Stepping out of the game that he’s served for over 50 years at the end of this season, I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Spurs legend Steve Perryman to talk football, his career, and Tottenham Hotspur.
For me, the only appropriate place to start was, ironically, not with Steve himself – but the manager who signed him. For many of my generation, the name of Bill Nicholson is one associated with past greatness – but the person behind the name of the man whose name was given to the black gates we walked through to enter White Hart Lane remains shrouded in some kind of mystery. Like many of the modern greats, Steve said that he “felt I was playing for him…when you were playing well, that lifted us higher than what I really was. [He was] a wonderful manager and a fantastic man; you couldn’t look at him and say he had all the trappings of success – he lived in a small house around the corner of the ground, he drove a nice car but not a magnificent one, his wife rode around Tottenham on a bike and us players would regularly see her out shopping. He just had a lot of class about him, sometimes people try and buy class but he just had it.” This idea of class is one that came up frequently in describing Nicholson – Steve opened up about how he ended up signing for Spurs; he recently found the letter from Nicholson expressing his wish for Spurs to sign the 15-year-old Perryman. He described it as a “such a caring letter, but it was classy too – signed W. Nicholson, I tingled at that; W meant business – every time I’ve seen his autograph since it was “Bill” and he only ever wanted to be called that, never Mr Nicholson, or boss or gaffer or these other terms – only Bill and that’s how he signed his signature. But on this letter to this 15-year-old’s father, it was W. Nicholson, because I guess he didn’t want to come across as too chummy – I thought that was really classy. For me, Tottenham stands for style and class.”
In his first years at Spurs once he signed in 1969, he recalls being a ‘bit-part player, an extra to the bigger players’ – his role in the team was winning the ball and playing forwards from there. He realised early on that he needed to give the team in the early 70s something they didn’t already have, and this was his legs and energy. He spoke fondly of his role in the 1972 UEFA Cup win, where he played primarily behind Alan Mullery and Martin Peters, but had a key attacking role in the semi-final, where Italian giants AC Milan were in town: he scored twice as Spurs came from 1-0 down to win 2-1. He described how the defensive role he had afforded him the breathing space to come onto the ball from deeper, and because the Italians were frustrating Spurs in front of their own goal, Perryman’s efforts from range gave Spurs a narrow lead in the tie, which they eventually won by securing a draw in Milan. Spurs would go on to defeat Wolves 3-2 on aggregate in the final, with a team including some of the best players that Perryman says he ever played with – Pat Jennings in goal, internationals including Cyril Knowles, the aforementioned Peters and Mullery, Alan Gilzean and Martin Chivers. But Steve said it was the semi-final that was his most important game – “I couldn’t put a foot wrong, every pass I made went right, I had two shots at goal and scored twice – in some seasons I didn’t have two shots!”. It was certainly a coming-of-age for the man, who picked up more silverware after a league cup vs Aston Villa.
From a team perspective however, Perryman views the 1981 FA Cup Final win as a game that has no comparison with any match he’s witnessed then or since. He outlined that Spurs had been poor in the latter half of the 1970s, and were even relegated from the premier division in England, but they got back on track – in Perryman’s words, actually going somewhere – and needed to underline that with a trophy. The FA Cup victory in 1981 was “what nudged us over the line into being a proper team – there were good signs of it; quarter finals a couple of years before but we didn’t carry it through”.
One of my earliest memories of Spurs was watching my dad’s DVD of the 1981 FA Cup Final win. I’ve seen that Ricky Villa goal countless times, and as much as it might be one of the best Cup Final goals ever scored, Perryman regards it as one of the most important. “The first trophy is the hardest to win, and the team that was emerging out of the relatively poor 1970s got that edge of confidence that we can be successful; that you’re not just nearly men. We were nearly men in 1978, 1979 and 1980, and all of a sudden in May 1981 we became worthy of wearing that Tottenham shirt. We emerged from a good team to a classy team – and we had a purple patch of success, which is built on year-on-year…if success is handled in the correct manner it can lead to a lot more. Most teams have a bulk of success in a 4-5 year period and then go off the boil, that’s typically what happens unless you’ve got the money like a Manchester City have now, where you can keep topping up excellent players with even more excellence, then maybe it can keep going longer. But eventually the manager might look for another challenge, and it all starts again.”
