(This photograph is from Tottenham Hotspur FC)
John Gilroy was a fast, skilful and direct winger, who also had a good eye for goal. The former Spurs player from Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, was at Spurs for a good number of years during the 1960s as a youth and reserve team player. After leaving Spurs, Gilroy would later move into non-League football, where he played for Hatfield Town FC, before later playing amateur football. I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of speaking to John at length about his memories from his days at Spurs.
What are your earliest footballing memories?
John: As a youngster around Welwyn Garden City there wasn’t a lot of work around, and so there wasn’t enough for the youngsters to have bikes and things like that. So all that there was was football, and I used to kick a football about all of the time. Me and my best mate Billy used to play football all of the time, and sometimes even a tennis ball. If we didn’t have a ball then we would go around gardens and take one. Then when I went to junior school, and they had a team there I used to play at centre-half, and then after that I got into the junior county team and that’s when it all kicked off. I went to senior school and the teacher there was called Phil Mowbray, and he was a Spurs scout, and when I started playing for the school team he asked me if I would go down to Tottenham. I used to go there on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and I’ll always remember that on the first night that I went there Danny Blanchflower was taking the training, and as somebody who had always followed Spurs, he was my hero. After Danny Blanchflower stopped taking the training Laurie Brown took it a few times, and then the others were Roy Low and Eddie Clayton.
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs?
John: I used to go training on a Tuesday and Thursday in the ball court, and they used to have like 25 or 30 players in the ball court, and there would be two teams playing and then the rest would be standing by the wall for a time. Bill Nicholson used to come and walk by and have a chat with us, and then you’d have the other ten players who were in the smaller gym, and they’d do ball skills. I was 15 in April, and just before that in February/March there was a series of trials down at Cheshunt. Initially there was 40/50 players who were vying for four apprentice places. In the first game that I played we were playing against QPR’s youth team and they had players like Frank Sibley, and they actually beat us 7-1 but I actually made the one goal that we scored. Then it was brought down to 22 players and there was like four more trials, and then it came down to this final trial in mid April. I was playing at outside-left and the player who was playing right-back had just been picked to play for England Schoolboys at Wembley along with Paul Shoemark. That was one of the best games that I’ve ever had as I gave this full-back a really difficult game, and I also scored a wonder goal. The ball was crossed from the right and then the keeper got up and punched it and I then came running in from the left wing and hit it into the far corner of the net on the half volley. I think that it was that goal which made Bill Nicholson and Eddie Baily choose me as one of the apprentices.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
John: As a footballer it was Danny Blanchflower. I used to admire John White, Dennis Law and George Best. I always used to say that that forward line of Charlton, Law and Best at Man United was unbeatable. I also obviously liked Jimmy Greaves and I also liked Ron Henry, who was one of the coaches in the evening. And I also liked Dave Mackay, and my dad actually bought me his book which described how he went to Hearts and then Tottenham, and that was fascinating reading.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
John: In the early days I used to get on well with Eddie Baily, and he used to take you to one side in the early days and try and tell you what you should have done instead. Obviously there was Danny Blanchflower when he was there, and when he was talking I was just listening to the things that he was saying. But I would say Eddie Baily because his knowledge of football and what he could do with a football even at his age then was excellent. He used to tell you to take a corner and hit the near post as there would be somebody standing there to flick the ball on. I would mess it up and he then used to come over and he would tell you what to do while actually hitting the post while he was talking to you. So he was a good influence on me.
Could you describe to me what type of player you were and what positions you played in during your time at Spurs?
John: I had a bit of pace and with my pace I was pretty skilful on the ball, and I played mainly on the left wing at Tottenham. But I could also play up front, although most of the time I did play outside-left. I was able to take people on outside and go down the line, and then when I came up to the full-back rather than going down the line I would cut inside. And I scored quite a few goals cutting inside like that on my right foot. My big strength was my pace.
Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?
John: Stephen Pitt used to play at outside-right and he had a bit of pace and his control was good. He used to take full-backs on and beat them, and I used to watch him closely as he was my type of player, and he had been at Spurs a couple of years before me, and I wanted to do the same as what he had done. My first year as an apprentice Stephen Pitt played for the first team against Blackpool, but I used to enjoy watching him play and train.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?
John: Initially it started off fine, but in the end I was getting disillusioned by certain aspects of my game. I had a bad ankle injury and in those days you would have treatment on your ankle and you’d have ice in one bucket and hot water in the other bucket. When you’re out you would lose match fitness and I was really struggling keeping up with the pace of matches, and then I’d go over on my ankle again and be out for several weeks and have to have treatment. Then I’d come back and lose my match fitness again, and then on top of that I broke my arm in a game against Millwall. I always seemed to get injuries in training down at Cheshunt apart from the one against Millwall, but all of the other injuries came in training. Like when Tony Want injured my shin in a challenge, and in another week a 50-50 challenge from John Collins left me with ten stitches in my other shin. Professional football when I was starting out wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and you also had to clean the gym and the ball court and stuff like that. When I signed for Spurs as a pro life did get better. One man who I could never get on with though was Johnny Wallis and if you couldn’t get on with him then it made things difficult. I remember that I scored a hat-trick against Arsenal in the Metropolitan League and yet I was called into Bill Nicholson’s office after we beat them 4-0. He told me that I should have done this and that, even though I had just scored three goals.
