Tottenham Hotspur Change

Tottenham Hotspur Rob White


"What a difference Mackay has made! From a middling, muddling, erratic team last season, Derby have been transformed by his experience. He bristles with authority, he shouts, he gets results from his younger colleagues. To see him pace his game, to recognise danger where none is clearly evident, and then, in averting that danger, spring his forwards into animated creativity, is a delight."

The Guardian, 1969


‘I’m glad I didn’t go that early.’ Dave looks at me with the benign but skewering gaze that is pure Mackay. ‘I’m sorry he went that early. I always thought if I could reach seventy I’d be delighted with it. When I was eleven or twelve I thought seventy was a fantastic age.’ We are in the sitting room of Dave’s house in a peaceful Nottingham suburb, where Isobel, his wife, has dished up scones topped with strawberries and clotted cream. Dave has just returned from the kitchen bearing a cup of tea; Isobel has made him brew his own. It seems an intrinsically wonderfully Scottish thing to do. And Dave remains intrinsically, wonderfully Scottish.

In his mid-seventies, the man who played such a big part in my life at a vital stage of my development remains upright and indestructible-looking; he carries himself as he always did, as if he has steel bands around his chest – put there, obviously, because his heart is so big it might otherwise come bursting out. He has a scar on his upper lip, the only residual evidence of the skin cancer with which he was diagnosed (and which was successfully treated) while in his final job in football, that of manager of the Qatar youth team. The wild Scottish curls of his youth and middle age are now white and brushed stiffly back from his forehead, but underneath them the fierce eyes still burn with alertness and, to my relief, recognition.

Just why I feel relief requires some explaining. The last time we met was five years back at Hampden, where Dave had travelled to present my dad’s Scotland Hall of Fame Award and I’d had to tell him who I was. There was good reason for the lack of recognition – in the intervening years since he’d last clapped eyes on me I’d turned from a schoolboy with a blond moptop into a balding, middle-aged guy. But since then I’d heard his memory was failing.

That was confirmed first hand when I’d phoned to arrange the visit. Dave had answered – with the old familiar ‘Aye?’ – and I’d told him about the book and how I was hoping he’d talk to me.

‘Aye, son, only we’re away to Scotland.’

They were going at the end of the month and we agreed that I’d check the next day if it was OK to come to Nottingham before that. When I followed through, though, it was Isobel who picked up. I told her I’d spoken to Dave the previous day.

‘Oh, did you? He didn’t tell me.’ Isobel sounded slightly embarrassed. ‘You see, Robbie, it’s his memory. It’s not so good. I’m trying to get him to write this sort of thing down.’

We settled on a day and I spent the intervening time facing up to the possibility that Dave might not have the faintest idea why I was there. But there was no way I could do a book about my dad and not talk to The Man. He was one of my true-life heroes. Every boy should have a Dave Mackay to follow and learn from. I hoped he’d still be able to remember stuff and not only – not even most importantly – for the book, but for Mackay.

His record is long and peerless: four years at Hearts, with whom he won all three Scottish domestic honours; the Double with Spurs, plus two more FA Cup winners’ medals in 1962 and 1967; a cheap transfer to Derby where under Brian Clough and Peter Taylor in his first season he got them promotion to what was then the First Division and then in his second stint with them – now as manager – winning the 1975 League title. But that doesn’t convey how he did it, with heart and skill and unsparing courage; this was the man who sat up on the stretcher at Old Trafford with the broken bones of his leg showing through, his whole demeanour resisting the idea of being carried off horizontal. He was, said George Best, ‘the hardest man I’ve played against, and the bravest.’

For me, of course, it’s more than simple admiration that I feel. Dave understood instinctively what I needed as a boy – knowledge of the world my dad had lived in, the man’s world of professional football. So the privileged journeys I would have made to football grounds with Dad had he lived, to travel on the team bus and sit in dugouts and inside dressing rooms, became journeys I made with Dave instead.

I’ve brought along some old pictures and cuttings that I hope will help, along with the Macbook, which has more images but not the impact of old pictures which demand interaction and sensory input. Touch, smell, even hearing – the rustle of old documents stimulates the senses in a way pictures on a laptop never can. One photo, of a now incredibly old-fashioned-looking car parked outside the main entrance at White Hart Lane, arrests his attentions. ‘The Jaguar,’ he says. ‘It was silver. I got it sprayed maroon, for Hearts, when I signed for Tottenham.’

Hearts remains the place that he speaks of with the nostalgic happiness of first love. They were, he says, his favourite club, growing up. ‘Tynecastle. I’d slip under the turnstiles. That was easy. I was a skinny wee laddie. Me and my brother went early – twelve o’clock, get the tennis ball out and kick it. I’d always been a Hearts supporter. Didnae want to go to Tottenham but if I’d said no, I’d have upset two people – Bill Nick and Tommy Walker. It was in March So quick. It just happened one weekend. The Hearts supporters were all gutted. Some said they would never go back to Tynecastle. But they got £30,000 for me and built a stand with the money.’

He focuses on another photo. ‘Bobby Smith and Terry Dyson, they liked the dogs. I used to like the dogs too,’ he adds.

That prompts a question from me. Did they really all get on as well as legend has it?

