A towering, consistent and commanding defender who played at centre half for over half of his footballing career, Southwark born John William Holsgrove started his career with Arsenal before making the short trip across North London to join Spurs as an amateur where he played as an inside forward. The defender who was regarded by many as a starlet during his youth would go onto play for Spurs’ youth and A team during his time their (he scored six goals in ten games for the A team during the 1962/63 season), before departing the club to join then Second Division side Crystal Palace at the end of the 1962/63 season. He was at the ‘ Eagles ‘ for two years before transferring to Wolverhampton Wanderers where he spent six years, and was a part of the talented side that won promotion back to the First Division. Later playing for Sheffield Wednesday where Holsgrove was the captain of the club for a period as well as playing against footballing legend Pelé, the defender would then move onto Stockport County where he played with George Best, in total Holsgrove made 311 appearances in the Football League. John Holsgrove would later play for Non-League side Stalybridge Celtic before retiring from playing the game. John’s sons Paul, Lee and Peter were also footballers, and his grandson Jordan currently plays for Reading. I recently had the great pleasure of catching up with John Holsgrove to look back on his time at Spurs during the early 1960’s.
What are your earliest footballing memories?
John: Basically when I was younger I got into the South London football team and this would have been in 1958. After getting in the South London team I then got in the Surrey team and then the London team however, I was really disappointed that I never got a trial for the England Schoolboy team at the time. So basically because of all of that I had the opportunity of going to three clubs and this is in about 1958, and these clubs were Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea. They all offered me the chance to come along and train with them and my father used to tell me to go to Arsenal as they’ll always look after you. So that was good and I ended up going to Arsenal when I was about 12 years old or something like that, and I stayed on their until 1962. While I was at Arsenal Billy Wright became manager of the club and I was offered the chance of signing for Arsenal for two years but instead I stayed at school for two more years just in case I didn’t get through or make it. So I lost those two years and people who I used to play with in trials like Harry Redknapp and John Hollins, we all trialled together with the likes of Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea and teams like that. However, they both left school and went in and got benefits from it but I ended up losing those two years. So to cut a long story short, after the two years of school Billy Wright became manager of Arsenal and everybody else there was ok but one day he phoned up my dad and said that he wasn’t going to take me on at Arsenal. So my dad phoned Bill Nicholson who was then the manager of Spurs and he gave me the opportunity of going their. However, I didn’t stay at Spurs for long, I was literally at the club for a year maybe 18 months, and of that time we had a massively bad winter in 1963 and for about three months there were no matches from the first team down.
With Tottenham they were in the Eastern Counties League which was for their third team, and that was unusual because Arsenal and most of the other teams never had a third team. So I don’t know why Tottenham had it, but anyway they ended up having this third team but what happened was that most of the players who were their, if they didn’t break up to the reserve team then they would be offered a job like I was to be signed by Bill Nicholson as a player who would play in that third league. And therefore they would pay me a bit of money, maybe enough to get to a game and back and then but you’d also have to have a job if you wanted to train with Spurs twice a week, so I didn’t want to do that as I wanted to sign. Anyway in comes to the scene Arthur Rowe and he was the manager of Tottenham who won them the league in 1951 and he was a legend, but he went to Crystal Palace and became manager. However, I think that he had decided that he was a bit too stressed over it and he was also getting older so he stepped away from management but stayed at the club. He contacted me and said come to Crystal Palace, so it was either go to Crystal Palace who were then in the Third Division and so bear in mind Tottenham was in the First Division so it was a bit of a gamble. However, they quickly got into the Second Division and when I left them to go to Wolves in 1965 they were also in the Second Division but soon got into the First Division. Anyway as I say that’s basically what happened.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?
John: Obviously the greatest thing for them to say to me would have been we’re going to sign you as you’ve done well in the third team so that would have been the best thing. But the great thing was that I used to play on a Saturday in the Eastern Counties League and we used to play in the morning, and then in the afternoon we’d watch the first team play, as one Saturday was the home game and the next was the away game. So after playing these game in the Eastern Counties a coach would take us back to Tottenham and you’d sit near the dressing room, and all of a sudden the door would open at about 2:15 and out would come Jimmy Greaves and people like that and you just used to sit there and think wow. Jimmy Greaves was the greatest goalscorer that I’ve ever played against, and then you had Dave Mackay who was like a brick wall and it was just incredible. I used to think maybe one day I might be playing with them but obviously it wasn’t to be at Tottenham it was against them with other clubs.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
John: Funnily enough I don’t know if I did really as for us it was just growing up after the Second World War when things were different and you just did what you did. There were some great players and funnily enough as a youngster in the 1950’s I used to go to Chelsea one week and Charlton the next week, and funnily enough Wolves were fantastic and I used to watch the likes of Ron Flowers who I ended up playing with for Wolves which was just absolutely amazing. Also in that team that I used to watch was Billy Wright but as I say he didn’t do me any favours but that’s just the way it is as some people think you’re alright while others don’t. So really I didn’t have any footballing heroes but as a club Wolves were the club really and in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s they were very successful. The players at that club were top class.