Perryman’s fondness of the FA Cup might be considered anachronistic by some, but it’s a hallmark of both the times he grew up in and more recently, its importance to lower league sides – a massive tie against Manchester United helped to save Exeter City from financial issues in 2005, while West Bromwich Albion and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side have also recently travelled to Exeter in the trophy. But at Spurs, in the 1970s and 1980s, the FA Cup had international allure – it was the only guaranteed televised game throughout the year, and Perryman recalled how the Argentines Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa talked about the FA Cup when they joined Spurs. He then takes me back to 2000, where he was in charge of Japanese club Shimzu S-Pulse – who missed out on playing in the first ever Club World Championship by one game; the tournament’s debut featured Manchester United – who infamously sacrificed playing in the FA Cup that year, and Perryman remembers being disappointed by that decision.
I asked him to pick out some of the best players he played with, and the best squad. The latter was difficult, as team comparisons often are, but given his more influential role on the later squads, Steve prompted for the early 1980s squad because of his personal role in the team – which was key in escaping the lurch of the late 1970s: “Tottenham had been successful before me, and they were successful at the very start of my playing career, in their own way, but then they became unsuccessful and for a player that played all through that, then to help make them successful again was vital, actually. I quoted when we were relegated that teams wanted to take me out of Tottenham and I said no, if I ever leave Tottenham it’ll be when they’re back where they belong – I played 42 out of 42 games the season we were relegated and therefore it must have had something to do with me. I couldn’t rest knowing I’d left Tottenham in the lurch, as it were, and that was personal to me.”
In terms of players, Perryman recites some of the greatest footballers to ever wear a Spurs shirt off the top of his head as casually as one might recall items off a shopping list; it’s another reminder, if it were needed, that Steve was part of some of the best Spurs sides in history. In goal, Pat Jennings is a clear choice, and he opts for Jimmy Greaves as the best striker he ever trained with – they only played together for six months, but Steve said he saw enough in training and watching games off the touchline to justify his choice. Defensively, he opts for Dave McKay, who was a multi-faceted defender and a fearsome opponent, even in training, and in midfield, it’s impossible to separate Hoddle or Ardiles.
The venue for these great players is, as we all know, making the way for what will surely be one of the greatest sporting amphitheatres in the world. But the old White Hart Lane is full of history, and for those who played there, memories. When asked about some of his special memories of the ground, Perryman recalls the best half of football he ever played in: after Johann Cruyff made disparaging comments about Glenn Hoddle in the build up to a European tie involving Cruyff’s Feyenoord and Spurs, Hoddle proved the great Dutchman wrong, and played a pivotal role in a first 45 minutes that saw Spurs go into the interval having stormed to a 4-0 lead. “Typical Spurs,” he says with the hint of a smile, “we went on to concede twice, and so if we went to Feyenoord and lost 2-0 we’d have been out, which would have been a crime, but we ended up winning 2-0 in Holland. That first half at White Hart Lane was such a special memory in terms of the way the team was like a well-oiled machine; everyone did their bit, everyone stepped up to the plate.”
The White Hart Lane faithful gave Perryman an ‘abiding memory’ in a game he didn’t even play. The Spurs captain at the time was suspended for the 1984 UEFA Cup Final against Anderlecht, and the team were without Ray Clemence, Hoddle and Ardiles – but recovered from a goal down to equalise through Graham Roberts in the 84th minute. But what stands out even more is what happened in the corresponding penalty shootout – Spurs’ Danny Thomas, taking the penalty that would win the game if it went in, saw his penalty saved well. It could have lost Spurs the game – but the sympathy that he felt for Thomas was matched by the crowd, who sang his name back to the halfway line. “The crowd proved to me that night, though not only that night, how special they are at knowing the tone of what’s going on. If I’d been the next penalty taker, I’d have been more at ease based on how the crowd accepted Thomas’ saved penalty. That said to me how classy that place is. The fans have such an opinion on football, and it definitely spreads to the pitch. Sometimes it can be negative, but in the moments of crisis like Danny Thomas had at that moment, they showed pure class.”
