Gary Mabbutt is one of my biggest Tottenham heroes. When I said in my last blog that Greg Dyke should continue the FA’s policy of using good role models as ambassadors for England, I should have included him in the list of examples. The news bulletin last week to say that he’d undergone emergency bypass surgery after being rushed to hospital came as quite a shock. I had only seen him being interviewed on TV a few days before. The good news was that the club’s official bulletin said that they were delighted to report that he was making a successful recovery. He is however expected to remain in hospital for two weeks, which shows just how serious it must have been.
Gary is now 51 and was rushed to King’s College hospital in London after suffering a circulation blockage in his left leg. It should not have come as a total surprise because Gary has been a lifelong sufferer with type 1 diabetes and this is one of the complications that can develop, not that I have seen anything official to say that was the cause this time. On the other hand, all his life and right through his 600 plus game playing career and 19 England caps he has coped so well with the condition that it has been easy to forget he is a sufferer.
Gary began his career with Bristol Rovers and remains one of the longest-serving players in Spurs history having made 482 appearances in 16 years with the club before retiring in 1988. He collected one UEFA Cup and two FA Cup winners’ medals.
Gary was a solid defender and captain in every sense of the world. Not the fastest but he was a great reader of the game and without seeming to rush anywhere, always seemed to be in the right position to make a tackle, as if he knew where the ball and player were going to end up a few passes before they did. He would then be waiting to close them down and when necessary hit them with a strong but fair tackle. His secret weapon was what my nephew and I affectionately used to call his ‘sack of potatoes tackle.’ He invariably timed it immaculately and when he threw himself into it there was no way the opponent was going to come out the other side with the ball. Sometimes we would nudge each other in the stands and say, “Wait for it, wait for it…here it comes” and then – Wham! We would laugh at the hapless forward in juvenile delight. If it was a milder tackle, he would come away with the ball and distribute it quickly and efficiently.
We were all distraught when the ball bounced off him for an own goal when we lost the 1987 FA Cup Final against Coventry. Of all players he really didn’t deserve that. It felt like poetic justice when he lifted the Cup four years later as a winner against Nottingham Forest, ironically when another England defender, Des Walker scored an own goal.
Spurs have employed Gary as an ambassador for the club since he retired and he is often to be seen dressed smartly in a suit expressing views about Tottenham issues. He is always well spoken and polite but not afraid to let his Tottenham loyalties show when engaging in punditry. He always seems to find something constructive to say.
Gary has been a fantastic example to anyone contracting diabetes or living with any disability. He is an inspiration and has never allowed it to define who he is and demonstrated just how much you can achieve, even when hampered by a chronic disability. I know from personal experience how frightening it can be when you are diagnosed with a condition like this. When it happened to me, within minutes of the initial shock, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell, if Gary Mabbutt can handle it and play football, I am sure I can continue to hold down a desk job”. It helped me again when I had to start self-injecting insulin, which fortunately I no longer have to do. Even when I ‘only’ suffered with a painful arthritic condition at an early age I also used Gary’s refusal to let diabetes stop him as an example to ensure I maintained a near perfect attendance record at work for over 30 years.
So, not only has Gary been a Spurs great, he has been a direct help and influence in my life. He’ll never know it but I owe him such a lot, so this is my chance to throw a big ‘Thank You’ out there into the ether along with a get well message from us all at Hotspur HQ.