Interview: Alan Gilzean on ending his 30-year Spurs exile

As Alan Gilzean is patiently explaining why he didn't go back to White Hart Lane in fully 30 years, it's easy to imagine an Arsenal fan sneering: 'you haven't missed much, mate'. Gilzean has timed his return to the Lane '“ after a long, self-imposed exile '“ to perfection, like when ghosting in at the back post to glance headers beyond the clutches of despairing goalkeepers.

Alan Gilzean back at White Hart Lane. Picture: Anthony Upton

Tottenham Hotspur are currently well set to win the English title for the first time since 1961, before even Gilzean joined the club. These were days when a young Gillie was still able to comb a thick wad of black hair behind his ears in a dressing room mirror at Dens Park prior to hitting Dundee’s J.M. Ballroom.

Today’s North London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal has been described as the most important since the 1991 FA Cup semi-final, when Gillie was, well, where exactly?

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He was where we are sitting now, in Enfield, just a few miles from Tottenham’s soon-to-be demolished home. This is slightly disappointing for those of us who relished the compelling mystery of Gilzean’s flight from fame. Enfield?

Alan Gilzean in 1967, the year Tottenham defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Picture: Don Morley/Getty Images

So while Paul Gascoigne was arrowing a brilliant free-kick into the top corner of David Seaman’s goal, Gillie – rated one place above Gazza at 12 in the Spurs 50 greatest players DVD - was still living in this zone 5, end-of-the-line north London town, where we have arranged to meet on Leap Day – appropriately so, given the Scot’s mastery of the art of heading.

We are in a Wetherspoon-style bar called The George, munching breakfast while some lone customers are already supping pints in the gloom accentuated by bright morning sunshine outside.

“We used to have some nights in here,” says Gilzean, himself conjuring up images such as those described in Hunter Davies’ (mostly) well-received book The Glory Game, in which Spurs players, and Gilzean in particular, were depicted as hard-drinking men-about-London town.

“He was there a whole year,” he recalls of the author. “How Bill Nic [Spurs manager Bill Nicholson] allowed that, I’ll never know. We had to let him come to our house. A couple of the lads wanted to chin him. Mike England wanted to – and if you get hit by big Mike you stay hit.”

Alan Gilzean in the thick of the action during a North London derby against Arsenal in 1970. Picture: Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images

It is easy to understand why Gilzean, among others, might have a problem with the behind-the-scenes book. In one section the author describes an injured Gilzean poking his head round the dressing-room door before a game: “You better win this one lads, I need the bonus. I’ve got a wife, two kids and a budgie to keep.” Upon hearing this quoted back to him now, Gilzean exclaims: “I’ve never had a bloody budgerigar in my life!”

There was a wife, Irene, who, like Gilzean, hailed from Coupar Angus. No longer together, she still lives in the house they bought in Enfield.

Gilzean, who played his last game for the club in 1974, clocked off from even watching Tottenham after the FA Cup final replay in 1981, which his sons Ian and Kevin had badgered him to get tickets for. After that, only Ian’s subsequent recruitment by Spurs, where his development was hampered by injury, drew him back for the odd youth and reserve game. He would try to be as incognito as Alan Gilzean can be at the club where he is adored.

“I lost interest in football,” he says. “You lose interest in things. It’s like taking up a hobby, the easy part for me was playing. That was the part I loved. It was taken away from me. The legs were not doing what the brain was telling them to do.”

Spurs and Scotland legend Alan Gilzean has return to White Hart Lane after a 30-year absence. Picture: Anthony Upton

Like Jimmy Greaves, the other half of the famous G-men partnership, Gilzean found he didn’t want to go back to games as a spectator. “When your boyhood ambition is to play football and you reach it, and you do it for 18 years, then you’re lost when it is gone. When it is gone, it’s gone. But then you realise how lucky you’ve been to have it for 18 years. Some kids don’t make it and yet they had the same dreams as you. You could break your leg and it’s all over.”

Or you could break your leg and not even realise it. The conversation has now switched to games between Tottenham and Arsenal. “I don’t think I ever played in a classic North London derby,” ponders Gilzean, who, with seven goals, is still Spurs’ joint second highest scorer against Arsenal after Greaves.

