Robert Walker was Spurs’ Northern Ireland scout from 1980 to 1994. However, Robert returned to his first love Spurs in 2008 after 7 years at West Ham and another 7 years at Portsmouth. The former scout from Lisburn in Northern Ireland had already retired from Scouting but when Redknapp asked him to join him at Spurs again, Robert just couldn’t refuse. In his two times at Spurs he would recommend many, many young and promising Northern Irish players to the club. The Northern Irishman recommended the likes of Gerry McMahon, Paul McVeigh and Steve Robinson to Spurs, and those three players would play for the Spurs first team in competitive games, as well as playing lots of times for the Northern Ireland National team, although he recommended many more players who would have very fine careers in the game, Robert is somebody who I couldn’t speak highly enough of after my interview with him. It was a real pleasure and privilege to interview Robert who is a boyhood Spurs supporter, about his time at Tottenham Hotspur.
What is your earliest footballing memories?
Robert: My first football memory would have been nothing to do with Spurs, in 1957 when I would have been 14. I went to see Northern Ireland play Italy in a World Cup qualifier and interestingly the referee was fogbound in Manchester, so there was 60,000 people in Windsor Park for the international and the referee didn’t come. So they had to play it as a friendly and it was chaotic because people had got out of work to see a World Cup match but all that they could see was a friendly. I was only a kid then and there were fights both on and off the pitch and it was just awful, So a 14 yr old seeing that was my first memory of like big time football. My second memory was probably in 1960 when I saw John White play for Scotland, and he had gone to Tottenham by then but I had seen him play before that when he was with Falkirk and playing for Scotland. I couldn’t take my eyes off him because he was such a different kind of player from anybody I had ever seen before, of course coming from Northern Ireland my hero was Danny Blanchflower, the story goes that after that game Bill Nicholson rang Danny to ask how White had played in the game and after they spoke about Whites performance, Bill Nicholson said I can sign him for £20,000 said to him to get the first train up to Edinburgh and sign him, if you can get him for that. I was kind of already a Spurs fan because of Danny but John White was just the cherry on the cake for me and obviously he was only there a year when they won the double.
I remember that during that double winning season that I saw Spurs for the first time at Goodison Park and I think they beat Everton 3-1 and John White scored that day too, so so that made my day. After that experience my brother and I used to catch the Heysham boat at 10:30 on Friday nights, arrive at 6:30 next morning, catch a train to London at 7:00am, changing at Crewe, arriving in London around noon, then a tube to Manor House and then a bus to the Ground, queue up for an hour or so watch the game then the reverse journey home, arriving home around 9:30am Sunday morning. We did that twice a year through the sixties. I remember telling Steve Perryman that and he said that the two of us where mad. My brother Harry and I have been Spurs fans since 1960. Another memory was on the 22nd of December 1962, a Friend and I went over to see Spurs v West Ham. The whole journey to London we could not see out the windows of the train, the fog was so thick. My friend had a little radio and we could hear the games all over the country were being called off. We both felt that there was no chance of the game being played but as we came up out of Manor House tube station to our surprise there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. As we went up to the ground and queued, eventually got through the turnstiles, when we were standing on the shelf it was announced through the loudspeaker that John White’s father-in-law had died (he was the then assistant manager). So one of my favourite players was out, then we found out that Blanchflower was injured, so that didn’t sit well with me, two of my favourites out of the game. Anyway we saw an amazing game. The game finished 4-4, one goal from John Smith who stood in for Blanchflower and Dave Mackay got a hat-trick, and so it was 4-4 and not a forward scored from either side.
When we came back home we found out that loads of games in England weren’t played, so we were really lucky to see a game and to see a 4-4 was something else. We were home just a few days, on Boxing day snow started and it lasted right through to March, there was no football for months. Then the 70s came round and I saw the two League Cup finals that they won against Norwich and Aston Villa, my first two visits to Wembley. In 1978 when I was in England on business I got a train down to Southampton for the last game of the season where Spurs just needed a point to go up to the First Division, having been relegated the year before, the game was sold out, I bought a £3 ticket for £15, and £15 in those days was a lot to me, I remember thinking to myself during the game that half-time must be close, looked at my watch it was only ten past three, it was the longest ten minutes and the longest match I ever saw abs the old Dell wasn’t the nicest ground to be at either and I was also with the Southampton supporters as well. That was one game I did not enjoy, although I did enjoy the final whistle.
