Too Late, Too Far Gone

Dear Ashley,

Wise words, my friend. You’re right, so right, I shouldn’t get worked up.

I paid proper attention to that comment in my last piece, because it was all getting out of hand, what with the tension of the last day of the season. I ate lunch during half-time of the Villa game and as the minutes passed, I felt like I’d be physically sick, such was my frustration at not scoring and fear that we would come away with nothing. Ridiculous. I’m a grown man, with hair- and waist-line settling into middle-age even if my enthusiasm for the good things in life lags two or three decades behind. Enjoy the game, the passion, the excitement and the downside that inevitably comes with it, but don’t allow it to take over.

Never have I needed such wise counsel as this week. I couldn’t shift the Doomsday Scenario from my mind. It had been coming for weeks and now it was almost here. Ar****l were ahead, Chels could just turn up, open up the deckchairs in the centre circle  and still come away with a win. Abramovich could persuade fate to his way of thinking. RVP, the semi-final, Barca, all down to this; the gunners take third not on points, not on goal difference but on the odd goal scored. Chels then usurp our Champions League place as well as ram the trophy down our throats for evermore. In the 45 plus years I’ve been an active Spurs fan, this wasn’t just the ultimate indignity, this was the end of days.

These days I just roll with it. Thought it would diminish with age, fade away like the careers of so many fine players I’ve seen come and go at the Lane. Not a question of too late to stop, it’s a force beyond my control. I think it, dream it, talk about it, but it’s the feeling most of all. Visceral, all-encompassing, a physical and emotion reaction in time with the ebb and flow of our fortunes.

I missed half a season in each of several years in the nineties when the kids were young. That’s OK, priorities right and all, but the thing is, I still felt it. Felt guilty that I wasn’t there – hah! As if the club cared. Felt better when I was there. Can’t deny it. Still, on matchdays, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Trips to the park glued to the radio. Alone in my flat on a bank holiday weekend, kicking every ball as we fought relegation at Wimbledon.

Took my children as soon as they were old enough, whether they wanted to go or not. Oldest on my shoulders when we won the League Cup but he still kept his Liverpool shirt. Other son when he was 5 or 6. He told me later that because of his eye condition, he couldn’t see the game at all. Thought he spent a lot of time playing with the cord on his anorak. Daughter came along just so she wouldn’t be left out. Now my oldest has sadly gone but we three sit together. I apologised at full-time yesterday.

Kick-off was a relief. At least we were nearer to knowing. Sunny day, players with new hairstyles, committed, focussed, up for it. Noise rolling around the grand old ground, back in time to these seething crowds of 56,00o that had me under their spell. Never found the antidote, but then again I haven’t looked very hard.

On the old BBC radio commentaries, Peter Jones used to cut in halfway through the second half to “welcome listeners on the BBC World Service, wherever you may be”. That really made an impression as a child. Football brings people together the world over like nothing else. And so it is with Spurs. Me, I’m grateful and mildly surprised that anyone reads this blog. Tottenham On My Mind because it is. Helps with the obsession. The obsession of a non-obsessive, non-addictive personality? Sounds damaging, that’s just occurred to me. It will always be niche but the new wordpress stats tell me not only how many people read it but where they live. People all round the world check in. People from countries I have never heard of. Wherever in the world they may have been, at 3pm their hearts were in N17. Their  hearts were beating fast.

Kaboul ventures forward. Too early, a contender for player of the season but he remains impetuous at times. Or clever tactics maybe – push the spare centre half forward if Fulham only have one up front. No time to think about it. Ade to Rafa and back, perfect side foot, I’m right in line and leap to the skies before it hits the back of net. Beautiful football, the perfect start. If I’m a nervous wreck, the players must be calm. They were overjoyed – it meant something special.

The Lane is rocking, don’t bother knocking. Well on top and a rumour that WBA were 3-1 up kept us bouncing, but downhill from then on. We made and missed a few chances, Bale and Rafa but were performing well enough. Fulham, limited ambitions but we let them back into the game and twice Friedel saved us, the second a fine, fine save low to his right. If the game was a trial for Dembele, as far as I’m concerned he passed and we should bid.

Defoe put us out of our misery, picking up a loose ball to settle if not totally quell the nerves. Before that, a polite version is that we played possession football, same after. Less generous assessment is that it was the dullest game of the season. A couple of beachballs in the Paxton but it felt like Margate on a rainy autumn day.