“There’s too much at stake, a lot of hard tacking and nastiness.” Gilzean should know. A little shamefacedly, he admits he once “whacked” Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson – a fellow Scot no less, although this was something Gilzean questioned, and was the source of their supposed enmity.

Remarkably, the true extent of the injury inflicted by Gilzean upon Wilson only came to light recently, over 40 years later.

Alan Gilzean in 1967, the year Tottenham defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Picture: Don Morley/Getty Images

It was the second leg of the 1969 League Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane, a clash with every bit as much riding on it as this afternoon, and which Wilson has since dubbed the “dirtiest North London derby ever”.

“Things got a bit tense,” agrees Gilzean. “I should have been sent off. I kicked him across the legs. After the game, he came into the Tottenham treatment room, and left on crutches. All the Tottenham boys were like, ‘Ach, he’s play acting..’

Fast forward to 2011. Wilson, who lost daughter Anna to cancer, is preparing to cycle to every Premier League football ground to raise funds for the Willow Foundation, a charity he set up with his wife, Megs. But he must first undergo a medical check-up. Gilzean resumes the story: “The doctor asked: ‘when did you break your leg, Bob?’ And he said: ‘I never broke my leg’. He said: ‘you bloody well did break your leg, it’s on the x-ray’.

“The only thing he could trace it back to was when I kicked him,” continues Gilzean. In 2013 Gilzean was inducted in the Tottenham Hall of Fame, where he met Wilson’s agent. “‘Bob would like to talk to you’”, he says to me. I used to play in charity games after football with Bob – we once played up front together in a match at Barnet. I phoned him up and we had a right good chat.

“I said I could not believe it, after all these years. It was what you’d call a belated apology.”

So what’s with the stories about him and Wilson hating each other? “It was played up,” says Gilzean. “It was my fault. I made a statement – and I still believe this, and my own son, Ian, was born in England and played for Scotland – saying you should play for the country where you are born. And Bob was born in England. I said it shouldn’t be allowed and everyone said I hated him because of that.”

Alan Gilzean in the thick of the action during a North London derby against Arsenal in 1970. Picture: Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images

Gilzean, who scored 12 goals in his too few 22 appearances for Scotland, still contends national sides should contain only those players born in the country. “Ian played for the Scotland Under 18s, Craig Brown was manager. And I still think it’s wrong. He should not have been allowed to play for Scotland! Dave Mackay, of course, used to send his wife back to Scotland to have kids.”

Perhaps helping reinforce the now outdated image of Gilzean as a one-time recluse is the detail he didn’t ever watch Ian play for Scotland. Tottenham lost contact with their legendary former player, as did nearly all his team-mates. Only a select few in the world had his phone number – memorably, he once claimed just seven people knew it.

Judging by the number of texts he scrolls through over breakfast, this number has multiplied considerably in recent years. There are chatty messages from Amy, a granddaughter in Carnoustie, and one from the Spurs dental surgeon with the generous offer of complimentary work on Gillie’s gnashers.

There is also a round robin message from Jimmy Greaves’ wife thanking everyone for appearing at a fund raising night for the stricken former England and Spurs striker on the previous Friday, in Stevenage. Gilzean is enormously fond of Greaves, and is grateful they finally reunited before his heart attack last year.

According to Greaves, Gilzean was the greatest he played with. But in a column written around the time James Morgan’s book In Search of Alan Gilzean was published in 2010, he revealed they hadn’t set eyes on each other “for the best part of 40 years”. They finally caught up with each other again three years ago in Guernsey, at a Spurs legends evening.

“We hugged,” recalls Gilzean. “He said: ‘where have you been?’ I said: ‘keeping away from you!’

“He used to say to me, ‘were you born with so little hair?’ I’d say to him, ‘I had hair when I came to Tottenham, but then I had to do all your heading for you!’ He did all my running, I did all his heading!”

“You never know what’s round the corner,” continues Gilzean, with Greaves now confined to a wheelchair. “The question I get occasionally at these fans’ nights is: I played with Denis Law and I played with Jimmy Greaves, who was the best player? In my opinion it’s Greavsie. That’s a shame because Denis is a Scot, and a good friend.