I felt somewhat nostalgic at hearing about these memories, despite not being born until some 15 years afterwards. That may be the true greatness about White Hart Lane – anyone who’s ever been will know, understand and relate to what happened in that moment. You can almost picture it in your mind, even if – like me – you weren’t alive at the time. There was an indescribable aura about a matchday at White Hart Lane, and it’s imperative that the new stadium has, or develops, a similar atmosphere.
The final question I asked was on the current squad. Perryman remains close with Ardiles, who in turn is close with Pochettino, and Steve speaks very highly of the current setup: “I like his methods, his discipline. I like the way he sets his teams up, and I think the first half of the very important game that we ended up not winning at Chelsea (2015-16) was one of the finest halves of football I’ve seen. Unfortunately then they showed their inexperience, and got involved, and arguably the very good midfielder Mousa Dembele should have been sent off. Maybe if he had, it would have been a different result, because at half-time the dynamic of the game changes. I can’t watch all the games these days but that was thrilling, it was exciting, it was forward-running, lots of movement, technique to match pace – it’s becoming a very special group of players. I think they’ve got the right man to lead it forward. I don’t like everything I see, but I like the defenders that recover quickly, I like the commitment shown to defending their own goal just as much as I like a forward like Harry Kane who does the dirty work. They’re developing an emergency gear too…I’m delighted they’re persevering with the youth policy, which is showing itself to be such a good asset through Winks, Kane and so on. My message has always been not to undersell or undervalue homegrown talent, because of things like Harry Kane’s phenomenal goal-scoring abilities, Glenn Hoddle’s technique – even myself in captaincy terms, all homegrown. I think Tottenham supporters understand that, even though they’ve seen a great number of talented players from outside the country. As we all know, a combination is everything. Experience, with a bit of naivety – maybe our boy from MK Dons – great teams have a bit of everything, but they’ve got to have the man that gels it all together, and I think they’ve got him”.
For a while, in Asia, Perryman himself was that man. He and Ossie Ardiles took charge of Shimzu S-Pulse in 1996, with Ardiles managing the J-League outfit for three years, before Perryman took over. He described it as “three of the best years of my life; totally at home there, in this different place, different culture, but we felt respected, we felt that we were useful and we improved one of the financially weakest teams in Japan – they eventually became champions and one of the best teams there. We both used it in a way to prove to Sugar that, given a fair crack of the whip, we were more than capable of bringing success.” It was a period that served to reinvigorate a man who had lost his love for the game; Alan Sugar’s Spurs became a business-led football club, as opposed to Bill Nicholson’s football-led football club, whereas in Japan treatment of players was “as good, if not better than what was happening in England” – he detailed the medical teams and the training grounds. The desire to improve of the Japanese players made Perryman’s job that much easier. By the time Perryman finished in Japan, Spurs was under new ownership, with a new style at Tottenham, and it’s developed into what it is today.
The story in Japan gets even better. “Critics might say it’s only Japan – well Arsene Wenger did not win what we won in Japan, and he had more power, more money to use, and went to England and did the double and had such a great period of success. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great manager in Japan but he didn’t win what we won”. There was more than a subtle hint of glee about having got one over the manager who would go on to oversee the greatest period of success for our greatest rivals, which shows just how deeply Spurs runs in Perryman’s roots. Make no mistake, he may have been involved in Asia and now in League 2 with Exeter City, but Tottenham Hotspur runs in his blood and this was clear from the first few words to the last.