Gareth Bale: Goodbye, Good Luck

Gareth Bale, the ad man’s dream. Looking butch in the Spurs kit ads, hastily withdrawn now I daresay, or glowering over Times Square. Or the Lucozade posters – hipster haircut, jutting jawline, lower lip ever-so-slightly tucked in. It makes me chuckle. Good luck to you, son, but you can’t fool me. I remember when you used to wear a hairclip.

I’m fortunate to sit on the lower Shelf, near the middle almost opposite the press box. I feel an attachment with all our players but develop a special bond with wingers and full-backs. They are right there, in front of me. Gareth, I’ve not just watched you for most of your career, I’ve seen you grow up.

I’ve seen the fear in your eyes when wingers used to get in behind you and you knew you had screwed up.

Gareth Bale. Not how I remember him

Gareth Bale. Not how I remember him

I’ve counted the beads of sweat on your forehead as late in the game you summon up the energy for one last effort. I’ve felt the pain as the defender’s boot crunched into your shin pad only because you were too good, too quick, too damn bloody brilliant.It’s been a privilege.

Whatever happens in Bale’s career, and I believe he will be a success in Spain, only Spurs fans have been with him as he grew from boy to man. When he began, it looked as if he had the talent but not the temperament. All the airbrushed ads and heroic exploits on the field cannot banish his boyish air.

I (ahem) described him when he was still a teenager as a young man who could become world-class. Suffice to say not everyone agreed with me. I recall a radio commentary from those early years for a cup game at the Lane that I missed. The commentator described how, after he came on a substitute, he was hanging back even though Redknapp and Bond were literally screaming at him to get forward. That image must have lingered because as far as I can gather, the reports that HR fixed up a £3m transfer to Birmingham are true. Then Assou-Ekotto was injured. The young Welshman got rid of the clip and decided to grow up.

I’ve been fortunate to see the modern greats at Spurs. Gareth Bale has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as these legends although he’s at the angels’ right hand rather than up there in the pantheon. He has dazzled in an era where players are fitter, cover more ground and therefore there is less space available for talents to shine.

Bale is unique. I have never seen, not just at Spurs but anywhere, a player that big, with that pace, with that skill on the ball and with that ability to make and score goals. Ever. A rampaging bull with Tinkerbelle’s touch.

In full flight he is utterly magnificent, hurtling down the line at full tilt, drawing in defenders and then he is gone, just when they thought they had done him. Then the sizzling cross fizzing into the box, often when the ball seems to have escaped him by the byline, or cutting inside to shoot. In his final season with us, time and again into the top corner or the calm dagger thrust to finish.

So many memories. Destroying Inter, the European champions, twice, Europe jerked wide awake as it dozed on the sofa in front of the TV. Poor Norwich, not the first to be sliced open as from deep he ran and ran. Many were away from home where he had a fraction more room to work up a head of steam. City away, dipping under the bar from 25 yards then a cross that skimmed Defoe’s toecap and was gone, and with it hopes of a title challenge. West Ham, a miraculous late winner and into the arms of Villas-Boas as in the background the chicken run emptied in disgusted tribute. Swansea away, he gets the ball in midfield and the whole stadium goes silent, waiting.

He hasn't changed

He hasn’t changed

For me, two winners versus Southampton and then Sunderland, identical and trademarked. Late on when he was our only hope, cut in from the right, keep the ball away from the defender so he has no need to beat him but can’t be tackled, left foot from twenty yards, one top corner, one bottom. Special because I was behind the trajectory of the ball, close my eyes and there’s Bale, body shape contorted over the ball to establish the perfect contact, shot swinging away, keeper forever trapped in mid-air, stretching desperately for a ball he will never reach.

He will prosper in Spain, especially as he may have a little more precious space in deeper areas to get going, but the feeling lingers that we have seen him at his peak. Not that he plays by instinct alone but he was not quite at his best in the latter half of last season when he moved inside and began to realise just what he was capable of. Because he could do almost anything, he took a fraction of extra time to make up his mind. Not everything came off.

If he becomes a little more arrogant, I won’t mind. A long way from south Wales, he will need to toughen up. He’s not like Ronaldo for example, who you suspect has been insufferably cocky since he emerged from womb, treating the midwife with disdain and contempt. Not having a go – you don’t get anywhere in top-level sport without that self-confidence and he’s undoubtedly got the ability to back it up. The football world will never again allow Bale to be as good as he was for Spurs. The weight of expectation in a climate where criticism is the vogue will mean there will always be harsh words for everything less than the unattainable.