‘You’ve got to really,’ he says. ‘If you have a team where everyone falls out you haven’t really got a team.’ Dave hasn’t lost his wisdom. ‘I got on with them all. But John, Cliff Jones, Terry Dyson were the guys I’d go about with. John and Cliff were big pals. After training we’d go to the pub. Which was always nice when we won and we usually won.’

Isobel, a small, vivacious, friendly woman, breaks in. ‘John was so nice,’ she says. ‘He was shy, I think, but easy to talk to. I remember one time I was travelling up to Scotland with the children, on the train. It was an eight-hour journey and Valerie still had a baby’s bottle. John was on the train too, and he went away to the buffet car and got the hot water and everything I needed.’

She and the children had been heading for Whitecraigs, the village where she grew up. Later on, it was there, at her family home, that she last saw my dad, in July 1964. She had gone back there to wait for the birth of their fourth child – all Dave’s children had to be born in Edinburgh, so if boys they would qualify to play for Scotland – and a week before the baby arrived Mum and Dad, together with Mandy and me, had popped in to see her. ‘It was a bizarre week,’ she says now. ‘Your dad told me he couldn’t wait till pre-season training started. He said, “Bill Nick’s took me in and says he’s giving me a rise. Imagine, him building a team round me.”

‘I went in to have Julie. The day I came home was the 21st, and that same day a reporter came to the door asking for me. He asked me where John’s mum lived and then said, “How well did you know John White?” I said, “What do you mean, did?” But he left without answering. It was so weird I phoned through to Dave in London but I couldn’t get a reply. I sensed inside that something was wrong and it came over on the six o’clock news – John had been killed. He had been sitting there not long before. I will never, ever forget. My daughter was born on the 14th. But the 21st is on my memory for ever. Every 21st of July I think of John White, and Sandra. He was such a lovely guy.’

‘He was always cracking jokes,’ says Dave. ‘He was a really nice guy. Everybody liked him. It was lovely to have another Scotsman down at Spurs. I could understand him. Most of the people down there couldn’t understand me. I shared with Cliff Jones and he couldn’t understand what I was saying and I couldn’t understand what he was saying.’

Dave’s still in demand from journalists wanting interviews and he always comes up with the goods; I find myself wondering if he learns these lines so he can give them the performance as Dave that they’re looking for. And I think, too, of the great pride and affection with which we look at the fantastic images and articles, although there is a sense of his disconnection.

Yet Dave’s essential spirit is still there. He hasn’t lost what I picked up on as a kid, the way he seems totally sure of himself – and there are times when I still feel like a small, insecure boy. And there are other moments when I feel the sheer strength bestowed by his warmth and confidence. I could sit here for hours in a schoolboy dream, feeling absolutely secure as I listen to the tones of ‘Mackay’, those echoes from the past.

Perhaps, I suddenly think, this is how Dad felt in Dave’s presence. The other players always used to say that Dave was so ferociously combative that even in games during training it was imperative to be on his side and – following on from that – that if you were on Dave’s side anything was possible. That strikes a chord with me. Being on Dave’s side was the single most important thing that happened to me growing up. And now as I sit there with him, thirty years on, it comes to me that Dave’s gifts to me – time and interest – didn’t dry up once I stopped being that fatherless boy. Instinctively, he still knows what I need – not time, interest and affection now so much as insight. He hasn’t just taken me into my dad’s world, he’s taken me into his mind.

It’s mid-afternoon, and as I leave I brush past the small family saloon occupying the space for off-street parking in front of the house. By the look of it, it’s not been driven for a while.

I study it and see it through Dave’s eyes – a symbol of what he is now compared to what he was as a young guy. To have lived that magnificent life, and not be able to relive it in memory, seems a crushing prospect. To have lost the tape of those winning thirty-yarders belted through the fog at Goodison, of barrelling through the mud to gain points at Craven Cottage and Villa Park and Highbury, of those mad eyeballs-out five-a-sides in the gym at White Hart Lane, and of the day in 1967 when he raised the FA Cup in triumph at Wembley three years after a second broken leg seemed to signal the end of his career, is an unbearably painful thought.

And yet it would insult him to be sad. The essential part of him – the warmth and kindness, the confidence and empathy, the sense of a man still completely in control – is as imperishable as rock. He hasn’t lost his winning instinct and severe focus. The opponent to which he is now bringing all that fierce competitiveness, that valour in extremis and refusal to admit defeat, is his fading memory.

Still Mackay. No way will he go off a fallen hero.


From The Ghost of White Hart Lane, by Rob White and Julie Welch.

Available from all good bookshops and on Amazon &

Follow Rob on Twitter @RobAWhite and Julie @DameJulieWelch




1 Comment

Rob poignant stuff ;I guess Dave has deteriorated since written but I remember him as the big black curly haired fella leaping in a white shirt (spurs or derby ?) in my sticker album from 1970; it's the strange thing about dementia in the later stages the glimpses of the old person (in my case my mum , auntie and uncle ) become rarer, but even more rewarding and remind you why you owe it to them to be there , something sadly a lot of their old friends don't appreciate ..

– Will Staniland, June 25 2013 at 18:51

Add a comment

Copyright Rob White and Julie Welch - Click on image to enlgargeCopyright Rob White and Julie Welch - Click on image to enlgarge