On the good days, there’s nowhere like it. White Hart Lane is a proper football ground, steepling stands enclosing the pitch so the noise cannot escape. The old place shakes beneath our feet, inspiring the lilywhite shirts and evoking glories past. At night, it is our world. For ninety minutes nothing exists beyond the tight glare of the lights.
Things have changed. The good days are as good as ever, witness the bearpit that sent the gunners scuttling back to the antiseptic corporatism of the Emirates last month. For the average league game, however, it is often flat and lacking passion. In quiet passages of play, the passivity is palpable.
Recently this has provoked considerable debate in social media and elsewhere, wherever Spurs fans gather in fact. Last week an interview with Clint Dempsey implied that he thought the crowd’s edginess was having an adverse impact on the team. It has been linked to what is perceived as growing dissatisfaction and negativity. Fans are swift to roundly condemn players. Twitter may or may not be a representative cross-section of Spurs’ support but it is a nightmare of bile and downright hatred when we lose. Some players are blamed not just for defensive lapses but for causing global warming, world poverty and the arms trade, or so it seems sometimes. Certainly in the ground it appears as if the traditional relationship of the fans lifting the team has been reversed as we wait for a spark on the field to get us going. It’s not the same at away matches, where Tottenham have a deserved reputation as one of the best supported clubs in the country.
In common with supporters of other Premier League sides, Spurs fans are victim to some of the less welcome trends of modern football. Also, there are other factors peculiar to the club. However, there’s nothing new under the sun, least of all Tottenham fans being critical of their team.
As a young supporter growing up with Spurs in the mid sixties, I devoured all the information I possibly could, not just about my heroes like Mackay, Greaves and England but also about the precious history of the club. From the very beginning I knew that I was part of something special and I desperately wanted to fit in, to understand what it meant to be a Spurs fan.
I learned that we played the Spurs way, good football, pass and move, on the ground. We had star players to match. I also understood very early on that Spurs fans were characterised as a critical bunch who were quick to get on the backs of the players if things weren’t going well. This often came up in the media and you still hear it occasionally from pundits who were around then.
David Jenkins has had a profound influence on my life as a Spurs fan yet the vast majority of you reading this will never have heard of him. Jenkins was a young winger who came into the Arsenal side and quickly made an impact, so much so that he impressed Bill Nicholson enough to not decide to buy him but to include the excellent Jimmy Robertson, goalscorer in the 1967 Cup Final, in the deal.
Aged 11 or 12, I was not impressed with what I’d seen in black and white highlights on Match of the Day and the Big Match. Flashes of promise but no real talent. he ran qucik and straight but that was it. For the first time, I learned to have my own opinion about a Spurs player and dared to question the judgement of the venerable Billy Nick. Turns out I was right. Jenkins quickly faded and remains one of the worst players seen at the Lane in my time. The point is, before he left the scene he was given severe stick by the crowd, which could not have helped his development as a young man finding his way in the game. Things were made worse for him because of the adverse comparison with Robertson, a fans’ favourite.
The Spurs crowd always had a scapegoat. One of my first games, sitting in the wooden seats in the Park Lane, one player was given dog’s abuse. Useless, waste of money, a donkey. Go back where you came from. As an impressionable kid, I loved it. That player was Martin Chivers, on his way back from injury but sections of the crowd were unforgiving, all long forgotten when he became one of our finest centre forwards of the modern era.
It was expected – there was always one. Part of going to Spurs. Off the top of my head, Paul Stewart, a limited centre forward, young again, who went on to be a top class midfielder under Terry Venables’ shrewd guidance. John Pratt, remembered fondly now as a hard-working midfielder dedicated to the cause but that was in spite of coordinated, consistent moaning at the time. Chris Armstrong, Vinny Samways – there are more. At its worst it was systematic barracking that began as soon as the first couple of errors were made. Whinging openly about, say, Jenas and Dempsey in recent times are mild in comparison.
I never bought into the idea of the Spurs crowd as fickle. We know good football and raise objections when we don’t get it. Nevertheless I can recall loud and sustained slow-handclapping of the team and gates below 20,000.
Put in this perspective and this season sounds like a golden age. However, there was no doubting the intensity of the support when we got behind the side and singing from our ‘end’. Unquestionably there was more singing and chanting. Songs were louder and more varied and each player had their own tune that was sung in the build-up to each game. As kick-off approached, so the volume was turned up.
One reason why it’s nearer mute these days is that over time, the Spurs’ fans’ heritage of a place to sing has been destroyed. When I started going, the Park Lane was our home with the Shelf well-populated but a back-up when things were going well. Gradually the balance shifted. Then, one season we turned up and the Park Lane was away fans only because of security concerns. Most away fans came by tube, the Park Lane was closer to Seven Sisters and in those more troubled times the police wanted to get them into the ground as quickly as possible. But they took our end away.
