Mike England

 

As a child, when I first began attending matches at White Hart Lane, there always seemed something comfortable about the team. Maybe it was the way they always seemed to be there, with very few changes. Maybe the fact that I had read about them and seen them on TV, but now they were flesh and blood - more real somehow. Perhaps it was because they were so BIG as I looked up at the pitch from the front of the terracing over the iron loops on top of the perimeter wall. The biggest of them all was our centre-half, Mike England. A rock in the middle of our defence of Knowles, Kinnear and Beal, who always was there when needed and hardly lost anything in the air. Well, that was the way it appeared back then anyway.

The core of that team remained together for quite a few years, with Pat Jennings being behind them should anything get past our defence. It was one of the most successful periods of the clubs history as Bill Nicholson built his second great side during his tenure as manager.

At many an AGM of Tottenham Hotspur plc, the question would be raised "When are we going to get a decent centre-half as we have never adequately replaced Mike England." The closest in recent times that the club had come to this was Richard Gough, who would have been the cornerstone of a successful Spurs side if he (and David Pleat) had stayed, but his return to Scotland left a void unfilled until the emergence of the man who would be God - Sol Campbell. As long as I can remember (and I mean no disrespect to other Tottenham centre-halves here) the ability to win the ball in the air at the back and at set-pieces at the other end has been missing. Only Roberts and Miller could lay claim to a defensive partnership that could threaten at both ends. Mike scored many goals for Tottenham, sometimes in the most important of games. Unfortunately, I can also remember his "hat-trick" against Burnley at White Hart Lane in 1974, when in a 2-3 defeat, he scored twice for Burnley and once for Spurs !!

In his first season for Tottenham, he was a Wembley winner in the FA Cup victory over Chelsea in 1967, turning in an imperious display. He missed out on the League Cup win in 1971 after breaking an ankle in the semi-final against Bristol City, but returned for the trip to Wembley in 1973 ending up on the winning side. He was also the possessor of one winners and one runners-up medal in the UEFA Cup finals of 1972 and 1974.

But it wasn’t all about trophies with this man. He had to do well and that was for club as well as country. His ability for a centre-half of those days was quite unusual. He could control the ball well, pass accurately and bring the ball out of defence in the days when all that was usually required of the position was to head or hoof it out of danger. This approach may have been a result of his early days in Wales, when he played as a forward and thus had more of an appreciation of what was required when he played the ball out of the back. His aerial ability was second to none and at that time there were some excellent, hard central defenders around. Jackie Charlton at Leeds, Arsenal’s Frank McLintock, Charlie Hurley of Sunderland and the Merseysiders Brian Labone (Everton) and Ron Yeats (Liverpool). Mike stood on a level with these and his fee of £95,000, when Spurs bought him from Blackburn Rovers, was a record for a defender at the time. His captaincy of his country was a great honour to him and he served them well, making Wales a half-decent side in those days.

It is an old cliché that he was skilful for a big man, but he also had the speed to recover should a player get away from him. His strength in the tackle was obviously another asset that put fear into the forwards he had to face, but his dominance in the air could not be doubted. That is why he remains so highly thought of amongst Spurs fans to this day.

His service to the game at all levels was rewarded with the MBE in 1984 and he went on from being captain of his country, to take over as manager when he finished playing, presiding over a fairly successful time for the Welsh national team.

However, there was a side to the man that did not make him popular to all parties. When he wanted to leave Ewood Park and his club tried to stop him, he threatened to quit the game. At that stage, it appeared that he would be on his way to Manchester United, who were keen to keep him in the North-West, but he perhaps decided that he would have more opportunity to develop at Tottenham where the need for a centre-half was urgent following Maurice Norman’s retirement through injury.

His departure from White Hart Lane was tinged with a little bitterness too. Having taken many knocks during his career, his ankles finally started to give him problems and a shock announcement of his retirement came in the middle of the 1974-75 season. This had been a tough time for the club and it looked like they might be relegated. The apparent baling out of Mike England was a blow to all concerned with Tottenham. The side managed to finish in 19th position and just stay up, but the cornerstone of their defence had gone. Not to be replaced for many a year.

My own personal memories of the man are two-fold. One, on the pitch - a giant, winning headers for Tottenham at a time when we won things. The second was at the Cheshunt training ground, where as a young boy I asked for his autograph after a training session. He walked past as though I wasn’t there. It shattered my illusions of the men I followed with such devotion.

BARRY LEVINGTON

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