John White – Tottenham Legend Tragedy On 21st July, 1964


Fifty years ago, on this day in 1964 Tottenham tragically lost a great player in John White. He was killed when struck by lightning while sheltering under a tree on Crews Hill Golf Course at Enfield.

John White was a player who had been an important member of the successful ‘Double’ team in the early 1960s.  He had been signed from Falkirk in October, 1959 and was a firm favourite, still having much to offer the club – a Scottish international who brought great skill and vision to the team.

21st July, 1964

The date, 21st July, 1964 will always be remembered by Spurs supporters as the day when they lost a great player, John White, in such tragic circumstances. I started to support Spurs a few months after that but my earliest piece of Tottenham memorabilia is a Spurs team photograph from the following August, which details how things had changed for the club in the previous year.

From the heady excitement of winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in May, 1963, they had lost players through loss of form, injury and retirement but the greatest loss was that of John White just a month earlier.  It was changing times for Spurs but everyone at the club was optimistic as they looked forward to the new season.

As always in football things move on quickly – a new season, or a new player and there’s always another game but for the family of John White it was not so easy. They would have to live and cope with this loss for the rest of their lives. Rob White, John’s son, working with Julia Welch wrote, ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ a couple of years ago and this book is the culmination of Rob’s search for his father.

As a young boy, one of the most difficult aspects for Rob was everyone knowing who he was because of his father about whom he knew very little. All of John’s football memorabilia had been packed away and it was only as a curious eight-year-old that Rob searched the attic of his new house for an old cardboard box which he believed contained some of his father’s possessions. There he discovered the medals, boots and newspaper cuttings which shed some light on his father who was held in such high esteem and spoken of in revered terms.

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Support from Tottenham Players

As Rob grew up, his father’s team mates provided support as friends of the family, himself, his mother and older sister, but it was Dave Mackay who later provided Rob with some of the experiences in football that he would surely have enjoyed with his father. As manager of Derby County, Dave arranged for Rob to travel with the team to grounds around London and take in the whole match day atmosphere.

John White – Tottenham Legend

John White’s early life tells of a hard-working family in Musselburgh in Scotland, typical of so many at the time. He was the second of four children and the three boys all became professional footballers with Bill Nicholson, just prior to John’s death, considering  signing Tom but a car accident had incapacitated him so nothing materialised on that front.  Tom did play for Spurs though, appearing in the Memorial match for John against a Scotland XI.

John came across as a quiet, shy lad in public but was a prankster and fun loving with family, friends and team-mates with whom he was most comfortable and relaxed. Cliff Jones was regularly involved with John is such escapades.

John loved football and as a boy played and practised constantly and although lightly built he had great stamina and was a cross-country runner which stood him in good stead for the rigours of playing in midfield. As a young player he was frequently watched by Glasgow Rangers but they never made a move for him, concerned about his build.

John played for Alloa Athletic and Falkirk before joining Spurs in October, 1959 for £20,000. He had already represented Scotland and after scoring on his Spurs debut against Sheffield Wednesday he became a regular choice as Bill Nicholson struggled with the problem of fitting John and Tommy Harmer into the same team.

John found it difficult to settle in London and initially, he played on the right wing as he had done in his early football days. There is a wonderful comparison between the two players in the book as the rivals for the number eight shirt. The writers are generous in their praise of Harmer but in the end it was John who possessed the added qualities that the manager was looking for as he constructed the team that would soon go on to win the ‘Double’.

There have been many books written about the Tottenham team who won the ‘Double’, both collectively and as individuals, but none about John White.  ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ correcyted that anomaly and as it trawls through the match reports of the time it becomes abundantly clear that John White played a very significant part in the success that the team enjoyed from 1960 to 1963.

When people name players from the “Double’ team, those who first come to mind are Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, Bobby Smith and Cliff Jones. Then almost as an afterthought, they include John White but White was no afterthought to the ‘Double’ success – he was at the centre of everything that was good about that team.

From reading the match reports, it is clearly evident that when John White was playing well, so did Spurs. If John White was in peak form so was Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Smith and everyone else. If White was absent, or not at the top of his game, then the Spurs’ path to success was not so smooth.

John White  was frequently the master creator behind many of the goals that Tottenham scored but having provided those ‘assists’ in a game, he quite often managed to get on the scoresheet himself. In his time with Spurs he scored 45 League and Cup goals in 219 appearances.

Age quickly caught up with the ‘Double’ team but in the first half of season 1963-64 as Nicholson tried to introduce new players, it was John White who held it all together and although the team finished the season a disappointing, by their standards, fourth, they had been at the top of the table before Christmas. It was clear that Bill Nicholson had decided to build his next team around John White when at the age of twenty seven he was struck down.

More from Tottenham History

There is a very moving chapter concerning the people who had been with John in the hours prior to his death and the ‘if onlys’ that immediately came to mind which might have changed the circumstances and prevented John from going out onto the golf course on his own. His team mates were devastated by the news and hardened, professional footballers were reduced to tears, including Bill Nicholson, as they came to terms with John’s death.

The book provided a very poignant account of how Rob, a Tottenham season ticket holder, met team mates of his father, to discover more about the man they had known so well but who was taken from him before he had a chance to get to know him. Rob finally had the opportunity to make journeys and visit places familiar to his father as he gained a deeper knowledge and understanding of John White.

A tremendous book and as Jimmy Greaves says, “This book deserves to be read.” It has recently been published in paperback with an additional chapter.

The death of John White shocked the football world and was a sad loss to Spurs, Scotland and football but more importantly to all his family.

The ‘Ghost of White Hart Lane’ is a fitting tribute to the late, great John White who died in such tragic circumstances in July, 1964.   Written by Rob White, John’s son, and Julie Welch the acclaimed journalist and author, the book details John’s early life, his major role in the Tottenham success story of the 1960s and Rob’s struggle to learn more about the father who was killed when he was only a few months old. It is a fitting tribute to a true Tottenham ‘Legend’, the father whom Amanda and Rob never knew.