Did you play the game at any level?
Robert: Well I finished off back where I had started playing, which was for my local team, Wesley Football Club. In between I played for Portadown in the Irish League for a while and that was a fairly high standard in those days, lots of players would have been transferred to England back then.
Did you have any footballing heroes or inspirations, and if so who were they?
Robert: It’s hard to define because there’s different styles, Dave Mackay was just amazing, he could do everything. He could tackle, he could play, an inspiration, he was very impressive. Of course John White and Jimmy Greaves were two other players that inspired me, John, one of the best midfield creators I have ever seen. As a striker you couldn’t go past Jimmy, he was the best striker in the world back then. Not forgetting Cliff Jones, Mike England another two greats. I still believe to this day that if those players had come along now with the training facilities and the pitches the clubs have now, they would have excelled at the top level, great players are great players. Later on there was Perryman, Hoddle, Ardiles, Jennings, etc. Last but by no means least, the main man, William Edward Nicholson OBE
How did you come to be the Spurs Northern Ireland Scout?.
Robert: I saw a young player here in Northern Ireland called Paul Ferris and I recommended him to Spurs, went to see his mum and dad. They said that he could go over to Spurs for a trial but then it worked out that Northern Ireland were playing Scotland in Scotland, and Bill Nicholson went up to watch the game. I then got a letter from Mr Nicholson saying that although they weren’t going to take Paul (they had just signed Ally Dick), he was offering me the job because he thought that Paul was good enough to play at that level. Paul signed for Newcastle Utd instead and became the youngest ever debutant at 16 years and 294 days. So thanks to Paul I got the job at Spurs.
What is your earliest memory as Spurs’ Northern Ireland scout?
Robert: Going over to meet John Moncur, I think that I went over on the Friday and met him and I remember asking John to take me to a youth game as I wanted to find out what the standard of player they would be looking for. He took me to see the youth team on the Saturday morning then the first team in the afternoon, then the youngsters on Sunday morning. I was very nervous at the beginning but John made me feel at home. Then I suppose recommending my first player to Spurs, that was exciting. In those days the Club trusted the scouts, all you did back then was make a phone call saying that you’d seen a good player, Spurs would make all the arrangements to get the player over with either the parents or myself travelling with them, sometimes both. As a scout I went to games on Saturday morning and afternoon, Sunday morning as well as going to schoolboy games during the week. You can go to lots of games and you can drive all over Northern Ireland because you get people who know that you work for Tottenham, and they would recommend a player to you. You can’t afford not to go watch the player because you just never know, and you can drive for miles and miles to see a player and just be so disappointed, that happens way more often than not, because it’s such a high standard that we are looking for. But now and then this little gem comes along and it makes it all worth while because if you love football like I did and you see that little gem then it’s just great. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re going to sign him because if he’s that good then there will be a lot of scouts after the same player. So with that player it’s a matter of seeing their parents and their club, he might go to three or four clubs for trials but Spurs were always in with a shout because they treated the kids so well on the visits.
Having told me some of your early memories of being a Spurs scout could you talk me through the rest of your career as a scout for the club?
