This coming Saturday be part of the Spursshow Live as they talk about ‘Are Spurs Fans Special?’, featuring special fans and authors Julie Welch and John Crace, and special players, Gary Mabbutt and Terry Gibson. There’s a chance for the audience to ask questions and join in the chat. Part of the London Sports Writing Festival, it takes place at Lord’s, no less, kick off 3.30. Tickets still available here. I’ll be in the audience, come and say hallo. Here’s my take….
Life is full of our stories, our stories are full of our lives. We tell stories about ourselves, about what we do, what makes us laugh and cry, what makes our heart beat faster. It’s the way we make sense of our world and our place in it.
We tell those stories to ourselves because sometimes we are the only ones who will listen. In those tales we find out who we are, our identity, what it means to be us. We tell stories to other people about our lives so they know who we are and so others understand and inherit what’s important in the world. We shape those stories, the stories shape us. And so it goes.
Football fans have told stories ever since people first gathered on a muddy touchline to watch other people kick a ball around. You have to have those stories, otherwise watching football is the most absurd pastime ever. As if kicking a ball around isn’t trivial enough, we turn up to just watch.
Our football stories are about justification, a reason to be, reasons to believe, reasons to be there, to turn up next week and the week after. They’re an expression of what we feel when we see the game, feelings that cause a stir deep down and we’re not sure quite why. Stories about why football is more than a mere game, why we come back not just to watch any team but this team, our team. The team in white shirts and navy blue shorts.
All good stories are a mixture of fantasy and reality. Myths and legends create excitement and mystery, an aura around the ordinary, but myths don’t survive unless there is meaning at their core. Sometimes fantasy is the easiest way of conveying an understanding of reality. Spurs fans tell each other stories. About the Spurs Way, attacking football, quick, fleet of foot, pass and move. That the game is about glory, doing things in style. How winning cups is not just to do with silverware but the thrill, the atmosphere, the supporters. How frustration and disappointment is always just around the corner. Above all else, about loyalty.
We tell our stories to fellow Spurs fans so we can have a laugh over a pre-match beer. To our children so they will follow in our footsteps and if not, at least they will understand and take pity. To friends and colleagues in the workplace – it doesn’t matter if they don’t get it, it’s so they know who we are. To complete strangers, who will never see us again but see as we pass the proud cockerel on the ball, the navy blue and white, and know who we are. To ourselves, during interminable journeys to and from the ground, when we bash the credit once again, for comfort during restless nights or idle moments worrying about a result or an injury, a story that says, ‘this is why I do it, this is who I am’.
All fans of all clubs think they are special in some way, and it’s true. But if you know your history, you’ll find out that the Spurs Way, the path to glory, the loyalty, is no mere myth. There’s something distinctive about supporting this club and always has been. Being a Spurs fan means something, something deeper and more profound than just wearing a shirt. Trace that right back through our history to the very origins, it’s the golden thread that runs through the bad times, the good times and most of all, the ordinary times. It’s also about the future, and woe betide the club or its supporters if we lose it.
Tottenham were formed by a bunch of schoolboys gathering in the furtive nocturnal adventure of a flickering streetlight. It’s become known throughout the globe, there’s only one Hotspur who play at the world famous home of the Spurs. It’s a tale to excite the ages. As far as I or anyone else can tell, it’s completely true. The site of the lamppost itself may or may not be a myth, if you’re interested it’s second on the right as you go down the High Road from the Park Lane towards Seven Sisters. In 1882, before Arsenal, West Ham or Chelsea.
They played their first matches on Tottenham Marshes – walk over the level crossing past Northumberland Park station, about there – and since then have never played a home match more than 600 yards from that lamppost. World War 2 friendlies aside, ever. Consider that for a moment. Every single Spurs fan has walked in the same streets to watch our team. You have a direct connection with every Spurs fan that’s ever been. If that doesn’t mean something special, you have no soul and if you have no soul you’re not a Spurs fan.
This story has contemporary resonance. It’s the sense of place that unites us. The first fans walked to see their local team, then the easy transport links in this growing London suburb made the journey convenient. Now it’s very different. Spurs fans come from far and wide, from different places, backgrounds and cultures, but come to a run-down part of north London they do, for magic, passion and the history. That place is the one thing that unites us, with each other and our heritage. Unlike, say, Liverpool or Newcastle, we’re not part of the culture of the city or community. That’s why staying there is so significant. If we had moved to Stratford, of course the club would carry on but it would never have been quite the same. That heritage is who we are. The fans carry it on, same beliefs in the same streets.
The Spurs Way is the only way. Good football, on the ground, allow talent to flourish, don’t sit back and wait for the other lot to die of boredom. Usually dated to Arthur Rowe’s push and run side that won the Second Division in 1950 and marched straight on to the League title the following season, the Spurs Way has taken us to the historic Double with the best English team of all time according to contemporaries, the first British win in European cup completion and subsequent cup success.
This is the other story that unites us. There’s only one Hotspur and the Hotspur play good football, football the right way. It’s a story that goes back well beyond the 1950s, to Peter McWilliam’s team that won the Cup in 1921, to the famous 1901 Cup Final and the first and only non-league side to win the Cup. Spurs have always tried to play good football and success has come only when we have played the Spurs Way.
Again this is rooted in our origins. To demand the Spurs Way is to continue the heritage of our support. In those early years, Tottenham played many local teams. They fell by the wayside. Some players joined Spurs as the up and coming side, the team people wanted to play for and above all wanted to watch. Spurs’ support grew because we played good football on the Marshes.
