My interview with former Spurs Youth Team manager Keith Waldon:

Keith Waldon was at Spurs as a coach and later youth team manager, from 1984 to 1994. A Londoner by birth, Waldon used to play youth football for Chelsea, reserve team football for Millwall, and later amateur football, via a time playing football in South Africa. Keith managed a very successful youth team at Spurs, with them winning the South East Counties League on numerous occasions, the FA Youth Cup during the 1989/90 season, and also other youth team honours. I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of speaking to Keith about his very successful time at Spurs.

What is your earliest footballing memory?

Keith: I’ve got to tell you that I was born on cup final day, near the Arsenal ground, when Arsenal won the FA Cup in 1950, April 29th. My earliest memories are I guess playing for school teams. I was born in London in 1950, but there wasn’t much football going on there in those days, but I moved out to Surrey as a youngster, where I just joined local teams. The thing is you never know quite how good you are, but I was just playing football when Chelsea wanted me to join them as a 15-year-old. And a bit like we did when I was a manager at Spurs, they had two South East Counties League teams, one in each division. At 15 I was playing for the Under 18 team for Chelsea, which was a bit of jump really. I still didn’t think that I was any good, but I must have been ok, as I was playing two years above my age group. From a professional point of view that’s where it all started. Prior to that when I was playing football for local team’s I was playing four games a weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons as well, as well as during midweek as well.

Did you play the game at any level?

Keith: As I say I was at Chelsea as a schoolboy, and then Millwall signed me from Chelsea. I think that I got Millwall into trouble, as I didn’t realise that once you had signed schoolboy forms that that held you for the next season as well. I didn’t know that, and I don’t think that anyone else around knew that, apart from the clubs themselves, so when Millwall came knocking and said would you like to play for us, they didn’t even want me to have a trial with them. I guess that they’d seen me play already, but I just said yeah, and then they were offering me apprentice professional forms. I’d ended the season where I’d played for Chelsea, but Chelsea hadn’t contacted me, and so I just assumed that I was let go and had been released. So, when Millwall came in for me I just signed, but apparently Millwall were in trouble because they’d signed an already registered player. That didn’t go down too well with the manager at Millwall at the time, but I signed associated apprentice professional forms, where I had two years before signing as a pro. I didn’t play a first team game for them at all as I was only in the reserves. I then moved out to South Africa, as a South African club had come out to see me, and they said that they’d like to sign me, and I said ok, thinking it would be the start of the season. But their season didn’t start until the February of the next year, and so this was kind of May time.

I thought that I might be getting released from Millwall but then the South African club approached me and then approached Millwall and said that they’d like to sign Keith Waldon, and so they said yes, ok. But what I didn’t want to do was go all that time without playing, so I played for Chelmsford City, who were in the old Southern League. I only played six months with them before going off to South Africa. The team in South Africa was called Berea Park, it doesn’t exist now, but two or three years prior to me going over there they had started their own professional football league, at the same time as America had started their Soccer League. I received an offer to play for Dallas. I was torn, Dallas or Berea Park? Berea Park were offering me more money, which sounded fantastic, so I went for the money and went to Pretoria, South Africa, that was where my career really kind of ended, because I suffered a badly broken leg. Both bones were shattered in my lower leg. That was in the second season and so I came back to England. My leg wasn’t healing properly, and I didn’t kick a ball again for four or five years but when I started to play again, I felt that my leg was ok, even though they’d told me that I’d never play again. Then, one or two non-League teams became interested in me, but back in the day, if you had been a professional then you couldn’t join the amateur ranks, unless you got a permit.

I had to apply for a permit to play and give a reason as to why I was now wanting to play amateur football when I’d already played professional football. The answer for me was simple, they let me play and I played for Croydon very briefly and then Dulwich Hamlet even more briefly, before then signing for Sutton United. I played many seasons at Sutton United, and maybe something like 250 games for them. When I was a young professional at Millwall I took all my coaching badges, and as I recall I think I was one of the youngest “Full Badge” coaches ever at that time. There was somebody younger than me who had got this highest of qualifications at 21. I got it at 22, I think. 

Having got the highest of qualifications that one could get, but having broken my leg, I needed to earn some money. So, I became a schoolteacher, I had gone to university to qualify as a teacher and then I started teaching physical education, but, because of my coaching qualifications, I was also working on behalf of the Football Association, running their Coach Education courses. There was some local stuff to begin with, but then I got called up to staff courses at a place called Lilleshall, which was the home of English football at that time. I was asked to deliver the courses up there which were of a much grander significance. 

