My interview with former Spurs player Peter Hopkins:

(Peter is pictured third from the left of the back row)

Goalkeeper Peter Hopkins was at Spurs as a youth team player during the late 1950s. From the Rhondda Valley, in Wales, Peter Hopkins was still at school in Wales, when he was with Spurs. He would travel down from Wales to London, in order to train with the first and second team, and also play some matches with the youth team in the South East Counties League. Peter Hopkins would later join Swansea, for whom he played some reserve team games until suffering a career ending injury not long after he had signed for them. I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Peter about his time at Spurs.

What are your earliest footballing memories?

Peter: When I was about five or six, I used to play football with all of the other lads. I lived in a Welsh mining valley where we had a lot of terraced streets, and were literally a ten minute walk from some space at the bottom of the mountain. And so four or five of us used to go over there with a football for just a kick around.  That was the main thing that we did pretty much every holiday and every day after school, as long as it was light. And that was my only sporting interest at that young age.  

What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?

Peter: Well firstly there’s two odd things. When I was about seven years of age, the father of one of my uncles knew that I was a Spurs fan (I can’t remember why I became a Spurs fan). One day he came to our house and said that he had a present for me and he gave me an old football with lots of autographs on it.  It dated from about 1910 or 1911 and was the ball used and then autographed afterwards by the players, from a game involving Spurs and Porth, when Spurs came to Wales for some reason. Of course back then we were pretty poor and I had never owned a football, so instead of keeping it which would have been a remarkable souvenir, we all played football with it, until it was destroyed.

I later ended up playing local football, and I mostly played in teams where I was the youngest player. And when we formed a team in the village that I played for, I was only 13 but playing Under 18’s football. I played with my local team until it were disbanded after the older lads got past 18.  We just  no longer had enough players. I immediately signed for Ystrad Boys Club that had a history with Spurs, but I don’t know where that started. Although I do know that Mel Hopkins was the first post war player to join Spurs from Ystrad Boys Club. Although Mel has the same surname as me and comes from the next village we are not related. So when my original side disbanded, our coach, Les Vantus, told me that Dai Bevan, who was the coach and organiser of Ystrad Boys Club  wanted me to play for them. So I joined Ystrad Boys Club l After a few months Dai Bevan when I was still only 15 said that I was probably good enough to be introduced to Spurs to see how it would go.

So that’s where the connection came from. I was invited up to Spurs and my father came with me. Spurs had already seen me play after sending a scout called Andy McDonald down to Wales. He saw me play a couple of times and I happened to have enjoyed two decent games. So I went up to Spurs to meet the manager, Billy Nicholson, and stay the night. The next morning I went with some of the famous first-team players with the squad for a training session at Cheshunt and my father and I were brilliantly received, and while I was left to speak with Mr Nicholson my father was taken by the chairman around the ground and to the trophy room. However, I actually signed when I was about 16, and I think that I signed a standard Football League contract, which I guess was the same for all of the young players. I was asked about my background and my future education and whether I’d like to come and live in the Tottenham area and play for them at youth level. But I considered that my whole time at Spurs was on the basis that I would continue to live down in Wales, but Ystrad Boys Club would make sure that I wasn’t approached by any other League clubs. I would continue to travel to Spurs when it suited me and them.

 I played in South Eastern Counties games from time to time and on other occasions would train with the first-team squad.   It was hard to believe I was on the same pitch as some of the great names – Danny Blanchflower, Terry Medwin, Cliff Jones and Bobby Smith some of the top international players. Sitting on the team coach next to current Welsh International and hero, Terry Medwin, was a great thrill. When I signed, for me to be in the same room as Bill Nicholson, who was one of my Spurs heroes, was just great. I used to collect autographs of footballers, and once I saw a second team game of Spurs against Cardiff City when I was about 14. Bill Nicholson captained the Spurs side as before managing the first team, he ran the second team as a sort of player/manager.

So Bill Nicholson was the captain of the second team, and for the Cardiff City game he brought along a lot of the younger players there. However, I also remember that that great entertainer, Tommy Harmer was in the side. I remember walking all the way from Cardiff station to the ground at Ninian Park. In those days the team would walk about a mile and a half, carrying their kit!  I walked with the team to the ground, chatting all the way mainly to Bill Nicholson.  I clearly remember  that he asked me what Cardiff was like as a City and for housing as Cardiff had approached him to play for them and manage them! I still have the autographed match programme!

