It’s beyond any question that Bill Nicholson is the most successful manager Tottenham Hotspur has employed. In 16 years at the helm ‘Billy Nick’ secured a League Championship, three FA Cup and two League Cup wins. Spurs became the first club in the 20th century to complete the mythical Double and there was European glory to accompany the domestic success too with Nicholson overseeing the first British side to win a European trophy – the Cup Winners Cup in 1963 – then adding the UEFA Cup nine years later for good measure.
His managerial record is well-known whilst most football fans have only vague knowledge of Bill Nicholson the player. Sadly his exploits on the field are not so comprehensively documented, though during a long career he did manage to break one national record that’s unlikely to ever be superseded. Bill Nicholson’s time as a player earned England recognition and a League Championship medal at Tottenham under Arthur Rowe – the man whose achievements he would later eclipse. But two external factors stopped him hitting greater heights. War broke out when Nicholson was just 20 and looking to establish himself in the Tottenham first team. During the conflict he guested for several sides including Newcastle United, but by the time he returned to the White Hart Lane set up in 1946 some of his best playing years had been lost.
His other barrier to a long-term England career came in the shape of Billy Wright who held an exclusive claim to Nicholson’s right half position within the national set up. Caps were harder to come by back then; this was all played out in the days before endless friendlies or the inception of the European Championship, and at a time when players wouldn’t dream of dropping out of the England squad with questionable injuries. Wright became a national hero and won a record 105 full caps with Nicholson forced to watch from the sidelines.
The bare stats of his international career read as one game played, one goal scored: impressive but not exactly unique when you consider those are figures shared by, among others, Francis Jeffers, David Nugent and Paul Goddard. With Billy Wright sitting out England’s friendly against Portugal in 1951, Nicholson stepped in and scored with his very first touch of the ball. The official timing is set at 19 seconds although some reports have marked it down as 29 – either way it remains the fastest goal scored by an England player on his debut and will clearly take some beating. Wright came back into the team for the next game and didn’t miss a further international until 1959, by which time Nicholson’s playing days were over.
Within the Tottenham ranks Bill Nicholson was one of the cornerstones of Rowe’s side that won back to back titles – the Second Division in 1949-50 followed by the League Championship itself the following year. Clearly there was a great teacher at the helm with both Nicholson and Alf Ramsey graduating from the ‘push and run’ side to forge brilliant managerial careers.