After a period of confusion, the Shelf came into its own in the seventies and beyond. In fact, the noise was greater because of better acoustics under the East Stand. Then they took that away too, in favour of executive boxes. Other clubs have disrupted their fans through a move to a new ground, Arsenal’s loss of the North Bank being the prime example, but surely no other club has so heartlessly moved their core support not once but twice. The insult still rankles and it’s caused the problem we have today.
Sharing the end with away support is better than nothing – at least it’s our historic place – but no other Premier League team has the same arrangement and for European games our core support is unceremoniously shifted out entirely. It’s an absurd state of affairs that harms the support and therefore harms the team. An all-seater stadium with a high proportion of season tickets means we can’t move around even if we want to.
This factor is unique to Spurs but supporters are also victim to other harmful elements of the modern fandom. We’re not the only ones. I hear many teams say that it’s not like the old days, even giants like Liverpool and Manchester United. Supporters across the Premier league are becoming increasingly alienated from their teams because of the way the clubs behave towards us. High ticket prices despite vastly inflated TV revenue is the biggest bugbear, closely followed by ever-changing kickoff times at the behest of Sky and the deafening, offensive clamour of their incessant hype.
At Spurs we complain about yet another above inflation price increase or over-priced European games, the board shrug and point to the season ticket waiting list, variously given as between 23,000 and 30,000. The loyalty of fans who have devoted a lifetime to the club means little in the face of the irresistable forces of supply and demand. The club do not care who sits in those seats as long as someone does. Meanwhile, the chairman has an alleged salary increase of £400,000.
Then there’s TV. There is less need to invest in the time and expense of going when every match is on television. More significantly, TV has distorted the entire nature of the sport. Performance is minutely analysed not at the breathtaking real speed of Premier League football but after 37 replays and endless camera angles. It creates unrealistically high expectations of what is humanly possible of footballers. The defintion of good play and a good player has changed in the process.
It also encourages criticism. There’s an emphasis on failure – what defenders could and should have done, not the creativity of players who in any given situation were better in the battle between attack and defence that has been played out since football began. Recall the Arsenal home game again. The following Friday 5Live were still devoting endless airtime to what the Gunners’ back four should have done. Little mention of the stunning, deadly combination of skill, pace, timing and precision that created for Bale and Lennon two of the best goals I’ve seen for donkey’s years.
Add to this culture of criticism the other curse of the modern game, an unrealistic sense of entitlement. Success is justified, nothing matters if we are not in the top four and we deserve to be there because we are a big club. Sack the board, the manager, everyone because in a season we’ve not done it. Spurs’ are not alone in this, in fact our fans are by and large infinitely more grounded than the average New Chelsea fans where time began in 1993 and finishing second is a catastrophe. However, the odious culture of entitlement is insidiously insinuating itself into the debate and in my view this has become over the past few seasons, paradoxically since we have actually started doing well. I know a few souls who in private say they preferred the whole experience fo being a Spurs fan when we weren’t expected to win very much. I also think this is worse in social media compared with in the ground itself.
This alienation doesn’t automatically cause any major changes to the nature of being a supporter. However, it’s a backdrop, an undercurrent of discontent simmering away underneath our experience of watching Spurs that every so often bursts to the surface in a torrent of frustration and anger. I believe this explains a lot about the tensions and lack of passion at Spurs at the moment. It creates a situation where there is less tolerance and space. We are quicker to pounce on failings because we are putting up with more than we deserve. I’m not saying this is right, but it is undeniable.
Finally there are demographic factors, again common to the Premier League as a whole. The age of spectators at Premier League games has been rising steadily for some time. The cost is prohibitive, all seaters mean that you can’t just turn up and sit with your mates and trips have to be planned months in advance with almost military precisions. You can’t decide any longer to ring your pals, tip up on the day, plonk down 7s 6d and sing your heart out for the lads. Fact is, most of the end in the old days were young.
It’s not all bad. Spurs fans are remarkably loyal. Also, the 1882 movement and their Fighting Cock site are a group of mostly younger fans who not only understand their heritage, they want to continue it by, in their words, singing “as loud and as long as our lungs will let us. We want to hark back to the days before the Premier League where how loud you sing and how passionate you became wasn’t dependent on how well Tottenham were playing.” As I’ve said, that may be a rose-tinted view of the past but no matter and all power to them. They have had discussions with the club about block ‘singing sections’ for certain games, mostly outside the first team but it has included one European tie, I think. The Tottenham Trust also hope to raise the issue.
It’s a welcome development, even though the whinging is not a new phenomenon. It is hard to see what changes could be made with the ground as it is. I would be in favour of shifting the away fans but I assume safety considerations plus disruption to our season ticket holders in all parts of the ground would make it impossible. Designated singing blocks are a fine idea, perhaps including the southern corner of the Shelf near the old cage. The new stadium has an ‘end’ built in and has been designed to keep the stands as close to the pitch as possible. All the more reason to press ahead as soon as we can.