Mullers on Albion, Tottenham and ambassadorial duties

Albion versus Tottenham Hotspur is a special fixture that always brings back plenty of memories - promotion battles in the old second division in the 1970s, Michael Robinson hitting the winner at White Hart Lane in October 1981, Gerry Ryan heading past Spurs defender Chris Hughton in 1983, and Pascal Gross ramming home a point-saving penalty at the Amex two seasons ago.

By Nick Szczepanik • 02 October 2019

By Paul Hazlewood
Alan Mullery

Few people have been so intimately involved with the two clubs as Albion’s club ambassador Alan Mullery. Between two spells with Fulham, Mullers played 373 games for Spurs, many as captain, winning the FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup, and later managed the Seagulls to two promotions, including the club’s first elevation to the top flight in 1979, signing legends including Mark Lawrenson, Steve Foster and Robinson along the way.

Needless to say, he is looking forward keenly to this Saturday’s meeting, although his emotions will not be as torn as some might imagine. “People always ask me which is my favourite side, Fulham, Tottenham or Brighton,” he says. “I say ‘Brighton’. When they ask why, I say it’s because I didn’t play for Brighton. Being the manager and being the first person to take them into the big league was the most wonderful thing for anyone to do.”

He remembers with fondness Albion’s first league meetings with Tottenham in the old second division in 1977-78, a 0-0 draw at a packed White Hart Lane and a 3-1 victory at an equally full Goldstone Ground. “The game up there was Paul Clark’s debut and I told him not to allow Glenn Hoddle a kick, and he didn’t. Eric Steele made some great saves too, but we gave as good as we got. You feel proud when you go back to an old club and do well, especially when we had been at third division level for most of our existence.

“Football throws up these results to wake people up and it’s part of its attraction. I love to see big teams, Manchester United for example, coming down to the Amex and being beaten, as they have been in the last two seasons, by ‘little old Brighton.’ And why shouldn’t we do the same against Tottenham? No reason at all.”

By Rex/Shutterstock
Harry Kane in action for Tottenham Hotspur.

What about Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and the rest? “Spurs are undoubtedly a good side and after spending nothing for ages they have spent some money this year and have some very good players,” he admits. “But this is a big game for both sides, no doubt about it. At the moment there seems to be a little unrest there. You read about players being unhappy and wanting to leave.

“Yes, they are still an established top six team who are always in contention to be top-four and to go all the way in Europe, as they so nearly did last season. And not having won an away game will make them even more dangerous. But Brighton have spent some money too. Big fees in anybody’s language, although nowhere the level of Tottenham, which is possible because they are in a different financial league.”

Mullery is backing head coach Graham Potter to present Tottenham with a stiff challenge. “I’ve been very impressed with the way he is going about his job and how he has got the team playing, especially against Watford and up at Newcastle,” he says. “How we didn’t get a win there I don’t know. We were by far the better side. But it’s the same old thing for teams around the middle of the table – you have got to get that vital goal. We have played extremely well but we need to score when we’re on top.”

His take on the recent debate as to whether Albion players should chance their arm more often in front of goal is simple. “You need a player with the confidence or the self-belief to do that,” he says. “Peter Ward was the best example. He just wanted to hit shots at goal and he made sure that most of them were on target.

“I remember Brian Horton coming in to my office once and complaining that ‘that greedy little bugger,’ hadn’t given him a simple pass to set him up for an easy goal in one game. I said to him, ‘Nobby, how many goals have you scored for this club?’ And he said it was around fifteen. ‘And how many of those were penalties? Ten? Wardy scored 36 goals last season, and I’m not going to tell him to change.’

“And I was lucky enough to play with someone very special in Jimmy Greaves, and he never passed the ball to anybody. He just passed the ball into the back of the net and he won you games. If you can get somebody like that then you are blessed. I played with Jim and managed Peter Ward and both of them did so much for the two clubs. It is a wonderful thing to be able to play in that position and be a success at it.” In other words, Neal Maupay, Glenn Murray and Aaron Connolly, over to you.


By Rex/Shutterstock
Alan Mullery managing Barnet.

Mullers’ managerial career took him to several other clubs after the Albion, including Barnet, where I arrived one chilly Boxing Day after the match I was originally due to cover – Wimbledon v West Ham at Selhurst Park – had been iced off. It was so cold that the ink froze in my biro and former Albion midfielder Robert Codner was taken off at half-time because the skating-rink surface did not suit his subtle skills.

He laughs at the memory of what now seem different times. “A few years ago I was talking to Moussa Dembele in the car park at the old White Hart Lane and some fans came up and asked me to sign an old photo that had been in the programme. It showed me playing for Spurs in a game at Maine Road in the snow. Moussa said: ‘That’s you, Alan! But what’s this on the pitch?’ I said: ‘It’s snow, Moussa.’ He said; ‘And you played on that?’ He just laughed. For one thing, he’d always played on heated pitches but also he couldn’t understand how you could play on ice and snow and why they didn’t just postpone it. I doubt if many modern Premier League players have experienced that.

“Not only are pitches laid scientifically and cared for by experts but at half-time at Tottenham recently I saw ten to fifteen people at half time replacing tiny divots and making little improvements. I remember at Fulham we had a fella called Frank Purdie. At half-time it was just him. Once he called me at home before a night game and said the pitch would be snowy and we hadn’t got any orange footballs so I drove to a sports shop and bought some. I even helped to shovel away some of the thicker snow that night to help get the game on. Now the staffs are huge.”

By Paul Hazlewood
Alan Mullery

And now we also have club ambassadors, of course. And there is surely no-one better to fill the role at the Albion than a man of Mullery’s stature at the club and in the game in general. Yet even he found himself in a situation beyond his experience and needing to draw on all the personal skills that captaincy and management had taught him after the Shoreham air crash in 2016.

“That was one of the saddest days of my life,” he says of his visit to the family of Matt Grimstone, a member of the club groundstaff killed in the accident. “Paul Barber asked if I would go. The club had felt that somebody had to do this and I was very proud that they had asked me.

“But what can you say? I couldn’t rehearse or plan anything as I might do if I knew I was going to be on TV or radio. Knocking on a door and asking if you could come in and talk about what has happened to somebody’s son in that situation is something you can’t prepare for.

“As I was on the way, I thought about my own son and what I would be feeling in their situation. They got some photographs out and we spoke about positive things, good memories. David Stockdale came too, because Matt had been a goalkeeper with Worthing United. It was the first time either of us had done anything like that and I hope I don’t have to do it again.

“It was very emotional and when I got back into the car I cried my eyes out. The family have been to the Amex a few times since and I sit with them and chat. It will still be a long time before anyone forgets it, if they ever do. So it was difficult but I came away happier for feeling that I had helped them and the club in some small way.

“You have to have broad enough shoulders to deal with something like that. But if you are going to take on a role as an ambassador for a club like the Albion then you take it seriously. And I do.”