Semifinals. Suffering or Smiling? Love Them or Hate Them?

It is said that guilt and fatalism are intrinsic elements of Jewish culture. I may have repudiated most of the outward signs of my heritage but in this one fundamental aspect I celebrate and sustain my origins by watching Tottenham Hotspur. The experiences of generations of a proud, oppressed and wandering people have distilled themselves into this single phenomenon. I think of it as one of civilisation’s crowning achievements.  Moments of pleasure and enjoyment are swiftly and decisively countered by waves of doubt washing over me. Football as a metaphor for life. Three up with five minutes to go but disaster lurks whenever the ball enters our half. And I don’t even have a bowl of tsimmus waiting for me when I get home.

And that’s just an ordinary match. Semi-finals represent torture at their most refined form, an ordeal worse than being stretched on the rack, watching Arsenal win the League twice at the Lane or even viewing the latest Halifax ad. No other event in the world of sport contains a capacity simultaneously for blinding elation and total destruction. There are two main elements in the volatile and toxic mix. One, reaching a semi-final represents no reward in itself, winning is everything. Second, no matter what the weather, the form book or the line-up, the day always begins with a heady, absurd wave of optimism. Some reach for the emotional props like ‘it’s a one-off’, ‘we can beat anyone on our day’ or, latterly for anyone playing the Sky four, ‘their main priorities lie elsewhere’.  Truth lurks here but logic has little bearing come semi-final morning. Wembley and blind unreasoning optimism fill our senses and there is no escape from the sirens’ rapture.

In the past, Herculean tasks were presented as obstacles to sacred bliss, such as rising at 4am, round trips of several hundred miles, jam-packed terraces and no food supply, not to mention the Villa Park toilets. These labours were brushed aside, merely part and parcel of our ritual devotion. Travelling to the grounds was one of the great pleasures of being a fan that have been lost since Wembley became the permanent venue. Not only did Wembley retain its mystique and kudos, a privilege  earned by victory at the highest level, the journey also allowed us to take over other grounds for a day and heightened the sense of anticipation once the destination had been reached. We looked out for navy blue and white on the motorway and waved greetings to total strangers, united with a single purpose. The excitement was ridiculous – look, another Spurs fan, on the way to the game! Hardly a coincidence when you think about it, but remember, logic has no place here. In later years, with a more expensive (company) car we glided past the chugging jalopies and straining vans, loaded with 8 or 10 people in the back. We jeered at the limo, broken down in the fast lane. Teach them to go posh, not on a day like today, this isn’t a day out, this is about being there, being there for the win.

Before kick-off, there was another distinctive feature of the semi-finals – the noise. In those days, over 90% of the tickets went to fans so we would populate virtually half the ground. Spurs fans being Spurs fans, often it would be more as we will always find a way… In contrast, finalists would receive as few as 20,000 tickets each with the majority going to the ‘football family’. Having a large family is typically a mixed blessing and if they wanted to stay in touch, they could have sent a bloody Christmas card and leave the tickets to the rest of us.

Then comes the Semi-final Moment, the truly distinctive feature of all semis. It arrives usually at some point in the first half but the specific instant varies according each individual. It remains as a law of nature, immutable and unchanging as the rising and setting of the sun. The Semi-final Moment comes when the thought enters your head that we could lose. For me it’s usually about 20 minutes in, when the frantic opening skirmishes are over and the match settles into some sort of pattern, although it does not matter if we are on top or under the cosh, for this is not about reality or an analysis that we will lose, it’s the mere concept of defeat, inconceivable until the Moment. The euphoria dissipates and the realisation seeps into the mind. Gone is the joy and anticipation, to be replaced by gut-wrenching, stomach-churning sickening fear that proceeds to occupy body and mind for the remainder of the match. We’ve come this far yet might not make it. Only with the final whistle comes blessed relief.

Old Trafford, 2001, the perfect example. Not a vintage season by any means, we nevertheless stagger through to the semis, along the way carelessly jettisoning the man who got us there. But no one liked ‘Man in the Raincoat’ and Hoddle’s appearance before the match was greeted as that of the new Messiah. As much as we sang, United turned up the PA to drown it out. Unthinkable that the fans can have their day, untroubled and without interference. I daresay the PA is switched off as soon as the TV coverage begins, usually with the words ‘great’ and ‘atmosphere’ in the commentator’s carefully scripted impromptu opening remarks.

