Tottenham Legends: Bill Nicholson

Tottenham legend Bill Nicholson, October 1961
Tottenham legend Bill Nicholson, October 1961 /

When we talk about Tottenham’s icons, every conversation should begin and end with Bill Nicholson. His accomplishments might seem in the too-distant past, but he did more for Tottenham than just about any single individual. His legacy endures at almost every level of the club. Whether they know it or not, each Spurs fan owes a debt of gratitude to what Nicholson did for this club a lifetime ago.

His career in north London began in 1936. Nicholson was just a boy then – 16-years-old – but still managed to impress enough on a trial with Tottenham to be signed into the youth team. He signed his first professional contract with the club two years later, right when he turned 18.

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Unfortunately, the Second World War cut short Nicholson’s early playing career before it even really had a chance to get started. He joined the British army as the war started in 1939 and served for the duration. Though he did not see combat, his experience in professional sport made him an ideal fit for physical training. He spent the majority of his time with the army training and molding new recruits, an experience that would prove to be particularly useful later in his life.

When he returned to football in 1946, Nicholson was 27 years old and had played only a handful of games in the preceding years. Nevertheless, he slotted back into Tottenham’s defense and went on to be a decisive player in the club’s run to win the First Division in 1951. It was the first time Tottenham had won at that level in England, though again thanks to Nicholson, it wouldn’t be the last.

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Nicholson earned his first – and only – England call up that same year and even scored on his debut. It all came too late for Nicholson, though, and his advancing years meant that the game was quickly outpacing him. He retired as a player in 1955, having played 317 games for the club since his debut in 1938.

The club meant too much for Nicholson to leave outright, however. He stayed on the staff at Tottenham while he earned his coaching certification, impressing his way up the ranks to eventually claim the managerial job in 1958. There followed the brightest and best era in Tottenham’s history, the club’s Golden Age.

Nicholson crafted a team that quickly rose up the ranks of English football. Driven behind an indomitable offense and led by team captain Danny Branchflower, Tottenham won their second First Division title in 1960/61. They won 31 matches, drew four and lost just seven games whilst scoring 115 goals. A trophy earned in the FA Cup that same year made Tottenham the first English team in the 20th century to manage a double.

The years that followed failed to quite reach those lofty heights of 1961, though they were by no means unsuccessful. Nicholson kept Tottenham competitive in the league while also securing a second and third FA Cup trophy for the club. Deep campaigns in Europe’s inter-league cup competitions only added to the club’s winning luster. Tottenham was by most measurements one of the most dominant English teams of the 1960s thanks to Nicholson.

His coaching career ended sourly however. By the 1970s the English First Division had grown considerably. Money and frequently violent fan enthusiasm for the sport alienated traditionalists like Nicholson. He coached his last game at Tottenham in 1974, ending a career with the club that had stretched over 36 years. No other player or coach at Tottenham can come closer to making a similar claim.

Even though his departure from the game was slightly acrimonious, Nicholson continued to represent and advise the club as a consultant and eventually, in 1991, the club’s president. For his contributions to Tottenham and the game as a whole, he was given the Order of the British Empire in 1975 and inducted into England’s Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Sadly, he died in 2004 at the age of 85.

A quote typically attributed to Nicholson sums up both his time with the club and the impression he left there that continues to be felt to this day.

“It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.”

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