My interview with former Spurs star Johnny Hills:
Last month I had the great pleasure of spending time with our former player Johnny Hills as I interviewed the former Spurs fullback about his time at the club in the 1950’s. A big thank you to Johnny and his family for making the interview possible, it was an absolute privilege.
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?
Johnny: I was eight and I used to play in a park in Gravesend on a Sunday morning with a bunch of kids to start with. Then it began to get quite good and we managed to get one of the parents to organise it a bit more because we just turned up and put the coats down and played football on the field sort of thing. So we gradually got that going and then myself and another lad Alan Morris got a chance to go and play for Gravesend and Northfleet juniors. So we went over there and played for the juniors team which was in the southern league in those days. We played there for a year or two, Alan’s father was coaching and Cliff Edwards who happened to be the manager of West Brom had come to watch a southern league game and I was playing that day. He thought, maybe I should have a trial with Tottenham and the manager at the time was Arthur Rowe and he came and had a look at me and then invited me come down to the junior team at Tottenham. At the end of that season he offered me £20 a week to turn professional on the 1st of May 1956.
What were you earliest memories at Spurs?
Johnny: I was surprised as all the players were all nice and would speak to you even though you were a junior. I used to play cricket as well and Eddie Baily and some of the others formed a cricket team and we used to go and play during the off season. We’d go and play cricket against some of the clubs around Tottenham, Eddie was a great mate of mine and Danny Blanchflower was as well. All I remember really is just running around the side of the field for a bit of training and then going into the gym to play five aside football. The main thing was how friendly everybody was really. It was a good club as far as I was concerned, they used to muck around a lot and call you names and things like that. The main thing was how simple and how free it was, I used to live in Gravesend and I used to go up to London Liverpool Street station and then to the club out in Tottenham on my own, everyday. I’d go up there in the morning and come back in the afternoon.
What was your time at the lilywhites like on the whole?
Johnny: It was very, very nice. That’s why when I happened to go to Bristol Rovers I thought there’d be nothing wrong in doing it. But after I got there I wondered why I was there and then I decided I would quit, but maybe I didn’t have to quit. But altogether I had a very enjoyable time at Spurs.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
Johnny: No, I don’t think so. I just got on with it!
Who were your greatest influences at the club?
Johnny: Eddie Baily. He was a good lad and he enjoyed cricket as well, and Tommy Harmer. Tommy was a nice guy.
Did Danny Blanchflower have an influence on you?
Johnny: Yes, when we went away on tour I’d share a room with him and he’d talk about everything. ’ Do this, do that ’ he used to say. In that respect Danny did have an influence but I can’t say what influence.
What was he like to play with?
Johnny: He was good, he didn’t keep the ball too long he had the ball when he wanted it sort of thing. He would coach you during the game, but he didn’t say much after the football. I don’t know where he went anyway.
Being a young inside forward who was converted into playing as a fullback, were there any other players at the club or outside who you would model your game around or seek inspiration from?
Johnny: I was an outside forward at Gravesend and Northfleet when I was younger, but I was told to play at fullback by Arthur Rowe. He knew what he was doing I think. I remember going up and attacking a few times but I got told off, all the fullbacks now go up but I used to get told off for doing it. I always remember up at Everton, on that day particularly I went up with Danny at fullback. We both went up and was right in the middle of everything and then turned round and came back again. Then at halftime Jimmy Anderson who was the manager then got the needle on me, and said don’t you dare come out of the penalty area again. I think that was a bit of the reason I wanted to attack, because it was natural and because I’d played as a a forward for a long time.
On the 14th of December 1957 you made your Spurs debut in a league game against Blackpool. Could you talk me through your memories of that special day and how it came about?
Johnny: Stanley Matthews played that day!
How did you find out you were going to play?
Johnny: A bit of paper which was on the wall.
Do you remember much about the game itself?
Johnny: Yeah, it was quite good I can sort of see visions of some of the play and things like that. I saved a couple on the goal line.
Could you tell me what it was like to be a part of the F.A team which toured Ghana in the close season of 1958 and your memories of that tour?
Johnny: That was incredible, I remember all the sorts of things we did, we played a lot of football and it was very nice because the games weren’t difficult at all. It was just to try and keep you fit for the next season, it was some experience. I’d never been to Africa before.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories of your time at Spurs or ones which particularly standout within your memory?
Johnny: I just enjoyed all the football really but I was just disappointed at what happened at the end, when I didn’t have a manager to sort of tell them to get lost. When I came out of the airforce I went to teacher training college and after that I worked on HMS Worcester on the Thames. It was a naval training school for kids. I taught there and then I got the chance to go to Belgium and that’s where I’ve been ever since. But the football comes up all the time when you see something or think of something, I think I remember when or that sort of stuff.
What was it like in the airforce?
Johnny: It was alright, I was a teacher and that was it. I played for the airforce football team and they would let me come home and play for the reserves at Spurs, because I wasn’t there during the week. It wasn’t like army stuff or anything like that.
When you first joined Spurs as an amateur in 1950 you would have brushed shoulders with members of the famous push and run side of 1950-51. What do you remember of that hugely successful season for Spurs?
Johnny: I thought it was fantastic because it just continued and it was Arthur Rowe who started all that push and run stuff. It was very enjoyable.
You were involved in that thrilling 4-4 draw with Arsenal in 1958 what are your memories of that crazy game?
Johnny: It was very good and most enjoyable, I can’t remember how the score went but it finished 4-4 and that was not the only one!
What was the pinnacle of your career?
Johnny: Just playing in the first team really and joining the club, and being able to participate. It was a good bunch of people, there was no snobbishness like it appears there is today’s. They were a good bunch of guys.
Who was the greatest player that you had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
Johnny: I suppose it would have to be Danny Blanchflower, he was a top notch footballer. He never did anything wrong or bad on the field, he’d help you and he used to whisper advice. He liked talking in Irish.
Could you talk me through your footballing career post Spurs and what prompted you to leave the lilywhites?
Johnny: I went to Bristol Rovers and then had another operation and after that I decided to retire. They didn’t tell me I had to retire or anything like that, I just didn’t enjoy it at all. It wasn’t a good club in those days, you played and did your best but it was never appreciated.
Since prematurely retiring from the game you have traveled extensively and have turned your hand to teaching PE. Could you talk me through your fascinating career post football?
Johnny: After I left Tottenham I became a PE teacher and I taught in Greenwich which was there that boat was, just for a couple of years and then I went to the international school in Brussels. I went there to organise the school for PE but I went to a lot of other international schools. In London, in Vienna and all over the place I used to circulate the different schools with games which we did and then we organised a tournament. Then I went to Sri Lanka to do the same job because Sri Lanka had an overseas children school and had a lot of kids there from all different nations.
Are you still in contact with any of your old Spurs team mates?
Johnny: Have we been to the cemetery yet? No I haven’t, I’m living in Belgium.
After all these years could you tell me what Spurs still means to you?
Johnny: I always look up to see how they get on and I’m always interested in them. We went there for a trip to see White Hart Lane before it was renovated and took all the family. I’m hoping to get to the new stadium once it’s built.
What would your advice be to the young fullbacks of today as they look to make their way in the game?
Johnny: You’re not just a fullback you’re a player in the team and you should attack if you’ve got the chance. If I coached a team I wouldn’t put any restrictions on being a fullback or winger. You’ve got to do your own thing and do it the best you can.