My interview with former Spurs player John Sainty:
Born in Poplar, East London, John Albert Sainty played for Spurs throughout the majority of the 1960’s. The former England schoolboys player would play for the Spurs youth team, A team and reserves where he established himself as a physical and prolific centre forward. After leaving Spurs in 1967, Sainty who never actually played for Spurs’ first team would later go on to have a good career at the likes of Reading, AFC Bournemouth, Mansfield Town and Aldershot, before later going on to have a good career as a coach with the likes of Manchester City and Norwich City. I caught up with John earlier in the week to look back on his time at the Lilywhites in what was a glorious time in the clubs history. And can I just say it was an absolute privilege and a pleasure to interview the former Spurs man.
What are your earliest footballing memories?
John: Actually it was playing in a game at a holiday camp when I was away on holiday with my mum and dad when I was only 12 at the time, and it was an adult game. One holiday camp would play another holiday camp down the road and I had to get permission from my parents to play in that game, but that was the start of things (I was a big lad!).
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?
John: I was playing for Barking boys in a good schoolboy game and there was a scout on the line watching us play, and his name was Dickie Walker who used to play for West Ham. So, my dad being my dad who used to push me here there and everywhere, asked Dick Walker if he was interested in the lad playing out there and if he could take him to West Ham, as that was my local club. Dickie Walker then said that I was really interested in him and that he worked for Spurs at the time. So that’s how I ended up at Spurs and not West Ham, so that was that. My earliest memories of my time at Spurs were difficult because when I was at school I was head and shoulders above most of the boys that I played with. However, when I went to Spurs I was never top of the list sort of thing. Spurs was difficult because they mainly concentrated on groups which was the first team and if you weren’t in the first team there was a reserve group and a schoolboy group which was taken by a lad called Johnny Wallis. He was a rather bulky lad who had never really played football in his life so he would tell you to clean the dressing rooms out and sweep the toilets and god knows what if you didn’t do what you were told. There was as much work off the field at the time as there was on the field.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?
John: It was a learning curve but at the time I was very disappointed when I left because I would have given my arm and a leg for one game in the first team squad as such, but that just wasn’t going to be. At the time I think it was 1961, the Spurs squad was really big and the players were all international sort of type of players. The best player out of the lot of them who I ever saw play was Dave Mackay. However, John White was another lad as well and Ron Henry and Peter Baker. So whatever position you played in there was always international class players ahead of you as such, so it would have taken a long, long time to get in to the first team. One year I was particularly disappointed as I was playing in the youth team and then in the A team which was in the Metropolitan league in midweek. I sort of used to play on a Saturday or on a Wednesday, and anyway one season in 1966 I scored 33 goals and I still never ever got a look in, in the first team squad. I then basically left Spurs in 1967 but as I said previously my dad was a bit disappointed when I signed for Spurs as West Ham was my local team and because Dickie Walker had played for West Ham I assumed that I would have got a trial there. However, in the local paper at the time it mentioned that I had failed to impress West Ham, which I wasn’t very happy about. However, had I have had the choice I would have went to West Ham because they were local to me, but I went to Spurs and I was lucky to be able to go to somebody like that.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
John: Dave Mackay was my best hero ever because he could do anything! He used to do tricks with coins, where he’d kick them up on his head and flip them back onto his head again. Mackay could pass a ball, he could go around people and he was an encouragement to everybody else, he wouldn’t let anyone slack. I actually went to his funeral in Scotland, that’s how much I admired the man. In all my years of football he was the best footballer that I had ever seen. However, he wasn’t your Danny Blanchflower type player who was a wizard at passing but he didn’t really tackle, instead he used to let everybody else do his tackling (such as player like Mackay who was a great tackler).
Could you describe to me what type of player you were and what positions you played in for Spurs during your time there?
John: When I was at school I was initially very big for my age and so they always put me at the back as a central defender. However, when I moved on to other teams higher up the level, the players were a similar size to me so I went into midfield and then eventually as a centre forward.
What was it like to brush shoulders with some of the legendary players that were around at Spurs at the time?
