My interview with former Spurs apprentice Martin O’Donnell:
Martin O’Donnell is probably a name that most Spurs fans won’t know, Martin was an apprentice at Spurs during the 1960’s, a time when the club was enjoying the most historic part of its history. A midfielder with a promising career that was cut short by injury. Mr.O’Donnell kindly agreed doing an interview with me, and in doing so has shared some of his fascinating memories about his time at the club.
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?
Martin: My earliest memories are turning up to White Hart Lane on a Sunday morning for my trial game………..I had been spotted the day before playing an Under 13 District Match v Hackney Boys in the final of the Middlesex Bower Cup at Eton Manor F.C.
In the dressing room after the match which we drew 2-2 I was asked to go outside once changed and meet Eddie Baily who was the Assistant Manager at Tottenham to Bill Nicholson he had asked our manager if I could attend the trial match at WHL the following day as he thought I was a good player.( His son Graham was in the Hackney side).
We won the replay at our home ground the following Saturday 4-1 !!
My District Team was Acton,Brentford and Chiswick it was the local schools best players representing the District.
I got back home after the match and told my parents……..who did not believe me that I had been approached by Spurs…….I actually went up to the trial match on my own !!!
I played on WHL on the Sunday in the trial match against other triallists who were in fact two years older than me and did ok I was nervous but loved the fact that you got changed in the home dressing room and wore the Spurs kit……..they asked me to sign schoolboy forms immediately after the game.
I took the forms home and the Chief Scout Dick Walker made arrangements to visit my parents and talk to them about the possibility of attending training at WHL Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
We lived in Chiswick, West London so it was a long journey twice a week on the Piccadilly Underground but I did it and loved every second of it plus every Sunday there would be a game at Cheshunt our training ground against a District or County side from all over the country ……….there were no academy’s in those days.
I also used to get tickets for the first team home games and would travel to them with my Mum on most occasions as my Dad worked 6/7 days a week.
What was your time at Spurs like on the whole?
Martin: My time at the club was brilliant I loved the fact that the club at the time were one of the the top 3 clubs in Britain and that to be associated with the club was really exciting.
The first team players were always good fun to be around……as apprentices we had to clean their boots after each game and also clean the dressing rooms plus sweep the gym but they would always have a kind word for you I got to know Phil Beal and Mike England particularly well and have met up with both of them in recent times.
When I signed Apprentice forms for the club in July 1965 I was very proud to do so I had been approached by the other London clubs to go and sign for them but I wanted to stay at Spurs.
Who was your footballing inspiration/hero?
Martin: My footballing hero as a kid growing up was Denis Law who played for Man Utd…….my inspiration was a player called Jim Baxter he was a Scottish midfielder whom I had seen play a few times and his style appealed to me he was very skilful and made everything look easy.
George Best was on another planet I had the pleasure of seeing him play a few times and in fact got his and Denis Laws autograph in the players car park at Spurs.
My three heroes at Spurs though were Jimmy Greaves who to this day is the best goal scorer I have ever seen……Alan Gilzean the most stylish and clever centre forward you could wish to see and finally the late Cyril Knowles he was a lovely bloke who always had time for us apprentices.
Who were your greatest influences at the club?
Martin: My greatest influences at the club were Johnny Wallis who was our trainer in those days (nowadays they are called coaches)he was firm but fair.
Eddie Bailey always motivated me and took a liking toward me I guess because he had spotted me originally.
Bill Nicholson he was the manager of the first team but he always took an interest in our youth games turning up unannounced on many occasions. Also, Jimmy Neighbour was a seriously talented player who became a first team player over the years. He sadly passed away after a hip replacement operation a few years ago.
Were there any other players at the club or outside, who you’d model your game around?
Martin: I loved Dave Mackay he was a fantastic player who was the captain at the time of the first team and actually broke his leg twice.
Outside the club I loved watching the Liverpool side they had some very skilful players in the sixties in particular Jimmy Melia Peter Thompson and Billy Stevenson I tried to emulate them at times!!
What was the toughest thing about being a young up and coming player during that time and what were the training facilities like in those days?
Martin: The training facilities compared to today were very basic but given the era they were top notch there was no sports science in those days or gadgets to measure how far you had run etc.
Our training normally consisted of getting to WHL every day with the apprentice groups going out first at 9.30am with a warm up lap around the pitch at least 16/18 of us trying to muscle our way to the front for the final sprint into the gym !!
We would then split into groups and have five a side games in the gym plus various skills drills with the ball and on Tues/Thursdays we would have Bill Watson who would take groups of us on free weights and gym exercises.
On a Wednesday we normally travelled to Cheshunt by coach for a practice match between all of us which always ended up being very competitive.
The toughest thing was getting noticed/recognised by the club there were games every Saturday 1st team ,Reserves ,A-Team ,Youth Team U18s and Juniors U17 depending on the importance of the game and the team you we playing against the teams sheets would go up on the board late Friday morning.
I made it into the A Team and also was in the Reserve team squad for a few games I played against Plymouth Argyle when Dave Mackay broke his leg for the second time !!
In those days the Youth and Junior teams were made up of Amateurs and some triallists along with us apprentices so it was sometimes difficult to get a consistency to the teams because of these changes.
Looking back to the first team in those days it was always going to be difficult to break into because of the nature of the league and also the first team was full of internationals.
Were there any youth players at Spurs who you were particularly close to and are you still in touch with any of your former team mates?
Martin: I was close to Ray Evans John Clancy Ray Bunkell and John Cutbush but was good friends with all the players,there was the odd one whom you didn’t get on with but generally we were a good bunch.
