Alan Gilzean, who has died just weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour, has rightly been remembered as one of the greatest strikers in what we now recognise as a golden post-war age of Scottish football. This might amuse him, after all, during a near 40-years exclusion from the game, which followed his retirement in 1974, his excuse for not being around the game was: “Who wants to be bothered with an old guy like me?”
He got his answer when he was finally persuaded to make the trip from his retirement home in Weston-super-Mare to Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane. On that first trip back, introduced at half-time, he heard himself, once again, hailed as “The King of White Hart Lane”, by Spurs fans who had never seen him rise to seemingly hover at the back post, before heading home one of the 133 goals he scored in over 400 games for the club.
It was all a long way from rural Perthshire, where he was born and grew up in Coupar Angus. It was here, in the Scout Hut, he practised, rising to head an old boxing glove hung on a string, as he honed the skill which would, in April, 1964, see him soar above the great Gordon Banks and soon to be team-mate Maurice Norman and head home the only goal of that year’s Scotland v England game – the goal which gave the Scots their first, and only run of three successive wins over the Auld Enemy in the 20th century.
Gilzean’s career progressed via Coupar Angus Juveniles, to junior Dundee Violet, before, aged 17, he signed for Dundee. He learned his trade, did his National Service in the Army and, by 1962 he was one half of a deadly striking partnership with Alan Cousin, as Dundee held off Rangers to win the club’s first and to-date only League Championship. That Dundee team; Pat Liney; Alex Hamilton, Bobby Cox; Bobby Seith, Ian Ure, Bobby Wishart; Gordon Smith, Andy Penman, Alan Cousin, Alan Gilzean and Hugh Robertson contained three all-time greats: Hamilton, Smith and Gilzean, but the rest were very good players too, all are Dundee legends.
He scored over 20 goals that season, including a marvellous four goals in a 5-1 Ibrox win over Rangers, in November, 1961 – a match which established Dundee as genuine title contenders, and Gilzean as a rising star.
The following season he contributed nine goals as the ‘Dee made it to the semi-finals of the European Cup, in fact that season he scored over 50 goals in all games – a Dundee record, but, still could not get past the likes of Ian St John and Denis Law and into the national side.
But talent will out, and in November 1963, he won the first of an eventual 22 caps when chosen against Norway in a 6-1 Hampden win. That first Scotland goal had to wait until his third cap, the aforementioned 1964 Hampden game. A month later, in his fourth international, he scored both goals as Scotland drew 2-2 with West Germany in Hanover. In all, he scored 12 goals in his 22 internationals, which means his strike rate is exactly the same for his country as Law’s.
There was a Scottish Cup runners-up medal in season 1963-64 as well, but he was restless and ambitious; his ambition was to play at Wembley. This became more realistic in season 1964-65. He asked for a transfer, Dundee refused, so, he went on strike and had to sign on the dole for three months before peace was restored and he signed a short-term deal, during which, he scored two goals for “A Scotland XI” against Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Bill Nicholson, the Tottenham boss, had seen enough. He paid £72,500 and, after 190 games and 169 goals, still a club record, Gilzean left Dundee for north London.
There, over the next decade, he formed two highly effective scoring partnerships – the first his “G-Men pairing” with the goal-scoring genius Jimmy Greaves, then, after Greaves was sold, with Martin Chivers. At Tottenham he won one FA Cup winner’s medal in 1967, thereby achieving his playing at Wembley dream, two League Cup winner’s medals and a UEFA Cup winner’s medal.
Greaves rated him his best-ever partner: “I did Alan’s running, he did my heading,” he would explain, but, for all his aerial brilliance, he could play a bit on the ground. His boyhood friends back in Coupar Angus called him “Peenie”, because they said he could land a pass on a peen (pin)-head.
Aged 33, he left Tottenham, played for three months in South Africa, then hung up his boots. He was not a football fanatic and realised during three traumatic months as manager of non-league Stevenage Athletic that he had had his fill of the game.
Gillie then left the game, took a desk job with a transport firm in Enfield and, for more than three decades, he forgot all about football, although it had not forgotten him.
Where had he gone? Nobody knew. There were rumours of him living as a down-and-out in Weston-super-Mare. The truth was more prosaic. The transport firm had become part of a bigger group and Gilzean, his marriage to childhood sweetheart now failing, transferred to their Avonmouth office, and bought a house in Weston.
He worked until 65, then retired, but, with the clamour to find Gilzean, journalist James Morgan, a Spurs fan, although based in Scotland, decided to find him. The result was his best-selling book: The Search For Alan Gilzean. Old team mate, goalkeeper Pat Jennings, got back in touch, and, after 40 years away, Gillie made an emotional return to Tottenham and a hero’s welcome home.
He was persuaded to join the match day hospitality team, Phil Beal picking him up at Weston in the morning, ferrying him to and from Tottenham, depositing him back at around midnight. This quiet, shy man even got to like the job.
Greaves was delighted to see him back, asking: “Where the hell were you?”
“Keeping away from you,” was the response.
Then, just a few weeks ago, came the shattering announcement of his brain tumour, followed, all too soon, by the news of his passing.
Alan Gilzean, who is survived by Irene, their sons Ian – a footballer like his Dad, and Kevin and their grand-children, has been lauded in his native Perthshire, in Dundee and in North London, but also, wherever Scotsmen meet to talk football.
He is rightly in the Dundee and Tottenham Halls of Fame, and in the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. He was that good, a brilliant goal scorer, an all-round great player, but, perhaps more importantly, a very fine man indeed.