Following in bootsteps of footballing legend

Rob White

Rob White

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THE young boy with the mop of golden hair would practise for hours; the garden of his Musselburgh home filled with the resounding smack of leather on flesh as he strived to keep the football from touching the ground in his bare feet.

Even when his older brother poured a bucket of water over him from an upstairs window in an attempt to bring a soggy end to his keepy-uppy, John White would still carry on, grinning broadly.

“We couldn’t get him to stop,” remembers White’s younger brother Tom, now 72. “He’d put it on one foot and do 100 then flick it on the other and do another, and then he’d start again . . . it was just incredible.”

John White is remembered for greater footballing feats than that though.

While both he and Tom carved out playing careers for themselves – Tom with Hearts (scoring 48 goals in 61 games) before moving to Aberdeen, Crystal Palace, Blackpool and Bury – it was John who became a legend.

The youngster from Fisherrrow in the east coast town who played for Bonnyrigg Rose then Falkirk, signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 1959 and became part of the double-winning side of the 1960/61 season playing alongside Danny Blanchflower, Hearts great Dave Mackay and Jimmy Greaves.

Then there was the night he and his team mates became the first English winners of a European trophy, lifting the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963 in a five-one win against Atletico Madrid – White scoring one of the goals himself. And there were his 22 appearances for Scotland.

Tragically, while he was already being lauded as one of Scotland’s and Spurs greatest players – nicknamed The Pale Ghost for his uncanny ability to shake off his markers and be in the right place at the right time for a lethal pass – he was killed at the age of 27 in a freak accident. White was struck by a bolt of lightening as he played golf.

While his story might have remained just a chapter in the history of Spurs and a personal catastrophe for family and friends, the efforts by his son Rob White – who was five months old when his dad died – have put John White’s name back on the map.

Rob, who will be watching his dad’s old club take on his uncle’s old club tomorrow in the first leg of their Europa League tie, published his book The Ghost of White Hart Lane earlier this year. And he admits that the European match will be filled with emotion – especially as his Musselburgh family are all Hearts fans.

“It’s an unbelievable draw because not only am I a Spurs season ticket holder but I’m on holiday this week in Gullane so the timing couldn’t have been better,” says Rob. “I live in London but most of the Scottish side of my family still live in Musselburgh and Tranent and I spent years coming up here as a child for holidays. But I fell in love with Gullane a number of years ago now, so this is where I stay now when I’m in Scotland.

“It’s fantastic to be close to Edinburgh and the Festival, but to have the beautiful golf courses and the beaches – it really feels like a holiday escape when we come here.”

He adds: “I’ll be going to the match with my cousins and their sons, but I’ve opted to go the Spurs end.

“I had thought about sitting with them in the Hearts end, but I feel that if you’re not supporting their side it’s a bit disrespectful to sit with them. I won’t be able to cheer at the right times.

“But it will be an emotional night. Coming to Musselburgh and Edinburgh always is as they’re such historic places.

“I almost feel that I’m walking in his footsteps at times – it’s the same at Gullane beach.

“They’re places where time doesn’t seem to pass, so I can imagine they are almost the same as they were when he was alive and walked the same places.

“I went to Falkirk before they pulled the old stadium down and I’ve been to Alloa, where my dad also played, and it’s great to go to places which I feel still have a resonance of the era in which he’d have been there. Tynecastle feels like that to me too.

“There’s just a tremendous sense of history and of course there’s the family connection as Uncle Tommy played for Hearts and one of my dad’s great friends was Hearts legend Dave Mackay.”

Another haunt which Rob has visited is that of the Bonnyrigg Rose club where John started out after leaving Musselburgh Union FC.

He says: “There is a lounge named after my dad and everywhere I’ve gone I’ve been touched by the high regard in which he is held.”

Considering Bonnyrigg’s ex-players include Sean Connery, the White Lounge maybe takes on added significance.

“One thing the three and a half years preparing the book taught me concerned my dad’s dedication,” adds Rob. “By all accounts he was single- minded in practising and developing his skills.”

Certainly his younger brother Tommy attests to that in Rob’s book.

As well as the tale about the endless keep-uppy practice, he says: “Any ball we had in the house, he would keep it. He kept a tennis ball in his pocket to practise with, it’s something he’d done all his life.

“I’ve heard people say they bumped into him in Edinburgh with that tennis ball at his feet.”

It was John’s success as a footballer that inspired Tommy, who had originally been more interested in rugby. “My Uncle Tommy is so physically different from my dad,” says Rob. “My dad was described as puny for a footballer, which helped to earn him the name The Ghost, while Tommy was a big bear of a man, a real bustling centre- forward.”

Rob’s pride in his family’s sporting connections – the eldest White brother Edwin also played football for Falkirk for a while before giving it up and their uncle from Hawick, Darcy Anderson, played rugby for Scotland – shines through.

Mind you, things could have been so different for John White as the book records how Hearts manager Tommy Walker took an interest in signing him before rejecting the idea saying, “he’s too fine [fragile].” In fact Bill Nicholson, the then Spurs manager, even went to the lengths of calling the army in Berwick where White had just completed his National Service to discuss his apparent frailty before signing him.

On asking if he was physically up to it, he was told: “Lacks stamina? He’s only just finished second in the army cross-country.”

So White’s fate was sealed. Nevertheless the family connection between Heart of Midlothian and one of Scotland’s greatest ever players will be worth celebrating at Tynecastle tomorrow.

So what does Rob think the final score will be? “I think the first leg will be close. I actually think Spurs are a bit rusty at the moment. I think [Spurs boss Harry] Redknapp will bring a proper side up but it will be a good, close game. The second leg will be different though – and for that one I will be able to meet up with Uncle Tommy.”

n The Ghost of White Hart Lane by Rob White and Julie Welch is published by Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99