The courses at Lilleshall got bigger and bigger until in the end I was doing international courses, coaching foreign managers and coaches when they took their UEFA coaching badges, and other aspiring coaches to do their refresher courses. At the end of each season, managers and coaches would go to Lilleshall to take this refresher course. I can remember coaching some of the top coaches and players of the day. I guess that that sparked the interest in me, and the guy who took me to Spurs (I went from teaching to Tottenham Hotspur) was David Pleat, who took me there as assistant to a great friend of mine called Keith Blunt. Keith played football with me for a very brief time at Sutton United before becoming manager of them, whilst I was still playing there. Keith therefore managed me while I was at Sutton United, and he knew that I’d got my coaching qualifications as well. So, I think that Keith put the word in for me and had said to Spurs, that I was the guy that he wanted to work with. So, it was 1984 I think when I first went to Spurs. That was initially a part-time thing, before it gradually morphed into a full-time one, and in all I was there for ten years. I’ve got to tell you that it was probably the happiest years of my coaching career, and probably also the happiest of my years in football. 

That meant there was Keith Blunt and me with the youth team, Doug Livermore, who was the reserve team manager, but a succession of managers came and went such as David Pleat, Peter Shreeves, Terry Venables and Ossie Ardiles. For most of that time I was the youth team manager as Keith Blunt left about a season after I had arrived to go off to Gillingham as assistant manager to Keith Burkinshaw. So, I took over the running of the youth team and it was a very successful period of time for Spurs’ youth team in every respect really. 

Because of the successes of that time for the Youth Team, some observers thought that I was just about winning games, but it wasn’t like that. I was just about improving individual players, and the fact that we had good players meant that if you coached them properly then they’d end up winning more games than they’d lose. I think that we won the South East Counties League nine years out of ten, we also won the FA Youth Cup in 1990. We also won other competitions like the League Cup and the Southern Junior Floodlit Cup. We also had great success in winning trophies abroad in the many international tournaments in which Spurs Youth Team took part. We’d win often, but I used to tell the players from the day I first arrived that my job was to make them all better players. The youth team players came in at 16 and left me at 18, so I would tell them “I’ve got to take you to being an international footballer in two years”.

It was all about trying to improve the players that we recruited. John Moncur was the scout at the time, and he and his team brought in some very good players. But my job really was to make them even better players.

Did you have any footballing heroes or inspirations? And if so, who were they?

Keith: Several players really. Ron Flowers of Wolves was one of them. Wolverhampton Wanderers were one of the top teams in the 1950s. I used to watch the Arsenal games at Highbury, near where I lived, when one day Wolves came down. And I watched Wolves play and they were brilliant, Ron Flowers in midfield was different class, a serene type of player, and so I watched him. There were other players like Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano. We’d only recently got a television and so we’d see snippets of those two players when they were playing for Real Madrid, and they were phenomenal players. Throughout my career I’ve always admired great players, and I mean Glenn Hoddle for me was one of the best ever, and I think that he’s the best passer of a ball with either foot that I’ve ever seen in football to this day. Glenn would practice doing things that I could only dream of; he was a fantastic player. He couldn’t dribble like some other players, and he wasn’t known for defending. I think that that was his downfall really. But he was so good going forward and I just couldn’t understand why he only played 50 times for England, he should have played 150 times for England. So yes, I had lots of heroes growing up but not one that I thought that’s the one. I just admired good players.

Could you talk me through your career at Spurs?

Keith: I started as youth team coach and Keith Blunt was the youth team manager. But we had two teams and so I took the second of those teams during that first season while Keith Blunt took the first of those teams, in the South East Counties League. I would even take some of the teams on Sunday morning, so I was heavily involved right from the start. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was probably about the start of the second season that I was there, and Keith Blunt left to go to Gillingham, and I took over the running of the youth team. I needed an assistant because we had two teams. I’d met Patsy Holland, who was youth team coach at Leyton Orient, and he joined me at Spurs. Pat and I got on really well, and still do funnily enough (I’m still in touch with Pat). I’ve got to tell you that Patsy was a fantastic partner, and his knowledge of football was great. We’d just sit and talk until it got dark in the evening, with a big old-fashioned pot of tea, and we’d have the magnetic board out and we just talked football nonstop. We planned how we were going to produce good players for the first team. 

