The shocking truth

Alan Gilzean had little interest in football. He just saw it as a job

Twice in the past week, two of the greatest brains in British football, John Motson and David Pleat, have made the same observation - that Dimitar Berbatov, the new taste thrill of White Hart Lane, reminds them of Alan Gilzean. Each hesitated slightly after their aperçu, realising that most listeners might not know who they were talking about.

I have a totally clear memory of Gilly, bought from Dundee in 1964, for £70,000, a Spurs star for ten seasons, scorer of 93 goals, but I hadn't seen the comparison - and still don't. Both elegant, artistic strikers, but Gilly was slimmer with a baldy head. His most distinctive skill was in the air, he could flick the ball on from corners and take free kicks so subtly that you half believed he hadn't touched it, yet he had changed its direction enough to land it in the corner of the net. He was adored by the fans, the first to my knowledge to be hailed in their chants as the "King of White Hart Lane".

I got to know him when writing my book The Glory Game. I can remember that his wife was a policewoman, that he liked a drink and was dead lazy - getting into his Jag to drive a hundred yards to the newsagent. But what I mainly recall is something I have never come across in a footballer before - he had little interest in football. It was just his job.

I've come across journalists whom I can't believe are journalists, as they seem to have no interest in people. It's just something they've fallen into. Ditto many lawyers. I've met publishers who don't read books, or the literary pages. I had a GP once who really wanted to be a painter. I know musicians, especially in orchestras, who hate playing. Politicians, hmm, most of them do seem to enjoy it, even if what they like best is the power, the perks, the intrigues.

But with something like football, at the top level, where they've had to strive for so many years, with the vast majority falling by the wayside, you imagine they'll always love football itself, even in the bad times, when they get injured, get dropped, hate the manager.

It doesn't mean to say they always like the subject of football, as opposed to playing it. About half don't like sitting in the stands watching it. Many have no interest in football analysis. Gazza, for example, who had to be dragged off training pitches, used to sit at the back of England meetings when tactics were being discussed, make silly noises and go, "Boring, boring, boring."

But Gilly seemed neither to enjoy the act of playing, nor talking about it. He was good at it, tried hard, but that was it. Once off the pitch, he forgot it. He thought the pleasure in playing had been ruined by the need to win at all costs, while the thought of staying in the game after retirement filled him with horror.

"You must be joking," he told me. "When I've finished with playing, that's it. I couldn't stand the aggravation of being a manager, having fans, directors, press, everyone after you, no thanks."

Once he left Spurs in 1973, he disappeared. Old players get invited back all the time, offered cushy numbers in the hospitality suites, but Gilly, so I'm told, has never been seen once at White Hart Lane. Former colleagues have tried but failed to locate him. The last anyone heard, he was back in Scotland, working in a warehouse.

He was aged 32, when I talked to him, so he was getting on a bit compared with Berbatov, but even so, I remember being quite shocked by his attitude. Fans - we're such awful romantics . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?