And that’s what Spurs fans will always have, the shock of the new, the astonishment and wonder that this shy boy could do that with a football. He was good but no one knew he could be that good. Bale didn’t, and there’s his enduring charm, that we weren’t presented with his talent but joined him on a journey of discovery. The shimmering thrill of the unexpected, of the impossible. Of why we were enthralled by football in the first place. Never again will it be new and fresh. We Spurs fans, we’ll always have that.

To the many who have infested social media this week with the Bale backlash, with bile and hate because he hadn’t turned up to train with a club everyone knew he was leaving, you can stick to your tawdry world of tabloid gossip and the SSN tickertape. That’s football, is it? A photo of a bloke in a London street?  When you have a few beers with your pals and talk about the good times, you compare SSN news reports or reminisce over twitter banter, do you?

Tell me, what do you do with your memories? Where do they go? For younger fans, it’s possible he could be the finest player you ever see, you realise that, don’t you? That might be as good as it gets. It’s twenty or more years since Gazza left. I don’t like the way he has behaved in the past week (or appeared to behave, we may find out more later) but on the scales that is insignificant compared with his committment on the field, contribution to the team and at times scintillating football.

Those are my memories. When Bale sets off, my heart doesn’t skip a beat. It pounds and pulsates in expectation.

When Bale shoots, it’s not merely breathtaking. It sucks the breath from my lungs and that of 30,000 other people, rips the sound from my throat as I gasp, wordless, transfixed and rooted, it stops the hands of time as the ball arcs gracefully through the sky.

When Bale does his thing, my heart doesn’t sing. It’s a five-piece brass section strutting sharp and pumping over a sly funky backbeat and swirling Hammond, with soulful guitar, the Sweet Inspirations and Sam and Dave on back-up vocals as Aretha wails while Otis mops his brow with a white starched handkerchief from his top pocket.

I’d liked to have seen you, just one last time, not to change your mind but just to say I missed you, man. Good luck, goodbye, Gareth Bale.

Hillsborough – The Bond Between Spurs and Liverpool Fans

5Live have just said that Hillsborough did not have a safety certificate in 1981.

On April 11th 1981 I caught the football special from London to Sheffield. The warmth of companionship between Spurs fans almost made up for the lack of heat in these ancient carriages, pulled out of mothballs just for us. This wasn’t football, it was part of history. These carriages had been pulled by a steam train. Narrow your eyes and there’s the buffet, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson sharing a can of Special Brew at 8.30 am.

The complaints were raucous but good-natured. It wouldn’t have been tolerated in any other circumstances but this was how football fans expected to be treated in those days. Many of us traveled and anyway, who cares? This was a big game at a suitably historic ground, our first semi-final since the cup-winning year of 1967 and my first ever. After a fallow decade, Spurs were on the up.

We reached the city and were herded via the goods entrance into a long column. The police escorted us to the ground with anyone who had the nerve to break ranks and make a break for a shop selling food or drink being forced back into line. Again, par for the course and at least it was a safe route, shielded from any Wolves, United or Wednesday fans keen to get stuck into the cocky lads from the south. And no one could stop us singing. For a few minutes it felt like we were taking over the town. A short wait at the Leppings Lane turnstiles, including the usual unnecessary pushing towards the wall – why bother, we all had tickets and were early – and in.

First impressions were unfavourable. Peeling blue and white paint, shabby toilets, cracked stone steps. Normal, in other words. Although the ground was filling up I had the space to pick a spot halfway up and well to the right of the goal. The central areas were always jam-packed and the atmosphere would be electric across the entire end. It turned out to be a sound decision.

As kick-off approached a series of crowd surges forced me, disgruntled but accepting, away from my vantage point and closer to the pitch. I assumed that latecomers were carving out some room at the top of the banking and the effect had rippled through to me. I couldn’t see what was happening because I had long since lost the chance to turn round but despite being packed together, it  felt safe. There was no room to fall, after all. Lots of grumbling about why Wolves had been given the larger kop terrace opposite.

The game got under way and I was totally focused on the match, as ever. By this time, the pressure was such that I could not move my arms, which I had managed to lift in front of me to offer some protection during the last surge before movement became impossible. I spent the rest of the match less than ten yards from the front, my feet lower than pitch level because of the way the terrace was built.

Fans began streaming onto the pitch perimeter and looked back at the lads with arms raised in support. They sang a quick song before squatting on the shale. This signaled trouble and my heart sank. Looked like people had made a break for it. Bound to be bad for the club. More calls for grounds to be closed, for the hooligans to be punished. Worse was to come -the Spurs invaded the pitch when we scored.

In fact, the fans behaved very well. Five or six deep, they remained seated for most of the time. Some moved, under escort, to other parts of the stadium. Spurs everywhere!

