Farewell Tommy Harmer

Tommy Harmer, who died in economic obscurity last Christmas day at the age of 79, characteristically untroubled by his anonymity, would have been a millionaire today.

I wasn’t at White Hart Lane last Boxing Day, when before the London derby against Fulham, the crowd applauded for a full minute to commemorate the death of Tommy Harmer. But I was there in August 1951 when he made his astonishing First Division debut for Spurs against Bolton Wanderers. A little shrimp of a fellow, standing five-foot-six and weighing a mere 8-stone 9 or so, he was dwarfed by the burly, beefy Bolton defenders, but they couldn’t get near him. Inde ed, to the noisy joy of the crowd, he virtually ridiculed them with his dazzling bag of tricks, flicks, swerves, backheels, complemented by a highly astute use of the ball.

Nowadays, Tommy, who died in economic obscurity last Christmas day at the age of 79, characteristically untroubled by his anonymity, would have been a millionaire; as so many infinitely less-talented Premiership footballers undeservedly are. He would, after a match, have driven out of the great, grey, famous Tottenham car park in a Mercedes or even a Ferrari.

On that August evening, however, he was squeezed up against my 19-year-old self, in the back of an ancient blue car driven by a kindly local journalist called Jack. With all the tactlessness of youth, I told Tommy that he would probably lose his place when the English international, inside-left Eddie Baily, returned from injury. “Brian stirring it up at the back there!” called Reg Drury, later to become a major English soccer journalist, from the front seat.

Alas, what I’d suggested turned out to be true. Eddie Baily, an essential component of the so-called push and run short passing team perfected by that outstanding English manager Arthur Rowe, returned, and Tommy was sidelined. It was all the more predictable for the fact that Harmer, for all his diminutive physique, was an adept user of the through pass. Not, please, the long ball so notorious a feature of English football through the years, but the calculated defence splitter down the middle. Complemented by shrewd use of the crossfield pass to the opposite wing.

So Tommy resigned himself to long spells in the reserves. There was no point in being on the bench in those days, since substitutes would not be introduced for years to come. Eventually, however, Tommy did hit it off with the elegant, gifted captain of Spurs and Northern Ireland, right-half Danny Blanchflower, after Arthur Rowe had gone. Driven, alas, into a nervous breakdown by the sniping of a couple of malevolent Tottenham directors.

For a brief while, till authority intervened, Tommy made a speciality of what you might call the stop-go penalty. That is to say, he would begin his run-up to the ball on the penalty spot, then suddenly stop, confusing the opposing ’keeper. This he effectively did, but it was deemed illegal. “I was trying to show them (the goalkeepers) moving,” he told me. The law then being that a ’keeper could not move at all till the penalty kick was taken.

Spurs eventually sold him to Watford, then no more than a mediocre club with no hope of its eventual successes under Graham Taylor, with its long ball methods. But Chelsea brought Tommy, Hackney-born in the East End, and a dyed in the wool Londoner, back to London, and a new, impressive phase in his career. One of the most invaluable goals he scored for them, winning a game at Sunderland and thus avoiding relegation, was arguably one of his most painful and least artistic. The ball in fact hit him at close quarters in the groin, and rebounded into the net.

But I prefer to remember the game in which he came back to White Hart Lane, and which I also reported. In this local derby, wearing Chelsea blue, he simply dominated the field with his clever positioning and immaculate distribution of the ball. I have a vivid memory of him, at one point, sitting on the ground and pulling his stocking up his seemingly fragile leg. A leg capable of such splendid virtuosity. That winter afternoon, Chelsea won, and it was thanks to Tommy Harmer.

Retiring, he was made coach of Chelsea, under the managership of Tommy Docherty, once a tough wing-half for Scotland, Preston North End and Arsenal. Once, both men played in a team put together against my little Sunday side, Chelsea Casuals, in South West London, two of the former stars in a team masquerading as a Daily Mail side. At one point, Reg Drury, Casuals’ captain and once a useful amateur inside-right himself, was on the ball when he heard some one shout, “Give it right, give it right!” He duly did so then, having passed, thought to himself, “That wasn’t Vic,” the Casuals’ right-half. Then saw that it had been Tommy Harmer. “You had to give it, Reg,” said Tommy. “He (Docherty) was coming in to kill you!”

Alas, losing his Chelsea job, the best he could eventually find was as a mere messenger, to an Anglo Israeli Bank in the City of London. Itself, humble as it was, presumably a grace and favour gesture from a Tottenham fan. Yet today, as television money pour torrentially into the Premiership, Tommy would indeed be a millionaire. A splendid embodiment of the physical democracy of soccer, I don’t think his meagre physique would handicap him now, any more than in his own day, when hard men had far more licence from premising referees. May he rest in peace.