One of the side effects of Harry Kane being injured – and fingers crossed he is fit for the World Cup in Russia, if he gets picked, if England go, if there is a World Cup in Russia, goodness, all these imponderables, my head is reeling – is that it has meant that Son Heung-min, Spurs’ South Korean winger, has come into his own. Son was always a popular figure, as he smiles a lot, seems to enjoy playing, never looks moany or sulky, has no tattoos and has recently scored lots of goals, which helps.
Now, he has a song in his honour, sung by all the fans: “Nice one, Sonny, nice one Son/Nice one, Sonny, let’s have another one.” I feel ancient every time I hear it. The tune goes back to the early Seventies and a TV commercial for Homepride bread. A group of bakers are working away, one called Cyril saves the day by doing something or other, and all the bowler hatted bakers start singing, “Nice one, Cyril, let’s have another one.”
It so happened at that time, in that place, that one of the cult figures in the Spurs team was Cyril Knowles, and the fans adopted the chant. It became so popular that a record was made, sung by the so-called Cockerel Chorus. In 1973 it got to number 14 in the charts.
Cyril Knowles was left-back, enjoying a great partnership with the right-back, Joe Kinnear, and played four times for England. He had originally been a winger and was fond of going forward – an early overlapping full-back. He was decidedly one-footed, but a great crosser and dead ball specialist, clever and cunning.
I was following Spurs at the time for a book. I have a memory of Cyril sitting on the team coach being rather unfair to Ralph Coates, Spurs’ latest signing, just arrived from Burnley for a British record fee of £190,000. Have I imagined that? No – just looked it up. Hasn’t football and money and life moved on?
Ralph had thin, Bobby Charlton comb-over hair. Cyril would sit at the back of the bus, lean over and tweak Ralph’s hair. It would take Ralph some time to realise and when he did, the whole team would laugh at his expense, rather too noisily, pleased it was not them being picked upon. Harmless but childish, as footballers always have been. There is always one who becomes a victim, one a joker, and one a star dresser.
What Cyril did not know was that poor old Ralph was having a terrible time settling in, having been a star at Burnley, now ignored at Spurs, living in a crummy flat. Ralph was from the north-east, Cyril from Yorkshire, but by now Cyril was a Spurs and London sophisticate. Ralph was so depressed that he developed a skin complaint.
Cyril had a younger brother, Peter, also a footballer, a star at Wolves, but he, aged around 24, saw God and became a Jehovah’s Witness, leaving football to knock on doors.
I was in the Spurs dressing room once when Peter dropped in to see his brother Cyril. One of the team shouted, “That your brother then, Cyril?”
“Yeh,” said Cyril. “Still got a lot of skill.”
“Must have,” said Alan Gilzean, Spurs’ Scottish forward. “Takes a lot of skill to read the Bible.” Everyone laughed, even manager Bill Nicholson, who rarely smiled.
Peter himself ended up with a song in his honour, “God’s Footballer”, written and performed by Billy Bragg. Two footballer brothers, each with their own song – what were the chances of that happening?
Cyril suffered a personal tragedy a couple of years later when his young son was killed in a freak accident. While he was driving on the motorway with his family, a lorry in front threw up a piece of stone which went straight through the windscreen and hit his little boy, who was sitting on a back seat, directly on the head.
Cyril went into management after Spurs, at Darlington, Torquay and Hartlepool, but died young from cancer, at 47. He’s still fondly remembered after all these years by older Spurs fans, but probably unknown to younger fans.
So, how strange that his “Nice one, son” song has re- emerged, because of a modern Spurs player called Son. Back in the Seventies, there were no foreign players at Spurs, or anywhere really. The idea of a South Korean player would have been considered bizarre.
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special