But my experience at Spurs was a very happy and thrilling one. It was really beyond belief for me that I had actually signed for Spurs. I remember Bill Nicholson saying that Spurs had been very impressed with me and that I’d had two outstanding games. He also thought that from everything that he had heard I had a good chance of making it. 

Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?

Peter: Actually the only team that I supported was Spurs. I can actually go back to the 1950s team. Ted Ditchburn was a hero of mine as was Ron Burgess who was both Welsh and played for Spurs. I also had heroes here in Wales, like centre-forward Trevor Ford and left-winger Cliff Jones who I would watch playing for the Welsh International side. However, when I was about 14, Danny Blanchflower was my absolute hero, and for me to have ended up playing with him when I was about 16 was just like a dream.

Who were your greatest influences in football?

Peter: They weren’t goalkeepers as in those days most of my heroes were outfield players. Pretty much all of my heroes/influences were connected with Spurs, unless they were Welsh international players who played for other clubs. But my big goalkeeping hero when I was younger was Jack Kelsey, who was the Welsh goalkeeper who also played for Arsenal. I still have a big opinion of him as a goalkeeper, and although he was unspectacular, I modelled myself a bit on how he played. He commanded the goal area, was very good in the air and he positioned himself very well. After I finished with Spurs and had joined Swansea, I had the thrill of playing my first game for the second team against Arsenal, at Highbury. Amazingly Jack Kelsey, who was the current Welsh goalkeeper, was in the second team. He was only in the second team because he had broken a finger and Wales were playing a couple of weeks later and the Welsh FA had asked Arsenal if they would play Jack Kelsey to improve his fitness.

I dared to go into the dressing room before the game to have a chat with him and he wished me all the best. He’d heard a bit about me, and then after the game he told me that I’d had a fantastic game and that I had every chance of making top level football. That was nice of him to do so, and it meant a lot, as he was my goalkeeping hero. Later on Bill Brown and Pat Jennings came into the equation, and I think that Pat Jennings is the greatest goalkeeper that I ever saw. He could make spectacular saves, but he was safe and also organised as well. So I think that he was the complete goalkeeper.

Could you describe to me what type of goalkeeper you were, and what your style of play as a goalkeeper was during your time at Spurs?

Peter: From the time I was about eight I was always a goalkeeper, and I didn’t think much about it.  It was just the way that it ended up. I read every football annual, which was all that I got as a present at any Christmas time. I studied goalkeeping and as  a youngster I read everything avidly that you could read about goalkeeping. So when I started playing I was very aware of angles, and I was very good in the air and I commanded the box. Only about six or seven times that I played football did I ever have a ball headed past me. I used to work out that if someone was crossing a ball in the air, the area between my goal-line and three yards to the penalty spot was my area. I would set out to catch anything in that area. If someone was hitting a long ball into the penalty box then I would be very quick off my line to either catch it or gather the ball. Of course a lot of this has now gone out of the game, because with a much lighter ball goalkeepers tend not to go out to catch the ball, unless it’s right on the goal-line. In my day a couple of yards from me to the penalty spot, was my area.

I would say that I was a very organised goalkeeper, who commanded the area, and also simply told centre-halves and full-backs where they should be, so they could get out of my way to give me a clear view. I wasn’t a particularly spectacular goalkeeper but my view then has not changed really, and that’s if you see a goalkeeper make a lot of brilliant saves in a game then it’s probably because he’s standing in the wrong place to start off with. 

Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?

Peter: Well Danny Blanchflower was the biggest influence on me, and also on the whole of the Tottenham team. He was the man that everyone respected and he was the complete wing-half. He was very good defensively and he was an outstanding footballer who never wasted a ball and was always looking to make an incisive pass. But he was absolutely outstanding, and was the complete footballer.  That seemed  apparent to me from quite a young age, as I’d watched Danny Blanchflower quite a bit. Whenever he came up to Cardiff I saw him play, and he was the biggest influence on me.

What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?

