Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of my first visit to White Hart Lane. Spurs beat Sheffield United 2-0 with goals from Greaves and Saul. It’s kind of the club to lay on a celebration for me. Join me why don’t you.
My second match was nearly the FA Cup Final. This was the final home game before the FA Cup Final. At the turnstile, we were all given a ballot card with a bold letter in the top right hand corner. I was E. At half-time they called out the letters that would be allocated a precious ticket. I remember the cheers from different parts of the ground. I was relieved in a way to be unsuccessful because even as a kid of 11 I had absorbed enough of supporter sensibility to know it wasn’t fair for a ticket to go to a newcomer. Other fans had paid their dues, supported the club home and way, gone to every game. I had never been to a game but I knew what being a proper fan was about.
I discovered by chance recently that my friend Bernie Kingsley, he of fanzine Cock A Doodle Do and the Shelf protests, made his debut at the same game, probably sitting only a few yards from me in the shadows at the back of the East Upper. So many pleasant coincidences and connections when you talk to fellow Spurs fans. He remembered the scorers but I couldn’t. Can’t recall anything about the match at all. What I will never forget is how it felt. To this day that’s what White Hart Lane means to me. Being there, being part of something.
My dad and I caught the tube from Ealing Broadway, change at Ealing Common for the Piccadilly Line all the way to Manor House, in those days the closest tube to the Lane. From there you jumped on the football special bus non-stop to the ground. Lines of red Routemasters waiting. You got a special bus. Everybody was cheerful, the excitement building, navy blue and white. Long-term fans, confident, knew where they were going, how to behave as a fan. And I was one of them now.
I didn’t realise at the time but it was a big deal for dad to take his precious only child to football. He had a little tobacconist and confectioners in West Ealing, a half shop, two narrow shops partitioned from one, R M Band the optician next door. To make a living he was open all hours, 7am to 7.30pm six and a half days a week. So to get me to football, he arranged for mum to take over the shop with an assistant, all to get his only son to a game. My parents weren’t at all interested in sport, and after all this time it has just occurred to me as I write this that this must have been the first time he had ever been to any football match. No matter how often you write about Spurs, there’s always something new.
Being there. Choosing a rosette from the various traders selling their homemade souvenirs pinned to boards nailed to a pole. Wear your colours! It was so important to get the right one. Mine had a plastic cockerel on the ball, a bit more expensive but that symbol was significant, what made the Hotspur stand out from the rest. The rusty ratchet of the turnstiles, and in. How I will miss that sound, surely the same stiles that I will go through on Sunday for the last time. How I will mourn the loss of that sound in years to come. Wembley’s electronic beep offers neither welcome or reassurance.
The climb to the top of the East Upper, endless stone steps to the very summit, then bursting out through the entrance the first and timeless glimpse of the pitch far below, bathed in sunlight, verdant green fit for my heroes. In reality a mudheap by that stage in the season but not to me. The chatter among the punters, knowing, informed, the easy banter of familiar faces. The racket of wooden seats clacking stridently against the uprights whenever we rose, in unison to acclaim a goal or rippling as the we craned to glimpse every last piece of action in the corner.
Over the next year or so, going to the Lane was a treat rather than routine. Home to Leeds with a snow-covered pitch, the only game on in London that day, calling the box office frantically before a voice said, “It’s on” before slamming the phone down. Mum took me to that one, must have been complete hell for her. Then I travelled across town for every match. No safety issues for a 13-year-old travelling alone even though hooliganism was becoming a presence, because I felt secure in the crowd.
These were the days of heroes and wonder. Greaves, still the finest I have seen, gliding over the turf with the ball a yard from his toe, relaxed, untouchable. The scorer of my greatest ever goal, turning on the halfway line against Newcastle and weaving through the entire defence before stroking it into the corner. Mackay, towards the end of his career but a driven, formidable presence. A rock, a leader. See him play and somehow no other midfielder since quite matches up to him.