In my early tenure, I remember often being criticised, by several people funnily enough, that I was tiring the youth team: working them too hard and too long. I was training them too much they said, as we did three sessions a day some days. We’d train longer than the first team in the morning for about two hours, and then we’d clear everything away as the first team players would disappear. Then the youth team would go out again in the afternoon to train for another couple of hours, and then in the evenings I’d often take them back to the ball court that we had at White Hart Lane. It was the best training environment for youth players, ever! If ever I went back to a football club as a manager, then the one thing I would insist upon is having a ball court that was just like that one. It was just fantastic. It was indoor Astroturf with a huge high ceiling and although it had glass in the roof to let the light in, there was some wiring in there to stop the balls smashing the glass. It was well lit, and you had four big high walls which were painted white, but on the white, were painted goalposts and targets to play at. For me it was all about technique and so every afternoon we’d go back to the ground and each player would have a ball each, and they’d go and stand near a blue circle, or red square, and I’d say, chip it with your left foot and the first to get to 25 in the target – shout out, then with your right foot, then left foot, then curl it, drive it – left foot, right foot etc.  . everybody would do ball work for nearly four hours.

When Patsy Holland first arrived at Spurs, he said to me that I think you’re doing too much ball work. But by the time he left he said that he could see why I did it, as it was amazing seeing the players at 16 and then two years later after two hours of ball work every afternoon for two years. He said to me that their technique work was just superb. 

When I was criticised for training them too hard, my answer was that I’ve got two years to take the players from being a schoolboy footballer to an international footballer. I’m not going to do that by giving them time off work, and I don’t care that they’re going to be tired for the game on Saturday as the game on Saturday is immaterial. I’ve just got to get as much football into them as I can in two whole years, that’s all I’ve got. So that was my reasoning for doing what I did. I didn’t have the players running up and down hills or lifting too many weights, it was all with the ball. Everything was about manipulating the ball and understanding what you’re trying to do when you’re on the field of play. So, the morning sessions were all about tactics and how to defend as a group of players. We’d spend hours working at defending as individuals, then in small numbers, then as a back four or five. 

Attacking in football to me was a lot more about what the players brought to it. We had some phenomenal players who could do things and who saw things that I could never see, because I wasn’t as good as them. I used to say that I can’t coach what you do, so whatever you want to do try it. If you’ve tried it 20 times and it’s not come off once then maybe we need to think it again, but if you try it and you perfect it, and it works for you then let’s keep it going. So in an attacking sense in their heads, they could do what they like with the ball, but defending’s much more about team cohesion and all understanding what we’re trying to do as a defensive team. So that I coached very heavily. I remember talking to George Graham once when we were doing one of these refresher courses at Lilleshall, and he and I were roommates. He asked me how I coached the youth team and how do I keep winning the South East Counties League with them? I said that every single day I do back four/five/three defending. George said that’s what I do at Arsenal. They had some great defenders; Tony Adams, Bould, Keown, Dixon, Winterburn and David Seaman in goal. He said that every single day he took the back four and told them what to do if this happens, then if that happens then you do this, and so on. And I said that’s exactly what I do. 

George Graham asked me what about going forward? And I said to him that it was more about what they can bring to the party, and of course he brought Ian Wright to Arsenal. So, he didn’t have to coach him much as he knows what he’s doing, so I just let him do his stuff. Graham and I had very similar philosophies about how to play the game, he won the double with Arsenal, so it can’t be too bad.

What was it like to be Spurs’ youth team manager?

Keith: First of all, obviously it’s a great honour to be asked to do that at a big club like Spurs. But it wasn’t daunting for me, and I didn’t think oh! and panic, I just thought that it was a great job, and it just came like second nature to me really. I was privileged to have the people around me that I did, like John Moncur and Bill Nicholson, and Doug Livermore was a great guy. He was very calming, and he knew the game, having played at a very high level, so he was great to have around. And also, Ray Clemence was on the coaching staff as well, but we all got on together so well during that era, regardless of who the manager was, so all of that side of it was fantastic. 

Could you talk me through your memories of the 1989/90 FA Youth Cup winning campaign? And what it felt like to lead such a talented group of players to winning such a prestigious trophy?