Peter: Absolutely wonderful. It was very limited and it was a strange set-up, but I was quite a mature player at 16 and I was quite comfortable playing with older players. From what I was told, the hope of Tottenham was that I would go up and join them when I was 16. They talked about accommodation and how they could do it, but I was quite academic at school and I wanted to be fully educated. They did explore the possibility of me going to a local school, but that wasn’t feasible. So a letter was written by Andy Donaldson, the Spurs scout, on Spurs paper to Dai Bevan, saying that we like this footballer Peter Hopkins, but as he can’t join us yet we’d like you to give him some games when you can, and make sure that he doesn’t join any other club. So the arrangement was that I would stay with Ystrad Boys Club, and go to Spurs to play games whenever I could.

However, whenever I trained at Spurs, I always trained with the first and second team, and no one else. Whenever I went up to Spurs, I always had someone allocated to look after me as I was so young. One was Eddie Clayton. I remember one day that he took me to Clapton Dogs.  Little did anyone there realise that I knew more about dog racing than any of them. And if Bill Nicholson had found out that I had been to Clapton Dogs I am sure that he wouldn’t have been very happy.

The other person who looked after me was Terry Dyson. However, my time at Spurs was brilliant because I hero worshiped everybody, and to be on speaking terms with them was just great. Whenever I got on the coach to go to Cheshunt with the team, I always sat next to Terry Medwin, as he was also from Wales. I didn’t see much of Cliff Jones, apart from when I was training as he appeared not to travel on the team coach. The other player who I was very friendly with, and who I had a very high opinion of as a footballer, was John Ryden. He was a superb defender who I think would have been in the first team for most other first division sides. But he struggled, because Harry Clarke was at the club for most of his career. But I had a wonderful time at Spurs, and everyone was so kind to me.

A funny story which I remember, involved that brilliant England and Spurs centre-forward Bobby Smith, who happened to be a terrible gambler, which I didn’t know of course. One day we were on the coach when Bobby Smith asked me to come back to sit near him.  He said that I was a good goalkeeper and that I’d have a bright future with Spurs as it was such a good club. He said that he’d left his money in his bag and could I lend him two pounds. Back in those days people used to only earn seven quid a week, and footballers only 20. So two quid was quite a lot of money.  But I happily said ‘Yes’ and he said don’t forget to remind me to give it back to you. Then when I finished the training session I didn’t see him.  I think it was Terry Medwin who saw me in conversation with Bobby and cautioned me not to lend him any money. I told him that I gave him two quid. Terry said that you’ll never get it back. But anyway he said that next time you’re up here, remind me to get the money off him. So when I saw him about six weeks later, he said we’ll go and get that money off Bobby Smith. So he explained to Bobby why I needed the money back, and so Bobby gave Terry the money to give to me. And that was just about the only time that Bobby Smith had repaid anybody at the club, according to Terry.

But I hero worshipped all of these players, and it’s just a happy coincidence that Spurs were my boyhood dream team. I’ve got programmes from years ago, with autographs from all the Spurs team of the fifties on Cardiff City programmes. But for me to go to Spurs and have this playing association with so many star players when I was only 16 was terrific and just unbelievable.

What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?

Peter: Well it was an odd situation. My whole dream was to play football and to sign for Spurs. I had a French teacher at school who was keen to employ me (he left the school before my final year) and work for him to do a potentially top job. So I’d been a well-paid guide in Paris looking after hundreds and hundreds of people during the Easter holidays. Footballers were only earning twice as much as the average wage at that time. So I had wanted to study at the London School of Economics to further my educational qualifications to get a good job. But in the meantime I had met my first proper girlfriend, who became my first wife. And then all of a sudden the £20 wage and the chance of a job here in Wales with my ex-teacher was appealing.  The prospect of a £20 maximum wage put me off. So I thought I’m better off working in Wales and playing part-time football. Had my prospective employer refused time-off to train and play part-time football – I guess I would have been tempted to take my chances and become a Spurs player. But he agreed to be flexible on time-off.  So I signed terms for Swansea – and my Spurs dream was over.

The Swansea manager at the time asked me if I wanted to sign full-time forms, but I said no as if I’d wanted to do that then I would have stayed at Spurs. So I said that I wasn’t prepared to play as a full-time professional but would play part-time. I duly signed and the manager asked me what money I wanted and how the training arrangements would work. I asked him what he was offering, and he said that he couldn’t pay me £20 a week as that was what full-time professionals earned. They were very keen to sign me as their goalkeeper was just coming to the end of his career, and they needed a second team goalkeeper. So the manager said that he’d pay me £10 a game, but make sure that I had two games a week! So when I went to Swansea I got £20 a week, the same as the professionals, I trained two mornings a week and had a well-paid travel job.   

