John Kearney was a tough and talented centre-half, who was also good in the air during his playing days. From Kilburn in London, John played for Spurs at youth team level (he would later have a good non-League career) during the late 1970s/early 1980s, and he would often play for the Spurs Youth side in the South-East Counties League Division 2. I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of interviewing John, who is a great guy, about his time at Spurs.
What are your earliest footballing memories?
John: It would be kicking a football up against the coal shed in the backyard, and that would have been when I was about four/five. So I was just constantly kicking this football up against the coal shed wall, and obviously the faster that you kicked it, the faster it came back at you. So I would try and hit it against the wall without it hitting the floor, but that would probably be my earliest memory.
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs? And how did you come about joining the club?
John: I used to play for the school team on a Saturday morning, and I was obviously selected to play for the borough, which was Camden Borough at the time. On Saturdays the lads were aware that was some talk that there were scouts watching us in the matches, but I think that most of the time that it was just talk. So my earliest memory was that we definitely knew that was someone there, and I think that it was a gentleman called Jack Price, who approached me and asked me if I would like to train with the Spurs Youth team on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s. So I was obviously delighted with that, and then when I got back in the changing room all of my mates were asking me what the man was asking me, and so I told them. So I was quite delighted with that. If I’m going to be honest I can’t really remember if I followed Spurs as a supporter, but they were always there or thereabouts. I think that my dad used to watch QPR a bit, because of where we lived and where he worked. So we went to one or two of QPR’s games, but I think that Spurs was a club that I wanted to go to, and to be honest it was like a dream come true to go and train with them.
So my earliest memories of my time at Spurs felt strange, as I arrived there after a long train journey from Kilburn, before getting some buses. So I went in there not knowing if I was the only lad who was there on his first night, but I saw that some of the other lads knew each other and so I presumed that they were regulars. But we got on and trained, and no one said too much to me, but all the time I was wondering what was next in other words. I actually didn’t return to training for a couple of weeks, because no one had said to me that they’d see me on Thursday, or whatever. So I didn’t know if I was turning up uninvited, and so I turned up for one session not realising that it was to be continued. So I started attending training on a Tuesday and Thursday, and being around the club you got to see one or two of the first team players, but you were sort of spoken to in a way not to approach them, and to just get on with your training. I also remember that I think I first went to the club with an injury, and so there was George McAllister and Mike Varney, who were the two guys in the treatment room. So a lot of my early days there I would get treatment, before being sent out to do training or jogging with a couple of other lads.
I remember finding out later on that the lads who I had been training with were Danny Greaves, which was Jimmy’s son, and also Gary O’Reilly, who was on the verge of good stuff at the club.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
John: As a youngster who watched the World Cup, people like Pelé and Bobby Moore were people who I used to like to watch. There were also one or two hard players such as Micky Droy and Dave Watson, who were very tough players, as well as Dave Mackay of Spurs. So people that you didn’t want to mess around with too much were people that appealed to me.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
John: I would say that Robbie Stepney was the person who I really listened to, and he seemed to get his message across very well to us. So I enjoyed working with him, as he just had a way of explaining things, and he knew if you weren’t giving it your all then he knew what to look out for. So he really did influence me and I thought that he was a great guy. Although he wasn’t at Spurs when I was there, Terry Dyson was my school teacher, who knew me from school, and who was my mentor.
Could you describe to me what type of player you were? And what positions you played in during your time at Spurs?
John: Although I was not the tallest of players I was a centre-half, although I always had a really strong head and quite a leap as well. So my legs were very, very strong from an early age. I can remember being in the treatment room once and Mike Varney did a measurement of my thighs compared to Ricky Villa’s, who had big thighs. And they were having a bit of a laugh and a joke that as a 15 year old my thighs were almost bigger than Ricky Villa’s at the time. But centre-half was my position, and I felt that I was a good reader of the game. A lot of teams at that time were playing with what they called a Beckenbauer, who was a good sweeper. So someone like Simon Webster, who was also a colleague of mine who played alongside me, if he was going for the main ball then I’d usually sweep up behind. So I can remember one time in a training game against the reserves when they put me in central midfield. And I had the most awful sort of training game, that I think that I got pulled up twice for just giving the ball away. So I was totally out of my depth in that game, but I’m not sure if they were trying to see what type of an engine I had. Although I could play anywhere in the back four, I liked playing in central defence because of my heading ability.
Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?
John: The player that I admired and always looked to model myself around was Graham Roberts. I felt that Graham was not the tallest of centre-halves, but he was a very tough player who was an all-rounder who could play in various positions, and always be an eight or a nine out of ten, and never below. So he was always a player that I looked to.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?
