There is only one person to consult on the occasion of Tottenham Hotspur’s last match at a ground where they’ve played since 1899: The King of White Hart Lane.
Glenn Hoddle and even Harry Kane might have inherited the title, but Alan Gilzean was the original – and, arguably, the best.
In fact, so synonymous is he with the place affectionately known as The Lane, it was surely incumbent upon the club to check with Gillie before rubber-stamping the move to a new ground next door.
Gilzean laughs at this suggestion. But he has been invited to the farewell of course. The Scot, who scored 133 goals for the club in a rich ten-year stay, will tread the turf for one last time this afternoon, when he’s among the collection of Spurs greats invited to take a final bow from the centre-circle following the clash with Manchester United.
“There will be a few tears shed on Sunday, that’s for sure,” he says. “It’s natural, when it all ends. They have something on at the final whistle, all the ex-players coming on – and I imagine Chas ‘n’ Dave will be there!”
The players have all been gifted a tie to wear on the day by the club from, appropriately, Dave Mackay Club Ties, the firm started up by Gilzean’s compatriot and fellow legendary team-mate.
A Scottish thread runs through Spurs – five Scots were in the side that lifted the club’s first FA Cup, including player manager John Cameron. There’s even a link to Coupar Angus other than Gilzean, who grew up in the Perthshire town.
“I remember an old man there, Jimmy White. He was from Edinburgh originally, a right Hearts supporter,” says Gilzean. “He used to go round all the farm cottages, all the cottar houses, in a big van selling things like fruit and tatties. After I signed for Tottenham I talked to him occasionally. He stopped his van one day: ‘How you getting on down at Tottenham?’
“And he told me his uncle played for Tottenham when they won the cup in 1901 – a guy called Sandy Tait. I looked it up a long time back and he was right, a full-back.”
And then, of course, there’s Glaswegian architect Archibald Leitch, whose name, it seems, is being evoked on an almost weekly basis these days in relation to disappearing football grounds – or parts of them. Last weekend it was the turn of Tynecastle’s main stand, today it’s White Hart Lane. Between 1908 and 1934, Leitch’s company designed stands and redeveloped the terracing on all four sides of White Hart Lane.
The iconic middle tier of terracing known as “The Shelf” in Leitch’s east stand later gave way to corporate boxes, helping create the environment at which manager Keith Burkinshaw articulated his disgust after being sacked. “There used to be a football club over there,” he said contemptuously as he walked away in 1984.
But despite this, White Hart Lane has retained a spirit stretching back to the glory, glory days, and beyond.
“When I went there at first, we had 57,000 in there for the big games like the London derby, Man U, Liverpool, Leeds,” says Gilzean.
“It’s not changed so much in the outside structure,” he adds. “When I played there first there were no stands behind the goals – that was open-ended terracing. Then they built the two end stands. They modernised the east and west stands to keep up with the modern day, things like hospitality lounges. None of that was there when I went there first. Now there are hospitality lounges all around the ground!”
How could there not be a tear in Gillie’s eye today? If not quite where it all started for him, White Hart Lane is the place the second act of his great career got going. He scored twice there before he’d even joined Spurs, for a Scottish Select side in a memorial match for the late John White, Gilzean’s old Scotland room-mate, in November 1964.
White’s brother Tommy, a centre forward for Hearts, guested for Spurs and scored the game’s first goal. Gilzean then took over, grabbing a double in a 6-2 victory for Scotland. Although he gave their side a torrid time, the Spurs fans liked what they saw.
“This was just after I came off the dole,” recalls Gilzean, who’d been in a contract dispute with Dundee. “[Bob] Shankly made me go on the dole for three months! But I agreed to sign a contract with Dundee to play for them for a month. Just before the end of the month this game was on – Scotland v Tottenham for John White. And then the next home game the Tottenham fans had these banners up: ‘We want Gilzean!’ And so Bill Nick [Bill Nicholson, the Spurs manager] obliged! That was my first game at White Hart lane.”
Two League Cups, an FA Cup and a Uefa Cup win later Gilzean played his last game there – his own testimonial v Red Star Belgrade in 1974. A fan ran on and kissed his feet.
His favourite White Hart Lane memory is that Uefa Cup win over Wolves, when Spurs drew 1-1 in the second leg at home after winning 2-1 at Molineux. As for goals scored at the ground, he is particularly fond of the memory of an FA Cup hat-trick against Burnley in 1966.
“We were down 2-1 to Burnley at half-time and then down 3-1 early in the second-half,” he recalls. “We came back to win 4-3. Dave Mackay called off with a stomach bug before the game and I was played deep and Frankie Saul came in and played centre forward – I scored three and Frankie scored one. So that gave me a lot of satisfaction.
“Mackay was my room-mate and I let him know I scored three goals after taking over his position! The next round we got Preston and we got beaten. The fans were not happy that night. Mackay was playing.
“After we came back in the train we went to the pub and he said: ‘It’s all your fault we are getting pelters. If you hadn’t scored that hat-trick v Burnley… They were a first division team, the fans would have accepted that. But they can’t accept getting beat by Preston!’”
It’s typical Gilzean to have timed his return to the Lane with the precision of one of his back post runs. A few years ago he was in danger of being remembered as the lost Spur rather than one of the greatest.
He and old strike partner Jimmy Greaves – the G men –were marked absent when the club celebrated their 125th anniversary in 2007. Both have since been rapturously welcomed back, Greaves in far sadder circumstances than one would hope following a stroke.
The England striker had fallen out with the club. Gilzean, meanwhile, simply wanted to get on with his life away from football and drifted somewhat enigmatically out of the game.
But now he’s back. More than just back, he’s now employed as a match day host by the club in the east stand, entertaining guests in those once controversial corporate areas. For someone based in Weston-super-Mare, hardly handy for the North London circular, it means a punishing schedule.
But spare a thought for Phil Beal, Gilzean’s former team-mate and driver, who picks Gilzean up on route from his home in Wellington, near Taunton. “He picks me up and drops me off on the way back,” says Gilzean. “On Sunday he will collect me at 9am and drop me off at 11.30pm-midnight. He does well. We leave Weston and are at White Hart Lane two-and a-quarter hours later.”
Now 78, Gilzean is happy at having returned to the fray in time to see this current exciting era at the club. Although the wrecking ball is due to swing as swiftly as tomorrow morning, they could have saved the demolition workers the trouble had Gilzean waited until this afternoon to make his re-appearance.
They say the ovation he got when he did eventually return, for a match against West Ham just over four years ago, almost blew the roof right off the Lane. The once popular refrain “Gilzean, Gilzean, Gilzean, Gilz-eee-an! Born is the King of White Hart Lane!” was heard again. Even when he wasn’t around the chorus would often drift up into the North London air and across over Bruce Castle.
“The King of White Hart Lane – oh heck,” says Gilzean now. “Harry Kane will get a new name when the stadium is finished. I was the king, then Hoddle was the king, and then Harry. Oh I was the original I suppose, but then I am the oldest!
“When I go to functions I still get it [sung to me],” he adds. “You have to be 60-odd to remember me.
“I just hope we can keep the atmosphere in the new ground,” he continues. “It is just unique. Jurgen Klinsmann was back recently and he told me that, for atmosphere, it’s one of the greatest grounds he’s played at. It’s really something special.”
Gilzean should know, having had experience of hearing the whole ground sing his name in unison. It’s guaranteed he’ll hear it one more time today.