Could you describe to me what type of player you were and what positions you played in during your time at Spurs?
John: I was an inside forward and I scored quite a few goals when I played for South London and Surrey and London as well, as that’s what I could do at that time. Funnily enough you find that as you get older that you are better suited for another position, and eventually I ended up at Wolves as a centre back. However, when I was an inside forward I was a very good passer of the ball if I dare say, I wasn’t quick or anything like that but I was a two footed passer of the ball which I practised always in the house where my mum and dad used to live with both feet for years before I became a professional.
How difficult was it for a young Spurs player like yourself to break into the first team back in the early 1960’s?
John: Hard because as I say they had great players and there was no doubt about it but to be honest it’s probably not as hard as it is now.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
John: To be honest there wasn’t really anyone because at the time I had just left Arsenal because they didn’t want to sign me or Billy Wright didn’t want to sign me. So all it was was getting to Tottenham and getting into their team, but there wasn’t anybody really in particular who influenced me at that time if you know what I mean. It was all down to me and I can remember saying to my dad once that I’m going to try and make my time at Spurs good, and all that I was interested in was becoming a professional footballer. However, I wasn’t really anywhere near the top players that were at Tottenham with the likes of Jimmy Greaves, Dave Mackay, Danny Blanchflower and Cliff Jones. It was just an incredible incredible team.
Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?
John: Again it was more about you getting on with it and for example I couldn’t do what Jimmy Greaves did because how many people can do what he did. It was all about proving to yourself as a player that you had a bit of ability and then you’d take it on from there which luckily for me worked out. In that Tottenham side you had Dave Mackay who could run through brick walls and even when I was a defender I wouldn’t say that I was like Dave Mackay because he was like the side of a house, he was an absolutely fantastic footballer and just unbelievable.
What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?
John: Well basically Arthur Rowe had always believed in me and he had remembered me from playing for South London and London and whatever. And he thought that I had the right attitude and that sort of thing, and I’ve still got a fantastic letter from him which he wrote and he complimented me on being 100% involved in what I wanted to do and he just believed in me. He suddenly came in from nowhere and he had followed me all the way through to going to Arsenal and then Spurs and he understood why I wanted to go to them. And he went to Crystal Palace and had always remembered me and I actually had the opportunity of signing on for them again on the basis of playing for this third team which I didn’t quite get as I didn’t quite understand why they had that team. A lot of the players in that team were part time players and that’s what they wanted me to be, but I wanted to be a full time professional. Anyway Arthur Rowe contacted me and my dad and ended up coming round to our flat, and this man Arthur Rowe wanted me to come down. I was actually on trial at Crystal Palace for nearly a season and it was a case of if I did well then I would be offered a pro, but I did quite well and they signed me on. So after that I ended up going to Wolverhampton Wanderers as one of the coaches there was called Ronnie Allen who used to play for West Bromwich Albion and England, and he was a very very good striker. However, Ronnie came to me one day at Crystal Palace when I was already in the first team and been a part of the side that had made the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and anyway Ronnie said to me that he was going to Wolves as a coach. He knew that the manager of Wolves wouldn’t be their for more than five minutes and that he would become the manager, so he said that he would be coming back for me and so I thought that I’d just leave it at that.
So Ronnie went to Wolves and as he thought that I was a good player he came back to Crystal Palace where I had played 18 games, and Wolves paid £18,000 for me which was £1000 a game! The country then was different in the sense that they had only just built motorways and anyway if you went to the Midlands then it was almost as if you were from a different country. And so I went up to Wolverhampton and Ronnie knew that he was going to become the manager but I as a 19/20 year old had to start all over again as nobody knew me at the club. So I had to work my way into the team at Wolves and Ron would say it’s ok you’ll play in the reserves, but again nobody really knew me. In about 1965 Wolves went somewhere and were beaten 6-0 and Ron came to see me and said that you’ll be in the team now and that it was all down to me, and so I got into the team and I played regularly for them for six years. The 1960’s was a really funny time but also a good time as well as I ended up at Wolves, and this was the team that years before I used to watch and they’d be winning the cup finals and things like that, but being in the Second Division then we had to build the team up again. However, when I eventually left them I think that they were about fourth in the First Division. I later went to play for Sheffield Wednesday after doing my six years at Wolves but as is so often the case when you have a bad injury and someone takes your place you can’t get back into the side, and that’s what happened to me at Wolves. So I went to Sheffield Wednesday who were then in the Second Division and my time their is one of those things where I think that I could have done better along with a lot of the other players at the club. However, I didn’t do well enough their and I should have done but in the end I moved onto Stockport, and I hated that because all of a sudden I was at Stockport and you are playing in the Third Division and your playing against players who not only kick the ball but also kick you.