Plenty of time to ponder on what might have been. The January window, not who we didn’t buy but the lack of cover by letting Pienaar and Corluka leave. Injuries, to Daws and King in particualr unsettling a jittery backline, to Sandro, mighty alongside the excellent Livermore today and how we could have done with his drive and tackling. Stoke, points dropped at home, offside goals away. Chels at Wembley, goals and sendings off that never were, Norwich, rubbish (us not them), Villa rubbish (us and them), even after all the ups and downs just one more win, two draws even. Fourth is a good season, but  the might-have-beens are an itch I can’t scratch.

I guess the blog is a form of therapy, Ashley. I can’t believe people take the time and trouble to join in. They read it it and actually bother to comment. I’m touched by it, each and every one, genuinely. Very emotional, see. Wept when we played gorgeous thrilling football earlier in the year, wept as we shouted, screamed for Muamba to live. Guess in reality the blog is all about one thing, why this wretched beloved team holds its grip after all these years. Some of the stories get the closest. Adriana tolerates but doesn’t understand, why it’s always on my mind.

Too late to change, so roll with it. Regards to everyone who reads Tottenham On My Mind and sincere thanks for the many kind comments I’ve received this year. I’m profoundly grateful, it’s kept me going.  A busy week for me but a season’s round-up in the next week or so, a few more pieces over the summer, change of design but it’s all about the words so it will be, basically, exactly the same.

Time for a dip in the pool, Ashley, then a stroll on the strip with the models, poseurs and queens. Me, I’ll look forward to my next trip to Tottenham High Road. It’s where I belong. You’re a good man, have a cold one for me.

Kind regards,

Al

I Couldn’t Handle It. We Were Winning

‘Oh, is there a match on darling?’ It’s sweet of Adriana to sound even vaguely excited on my behalf.

It’s the first time today that I’ve thought about football. I’ve known for a while that I would be working late so I put it to one side, and anyway sitting next to Adriana for the afternoon’s meeting is distraction enough.

‘No it’s fine, just fine’.

‘Are you sure? I don’t mind, really I don’t.’ She looks me full in the eyes and I almost believe her.

‘No honestly. We deserve a drink after that rubbish.’

Still holding my gaze, she strokes my cheek with her fingertip then makes her way to the bar. It’s packed but a group of city suits part to let her through.

Actually, that’s not strictly accurate, not thinking about the game. More self-deception, part of the practised art of being a fan. It’s just not been on my mind as much as a Spurs match usually would, but as kick-off time came near my concentration fell away as part of me was over the water. No one noticed. It was social care after all – talking all afternoon with no decisions, then someone looks at the clock and earnestly declares we had worked hard enough for today, let’s take it away and re-convene in the New Year. I wondered if we might pull a few strands together but blank looks sent me scurrying to the pub. No wonder my career is going nowhere. I just don’t fit in.

Adriana is still at the bar and surrounded. She says something I can’t catch and the group erupts into laughter, which one red-faced guy takes as a signal to squeeze her leather skirt.

I screw my eyes up at the screen in the corner. Two up, must be near the end of the first half. Not bad, give it a go anyway, something about a lovely strike from Townsend but we lost this one in a single home game against PAOK. Played it tidily until then, win that one and through, but not now.

I turn away to rescue Adriana but she’s more than a match for the lustful yuppies. She hands me a beer and rolls her eyes in mock dismay. ‘Cheers!’

I glance at the TV, in slow motion Defoe is rolling the ball into the net via the defender’s back. The commentator brays, ‘Now it’s on!!!’ and I have to steady myself against the table. I hold my palm to my forehead and continue to stare.

‘Bad news darling? I thought your lot were doing well’.

‘It’s terrible. We’re winning.’

‘I saw on the news last Saturday. Very good! But your manager looks ill, darling, he should give up, have a rest.’

‘Couple of setbacks lately’.

‘What’s this match?’

‘Europe,’ I reply.

‘That’s good, isn’t it?’ she asks. Soothed by her interest, I can’t fight against the weight of 40 years. Against my better judgement, I embark on a brief discussion of the merits of the Europa League.

It’s a mistake. I struggle on with diminishing enthusiasm in every passing moment. Rather like the Europa League itself, in fact.  Her furrowed brow is a signal I cannot miss so I pause. ‘So this match doesn’t mean anything?’ she asks. I hastily gulp a mouthful of beer and nod at the same time with the inevitable consequences. ‘So why are you worked up then?’ she adds as I try to brush away the beer that has already soaked into my shirt.

‘Because it’s on again. The score is good for us in the other game, if we score two more and it stays the same, we’re through. Oh no.’

I just wanted a peaceful time until Sunderland and then Chelsea. Respite. Clear the head. But the pressure was on. I was unhappy about throwing away our decent chances in the Europa League. Ridiculous to be pleased to be out of a competition, even though I seem to be in the minority of Spurs fans in thinking that way. Win something shiny rather than come 4th, although I don’t see why we can’t do both. But I had reached an accommodation. Dealt with it, it was over, move on. Knew where I stood. But now, now we’re winning. That’s thrown everything up in the air. It could be so simple but now this. I steadied myself against the table again and prepared for the second half, tense, agitated, hopping from one foot to another. For football, I was back to normal.

