It’s strange to hear what passes for practical joking and camaraderie in football dressing rooms these days. I don’t remember any of my team-mates brandishing a firearm – although one or two might have threatened to shoot Spurs boss Bill Nicholson on occasion. By shooting a work experience kid with an air rifle, Ashley Cole has certainly left many former footballers wondering whatever happened to the aspect of the game we all treasured most – that unshakeable team spirit.
Dressing rooms have never been a place for the faint-hearted. They’ve always been a hub for p***-taking and near-the-knuckle humour. But while modern players still talk about ‘banter’, I simply don’t believe they enjoy the sort of brotherly feeling I’ve always felt for my old team-mates. I mean, they hardly seem to even talk to one another. Every time you see players getting off a coach they have wires coming out of their ears – they’re in their own little worlds.
For me, it is essential for players to communicate with one another if they are to become as good a team as possible. We weren’t angels in my day but our practical jokes and mucking around are pretty tame compared with Ashley’s antics. There was a time on a post-season tour with Spurs in Geneva, when a few of us were having a nightcap in the hotel bar after a night out when three team-mates walked in, soaked to the skin, despite it being a dry evening. It turned out that after one too many beers, Cliffie Jones, Ron Clayton and Frankie Saul had spotted a rowing boat on the shores of Lake Geneva and decided – in Freddie Flintoff fashion – to row across the vast expanse of water. It was only when the boat capsized that they realised it was chained up!
Danny Blanchflower was very much the dressing room wit with a keen sense of the ridiculous. Cliffie and the late, great John White were the practical jokers in that Spurs side. On the eve of the 1962 European Cup semi-final against Benfica, they could be found running around our Lisbon hotel wearing bedsheets, pretending to be ghosts. Then there was the time in Split where the running joke was that every drink bought would be charged to Bill Nick’s room – even the manager found the funny side of that one.
Bobby Smith got us in one or two bar-room scrapes. He had a tendency towards paranoia and sometimes thought other drinkers were looking at us a bit funny. This was in the days before roped-off areas. But what is the point of going out for a drink if you are going to be roped off from people? You might as well stay indoors. But when Bobby passed away in September, so many years on, it felt as if we had all lost a brother.
It’s perhaps inevitable with so many nationalities in dressing rooms, and players moving clubs far more often, that they do not enjoy the same levels of togetherness any more. It must also be the case that there is more jealousy when there can be such a vast disparity in what team-mates earn. So, in every respect other than earnings, I’m glad I played in the era I did. Especially as the only bullets I can remember dodging were verbal ones when I was wearing a dodgy jumper I’d been bought for Christmas.