Bouncing up the stairs at Seven Sisters into the dark to be greeted by a flurry of hail, right in the mush. Better than the sudden storm that burst around me as I drove up through Kent, where the road transformed into a snow scene within minutes. This was London hail, damp and cold. In the search for omens at the dawn of a new era in the life of Tottenham Hotspur, it’s an inauspicious beginning.
But we’re back on familiar territory, and that’s what matters. We’re late, so a brisk walk is the only option. Same old pavement, cracked and uneven, but no sense of what the traffic or crowds will be like. New signs, diversions, road closures. 50 years and counting now but this is new and unpredictable, so walk, 20 minutes max, probably miss the ceremony but in for kick-off, even if there’s chaos at the turnstiles, because something’s going to go wrong, isn’t it? This is English football, it’s new, electronic, something will go wrong.
Up the incline to High Cross. Past the home for Jewish incurables on the left, now flats, and on the right, the first synagogue in the area, now a rundown shopfront. To the left, set back from the High Road, the old Town Hall where Blanchflower and the boys lifted lifted the cup in Double triumph, where the streets were so packed as the team bus crawled past, people couldn’t move even if they wanted to.
The night of 27th April 1901 was dry and cold, just above freezing, yet 40,000 people thronged the High Road down to South Tottenham station to welcome home the Flower of the South, Tottenham Hotspur and the FA Cup. No radio or other media, but word spread and the fans came out in the middle of the night to greet their heroes. Then and now, the Hotspur matters to so many.
And so we walk these same streets in their footsteps, three generations carry the navy blue and white in our hearts and in our soul. I can’t keep up with my son and granddaughter. Maybe the time is coming to pass the flame on. Not yet, not yet.
White Hart Lane, the world-famous home of the Spurs, except it used to be well-hidden. Betraying its origins as a football club embedded in a working-class, aspirational community, the old ground nestled in rows of terraced housing, masked from afar by the higher buildings of the High Road, invisible until you reached the Whitbread Brewery, merely a long Jennings-type punt away.
This is different. There it is, squat and skulking, futuristic and alien in old north London. Visible for the rest of the journey, it draws you in, just follow the star. It has presence, and it’s hard to take your eyes off it. This is our future.
Gradually it comes into focus. Past the old Mecca ballroom, where the players used to socialise after matches and where the Dave Clark Five packed them in, crowds way over the supposed capacity, swaying, sweaty and Glad All Over. I trust the Palace fans paused for a moment to pay their respects. Past the now defunct bagel bakery (I‘ll never stop grieving), past the shops and signs from many cultures, for whom Tottenham provides a home, just as it did in the late 1800s where immigrants were welcome and formed the community we know today. When people found a home on the terraces at White Hart Lane, where people could fit in and have a cause in common. A former council property is now an art gallery. Who would have thought we would live to see the day. Times are changing in N17.
We’re late and that makes it easy. Everyone’s already there, so it seems, and the streets are quiet. My entire twitter timeline has been here all afternoon, anticipating the future by reminding themselves of the past. The same journey, the same pub and burger stall, greeting old friends like Victorian explorers lost in the jungle, now found. A family with three young kids on their scooters, delightedly riding up the middle of the traffic-free High Road. They’re part of it too.
We’re dwarfed by the shiny shiny, little people in the street. The same street that fans followed when they wandered down Park Lane to the marshes in the early 1880s because they heard something was happening. And there’s the same reassuring smell, a mixture of onions, beer and anticipation.
No queue, because everyone’s already in, everything works. No time for the longest bar or the burnished quartz tofu, or whatever it is. Dash up the few steps and there is the pitch, verdant green, just like I remember it when I first ran up to the very top of the East Stand and looked out, in April 1967. It wasn’t really like that, of course, because then Spurs played on a mudheap, but I allow my memory to play a trick on me.
We’re home, and home is the best place to be. I was knocked breathless by this magnificent football ground, at its best in the floodlights, because at night, surrounded by stands tight to the pitch, this is all there is, our world, can’t see out, just this. And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Spurs have never played a home game, other than in wartime, more than about 500 yards from the ground. To stay here is testament to our heritage and a remarkable achievement in itself. Yet at the same time, this is otherworldly, pinching myself to believe this is our ground. The lights are so pinpoint bright, it’s like watching a giant ultra HD screen. The south stand rises endlessly into the sky. The ground is huge and spectacular, yet it feels as if everyone is connected. It leans in with intensity, rather than sprawling backwards.