Robert: Well the first player after Paul Ferris was a kid called Ritchie Johnston who never made it, but he was in my opinion the best one of the whole lot, but he didn’t have that other ingredient that every young player needs, work ethic, dedication, whatever the word is, he was a very quiet and unassuming young player and he didn’t have a lot of luck in life as a youngster, but what a player he was. I remember taking him across to the old training ground Cheshunt and I was over with him for a week and Spurs (youth team) were playing either Gillingham or Colchester in a game. This was the first time that Ritchie was playing for Spurs in an actual arranged game and John Moncur came over to me and said that it looks like you’ve got a player there. I said to him John if I’d have wanted to bring a midfield player over then I wouldn’t have brought Ritchie as that was not the Ritchie Johnston that I know, Ritchie was dropping in deep in that game. There was a big centre-forward playing and Ritchie laid on three goals for him, that was on the Friday and then on the Sunday they were playing again. So early that morning I tried hard to convince him to be the Ritchie Johnston that I knew and I’ll always remember Cheshunt on that nice sunny morning. Spurs won the game 7-1 and Ritchie got six goals. I remember Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles were there watching as they’d got a knock on the Saturday and so they were in for treatment, after which they came out to watch the game. at the end of the game Glenn Hoddle came over to John Moncur and said where did you get that player from, as Ritchie was so good.
In those days Spurs were one of the few clubs who had two youth teams whereas most of them only had the one, but Spurs had the two and so Ritchie was playing for the under 16 team when he was like 14, and then a year later he was playing both for the under 16 and under 18 side. So he was doing really well and then when Terry Venables came (it might have been an international break) for some reason he couldn’t take charge but anyway he had arranged a friendly with Brentford and at that stage Ritchie was about 17. It was the first ever team that Venables picked and he (Ritchie) might have been sub, but he did play in that game. Then afterwards Stephen Robinson, Gerry McMahon and Paul McVeigh came along but there were players in between that I brought across to Tottenham who signed for other clubs. I also remember when Gerry, Paul and Stephen made their first team debuts and it was such a thrill to think that you’ve done at least a little bit to make that happen, then obviously when they make their international debuts, That made me so proud.
Would you be able to tell me some interesting players that you recommended to Spurs?
Robert: The ones who got away you mean. There was David Healy (Man Utd) Northern Ireland’s record goal scorer, Neil Masters (Wolves) a really good player, Keith Rowland (West Ham), Gareth McAuley (Leicester City and West Brom), Steven Davis as a very young player was somebody who I talked to Spurs about many times but he was like eight years old then and too young to take across, and there were also many more.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like as a whole ?
Robert: It was absolutely brilliant and I was treated really well and probably only for the chairman at the time then I would probably have never went anywhere else. If you can imagine being a supporter from when you were like six years old and then getting to work for Spurs was just brilliant, and they treated me great and John Moncur was very good to me. I was going to watch games from 1980 to 1994 in the middle of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and I went into every area but for some reason I was looked after well, I like to think that football crosses all boundaries. But my time at Spurs was terrific. I’m not taking any credit for this but I was the reason along with John Moncur why Spurs (with Stephen Robinson and Nicky Barmby in the team) came to the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland as Under 16’s which they won that year. Also Spurs’ Republic of Ireland scout John Fallon and I have remained great friends from the early eighties when I had brought Ritchie over to Spurs he had brought a lad over called Tommy Fitzgerald around the same time, he was John’s first player. So that was one of those coincidences that happened, also I remain a very good friend of Gerry McKee who took over from me as Spurs Northern Irish scout
You came back to Spurs in 2008 when Harry Redknapp took over as the Spurs manager. What was it like to come back to Spurs after all those years?
