“If you didn’t know much about the Double side, or dad, and presented the story as a work of fiction, people would say it’s great but the ending’s not right. It’s too far-fetched.”
Rob White is talking about a journalist’s reaction to the Ghost of White Hart Lane, the book about his father John he has co-written with author and screenwriter Julie Welch. Judge for yourself. Working class boy from Scotland, born into a close, caring family, he’s so frail as a baby that he’s fed with an eye-dropper, like the runt of a ewe’s litter. At a young age his father dies but the family matriarchs see John and his siblings into young adulthood.
John runs to and from work to build fitness, shared the bathwater with the rest of the family and played football in every spare moment. Rejected by several clubs for being too small, Bill Nicholson brings him to London. Life in the city is almost too much for him but he fights homesickness and soon cements his place in the team. This is no ordinary side, this is the Spurs Double team, the greatest of them all and John’s distinctive style with his selfless hard work and sublime touch is at the heart of the side that carries all before them. Then, at the height of his powers, as Nicholson rebuilds the aging team around him, he’s struck by lightning on a Hertfordshire golf course as he shelters under a tree during a thunderstorm.
It’s the stuff of dreams for any Hollywood scriptwriter but for Rob it’s all too real, ending included. He was a babe in arms when tragedy struck and despite the enthralling footballing drama, it’s his story, the tale of his quest to find the essence of a father he never knew yet who shaped the man he has become that grips until the final page.
“There’s basically 3 strands to the book”, begins Rob. “A straight biography runs through the whole thing, then there’s John White as the final piece in the jigsaw for the Double side and its ups and downs. The third is my relationship with dad.”.
I asked how the book came about. “It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never really found the right person to do it with.” A mutual colleague introduced him to Julie, who takes up the story. They do this a lot, picking up threads and taking them forward, two minds as one.
“It’s all about seizing the moment! I was curious about the John White story. I’d been researching background on the Double but there’s not much on John. I thought about a straightforward biography at first, then it was obvious that there was this fantastic personal story to wrap around John’s life and death, the interwoven stories of father and son.”
They continue the conversation with little prompting from me, engrossed by a subject that remains fresh and vivid despite their many months of working together. New information and nuances come to the surface even now as they bat ideas back and forth, carefully weighing each word and born of a total commitment to get this precious story just right.
Rob readily admits he was in awe of Julie to start with. She was the first woman football correspondent for a national paper, the Observer, and her lifelong love of Spurs found expression on the big screen in Those Glory Glory Days, a film about a girl’s passion for Spurs. “It was like therapy. We’d sit in the studio and just talk. No way could it have been written without Julie. She brought out my voice.”
Julie leans forward to pay tribute to Rob’s powers of expression. “It’s the quality of the consciousness that’s important. There’s a lot going on in Rob’s head and he presents it naturally.” She pauses. “It was the most marvellous experience of writing in my life. Can’t think of anything better that’s happened to me as a writer. Two people targeting one goal is just fantastic. I doubt I will ever have a better experience again, just to be able to write John White’s story and pay tribute to the Double side.”
In print, Rob’s voice comes over with disarming, touching integrity, to the point where you share his struggle to come to terms with his relationship with his father. He’s the same in person, honest and thoughtful with an underlying passion for telling this tale and a readiness to let others into his world.
“I’ve had real problems with this,” said Rob. “Not deep psychological problems but it was good to get these things out, to exorcise them.” Growing up, Rob’s identity was very much shaped by his being John White’s son. It’s a vivid portrayal of bereavement not in terms of freakshow trauma that has spawned a series of voyeuristic best sellers – Rob grew up in a close, caring family – but how others react to a bereaved child. Even as a young boy he noticed how people’s expression changed as soon they found out who he was, patting him sorrowfully on the head.
Rob laughs now about how he was a “walking cloud of sorrow. You grow up as a kid with this tragedy, people don’t know how to react. They look but they don’t know how to interact, and I didn’t want to upset people so I kept things to myself. From 13 to 42 I was scared of people’s opinions of me changing because I was John White’s son.” He describes how someone who had sat behind him at Spurs for many years – Rob is a season ticket holder in the Park Lane – was angry when he found out because Rob had not told him.
Defined by his father, Rob lived for many years with not knowing who this man was. As he child he searches for connections in a dusty box of attic artefacts. He watches the few snatches of film available of John in action, then convinces himself he runs in the same way as he studies his refection in shop windows. Dave Mackay takes him under his wing. He’s allowed on the team coach, into the dressing room, not just to hear about White’s exploits but more significantly to experience the smells and sounds of the dressing room, the pre-match tension rising as kick-off approaches, the evocative clatter of studs on concrete as the players run out. It’s comforting for a child to have so much information about a lost father. However, this is mixed with unease and frustration as the man eludes his grasp, walking beside him through his life yet when he reaches out to touch his presence, there’s nothing there, a ghost.