I am not in touch with any old team mates I knew Steve Perryman as he lived nearby and have seen him from time to time but Steve signed a couple of years after I had broken my thigh.
What was your greatest memory from your time at the lilywhites?
Martin: My greatest memory was being asked to sign apprentice forms at 15 years of age and also winning the South East Counties League and Cup Double and being the captain.
Also the fact that everyday I turned up for training I had to pinch myself that I was working for Tottenham Hotspur.
My saddest day was fracturing my femur (thigh bone) two days after I was told that I was going to be offered a pro contract at the club !!!
Could you talk me through your career after you left Spurs?
Martin: My career ended at Chestnut our training ground in 1968 when I was just having a kick about before training started with Keith Weller and Derek Possee two young pros at the time……I turned to pass the ball back to one of them and my left thigh snapped and I was in agony I had a compound fracture of the thigh bone.
The previous Christmas I had an operation on Christmas Day to remove an abscess from my thigh which we thought had been successful but I contracted osteomyelitis which is a disease of the bone marrow which I only found out about after my thigh snapped.
I was in hospital for nine months in a plaster cast…….the first six weeks I was in the Prince of Wales Hospital Tottenham alongside Phil Beal who had broken his arm in a first team game and needed a series of operations we were in private rooms and became good friends we were visited by all the first team players including Terry Venables who had just signed for Spurs and I was gobsmacked when he came into my room to say hello and even more so when he gave my Dad a lift back to where we lived in Chiswick.
I could not play for another 18 months as my leg was not strong enough for professional football but I got myself back to fitness and went to do pre season with Hayes F.C. I did ok got fit again and signed for them where I met Dave Bassett who is still my best mate to date and our families meet up regularly.
After a few games with Hayes I was approached by a scout from Notts Forest who wanted me to go up there for a trial however the week I was going up there the manager Johnny Carey got sacked.
I also went on trial for two weeks to Bradford City my close pal at the time and an ex Spurs player John Clancy was playing for them and he suggested to there manager he should have a look at me I went up there they offered me a contract but only wanted to pay me £22 per week so I turned them down plus Bradford was a dump in those days.
Hayes played in the Isthmian League in those days which was one of the top amateur leagues at the time we used to get paid £15/£20 a game it was a good standard and many ex pros played in the league as well.
I left Hayes and got approached by Walthamstow Avenue to join them they had a couple of ex Spurs Youth players playing for them and I played for them for about two years.
I got married in September 1972 and decided that I needed a career so i started in Sales and worked for a food company then got myself into the Fragrance and Cosmetics business working for Revlon i then joined Estate Lauder where I eventually became Sales Director for Europe I worked for them for 12 years and then decided to go out on my own and I set up my own Cosmetic and Fragrance company.
We introduced Dolce&Gabbana into the UK it was a huge success plus other brands.
I retired from the business seven years ago having fought Prostate Cancer and Bladder Cancer successfully and over that period my wife and I have travelled extensively since.
My two boys lived and worked in Sydney one has come back but the youngest still lives and works out there with his wife and daughter we visit them every other year.
I enjoy my life I am still very active I train two/ three times a week at a local gym plus during the Summer I play a lot of golf I am a member at Mill Ride Golf Club Ascot.
I am also a patron for the Topic of Cancer Charity which supports individuals through the trauma of Cancer and also organise a Charity Golf Day to help raise funds for the charity.
What was the pinnacle of your footballing career?
Martin: Because of the nature of my injury and the ultimate level that I played at ‘pinnacle’ is probably not the right word however I was very proud and privileged to be associated with such a great football team and club.
The very fact that I could continue to play at any level after my injury was the ‘pinnacle’ it’s only when I look back now and think about what could have been however my salary as an apprentice was £7 per week at 15 years of age £8 at 16 years of age and when I was about to sign pro it was going up to £20 per week not a lot of money these days but back then you could live quite comfortably if you were not married.
I did play in a practice match on one occasion with the first team we were at Cheshunt and two of us were called over to make the numbers up that for me was unreal and I thought I did well.
The other practice match that really stood out was that in 1966 the World Cup was held in England and the group that England were playing comprised of France Uruguay and Mexico the Mexicans were using our training ground Cheshunt as a training base whilst still in the competition
One afternoon we were watching them train and they were short 2/3 players and I was one of the lucky ones to be asked to play as part of their shadow squad we were told by the interpreter that we were not allowed to tackle my position was left half in those days and I ended up marking their centre forward his name was Enrique Borja who was a top player.
Anyway I didn’t kick him or tackle him and at the end of the game he came up to me and we shook hands and he gave me his Puma King boots that were leather soles and the softest leather you have ever seen…….I have never seen a pair of boots like that since.
Two players you may never have heard of but I had the pleasure of knowing and playing with them and they became great friends were Robin Friday he lived nearby where I lived in Chiswick and we grew up together as kids he played for Reading and Cardiff City he could have played for England but he wasn’t interested…….check him out on the internet.
The other player was Ray Knowles he played for Dave Bassett at Wimbledon he is still a close friend he played alongside Alan Cork in the Crazy Gang team a top striker. I also scored a hat trick against Chelsea in a South East Counties game that was a proud moment for me.
What would your advice be to the current Spurs academy players, as they look to make their way up the footballing pyramid?
Martin: My advice would be work hard train hard and be conscientious about your career it’s very different these days to when I was first around as a lot of these boys now have agents etc and pushy parents but be yourself.
Also if possible get a decent education it will always stand you in good stead if you don’t make it.
Do still you follow Spurs’ progress?
Martin: I do still follow Spurs they will always be a part of me forever my Mum is 100 and she still supports them !!