Getting there presented a challenge in itself. Some friends of mine had recently been to Old Trafford with West Ham and they said how easy the coach journey had been. The Hammers put on free coaches for their fans as a reward for loyal support: that wasn’t likely with the Spurs board but it was cheap so I booked up for me and my two children, then in their early teens, their first semi-final. My friends said that each of their coaches was numbered and lined up round Upton Park at the appointed time, so find your coach and you were off. But this is Spurs, and we are loyal fans…so we rise at 4am, drive 30 miles to the Lane and join the orderly queue at 6.30. Then 2 hours of bedlam. The coaches appeared at various intervals and stopped at random points on the High Road. The two police officers had no idea what was happening and it became a free for all. Tempers understandably frayed as this simple operation became what was in one sense a farce but actually was decidedly dangerous for the many children present, including mine. Eventually we forced our way onto a coach that happened to pull up where were standing, and  a few kind souls helped my offspring to the head of the scrum. I make light of it but it was once again an insult to loyal fans, this was how we were treated once they had our cash.

But that’s all forgotten come kick-off, underdogs against the old enemy. Then something unspeakable happened. We scored. Docherty with a bumbling, probably deflected shot. And there you have it. The Semi-final Moment. As sure as day turns into night, along it came, a few minutes after the goal. Staring us in the face, the possibility of winning hastens the concept of defeat.  In this case, more than a possibility as it turned out. The heroic efforts of the fans who roared them on were sadly unmatched by the players, a single goal margin but well beaten. And on the way back, two of our coach party failed to return. We had to wait, and as the excitement of the match disappeared, so did all the other coaches in the car park, leaving us in splendid isolation before we eventually set off. Stuck now in the heaviest traffic in Manchester and perfectly timed to reach the London-bound regular Sunday evening M1 queue that crawled from Luton, we reached the Lane at well past midnight. With another 30 miles in the car, I finally got home 22 hours after setting off. I overheard the kid in the seat next to me frantically ringing his dad, who refused to come out to the Lane to pick him up at this ungodly hour. ‘This is your lucky day’, I said. It may not have been up until then, but as luck would have it, he had chosen to sit next to the one bloke in the ground who lived in the same Kent town as he did. It added another 20 minutes but what the hell. When I was his age, I would have set off for Manchester with only the vaguest plan about getting home.

The football in semi-finals is typically of low quality and disappears quickly from the memory, whereas the atmosphere and tension is indelibly seared into the brain for all time. The 81′ game against Wolves at Hillsborough was my first FA Cup semi-final. These were the days of the football special. Rolling stock last pulled by Stevenson’s rocket was hauled out of mothballs, the exterior as brown as the stains on the seats. All toilet paper was hurled out of the window before  Watford junction. The West Ham crew waiting in the Euston ticket hall when we returned. Ah, those were the days.

We were the better team on the day and should have won but for a highly disputed penalty awarded against Glenn Hoddle for a tackle on Kenny Hibbett. It was one of those that even from my vantage point at the other end of the ground betrayed the classic hallmark of a good tackle – Hoddle slid in and the ball was well away from the opponent before he fell. The referee was Clive Thomas, a good ref undone by his inflated sense of self-importance. He loved the limelight and made Graham Poll look like a trappist monk in comparison. A contemporary match report says the game was clearly going to end up as stalemate in extra time but for me this was my first experience of the fear, every time the ball came close to our box.

It’s only now that I know that fear was a legitimate emotion on that day, not because of Andy Gray and Maxie Miller fighting desperately for each cross, sparks flying as these two formidably committed combatants slugged it out, but because of the packed terrace. For this was Hillsborough and the Leppings Lane end. During the course of the match I was pushed down from the middle side to close to the front, where your feet are below pitch level. Latecomers had already been taken along the pitch perimeter to other less crowded parts of the ground. It was the biggest crush I have ever experienced but I never felt in any danger. Far from it, at the time it epitomised that glorious elation of being part of a mass of fans, a single entity as much a part of the spectacle as any player. In my professional world, I was once trained as part of the disaster response team for a London authority. The trainer had worked with survivors of the Bradford fire and  Hillsborough, and confirmed that on that day Spurs fans could have been enveloped in catastrophe. It was that close. If those fans had stayed in the end…who knows?

At the time, no one knew, and so the emotions at the replay could not have been more contrasting. Taking over the North Bank at Highbury was the perfect setting, but don’t forget that as this was on the Wednesday following the first match, it was home late from Sheffield then up at the crack of dawn to get to the Lane, queues looping round the block to buy the replay tickets on Sunday morning. We had it hard in those days. And to think you were complaining about the wait on the net to get onto ticketmaster. As the exception that proves the rule, we played very well and were always going to win. Crooks’ second was a gem, a looping arced pass from Hoddle, into his stride perfectly, struck with a fraction of backspin that made it hold up just right. Villa banged in a long range third and we baited ‘Hibbett, Hibbett what’s the score?’ Great fun.