Keith: There’s always an element of luck about everything, and I remember that one of the goals in the semi-final at Manchester City, (from Scott Houghton) deflected off somebody and looped over the goalkeeper and into the goal to win 2-1, which sent us through to the final. So, we had a bit of luck, but we got into the final which was two legged, and we drew away and then won at home. We had some very, very good defenders at that time, and that was without Sol Campbell, but we had five of the England youth team playing for us at that time. Three of them were defenders and so I knew that defensively we would be ok; it was just a question of whether we could open up the opposition enough to score the goals. I wasn’t best pleased with our performances in the final, but I guess that the occasion might have got to the players a little bit. But I didn’t think that we played anywhere near our best performances in the FA Youth Cup final. Some of our best performances were in the Southern Junior Floodlit Cup or the league that we played in in those days. Although the FA Youth Cup final wasn’t one of our best performances the result was very good. For me performances really mattered, and I wanted the team to play and impress people. I thought that the win was more for the players than it was for me, and so I didn’t show my disappointment at the performance.  

During your time at Spurs as a coach and being in charge of the youth team, Spurs had a very talented group of players at the club. What was it like to coach them?

Keith: That was the joy for me, the whole joy. Mostly I was with the youth team, but often I’d have to take the reserves or the first team and so Terry Venables for instance for a whole season would ask me to take the defenders and he’d take the forwards. So I thought that Terry Venables might have thought that I was quite good at coaching, and so he would ask me to take the team sometimes, like the defenders or the forwards. I was therefore coaching the first team in the morning and Patsy Holland would take the whole of the youth team squad on his own, and then in the afternoon I’d coach the youth team again. But with whatever team I was with (including the youth team) all of them had phenomenal skill level. And like I said to you Terry Venables used to say to me to not take the first youth team over because the first team couldn’t get the ball off them. That is an accolade to the players for the abilities that they had, and I can only take reflected glory that I was in charge of them at that time. Whether they’d have achieved that or more without me, I don’t know. Maybe they’d have gone on and achieved better things.

What was your time at Spurs like on the whole?

Keith: It was excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. They are a big club and at that time we still had Bill Nicholson at the club, and I’d sit and chat with him and we got on really well. We’d sit in his office near to where I was in the afternoons, and I can remember the sun coming in through the window, and we’d just sit and chat football, it was brilliant. And it was the same with Patsy Holland, as we’d sit and talk football until it was getting dark at night. Doug Livermore and Ray Clemence were great characters, and Clem was such an inspiration in lots of ways, and he was always lively. He is sorely missed. So, the whole period for me there was fantastic. I was always a bit in awe of the people around me like Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, and all of these kinds of people. And, on the management side as well, because they were all big-name people like Terry Venables, but I never felt uncomfortable about chatting with them about football. Even though they were big name people, but I was pretty solid in my own views on how I should coach players, and I think that just flowed really. Like I said Glenn Hoddle was the best passer of a ball I’ve ever seen, but to coach those sorts of players was fantastic.

I remember also that when Terry Venables became the manager at Spurs, he wanted me to bring the youth team over to training every Friday morning, as to do an 11-a-side with the first team, to try things out.

We used to have two youth teams in those days and one day Terry Venables said to me “next week to bring the second youth team”, as the first team couldn’t get the ball off us! So, from then on, we had to take the second of the two teams over and I would go with them. Then one day something funny happened when one of my players got injured and so Terry Venables asked me to go in at left-back. I went in at left-back and I was up against Chris Waddle, and well, he just turned me inside out! I was 40-something years of age and in a nice way I was a laughingstock, and the players thought it hysterical. After that, Terry said to bring ten of the second youth team and me! So, I’d have to play at left-back. 

What was it like to work with former Spurs coach Keith Blunt?

Keith: Keith Blunt was a great coach and a very strict disciplinarian who was quite straight about how he went about things. I think that it was his organisation that allowed me to flourish more when he went. Had “Blunty” not organised things so well, I don’t know if I could have put together such organisation. And the team that I inherited when Keith left made my start easier. I had it easy really and just couldn’t go wrong, as he set it up so that I could coach. 

Were there any people who you looked up to during your time at the club?

Keith: Of course. You can imagine that I was a bit part player, mostly in non-League and now I’m talking to people who have played 50, 60, 70 times for England. I looked up to most of the players and the coaching staff as well, so I was enlightened by them and that enthused me really, because I was talking to top, top players. So, it was rather an uplift than anything else, and you could ask them anything and they’d answer honestly, so again I was very lucky, as I had some fabulous people around me.

Are there any memories from your time at Spurs which really stand out to you?