In recent years, this story has played an important role in defining who we are because let’s face it, the Spurs Way has been aspiration not reality, and a distant one at that. The Spurs Way gives us a foundation in the past, a reason to be in the present and something to aim for in the future. In a sense it doesn’t matter so much if we can’t achieve it at any given time, as supporters we know what we want and this keeps us going when times are rough.
We know what’s important. Supporter unrest at Spurs has come not in marches to protest at only being 6th in the league for several seasons but when loyalty has been exploited and our heritage of support betrayed. When the East Stand was built in 1934, the club was praised for looking after the ordinary fan. The Shelf became the support of legend, then destroyed by executive boxes. Left on the Shelf, further fan protest, the move to Stratford, all about support and our history. It’s no coincidence that the 1882 movement of predominantly younger fans take their name from our year of origin and want not to take the club over but simply, importantly, to get behind the team and support the shirt to the hilt. They get it.
This transcends winning trophies. It’s not the winning that keeps supporters loyal. Don’t get me wrong, as I approach the age of 60 and 50 years of going to the Lane for, say, 95% of league games in that time, I want to win something as much as any fan. My son, who listened to the stories, absorbed rather than rejected them and now sits next to me on the Shelf, about 10 yards from where I have sat and stood, boy to man, for all that time, never fails to raise my levels of guilt when he says, ‘At least you have the Ricky Villa goal, dad.’ He’s made do with a couple of League Cups. But he’s stayed loyal, because he knows exactly who he is and what being a Spurs fan means. It’s about something deeper than just winning.
In his mid-twenties, he’s part of the Premier League generation who have grown up knowing nothing else. This generation grew up knowing Graham, Gross and Francis, not Nicholson, inviting adverse comparisons with our most bitter London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. Here lies another clue to what makes Spurs support distinctive. The true test of supporter loyalty comes during the bad times and the Spurs have always turned out come what may. When Arsenal came to north London, the gloryhunters flocked to Highbury but the Spurs stayed loyal. They kept on coming throughout the twenties and thirties even though we won not a thing after 1921 and spent several years in Division 2. Relegated in 1977, we came in record numbers for the following season. Nothing changes – we stick with Spurs through rain and shine.
Whisper this, but old school Chelsea and Arsenal fans are the same as us. However, the new generation have come because Chelsea have bought success and their fans revel in it. It denies them a sense of perspective. I like my footballers to have a touch of arrogance but not the fans. It’s not their fault. Pretty soon the answer to the question, ‘where were you when you were s**t’, will be, ‘well, in the womb actually.’
It’s all they know but there’s no substance to it. Take away the cash and there’s quicksand whereas at Spurs we have rock solid foundations capable of withstanding the erosion of failure. Why else would that generation support Spurs? Not gloryhunters or even locals sadly, but because it’s in the family or in the neighbourhood. They’ve learned about being a Spurs fan through hearing those stories so that’s what they have become. Now Spurs supporters in the States and elsewhere talk of choosing Tottenham precisely because of this substance, because they want to be different from their gloryhunting mates. They are proud of our heritage, loyal to the core. It’s as if a mirror has been turned on us, those of us who have been around for a bit longer. Reflected back to us is our loyalty, the things we stand for and they want to be part of it.
In his book Vertigo, a funny and wise account of being a Spurs fan, John Crace brings our story up to date. Yes, we have the Spurs Way, alongside this we have decades of underachievement, an heroic sense of injustice, a pathological ability to rewrite failure as success and an infinite capacity for self-destruction. He goes on to say that this has created a sense of the absurd and most of all of fallibility amongst supporters.
Like John I don’t say this as a bad thing. Goodness knows it has led to some dark times, being a Spurs fan. The anxiety, frustration that we could be more, feeling distant from a club that makes these terrible decisions about managers and players over decades, the sheer bloody expense and perhaps worst of all, sometimes it’s been so dull for so long. But it brings a sense of perspective that is completely healthy. It makes me a better person. It’s an antidote to the overweening hubristic expectation and culture of instant gratification that bedevils modern fandom to the point where some many English Premier League football supporters apparently find no joy in this wonderful game whatsoever. These days, that makes us different.
The new ground is a watershed moment in the history of Spurs fandom. The club could do irrevocable harm to their relationship with the supporters unless they take note of our heritage. Looks like it won’t be the generic modern stadium with its cool, sterile lines and atmosphere to match. The stands are close to the pitch and we have an ‘end’ to allow us to take over, make it ours and make some noise.
However, at the Trust meetings we hear feedback about the bank wanting guaranteed income streams and maximising revenue to justify the loans. If you build it, we will come but the temporary fans, the South Korean tourists, the curious, they may be filling the spare seats and Stubhub’s profits now but they’ll go elsewhere in a flash. It’s about more than charging what you can get away with in the short-term. Spurs must think about the long-term, the loyal fans, their family, encourage more locals. That’s who we are.
One more thing that’s genuinely special. There’s nothing like White Hart Lane for a big game. The stands keep the noise in and what a noise 36,000 Spurs fans can make. I’ve seen rival players visibly wilt. I’ve seen our players inspired, whether that be Anderlecht in 84 or Arsenal in 2015, nothing’s changed. It’s an illustrious history of devotion. I’m proud to weave some modern myths and tell my stories to my grandchildren. I want them to be as proud of being a Tottenham Hotspur supporter as I am.