Do you ever have any regrets for not staying longer than you did with Spurs?

Peter: I do actually. I was heavily influenced by the French teacher, who was keen and genuinely believed that there was no worthwhile career in football, because of the poor money. He thought that I was a bright guy and that I would do well. In the event, I eventually ran my own company, which became about the fifth biggest tour operator in Britain. So he had a significant influence on me when I was still thinking about the £20 maximum plus a new girlfriend in Wales at the time.

If anybody had told me that I would be offered a contract to become a professional footballer with Spurs and that I would turn it down, then I would never have believed it! It was something that I had dreamed of since I was about ten. So I do regret that I missed that opportunity, but of course two months into joining Swansea I snapped my cruciate ligament and never ever played again. So I didn’t play football beyond the age of barely 18. However, the other view is that if I had signed for Spurs the Swansea accident may never have happened.

What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?

Peter: I think actually that one of the greatest moments was being selected to play that game for Spurs against Trowbridge, out of the blue along with players like Danny Blanchflower and Terry Medwin. I had no idea until I arrived in the Royal Hotel in Bath that I would play in this star-studded team. I thought I was playing for the youth team. So, to suddenly be with all of those great players was breathtaking.  Only a few years before, I had been queuing up for their autographs!  So to be playing that Trowbridge match was just amazing. It was hard to realise that here I was in the same team as my boyhood hero, Danny Blanchflower who in 1958 was approaching his peak. In the same team was Terry Medwin, Ron Henry and George Robb. George was a great left winger who would have had lots of caps, were it not for the fact that his career coincided with that of Tom Finney. 

Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?

Peter: That would have to be Danny Blanchflower and Jack Kelsey. These were the players who I saw in great home internationals as a youngster. Then, suddenly,  I’d become a 16 year old and I was on the same pitch as them. Quite amazing.  

Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories or ones which stand out from your time in the Tottenham youth team?

Peter: My best memory was the first game that I played, which was against Bexleyheath and Welling. I didn’t know anybody in the Tottenham youth team of course as it was my first game, but going down to the ground on the bus I made friends with my now long-time close friend, Tony Berry, without knowing who he was at the time. My father and Tony’s father met up before the game. I was a complete bag of nerves before the game as it was a big game for me. And it was raining and the pitch was treacherous. I was always conscious of the fact that I never wore gloves and ought to have some with me.  In those days there would be no such thing as specialist goalkeeping gloves, as they didn’t exist. So my father told me that my mother had a pair of gloves that I could try on. Even though they were a bit small I took them in desperation. I’d never ever worn goalkeeper gloves in my life, but when I got to the ground as it was raining I thought that it might look unprofessional if I didn’t wear them.

When the Spurs team ran out onto the pitch everyone whistled and booed, and gave us a hard time. So I put the gloves on during the game. The gloves were green with a sort of white pattern on them. As soon as I put them on, someone behind the goal shouted “He’s got his mothers gloves on!”.  So in the end I put the gloves back by the post, and never wore them again.  But I was lucky, as I just had a very good game, which seemed to impress everybody at the time. Tony Berry always says that we should have lost 6-0, even though we won the game 2-0. Bexleyheath were a much better side than us during that game.  I managed to make some good decisions and stopped everything.  I couldn’t have had a better debut. So that game created a good impression about me to everybody that mattered at Spurs.  Dai Bevan back at Ystrad Boys Club received a glowing report asking him to “keep Hopkins sweet”.

Then as a new Swansea Town player, right at the start of the season, I went back to Spurs, to play against them at White Hart Lane in my second game for the combination team.

In that game against Spurs I played against a number of my ex-colleagues with whom I had trained or played. Notably Eddie Clayton and John Ryden were on the team-sheet alongside former youth team players, Frank Saul and Brian Fittock.  The famous Tony Marchi captained the team which also included Norman Lee, a former Ystrad Boys Club player and now an established professional at Spurs who was about 3 years my senior.  I was made to feel very welcome. Before the game I went in to say hello to some of the Spurs players. Eddie Clayton and the coach asked me why ever did I leave Spurs. So it was really heart-warming to discover a feeling that I had been welcome to have stayed with Spurs!  However, in that Spurs game we went 1-0 up, and although we ended up losing 2-1, I made a lot of good saves in that game and was highly praised in the match report in the Swansea Evening News.   

Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?

Peter: In that game against Trowbridge Town, there was a striker, Vic Lambden who had been a real star and local hero for Bristol Rovers when they’d been in the second division.  He was their regular top scorer over a ten-year period. He’d gone to Trowbridge Town, and from the time that he got on the pitch he spotted me – a nervous, 18-year old!   He decided to annoy me, kept shoulder charging me and dancing around in front of me when I had the ball. It got to me. He scored two of the four goals in that game, and two went straight through my wobbly legs!  I’d never had a worse game!  Finally, Lambden came running into me and knocked me over.  John Ryden quietly confronted him to warn him not to that again. He didn’t!   Lambden was a seasoned pro and quite a hard nut. But for that matter, no-one was tougher then John Ryden.

Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to during your time at the club?

Peter: Oddly enough it was Eddie Clayton, although he’ll probably  never remember me. I was not a full-time pro  training everyday at the club like the other Ystrad Boys Club players like Mel Hopkins, Philip Stephens and Norman Lee. So, because I was in full-time education and not permanently at Spurs,  I didn’t have that same sort of regular relationship with the other players. But the one player who had the most responsibility for me was Terry Dyson. I got to know most of these players as I got to spend quite a few days training with them at those times I trained at Cheshunt. I also chatted with Terry Medwin at times, and I knew some of the younger players like Brian Fittock and Frank Saul as I played some games with them in the youth team.

What would your advice be to the young Spurs goalkeepers of today as they look to break into the first team?

Peter: Well the new ball changed everything and it’s a new game now.  In my day players would hit the ball into the penalty box from everywhere. Back then you had to be very good in the air and you had to command the box. It was the keepers’ job.  Very rarely do you now see goalkeepers do that not helped by the fact that the new ball goes about ten yards further than the old ball. 

As a goalkeeper you need to learn your craft, listen and be well coached. Of course now you fill in as an 11th player, whereas is in my day the one simple job that I had was to stop goals.  Good distribution was just taking accurate goal kicks and for the most part just punting the ball as high and as far as you could. Fitness these days is obviously at a premium for a goalkeeper.  Some of the saves that goalkeepers make nowadays would not have happened in my era. The one thing that I would say to goalkeepers is to learn to cut the angles, particularly covering the near post where you should never be beaten. You still see too many goals scored now against top goalkeepers, where they carelessly leave a gap at the near post.  

In my day I completely commanded the penalty area in the air, and I very rarely had a ball headed past me. A high ball in my patch was wine!  Nowadays goalkeepers very rarely come off their line because of the new ball. Despite this, most should do better as it is becoming a lost art. Another similar piece of advice is that when there is a ball in the air a goalkeeper must work out the highest point of the trajectory of the ball. This gives a keeper the advantage over the would-be goalscorer. An opponent heading the ball can’t get to a keepers’ highest point as one leap is head height whereas the goalkeeper has the advantage of his up stretched arms.  Goalkeeping in the air now is a lost art compared to my day but inevitable because of the lightness of the ball and the amount of swerve and movement. Goalkeepers should be very prepared to listen to the coaches. Listen carefully to your coaches and watch the best goalkeepers in the game. That way you will pick up tips and good habits.

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?

Peter: Oh absolutely – the only club. I had the advantage of supporting them for no particular reason living down here in Wales as a youngster. I think that I was probably attracted by the name Tottenham Hotspur. However, I followed them and I kept a scrapbook with cuttings from the daily papers on Spurs. I knew all the players and loved reading about their ups and downs. Obviously then came the unbelievable coincidence of going to Ystrad Boys Club – the top ‘junior’ team in the area. This was not prompted by the Spurs connection but when I got to know about the Ystrad/Spurs relationship I was really excited. I remember Dai Bevan saying to me that it was a good job that I played well during one game as Spurs were watching me. I just couldn’t believe it.  It was such a thrill.

From those early days I’ve never stopped following them, and my son Will and grandson Lewis are big supporters. I look back on everything to do with Spurs as just being wonderful. Up until the pandemic I’d watch them live at least a couple of times every year. So it’s just been a brilliant association all of the way through. 

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