Keith: I think that would probably be in the delight that I had from some of the performances from the youth team in games. I watched them do things which I didn’t coach them to do, but they had a skill level above my grade and could do things that I couldn’t imagine, never mind perform! What I could do was try and tie it all together, so as a coach, if so and so could do this; or so and so could that; then how could we make the best use of that. Everything that I did was to try and get the best out of the youth team players by whatever it was I coached, and I can remember on several occasions actually saying to players I can’t coach what you can do. They were far better players than my coaching knowledge, and so that used to make me smile. I remember when we played Gillingham once, and we were 5-0 up at half-time and I said “You’ve proven that you can score five goals in that half. If you drop your level a little bit, then you won’t score five again, so I want you to keep all of this going and we need to at least score another five goals in this half otherwise I’ll be a bit upset”. We beat Gillingham 10-0, and our lads were magnificent. Even the Gillingham manager came to me afterwards and said I’ve never seen a team play like that in the South East Counties League. So that kind of thing really impressed me, as it was all down to them really. 

Were there any players who you coached at the club, who you were surprised never played for the first team?

Keith: There were so many good players! Some lovely lads too. Some players didn’t make as many appearances for the first team as I thought they might, while others went away and did very well. We had a player called Lee Hodges, who for me could have been a very, very good player. But I think that he would get nervous in amongst that calibre of player and then maybe wouldn’t have shown his real true class, but he was such a nice lad. One of those who disappointed me with how far he went in the game was Jeffrey Minton. Jeffrey had phenomenal ability with his feet, was quick off the mark and had wonderful skill. But he didn’t go as far as I hoped he would, and I think that he’d tell you that he wasn’t the most disciplined person, but he was a wonderful player. 

I could eulogise about so many of them. It was that era where the players were just fantastic, and they just really impressed me and could play fantastic football. Nicky Barmby, Steve Robinson, Ian Walker to name but a few (Apologies to those I have not mentioned). But some of them never went on to make fantastic careers. According to John Fennelly, the press officer, in my ten years at Spurs, 44 players from the youth ranks made their debut at Spurs! A phenomenal number. Some went on to have great careers. I can remember working with Sol Campbell and I wasn’t sure what position he was going to play in. And that thing that I’m going to take him from schoolboy to international level came true with him, because I just worked and worked with him. At so many lunch times we’d go out with a bag of footballs, and we’d work on his left foot and on his headers, and so I worked very, very hard on making him a fantastic footballer. But I used to tell him that if he didn’t make it as a footballer that he’d be a good 400 metre runner, as he was also a very good athlete, but he wanted to be a footballer.

I also played Sol in midfield and up front, and in all different types of positions. So that he could get his feet better and his understanding of what was around him better, but then finally it was that he was going to be a centre-half, and of course his career was a very good one. 

 What would your advice be to the Spurs youth team players of today as they look to make it in the game?

Keith: The advice is very simple, and you’ve got to make use of every single moment of every single day when you’re in the youth set-up. Like I say, you’ve got two years to go from a schoolboy to an international footballer, and you cannot waste one single second of that. You need to focus, especially with the ball as you don’t get fatigued if you’re just playing with the ball. If you improve your skills and understanding of the game and you’ve got a very good chance.

 After all these years how do you look back on your time with Spurs, and are they a club who you still hold close to your heart?

Keith: Yeah, I watched their game against Liverpool the other day and I still watch all of their games. But I’m detached from the club now because I don’t know the people who are there now, so for me it’s not about the clubs it’s about the people I know. So, everybody says are you a Spurs supporter? Well actually, I was an Arsenal supporter, but then I went to Chelsea and so I kind of supported them, and then I went to Millwall and so I kind of supported them. And then I’m at Spurs and so I support them a bit, but I still do watch the Spurs games and I hope that they win a trophy again soon. I also hope that they’ll produce that skilful footballer again, like Man City do. Bill Nicholson would tell you about push and run, and all he’d ever say was pass and move, and don’t stop doing that and you’ll become effective. And if you watch Man City that’s all they do – pass and move. And they’ve always got options and players to receive the ball, whereas if you watch most teams someone’s got to take about three touches of the ball before someone makes an angle so they can pass to them. But what Man City do is the kind of thing that I’d like for young players to get their head around, as if you haven’t got the ball at your feet then you should be getting into a position to receive the ball. And if you can do that and also manipulate the ball properly then you’re going to become a player.

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