You didn’t used to get that in the First Division when you were playing against Jimmy Greaves and Dennis Law as they just worried about themselves. They didn’t worry about who they were going to kick here and there, and I hated that and so I said to the club look I’ve just had enough. I did also have a very short spell with Staylbridge Celtic which I also hated. I knew by then that it was time for me to call it a day and so me, my wife and Paul my eldest son came back down to London and that was it, and there you go you’re 31 years of age and what am I going to do now? Some people tend to forget this although the players of today don’t as they get so much money, but even then if you’ve earned an absolute fortune what do you do with your life after your career has ended. You’ve got a lot of money in the bank but is there any incentive to go and get a job, I really don’t know. I often think that I was happier playing the game in the time that I did.
What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?
John: I’ve got to be honest and say that probably playing against Jimmy Greaves and him not ever scoring when I was marking him or whatever was a good one. Another one was when I played a game against Southampton and I played against their centre forward Ron Davies who was a tremendous player and I played that well in this game that was on BBC television. After we came off the pitch and got changed a gentleman who was working for the BBC said to me England next! So that was a good one as I had really done well in that game. However, the best moment was when Sheffield Wednesday played a game against Santos’ Pelé which was very interesting, but I had played against some great players don’t get me wrong such as Jimmy Greaves who was a great great player and also Dennis Law. There was another thing which happened in my career though I can’t say that it was absolutely true but when I mentioned to you about that Southampton game and what the man from the BBC said, funnily enough I was told then that Bill Nicholson wanted me back at Spurs but I can’t be sure on that! I was also told by a former Leeds United player who came to Wolves that Leeds were interested in me but it never happened.
Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
John: I suppose I’ve got to say Pelé but there was also Dennis Law and Jimmy Greaves. Jimmy used to talk to you when you played and compliment you during a game because he was such a nice bloke. Other great players who I played with were Bobby Charlton and Derek Dougan.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories of your time in the Tottenham A team and youth team?
John: The thing is that I can’t remember it to be honest with you as I would just be making it up to be honest. I can’t remember whether I scored a goal or how well I played as it’s such a long time ago and it was also such a short period because of that bad winter that we had in 1963 which cut it even shorter. If Bill Nicholson had come and said to me that he wanted me to sign as a full professional at the club then I would have said yes.
Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?
John: I suppose Jimmy Greaves was really because he floated around which would make you think that he wasn’t really involved but then all of a sudden he was off. He could smell a rat and see where the ball was going to go and then he was off, and before you knew it the ball was in the back of the net after you hadn’t seen him for half an hour. He was very very hard to play against but as were Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton who were great players, to that there is no doubt. However, Jimmy Greaves was a player who I always had such great respect for.
Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?
John: I knew Derek Possee because I’m sure that he had played for Surrey with me so I already knew him. The other one was John Sainty who was in the same London team as me before he got involved with the England Schoolboys, and he got all of the trials that I never got invited to. He was a very very strong player and to be honest with you he was head and shoulders above the rest of us because physically he was incredible. However, he never managed to get into the top divisions at all although he was a terrific player.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?
John: It’s very difficult to say. I would go back to what Arthur Rowe used to say to me and that would be about having to get out there and not worrying about everybody else. You just do what you’ve got to do and hold your head up and get on with it, as that’s the way that he would look at it. He had such an interest in my career that I actually went to his funeral. He was a great man who was fantastic for me and I think that he did things in the background to help me, especially when I left Arsenal and when it could have all went wrong for me. There he was in the background helping me out.
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: I have to say that I am a Tottenham man more than I am an Arsenal man although I played for both clubs. Tottenham for me and that team that they had in the 1960’s and when I was at the club was just sensational. They were great times and it was a great experience for me as well. They are a terrific club and whenever Spurs are playing Arsenal I will always be a Tottenham man.