Jennings, who saved everything without turning a hair. Gilzean, I thought every centre forward could head the ball as he did, but none have. Chivers, roundly abused by sections of the fans when he first arrived, so I learned patience alongside a whole new colourful vocabulary. I’m patient still.
Reflecting on those fifty years 48 hours before the lights will be turned off for the final time, it’s almost as if the football was the backdrop for the atmosphere rather than the other way round. We all have our team, and I guess this early seventies side was mine. The UEFA Cup win of 1972 tends to be forgotten because it was against Wolves but that was another great night. Mullery looked to be knackered and on his way out. A few weeks before the final, I saw him in the reserves at QPR, playing his way back into the side for one last hurrah, a hurling header to win it a tie we so nearly let slip away.
So to the best of the best. The greatest occasion in my life on the terraces was the UEFA Cup victory in 1984 against Anderlecht. The chance to win a European trophy at your own ground is something special. The scene was set – second leg so it would be decided on the night, under lights, glory awaited. It felt too that this superb Tottenham side of the early 80s was running out of momentum. Burkinshaw had had enough for reasons that weren’t entirely obvious at the time, the star players were getting older and change was in in the air. On top of this, we had to come from behind.
This game produced not one but two of the outstanding moments in my Tottenham history. Not Parks’ save and mad dash around the pitch but the goal. We forget now how close Spurs came to losing this match. The tension in the stands was unbearable as the thought that this night would end not in glory but in ignominy. I remain convinced that Graham Roberts’ late equaliser was scored through sheer will-power. He wanted that scruffy ball into the box more than anything or anybody. It was so packed that night, I couldn’t make my usual spot on the Shelf. When that went in, the only comparable moment is Villa’s Wembley goal. It was bedlam. The terraces shook and rumbled as we roared.
The other moment was Danny Thomas’s missed penalty. As he trudged back to the centre circle, we sang our hearts out: ‘One Danny Thomas.” Recently during his half-time interview at the Lane, Steve Perryman named this as one of the two best moments of his career and he wasn’t even on the field that night. That shows the respect he feels for the supporters, always reciprocated Steve, the embodiment of proper Spurs.
Others – 5-0 against the Arsenal, Falco volley, or the first half versus Feyenoord in 1983, four goals, a young Guillit and an aging Cruyff, the best 45 minutes I have ever seen Spurs play. Hoddle in his pomp eclipsing the master. European semi-finals in all white under the lights.
I saw both the 9 goalers, Bristol Rovers and Wigan, fun but there was no tension and all great games have an edge to them, a context, meaning. Which is why the disappointments stick in the mind too. Losing 5-0 to a Brady-inspired Arsenal, seeing them win their Double in 71 when the crush outside propelled me into the turnstile ahead of thousands in the queue to be one of the first in the ground. Ardilles and Villa, the transfer coup of a decade, a ticker-tape welcome and we lose 4-1 to Villa. Spursy before the word existed.
The modern game too. Recent wins against the Arsenal have matched anything the old days could come up with. Kane’s looping headed winner, Bale and Lennon in a couple of shattering minutes, or 5-1 in the League Cup when I saw their experienced internationals refuse to take a throw because of the intimidation in the stands.
Relegation – when the fans invaded the pitch and took over the directors’ box not to cause trouble but to say, we’ll support you evermore.
The most touching moment didn’t involve a Spurs player at all. I was about twenty yards from Fabrice Muamba when he sunk to the turf. Twenty yards from twitching limbs then stillness. But the fans did what they do. They sang his name. Then on the Shelf it just started up, that particular urgent noise when things are going badly and you want to lift your team. Not a song, not coherent, just come on, come on! I rang home to say I would be back early and I had seen a man die.
I say we all have one team but I have two. I adore Pochettino’s Spurs. They play the Spurs Way, the right way, with the same intensity as any fan. They’re young, we saw them grow up before our eyes and we have one of our own as a leader. They are as good a Spurs side we’ve seen since the eighties. This season the City, Chelsea and Arsenal games have been right up there, while the first half against West Brom was a classic.
