers was still largely unknown and certainly I know members of my own family made many a Thames crossing. Northfleet won the Kent League title and five cup competitions between 1931 - 39.
The Second World War brought an end to these nursery arrangements and afterwards the structure of youth football permitted league teams to field a number of teams made up of their young hopefuls.
Northfleet United was formed in 1890 and merged with Gravesend United in 1946, later becoming Ebbfleet United. They current play in the Conference South.
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Top image - Two of the most famous 'old boys' Bill Nicholson and Ron Burgess.
Notes - This article was first prepared to run with the Roaring 20’s series but was held over and has been revised slightly since. Thanks - Andy Porter, THFC, Gravesend and Dartford Reporter, Ron Burgess, Bill Nicholson, Phil Soar,
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