The opening ceremony is mercifully brief. The kids’ choir is sweet and dandy, the fat opera singer who pops up from nowhere a waste of time, someone’s idea that somehow operatic voice conveys a superior culture. He sings ‘glory glory Tottenham Hotspur’, which no one has sung, ever. ‘Hallelujah’ is ours, the only bum note of the night, but then again, football people never, ever understand fans.
Then there’s the real noise. That blew me right away at kick-off. I declined the test events. Football grounds are nothing without the fans, so I waited til it was full, and it was worth it. I tried to join in but there was a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. This is home, this is us, this is my life.
The game, oh yeah. At what point did I calm down and think, you know, it’s possible to lose this. Home advantage or not, this is as new to the Spurs team as it is to our visitors. Points of reference, player’s orienting themselves and getting their bearings, these things and more contribute to home advantage, it’s not just support.
Fortunately, Palace obliged with a busy performance devoid of attacking intent. Their first shot on target, a mishit cross, came too late. Zaha looked so dangerous – but that was in the last few minutes when Spurs were two up. I’m not complaining.
Spurs dominated without playing especially well and won, deservedly, with two scruffy goals. There were more signs of how Pochettino is trying to make up for the lack of depth in this squad. Here, Rose played wide left midfield in a 4-4-2 (ish) with Dele alongside Sissoko in the middle and Eriksen encouraged to get forward. So he did but it would have been more dangerous if Dele had been on the end of some of the balls into the box. While Rose’s presence gave Spurs an outlet and stretched the Palace defence, his end product was decidedly average. We might see him there on Tuesday to give Davies protection. Last night, the Welshman had a decent game.
The first half was all about being there. Thoughts of the table and the top four, 1 out of 15, receded into the night sky. Into the second, and there’s a game to be won. Just as it started to become a bit tense, Palace gave Son too much room on the right. He cut in and his shot took a big deflection. No opening worldies then to go with the might of the stadium.
The second was cut from the same cloth. Kane was tackled in the box. Several around me were bellowing for a penalty and didn’t actually clock Eriksen putting home the rebound as the ball squirmed out of the challenge. I thought the ref had given a foul against Kane, as did many others judging by social media, therefore celebrations were muted until it sunk in that he was indeed pointing to the centre circle and just walking back slowly.
Kane missed a classic Kane chance, through on goal and leaning back just too much as he opened his body out, but it didn’t look as if we were going to lose this one. A mention for Lloris, largely a spectator but alert when called into action late on, when Spurs looked worryingly fragile at the back. Sissoko was my pick, determined and strong, looking to get the ball forward when he could. It was great to see Harry Winks return, immediately up to the pace. I worry his injury will leave a lasting weakness, but that’s for another day.
If you like, finish reading here. This next bit is not so joyful, because there were teething troubles, understandably so. I can’t comment first hand on the concourse problems others experienced, like overcrowding, food running out and the queues for the gents – install troughs FFS not individual urinals (the toilets, not the food outlets). However, in our section, lower shelf level with the south end penalty spot, we saw several heated arguments and a few actual fights because of people standing. This went on for most of the game. I don’t mind standing, but I want to watch the game, not stewards wading in all the time.
Others experienced similar issues in the south stand, where many (most?) would expect to stand for long periods, but some fans seemed to want to experience the atmosphere without contributing to it. This is a big problem for stewards who can’t openly allow people to stand because it breaks ground regulations but tacitly allow it to continue in certain areas. The point is, the fans in that section play to the same unwritten rules, not openly stated but understood by everyone who sits there.
White Hart Lane was a series of little communities joined together. We all have a similar outlook but behaved in different ways depending on where we sat, rules enforced by peer pressure built up over decades. Now, that’s all mixed up. Bloke a little way in front of me, chatty, not rude to anyone, simply said, ‘I haven’t sat down for 15 years.’ That’s how he watches the game and that’s what he wants for his money. Fine, but many around him brought a different set of expectations. That is, if you want to stand, go in the Park Lane, that’s why they got tickets on the side.
WHam had the same problems in their first season. It took a while to sort out. One difference is that at their place, it was easier to change to seats, whereas Spurs said they would not allow any changes in this season at least. Over time, it will work itself out and new norms form. Meanwhile it could be painful. Time to get to know the neighbours, I reckon.