Adriana’s bright blue eyes searched for something arcane and buried. ‘So you’re like this because they’re winning?’

I pause. She’s not heard the cliché before so it’s fresh for her. ‘In football it’s not the despair that gets you, it’s the hope’. She continued to stare for a few more seconds, her tooth dimpling her bottom lip. Then she patted me on the shoulder. ‘Watch the game darling, watch the game.’

She likes the stories. Of Dos Santos, a talent misunderstood by his manager who wants to party. To me, ineffective in a match where he should shine, she saw a young boy a long way from home. Or Kane, struggling against criticism unfair for one so young. She didn’t see the clever quick feet in his run or the instant turn for his goal but was delighted when he scored. She’s right, I’m sure his mum will be pleased. And no, I didn’t see the first half but they must have played a lot better, and no, I don’t know why they were so limited now. Or why they kept shooting from way out. It is easier for the goalkeeper to stop it, you’re right.

Near the end, the barman brings over a drink. Her sudden warm smile of surprise catches the young man unawares and he rushes away quickly to hide his blushing cheeks, in the process almost bumping into a man carrying a full tray of drinks. He swears unnecessarily loudly. The poor boy’s total salary will go in the dry cleaning bill for that suit, at least that’s what the man threatens.

The wine is from the suits. She holds it up to them, mouths a thank you across the crowded room and then turns her back on them.

‘Nearly over’ I say, visibly relaxing in defeat.

She smiles again. ‘Let’s stay to the end. I know you want to.’ She squeezes my arm. ‘Onwards and upwards. There’s always next week’. I squeeze her hand in return. Adriana understands more about being a fan than I give her credit for.

Always On My Mind: The Members Club

I’m stewing in the velvet lobby so I call Adriana. Businesslike, she marches down the corridor. Out of my earshot, the doorman remains unconvinced, then she looks him in the eye and imperceptibly cocks her head to one side. A squeeze of his arm and I’m in.

 

From the corner of his eye he watches her sway down the hall. His grin fades only when she turns the corner into the bar.

 

‘This is nice’, I say as she folds into the deep sofa cushions.

 

‘Lola’s a member. We were going over the layout for the book. The salmon was superb and it was too cold to move. You don’t mind, do you?’

 

‘Guess I’ll have to get used to it’. She furrows her brow. ‘It’s great, really.’ I forget, Adriana doesn’t do irony.

 

She smiles uncertainly but, reassured, kicks off her shoes and pulls up her feet under her. ‘Sit down darling, it’s so cold.’

 

‘Chequers in Sutton,’ I go on. ‘Trainers.’ She looks unsure again. I push my Sainsbury’s carrier bag under the table and out of sight. ‘In the end, my mates went in ahead, then this girl brought out a pair of their shoes in her bag in return for us taking her friend in. Think she was only 16. I changed back into my trainers once I was inside. Don’t know what the fuss was about in the first place.’
She looks at me intently for a moment, her eyes wide in the gloom of the bar. ‘I never have any problem getting into clubs.’

 

It takes a while to be served at the bar, although it doesn’t seem very busy. A couple of advertising types are momentarily distracted from their tipsy creativity by the sound of Adriana’s laugh from across the room. When I finally bring the drinks she has company.

I beam with recognition and let out a choked gasp.  Eventually, words. ‘I used to watch you every week. Fantastic!’ ‘I haven’t said ‘fantastic’ since I was 14. He smiles confidently, but not at me. ‘From the Shelf. Season ticket holder.’

 

‘At the Lane. 40 years.’

 

Finally he turns away and fixes me in the eye. For perhaps 10 seconds he looks, says nothing. Then he turns back to Adriana. ‘You’re so right,’ he says, ‘Morocco in October is perfect. Not too hot. Are you sure you’re not from that part of the world? It’s just your accent….’
I’m still standing, holding the drinks. I shift from one foot to the other. Eventually, I put them down and pretend to need something from my coat. The man smoothes out the sofa cushions and eases across.
‘Just off to the toilet’. ‘OK’, she says, without breaking the flow of the conversation.

 

When I return, the man has rejoined his friends on the other side of the room. Adriana plumps up the cushions. ‘Come, sit.’ She looks at me and laughs, suddenly hesitant. She says something and laughs again but I’m looking at the lock of hair that’s fallen over her eye.