Rob embarked on a voyage of discovery in search of his father and, along the way, of his own identity. Some of the most moving passages cover the lost opportunities to do the everyday father and son things, like chat about football, ask him about mortgage advice or see his dad’s reaction when he gives him a present at Christmas. As Julie says, “The real heartbeat of the book is Rob’s longing to be a son to his dad in whatever way he could be.”
We’re talking when Rob is a long way down the road but there must have been tough soul-searching moments along the way. As men, we don’t talk about such things. I wondered if Rob feared what he might uncover and then reveal in the pages of the book, especially as he has such a candid approach.
“I reached the stage when I had to face up to it. It was the elephant in the room, something we didn’t talk about much in the family. Having children made me think more about this, then I had to face writing the dedication in the book. I struggled – to the memory of dad? the team? Then it seemed logical, for the kids.” The memories are handed on through the generations. Julie finishes the thought: “Pass it on, pass it on.”
He pays fulsome tribute to a major source of information, the Double side. ”Research was like King Arthur visiting the old knights, a pilgrimage Their knowledge and wisdom, they knew my father and know you are your father’s son. That recognition meant a lot.”
It’s a perspective that enhances the reputation of this great side. Cliff Jones was White’s co-conspirator in the series of playful practical jokes, a comedy duo that brightened the dressing room and made John so popular and well-liked by everyone who knew him. Mackay has been a lifelong friend. Terry Medwin dissolved into tears as he recalled fond memories.
The togetherness of the team was a major factor in their success. “They had 5 years close to dad, living, training, playing “ Rob continues, “It’s a band of brothers thing, not like an ordinary job. One day he goes, that’s it, John’s gone. The thoughts are less frequent as time goes on but he was always there. Then, something jogs them. Seeing me is like the closing of a circle.” “Healing”, chips in Julie.
Talk to the old-time fans about the Double and they will marvel at Blanchflower’s midfield drive, the bull of a centre forward that was Bobby Smith, Jones flying down the wing or Brown leaping high across the goal. Come to John White, suddenly they have a far-away look in their eyes and tail off into a reverential whisper. Here was a real footballer. Yet despite his distinctive style and telling contribution, he remains the least known of the Double side and Julie was determined to put that right.
“Mention John White and his name is always followed by ‘struck by lightning’, not something about this fantastic player whose assists helped Greaves be the player he was and indeed helped many men in the Tottenham side to be the players they were.”
Having read the book, I longed to see him play. “That’s the frustration,” Julie picks up my train of thought. “Couldn’t we do with him today? Just imagine what a player like that would achieve because of the way he played, so far in advance of his time.”
Rob picks up the baton: “He was like Cryuff, not the same type of player of course but in the sense that he’s an original – no one else was like him. Part of the sadness in the book is revealing what might have been.”
The book has been extremely well-received, topping the sports sales and entering the non-fiction top 50. The real benchmark, however, is its impact on readers rather than the book charts. The engrossing tale of John White and the Double side interacts with a profundly honest and poignant account of father and son that has reduced terrace-hardened grown men to tears. Did they find John in the end?
Julie: “I found the Apollo in him. Cliff Jones talks about running out onto the White Hart Lane pitch to be hit by the mass of noise. To be able to do that and play your best, you must have absolute confidence on your ability”
Rob’s journey was slightly different; “Found him? I’m a lot closer, yeah. You spend time looking for this person then realise the person is you. I was choked up about that.”
The journey isn’t over with the publication of the book. Well into Rob’s adulthood, the family revealed that John fathered a child during a short and abortive teenage relationship. He agreed to do the right thing but was advised against it by his commanding officer – John was on National Service at the time. Now his half-brother has come forward in a thoroughly modern fashion with a splash in the Mail. More thought and reflection and tricky, perhaps painful moments for Rob.
As I get up to leave, while Julie and I make small talk behind us Rob rummages in what looks like an ancient giant safe. He rejoins us, carrying in one hand his father’s football boots. They are tiny, size 6. Battered but lovingly cared for, the starch-white laces bear traces of black polish where the cloth in John’s hands rubbed them last. It’s almost impossible to believe that these dainty slippers mastered rain-sodden panelled leather footballs with the finesse and precision of a true artist, yet in my hands for an instant I’m touched by the spirit of a truly great footballer. Julie and Rob have a theory that John manages to play little tricks, as he did in life. The book may be finished but the Ghost of White Hart Lane is still around.
The Ghost of White Hart Lane – In Search of My Father the Football Legend by Rob White and Julie Welch Yellow Jersey Press