“Someone up there must like me – I played up front with Denis, Greavsie, Martin Chivers and Alan Cousin, at Dundee.” As a child growing up in Perthshire, all Gilzean wanted to do was win a cup final at Wembley. He won two League Cups and an FA Cup there. Asked later what he would call his autobiography, he says: “A dream come true”.

Gilzean, now 77, is the midst of a whirl of Tottenham associated social commitments – later on the day we meet he’s off to another Spurs fans’ do, this time in Maidenhead.

Afterwards, on his way back to his own home in Exeter, Steve Perryman dropped Gilzean off in Weston-super-Mare, the west country town where he retreated in the late 1990s. He surely sighed with relief at the thought of some well-earned seclusion, something he took for granted for so long. But it all kicks off again today, back at the Lane. As a now fully conscripted member of the former players’ platoon, Gilzean isn’t permitted to shirk.

After years of exile, it has gone from one extreme to the other. “We have to be there at 9.15am,” he says, with regards to today’s clash with Arsenal, kick-off 12.45pm. The former players tour the hospitality boxes in pairs, with Gilzean and Chivers giving the guests a particular thrill a few weeks ago by working in tandem, the way they used to do in a Spurs shirt.

“These are the guys who do it,” says Gilzean, calling up an email on his phone. “Paul Allen, Clive Allen, Alan Mullery, Cliff Jones, David Howells, Graham Roberts, John Pratt, Chivers, Hazard, Ardiles, Jennings, Beal, Clemence, Stevie Hodge, Tony Galvin…”

It’s a who’s who of Spurs greats – some, however, greater than others. When Gilzean was interviewed at half-time last Sunday against Swansea, Paul Coyte, the Spurs announcer, was clearly speaking for all when he noted how fortunate they are to have all these players coming back. “But you, sir, are a legend!”

With Spurs trailing at the interval, it wasn’t hard to trace a connection between Gilzean’s appearance and a fired-up home crowd roaring on their heroes to a vital 2-1 win. And were those not also faint echoes carried on the north London wind of the old terrace favourite: “Gilzean, Gilzean/Gilzean, Gilzeeeeeean/Born is the King of White Hart Lane”?

Gilzean first intimated publicly he was considering making a return to Tottenham in an interview with The Scotsman in 2012. Pat Jennings, Spurs ambassador and Gilzean’s former teammate, got in touch. “They are dying for you to come back – and they also want to put you in the Hall of Fame,” Jennings informed him.

“I’d been 30 years away,” says Gilzean. “I said OK I will come back and see if I like it or not – and I liked it. At first I wasn’t sure if I would like to do it. I gave it a try last season until the end of the season. You meet a lot of old faces, old friends. I gave it a try and I enjoyed it. I amazed myself actually. And especially now, with the team doing so well. It would mean everything to me if they won the league – everything. I am glad I came back.”

But he has no regrets about staying away so long. Nor is he bitter at missing so many years on the former players’ treadmill, enjoyable though it is. Then there’s the question of the remuneration. It’s good to know so many players from an era when players earned far less than now are benefitting from the recent splurge of money coming into the game. Some are better paid now than when they played for the club.

“I don’t think I could have done it all these years,” says Gilzean. “Chivers has done it for 20 years! Terry Venables recommended him. Phil Beal was the second one. And it’s just built and built. The amount of staff that’s going about with Tottenham blazers on at games, it is unbelievable.”

As unbelievable is the return of Alan Gilzean. Others in the bar wonder if it really is him sitting in the corner, with a mobile phone, vibrating intermittently, to hand. “I’m like a teenager, I use it a lot now,” he says. “I wish I could work it properly. But I am getting better. I can get on the internet. I can trace guys I was in the army with like Jackie Plenderleith, who used to play at the Hibs. He is in South Africa now.”

Gilzean even admits to inserting his own name in the search box. “Yes, sometimes! The list is as long as your arm isn’t it?”

Gillie googling himself and now Spurs challenging for the title – these really are extraordinary times.

“They put a load of crap on the internet too, though, don’t they?” he adds. “If you Google my name it comes up that my birthday is on the 23rd of the tenth month, but I was born on the 22nd. They are a day out. Mind you, it makes me a day younger!” The date when the original King of White Hart Lane was born really ought to be correct.

Spurs and Scotland legend Alan Gilzean has return to White Hart Lane after a 30-year absence. Picture: Anthony Upton