What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?
John: I had this ankle injury and I had lost all of my pace as such even though I was still pretty quick. As I said I started off well with Eddie Baily but then over the five years that I was down there it got to the point where we weren’t getting on well, and in the end I wasn’t getting on well with Bill Nicholson either. I had a chat with my dad and I said that I wasn’t going to make the first team and so I didn’t want to just be in the reserves, and so anyway I left Tottenham at the end of the 1969/70 season. I then went to play semi-pro football for Hatfield Town and I really enjoyed my football then. I also had a job in a factory where I was earning good money, and I was earning £30 a week at Hatfield, whereas Tottenham were paying me £24 a week. So in 1970 I was earning a lot of money. I played for Hatfield for a couple of seasons before a person from Boreham Wood approached me (that wasn’t allowed in those days). They asked me whether I would play under a different name and as I was getting so much per week I was getting cash in hand. I did that for quite a few games and then I got a good job and so I gave up my pro status, and went to play as an amateur after getting a permit. I was playing football with my mates as well on a Saturday and also on a Sunday morning, and I really enjoyed it as it was really good. You could also go out for a drink which you couldn’t do at Tottenham. But at the end of my time at Tottenham I became quite disillusioned about football, and the same kind of thing also happened to John Clancy, who I thought was a really good player.
You had Graeme Souness who came to Spurs and like Steve Perryman he was a good player, but Steve Perryman had this attitude that he wanted to do everything in training. He was good at fighting for the ball and at passing the ball.
What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?
John: One of the games that sticks in my mind was when we played Millwall in the London Youth Cup final and we won 4-3. I was having a really, really good game, and for the first goal Steve Perryman got the ball and played it through. I then got the ball and went around two players before putting it around the keeper and sticking it in the back of the net. We also had a few games when we went on tour to Holland and the Dutch people made us feel welcome. I think that we played against Newcastle in the final in the Feyenoord stadium, and they were playing Ajax that afternoon, and so there was about 40,000 people in the stadium, and they watched our final first. So playing in front of all of those people was a bit of highlight for me.
Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
John: Jimmy Pearce was a big influence on me and one of the best players that I played with, along with Steve Pitt. When we used to go training down Cheshunt they used to put the A team, reserves and first team all together so I played with and against a number of players. But in my mind it would be Jimmy Pearce, Steve Pitt and also Brian Parkinson as well. Brian had a lot of skill.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories or ones which stand out from your time in the Tottenham youth teams and reserves?
John: From playing in the reserves I can remember playing against Cardiff City at White Hart Lane and I scored on my debut with a diving header, and also another memory which stands out was the 4-3 win over Millwall. The best memories though is from when I went on tour to Holland, and you would stay with different families and they would then bring you down to training. At Spurs you had to be very strict with what you ate, and you couldn’t drink and so it wasn’t very social. Also another memory was from the tour to Holland. Over the years of going there we had got to know people and other players. There was one particular time when we were based in Rotterdam and four or five of us went on a train down to The Hague. There was one guy who played for ADO Den Haag’s youth team and he was with us, and we’d only missed the last train coming back! We didn’t have money for a taxi so we started to walk to see if we could hitch a ride or something. We were walking through The Hague for about 15 or 20 minutes and like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with all of the roads around it, well there was a similar kind of place in The Hague. We all had the same idea to take a bike and cycle back to Rotterdam. Anyway we turned onto this road and realised that we were on the motorway! The police turned up and asked us what were we doing, and we said that we had borrowed these bikes from our friends in The Hague, as we had missed the last train back to Rotterdam.
They (the police) told us a safe way to cycle to Rotterdam, but we all thought that we were going to get in trouble about the bikes, but we didn’t.
Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?
John: I remember playing Leyton Orient in a league match at Brisbane Road and Eddie Baily came up to me and asked me to give Tommy Taylor a really tough game. And although we won the game and I did well, he was one of the toughest players that I ever came up against.
Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?
John: Jimmy Neighbour, John Cutbush, Paul Shoemark, John Clancy and also Graeme Souness when he arrived from Scotland. I used to always see John Clancy when I used to get the train to Tottenham, and he always used to have a pack of cards on him.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?
John: Go out and do your best, as they used to say in our day. But it’s different now, but in our day we just used to try and enjoy ourselves and do our best.
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 feel proud of what I’ve done as not many people can say that they played for Tottenham. I only wish that I’d have done things a little differently, and got on better with Johnny Wallis and in the later days Eddie Baily and Bill Nicholson.