John: As a youngster it was an exciting time, but I suppose looking back it was also a little bit frustrating. One because of two injuries that I had there, but amongst my time there there were maybe 30 to 40 junior players that came and went, but I came to realise that it was possibly only my parents who were the only ones who hadn’t attended the club with me, because my father worked unsociable hours. I could also see that when I was training at the time that some of the lads’ parents were pushing their case for their lads to the back room staff. That is a normal thing to do, but I also found it a little bit frustrating. Although at no time did I resent the fact that my parents couldn’t come to the matches, as dad had to work and that was that. But I loved my time at Spurs, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Going anywhere else after Spurs, which we all tried to, it was never going to be the same as Spurs, because it was the very best and also the place to be.
What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?
John: I think that the greatest thing that there could be was being selected to train for Spurs. I mean we all pick moments in games that we’ve gone up for a corner in and scored a great goal, or we’ve won a cup final or won medals, but I think that all these years later, the greatest thing for me, like yourself and one or two people remember, was being selected to play for Spurs. So that’s got to be my greatest moment, without a doubt.
Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
John: I think that in non-League terms it would have to be a lad called Paul Shields. And although he was only a left footer, he was a great all-round centre-half who I could learn off everyday. But years later Paul would say that he learnt his game of me, although he was three years older than me. But he was definitely one of the best that I’ve seen on a pitch, and he could defend, was tough, observant and could score goals. And he also had a wonderful left foot. There were many other wonderful players who I shared a pitch with, but they were probably all too wonderful to mention really.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories or ones which stand out from your time in the Spurs youth sides?
John: The standout memories would be Saturday mornings at Cheshunt, which no matter who the opponent was, eight of the 11 players on our team would be the same every week. So we’d be forming relationships on the pitch, playing with a guy who I went to school with, called Allan Cockram, Simon Webster, Tony Parks in goal, while up front there was Andy Rollock and Paul Wilkins. Also, you had Paul Baxter and Martin Duffield in the side, and so they were the regulars who we would be building a good relationship with.
What was that talented Spurs Youth side that you were a part of, like to play for?
John: I think that it was a very talented side, and also now when you look back the majority of the guys that I played with would go on to have a career in the game. So I think that it was a very talented team that we had, with the likes of Ian Crook, John Cooper, Simon Webster, Mark Bowen and Allan Cockram all having good careers in the game. And also Martin Duffield had a non-League career, but they all had reasonable careers, and so I thought that it was a very talented side.
Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?
John: The toughest player without a doubt was John Fashanu, who was very tough, although I can’t remember where I played against him. So he was definitely the toughest opponent who I ever came up against.
Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?
John: It would be Allan Cockram, because we went to school together, and we also traveled to training together as well, as Allan’s father used to drive us everywhere. So Allan was definitely the player who I was closest to at Spurs. I remember when Allan broke a leg in a game on a Saturday that I wasn’t involved in, but I heard about it. So I had to travel to training on my own for the next six months, as Allan was getting rehabilitation elsewhere at the time. I can remember buying records with Allan, and going to his house we would sit together as he had his leg in plaster, with his mum making us cups of tea. I myself had a very serious break on the 26th of January 1980, against Swindon Town at The County Ground. Spurs’ first team were playing Swindon in the afternoon in the FA Cup, but we played against them in the morning. So I had a very serious break in that game, and I got taken to the first team dressing room and Chris Hughton and Ossie Ardiles were there. And Ossie Ardiles gave me his tracksuit top and some stuff to keep me warm, before I got taken off to hospital. And Chris Hughton spent some time with me as well, giving me some encouragement and saying that I’d be back playing in no time. So I remember that very well.
What prompted you to leave Spurs? And could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?
John: So I received a letter saying that I was going to be released, and so I took it straight off to Terry Dyson to find out what I was to do next. As I was very unsure and I didn’t have a father figure to guide me where to go, and so Terry put me in touch with a fellow at Charlton called Ian Salter. I don’t think that I went down to Charlton, but Terry advised me to go to the non-League circuit for a year or two, and then work my way into the game that way, rather than go to the big clubs and just get knocked back again, so to speak. So I ended up going to Tring Town, then Hendon and then Wembley Football Club. I seemed to play in the non-League for quite some time, but I had to get myself a job as well to earn some money. So I was earning money and also playing some part-time football hoping that I was going to get back in, but unfortunately it never materialised.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?
John: Well for the way that football has gone, it would be very difficult for me to advise a young footballer at Spurs now. The opportunities are totally different to when I was around, but like everything in life I think that you need a little bit luck to go with your dedication and all of your hard training. You do need a little bit of luck, and maybe a certain amount of guidance as well, but my advice would be to keep the training as hard as you can and to keep playing football, as there’s nothing better than playing football in the fresh air.
After all these years how do you look back on your time at the Lilywhites and is Spurs a club that you still hold close to your heart?
John: I’m so proud of myself that I went to Spurs, and I had a great time at the club. I do think that things could have gone what you call differently for me, when I saw people forge careers who weren’t as good as me in certain areas, and I’m not saying that I was brilliant. But looking back now I thought to myself for a few years, I wish, I wish, I wish. But then you start to realise that it’s a very short career. It might be ok for the young players of today who earn a lot of money, but back then it was expenses, and that was it.