 

‘Feel my hand, I’m cold.’ Her fingers edge out in that familiar way and touch mine. ‘You know him?’ she asks.

 

She purses her lips. ‘Don’t know why you like people that that. Thinks he’s got something, all talk. All he thinks about is himself.

 

‘You’re a good judge,’ I reply, ‘Overrated. Selfish’. A pause. ‘Cracking right foot, mind’

 

‘Sorry darling?’

 

‘I said I never really liked him.’

 

‘Neither did I. What is it about me, I always seem to attract these sort of men. Come closer, you’re all warm, warm me up.’

 

 

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Always On My Mind. Spurs Stories: In Hospital

There’s always a stir when the ward has a new arrival. Disparate individuals thrown together forge temporary bonds in adversity as a lifetime of carefully tended privacy is at a stroke upended by the indignity of pain and bed-pans, honed by a nurse’s scolding when powers fail.

A fragile culture is shaken whenever a newcomer appears, the tension is palpable if it’s a man. The last man was oblivious to his surroundings, baring the West Ham tattoos on both thighs and when he wasn’t snoring bellowed his suffering down his phone louder than a Tunbridge Wells stockbroker on his mobile in a rush hour train.

We, the regulars, practised in the fine art of hospital visiting, we who long ago said everything that there is to say but still talk, feign indifference but are alert to the swish of the plastic curtains being pulled back.

‘Leave me alone, woman. Leave me alone.’ He’s a shouter.

She sits, she stands, she sits again. ‘Have a wine gum, go on, they’re nice’

‘I’ve told you, I don’t want a wine gum.’

‘Go on, have one. They’re nice’

‘I don’t want a wine gum!’ The whole ward knows he doesn’t want a wine gum.

‘Go on, do you good, you need the energy. How are your pillows? You’re not comfy.’ She’s up again. ‘Let me do them for you.’ She glances around without making eye contact with anyone.

‘Leave me alone woman!’

In hospital nothing happens. The slightest provocation is acted upon, if not created, in minute detail, then discussed with a similar nuanced attention. All undertaken in the name of the patient but in reality it fills the time and provides the visitor with a reason for being there.

She looks around again with a nervous grin. ‘All right if I have one?’

The young man, quiet until now, has had enough. ‘Spurs are playing tonight, granddad. Go and get a coffee, mum. Cup game!’

‘Up the Spurs!’ Animated now, alert and bright. ‘They’re doing all right this year, eh? Told you Harry would sort them out. Told you.’

‘Win this one and they’re at Wembley, granddad.’

‘Ahh, Wembley. Did I ever tell you about when I was there in ’61?’ The boy settles back with the air of someone who has heard this one before, several times, but he’s happy to listen once more. ‘Never be bettered, son, not the same these days.’

‘I couldn’t get coffee. Bloody cafeteria’s closed. Coke from the machine all right? He’s not going on about bloody Spurs again, is he, the old sod?’

‘Mum,’ says the boy, ‘Just shut up.’ He settles down again for the rest of the well-worn saga. His mother stands. Moves the pillows a fraction. Smith scores. Sits. Tucks in the blankets. Blanchflower lifts the cup and he’s lost his hat, tossed high in the air. Stands. Sits.

A few days later, when we are all familiar with tales of Tottenham heroes, of Smith, Greaves, Blanchflower and especially White, glorious, silky, best ever  White, I pass the bed on my way out. ‘Good to meet another Spurs fan.’

He stirs and sits bolt upright. ‘Two sugars please!’

He dozes again, as suddenly as he woke. I walk on, past the laminated pledge on the wall that guarantees same sex wards from 2007.

Next day I stop again. ‘Bought you a programme’. I’m not a good visitor, despite the practice over the last two years. I’ve deserted my duties. Even now, under these circumstances, the game and being there is on my mind.

The boy thanks me, ‘Look granddad, a programme. 3-1 today’. The woman, more agitated than normal, thanks me repeatedly, and no, for the tenth time, I really don’t want the money. The boy shows him the pictures, as you would a toddler.

He barely stirs, a flicker maybe of an eyelid buried deep now in hollow sockets surrounded by grey drawn skin. His lips move, ‘What’s that granddad?’, says the boy, ‘3-1 today, Defoe again!’ Faint and barely audible, he summons the  strength from somewhere to respond. I swear I heard, ‘Up the Spurs’ but I couldn’t be sure.

Sunday afternoon and I pass the woman in the corridor, on the phone telling someone that she has the money but will be late because she’s at the hospital. The boy brushes past, carrying a small bag with the programme in his hand. ‘Thanks for this,’ he looks at his shoes and doesn’t stop. Turn the corner and the curtains are pulled, the bed empty. It will be occupied by the evening.

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