Then two trips to Villa Park, first in ’82 when we made hard work of finishing off Leicester, who obliged in the end with a crazy 20 yard own goal, and then in 87 with a straightforward win versus lowly and injury hit Watford. Sound familiar in any way…?  Football is a blessed escape from the real world but in ’82 there was no relief. As we drove up the M1 on a blissful sunny day, hot air balloons on the horizon, full of hope and expectation, we listened to the Commons debate on going to war in the Falklands. Part semi-final, part farewell to the magnificent Ossie Ardilles, one of theirs yet one of our own. We cared for and cherished him, yet now a goodbye was forced upon us. He played well and left the field to an ovation, his mind on other matters. In the end we had the chance to see him once more in our colours.

I watched the Everton and Newcastle matches in ’95 and ’99 on television. These were during my dark ages, where famine and pestilence raged across the land and darkness cast its shadow upon the land. In other words, the kids were young and my wife went out to work on a Saturday. Both poor games, dull dull dull.

Which leaves the best until last. The Arsenal match at Wembley was a huge deal at the time, hard to believe now but a major precedent. It was also the first time the two great rivals had met at that stage despite many years of battles (I think- haven’t checked and I’ve learned over the months of blogging  not to do that…!). The FA were clearly disoriented. They not only created a family enclosure, with discounts for kids, they put it in the prime seats on the halfway line. To show how times have changed, these are the equivalent of the club Wembley block opposite the cameras, the ones that are embarrassingly empty for the first ten minutes of the second half. If the cup had been awarded, we would have been one of those fans who lean forward to congratulate the players as they mount the steps to the Royal box and ruin their moment of the ages by giving them a silly hat.

So the scene was set, and one man was set to take centre stage. Gascoigne was not fully fit but had to play. The free kick, well, you’ve heard about it, seen it, loved it. It was an outrageous piece of chutzpah to step up. The ball left his foot, went on, and up, and on, and up, and on and up into the roof of the goal. I have shivers right now just describing that moment. The Bloke Behind Me screamed, ‘Stupid sod, he’s not going to shoot from there’, the last syllable drowned in the noise as the ball hit the net. Gazza ran towards us and leapt into the air with unconfined, heartfelt joy and we roared our approval, oh, the sound we made. Years of being second best, it came from deep down, spilling out in cathartic bedlam.

A fine performance all round that day from a determined, motivated team, 2 more from Lineker and unselfish hard work from Paul Allen. A perfect day. Spoiled the following year, when OF COURSE after all those years they had another go and won. I genuinely cannot remember any of the game, just feeling so flat on the way home. But in the end, nothing could take away an iota of the joy of ’91. Let’s hope you and I will be celebrating not suffering come Sunday evening.

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8 thoughts on “Semifinals. Suffering or Smiling? Love Them or Hate Them?

  1. (villa fan) u say u can beat any1 on ur day i struggle to think of one team in the top 4 that u have beat other than liverpool who really don’t count as one anymore, u cant beat any team with quality of the top 4, u couldn’t even beat us who played shockingly against u and u blamed us for u not winning even though thats what there jobs were to do not to let u win do u expect us to open up for u so u can win, ill give u credit u seem to be able to beat most of the lesser teams whereas we struggle in that department but make up for it against better teams who we’ve got three wins and two draws off, hope u get through so if we get through we can proof u wrong and batter u in the final where we will go for it because its about one match and nothing else comes into factor like the fact if we lost top 4 would be over like last time, but then this requires us getting through either way u will lose u will either get completely outclassed by chelsea or outpowered by us who wen we want to have a lot about us going forward u choose, and don’t write us off from beating chelsea cz we have a fantastic record against them and will be out for revenge.


  2. What are you gonna be like when we get to the Champion’s League semi’s?
    Uplifting stuff Alan, you’re obviously younger than me because all this is just disappearing into a blurry fog now.

    Nurse can you tune this tele in and turn up the volume.

    Glad someone can remember all the details of what it was like to actually be there.
    I suppose you’re a Cup rather than a 4th place man if we cant have both.


    • Now why did I think this post might strike a chord with you, my fellow worrier?

      Cheers jimmy, and for the record I’m a win-everything-you-sodding-well-can-man.


  3. Good write up. I remember 81 semi and replay on the north bank too. I think some fans today would be completely astonished if you dropped them into one of those games. Happy days.


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