Robert: It was different because the whole youth set-up had all changed. I was old school. When I was first at Spurs all I did was lift the phone and say that I had found a player, and then John (Moncur) would have arranged it all and sent me the tickets, but when I went back it was writing report after report and using new technology and all that stuff. So it had all changed and all of the people that I knew had left, but going back to my first time there, there was a story which is very important to me. When I was in John Moncur’s office one day, we were just having a chat when the door opened behind me and I got a hand on my shoulder and he said Rob would you like a cup of tea? Without even looking around I said yes thanks, and then the door closed again before opening five minutes later and Bill Nicholson was there with my tea. And I was thinking Bill Nicholson made me a cup of tea and he knew my name, how great is that. That was amazing but Bill was such a lovely man. That would never have happened when I went back because the youth system as far as the youth scouts were concerned were so far removed from the first team set up it was unbelievable. In the old days the fans used to get into the training ground to watch, when I went back as a scout I used to have to show my Spurs credentials to get in and I was working for the club. Fans do not mean anything to the big clubs now. Change for the sake of it, is not always for the best.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
Robert: Well John Moncur was very good to me and I enjoyed the company of the likes of Pat Holland, Chris Hughton and Peter Shreeves as they were proper football people. Paul Gascoigne was absolutely brilliant with me and I know everybody says things about him but in my eyes he was one of the kindest people on the planet, he was also great with the young players as well. People will advise you to never meet your heroes because sometimes you can be disappointed, in saying that I’ve met two of the best people that I’ve ever met in football and one of them is Harry Redknapp and the other one is Steve Perryman. Both remain great friends to this day. They both are two of the nicest and most down to earth people you will ever meet, Steve is as honest as they come and Tottenham through and through, Steve probably was the last of the great captains. As nowadays in football I don’t think that there really are proper captains anymore and in my opinion he was the best Spurs home grown player ever, though Glenn is up there with the very best because of his skills, he was a genius. I also saw Harry Kane as a youth player the last time that I was at Tottenham as a scout about two or three times and I was not impressed at all, but he just took off, there are some late starters in the game. I admit that I never thought that he would reach the heights that he has reached, as he is absolutely phenomenal now. I choose Steve because of the 19 years that he was at Spurs, 17 with the first team and captain for 11 of those years, 854 appearances. Steve Perryman is one of the most important players ever at the club. That’s why I choose him.
What do you feel was your greatest contribution to Spurs as a scout?
Robert: I suppose the players I recommended that made the Spurs first team, it’s always about the players. The major clubs in the U.K. Always think there might be another George Best in Northern Ireland. He was a one off I am afraid to say.
Are there any memories from your time as Spurs’ Northern Ireland scout which stand out to you?
Robert: A memory which stands out was when Spurs were signing Nicky Barmby he had come over here to play against Northern Ireland Schoolboys and I kind of had to look after him for a while as John (Moncur) was having lunch with Nicky`s mum and dad. Another one was a player called Justin McBride who was a very good player and played for Glentoran was in his early 20s. This would have been in 1991 and I had to go and watch Justin playing for Glentoran v Glenavon in an Irish Cup game, the game ended 0-0. The replay was at Glenavon’s ground on the Tuesday night, so I went up to the game to watch Justin, but there was a player playing for Glenavon who I never heard of. As I knew most of the players over here, I could not understand why I I never heard of him, he was absolutely brilliant. I had no mobile phone at the time, so I went down to the social club and got a pound changed into ten pence pieces, and went to the phone on the wall and rang Terry Venables and said that you can forget about Justin McBride as I’ve seen somebody else. They then sent Ted Buxton over to watch him but he ended up getting hurt in that game, but they signed him a week later for a good fee and also Spurs came over to play Glenavon in a pre-season friendly. Also part of the deal. The player also got to stay with Glenavon until the end of the season when they reached the Irish Cup Final, so Ted Buxton came over to watch the cup final and Glenavon won 2-1, that player was Gerry McMahon who scored the winner. Gerry was another who loved it at Tottenham.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to make it in the game?
Robert: First of all I would tell them that they already have the skills that can be developed, if not they would not be interesting the pro clubs in the first place. Secondly I would tell them that ability alone is not enough to make it. You need complete dedication and a willingness to give 100% to football. Nothing less will do. Bringing me back again to Steve Perryman, his attitude as a 13/14 year old was really the attitude of somebody much more mature, as he was grown up in that football environment he knew what he wanted and he knew that nothing was going to stop him. That’s as much a thing as the talent that he obviously had, at that time I think that any team in England would have signed Steve when he was a schoolboy.
After all these years how do you look back on your time with the Lilywhites and is Spurs a club who still hold close to your heart?
Robert: It was one of the best times of my life and I am still grateful at being offered the chance to be Northern Ireland’s Spurs scout.To answer your question I will offer a quote from one of Spurs best ever players . Once a Spur, always a Spur.