John: When you say brush shoulders you had to be within 20 yards of them, that was the nearest that you got because when we trained at Cheshunt, the first team players all used to arrive by car. Whereas when we used to get to the ground early in the morning, we used to have to get all of the kit ready and then go on a coach. So it was very, very rare that we would mix with the first team players unless we had to get the balls. It was a learning curve whereas some kids now a days think that they have made it by the time they are 17/18 and they’re getting good money, but in them days you had a lot of hard work that you had to do.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
John: Again it’s the same person Dave Mackay. However, Bill Nicholson was another one and whenever he said anything to you which was very rare, you knew that he had noticed you. So if he didn’t say anything to you from one week to the next then you knew that he hadn’t noticed you as he had enough on his plate with managing the first team. So Bill Nicholson was a big influence on my career and whenever he said something I listened.
Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?
John: As I said before Dave Mackay was my favourite player ever because he was so hard however, another lad who tragically died young was John White. Centre forward Bobby Smith was another player, and if you lined those three players up in a line you would get the complete footballer. However, the only time we had any chance of watching those players was in a match because we never had the opportunity to watch them train at Cheshunt as we would all be training at the same time so we would never ever mix in that respect. The only other chance that we’d have of watching them was if we were injured when we’d able to watch them training as such but it was difficult to learn things from them unless we watched them in a game. Nowadays youth teams and youth set ups are a big thing, whereas in those days they weren’t unless you pushed your way into the top half of the reserves, otherwise you just weren’t considered.
What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?
John: Basically I was getting on to 21 and I just didn’t want to be a 21/22 year old and still be in somebody’s reserve side, so I wanted to play somewhere a bit higher than that. And so in 1967 I left Spurs because I asked for a transfer and surprise surprise they didn’t stand in my way. Then the next surprise came up that they wanted 12,000 pounds for me which was in 1967. So anyway Reading paid that fee for me which was a record at the time. So why did they not rate me that much but still want a record fee for me? (in my last season at Spurs I scored 33 goals). It was difficult for me to leave and go into somebody’s first team and then after Reading I went to Bournemouth which was where I stayed for quite a while. Then from Bournemouth I went to Aldershot and that was the end of my playing career before I went into coaching. I used to coach at Spurs on a Tuesday and Thursday night when I used to take the schoolboys, so they thought that I was a good coach but they didn’t think I was that good a player. I’d got my badges and eventually I took training three times a week at Spurs before taking sessions at a secondary school in East Ham. I then did sessions for Barking under 13’s as well. I think that I was a very good coach but maybe not as good a footballer. I loved coaching and couldn’t have spent my life without being a coach.
What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?
John: Playing for England schoolboys on my birthday at the Vetch Field, Swansea on March the 24th 1961. So that was the best birthday present that I ever had apart from marrying my wife of course!
Who was the greatest player that you had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
John: Personally it would have to be Martin Peters who was here, there and everywhere. However, Dave Mackay was different and John White was different. So I’d have given my right arm to play one game with any of those, but life goes on and it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. However, I think that the standard of football now is a lot higher then when I was playing but I was quite happy to play then.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories of your time in the Tottenham youth team/A team?
John: The games that used to stand out to me were the South East Counties League and then in the A team it was the Metropolitan League. In the South East Counties League I used to score on average 30-40 goals a season in the midweek games. In one season I lost four goals because Barnet reserves resigned from the league!
Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?
John: It was more for when I played for Reading but I couldn’t name one player as such (I was a physical player myself).
Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?
John: There was a set of twins from Barking called Bill and Ben Embery who were a year older than me however, my closest one was Keith Weller. When I got married the first time he was my best man and when he got married I was his best man, and he was a good friend of mine. Keith was another player who missed out on opportunities at Spurs but I think that we all did in them days because they didn’t let youngsters push through.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?
John: Listen and learn, because if you’ve come this far don’t ever believe that, that is as far as you are going to come because that is not the peak of your career. Otherwise there is no point in playing football. You must do your job the best that you can do.
After all these years how do you look back on your time at the Lilywhites and is Spurs a club who you still hold close to your heart?
John: Spurs are one of three teams whose results I look at and when they are on television I’d always watch them play because that is my history, and they (Spurs) are a big part of my history. And if anyone says what did you do, I can say that I played for Spurs!