To be honest, while the stars burn bright, the games meld into a blur. What stays with me is being there. My spot was just to the left of the centre Shelf. The noise rolled around under the stand before emerging into the atmosphere, vibrant, compelling, ours. Journalist Tony Evans once told me that in those days he travelled all over the country to watch Liverpool. They feared no one, but the Shelf was the only place that was intimidating, not for violence but the sheer size and volume. It broke my heart to see it ripped apart and replaced with boxes, the antithesis of vibrant, creative terrace support.
Football is a place to let off steam, to express emotion and shed the cares of the working week. But it’s much more than that. Being a supporter is about identity. It delves deep into the heart and soul and on the Shelf I learned to be part of something. An only child, happy at home and school, loved by my parents, I lost myself in the crowd and grew up.
I learned the right values. Loyalty and commitment. Doing my bit by getting behind the team to help them overcome opponents. Solidarity. Acceptance – as a Jew I took the abuse from rival fans personally, but my own didn’t turn on me, they took it on as a badge of fidelity. One of us, you are welcome here. I learned philosophy. Enjoy the good times, roll with the bad. Camaraderie, friendship and humour. We forget football is supposed to be fun and football fans are among the funniest people I know. Writer Patrick Marber called football “the dreaming game”, and I came to the Lane to dream of glory.
These days I sit on the Shelf about 10 yards from my old spot. I hope it isn’t sacrilegious to borrow Billy Nick’s words: “It’s been my life Tottenham Hotspur and I love the club.” Through everything that has happened in my life, White Hart Lane has always been there and I will be unsteady when it goes. I have no contact with schoolfriends and moved away from west London long ago. Relationships have come and gone, sometimes because I put football before this party or that wedding, and I’m really sorry. Not the right decision but that was the choice I made. Through good times and times I wouldn’t wish on any of you, through loss and bereavement, in times when it felt like I was hanging on by the finest of threads, I’ve lost myself in the crowd and felt content. The turnstiles speak to me. Come in, this way, steady now, you’re fine, welcome. Be yourself.
Home is arguably the most powerful and potent concept in human culture. It means security, love, care, safety, nourishment, togetherness. We use the word to describe where we play every other week. We’re not in town or back at base, we’re at home. White Hart Lane has a spiritual power that touches us profoundly, more so now than ever before. Once the Flower of the South and the team of the suburbs, Spurs fans are now spread far and wide, first the diaspora from the inner city to the Home Counties and Essex, then further afield. Spurs have a worldwide fanbase now. We come from different backgrounds with diverse histories, interests and jobs but one thing unites us – home. Where Spurs have played since 1899, 100 yards from where a group of enterprising schoolboys founded the club and within 500 yards of where Tottenham have played every one of the matches, ever. Every fan who has ever seen them play has walked the same streets, felt the same emotions, worn the colours and got behind the team.
Consumerism and commodification blight the modern game. Once in the Lane, however, it’s ours. Nothing gets in the way. Football is just the same as it ever was. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s real life. The Lane is tired, showing her age and ready to slip away, but she’s not going quietly. Right up to the end, no ground in the land rocks like she does. Under lights this is our world. You can’t see out, and nothing exists outside the shimmering floodlight glare. There have been times when I could not hear myself think. The stands vibrating with noise, deafening, all-encompassing, a rumble beneath our feet, shaking the rust from the girders and moving us to the very core.
I am so proud to spend the last few years at the Lane with my son and daughter, and now my granddaughter. She gets it. It’s not about entitlement, win at all costs or moving to the next level. It’s loyalty, passion, joy, despair. Life itself.
I’ll be at Wembley and the new place but it won’t ever be the same. But the fans will be there because we know there’s going to be a show and Tottenham Hotspur will be there. Wear your colours! Come on you Lilywhites! Peanuts! When it’s time to go, take me one last time, then at the final whistle scatter my ashes under scuffling feet and I’ll lose myself in the crowd one last time. It’s where I belong.
The Lane by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley is the indispensable, beautiful history of the ground. Every Spurs home should have one.