And that was how I watched the rest of the semi-final. The biggest crush I have ever experienced, rooted to a single spot even when we scored a second. I vividly recall the tension as the match went on, 2-1 up with Wembley so close, the duel between two mighty warriors of the penalty box, Max Miller and Andy Gray, sparks flying as their heads clashed, both equally desperate to reach the crosses. The penalty that never was. Miles away at the other end or so it seemed, yet Hoddle won the ball clear as day. Hibbet tumbled and Clive Thomas pointed theatrically to the spot. How he loved the glory.

The final whistle, the march back to the station. I confess that despite the conditions, at the time I recall the thrills and passion of being part of something, the heated tension that only semi-finals can generate. Stories to tell of the day I went to the Hillsborough semi-final. I was there stories.

Plenty of time to contemplate the injustice of it all as the train took the long way home, as all football specials did.  That was my suffering and of course I would not be without it, because without the pain there cannot be joy. I didn’t see any fans with broken limbs or any who needed medical treatment, i thought had been in a scrap. That’s what it was like in those days. Oddly, although I must have gone to the game with a couple of friends, I don’t recall them at all. Intensely packed yet I felt isolated and alone.

On April 15th 1989, I played football on a sunny Saturday afternoon in southeast London. It was a friendly and shambolic 5-a-side  between my lot, a mixture of council employees from social services and housing, versus a side from the local community. Lots of kids – I brought along my two – and a lovely atmosphere, in a small but significant way the healing power of this wonderful game. For some time we had sought ways of getting closer to the community in which we worked and who were suspicious of us. Only football could bring us together.

I arrived home in the late afternoon and turned on the television. Pictures were being relayed from Hillsborough and I was initially pleased – the game must have started late so I could catch up with it. Then it dawned that there had been trouble and I switched over before the kids saw too much, although at the time the extent of the disaster was not apparent.

Now we know. Spurs fans of my generation will always have an extra bond with the Liverpool families, because it could have been us. Me. Standing near the front, feet below pitch level. Me. My heart goes out to the suffering relatives. An open gate at the back and the front. An open gate. All this talk of closure is so much hot air. The way it’s used in connection with trauma is not what it means. I’ve experienced loss of children, knowledge helps to understand but the pain doesn’t go away.

The families have been treated abominably, by the police and by the Sun who chose to sell papers regardless of the truth. I hope you find both comfort and justice.

Pay Now And The Club Will Pay For It Later. Price Hikes, Tickets and Alienation.

Easter is a time of custom and ceremony, and Tottenham Hotspur have entered into the spirit of the season with a tradition of their own. Booking office chaos as the tickets for a big match go on sale swiftly followed by season ticket price increases that cannot be masked even by the wave of excitement as Spurs’ season reaches a crescendo. It’s as familiar as Easter eggs, admittedly without the warm feeling that giving and receiving brings, although by the end you will be left sick and bloated.

Another Wembley appearance, more stories of lost days watching the dreaded purple bar edge from left to right or hanging on the phone listening to musak only to be chucked out of the system just as you reach for the ‘buy tickets’ option. Let’s be clear about this: there is no good reason why this should happen. The lines are busy, of course they are. Season ticket holders are guaranteed a ticket but not the view or the price they want. Demand could be met if the club were prepared to invest in a system to handle it. It’s all down to money: they aren’t bothered in the slightest.

I confess that I escaped lightly. I was fortunate enough to be office based that day and able to use a landline phone so after the bar appeared to be etched permanently on my computer screen I dialled the box office more in hope than expectation and got the tickets I wanted in 10 minutes. What infuriates fans is not so much the delay but the total lack of logic and information available. If it took me 10 minutes at about 12.30 on the day of sale and others were cut off after waiting for two or three hours, there’s no proper queuing system. If people are patient enough to wait online, why then are they turfed out at the point of payment? To repeat, this is not technology. Rather, it’s a club that refuses to organise this fairly.

We’re doing well so out come the season ticket prices. Other clubs offer a

We’re all in this together

discount for early renewals as a reward for loyalty and for the extra interest they can accumulate all the while the cash is in their account. Spurs on the other hand give us access to a TV channel no one wants to watch. It’s the equivalent of Sky triumphantly saying that although prices have gone up £5 a month, Dmax and Sumo TV are free.

I negotiated the ridiculously untidy official site (things I do for you, dear reader) – design concept why click once to find key information when we can take you to seven different windows – to find out the other goodies. As well as yet another pinbadge I don’t want, they’ve included the plastic season ticket card as one of the gratis benefits. I should now apparently be grateful to have the means to enter the ground.

As inflation in N17 rises, Paxton season ticket holders pictured on their way to the ticket office

Spurs say they have limited the rise to keep pace with inflation, which works out at an average of £1.50 per game but even accepting these figures there are still winners and losers, again for reasons that are unclear. My seat in the centre shelf has gone up by £25, just under that £1.50 figure, perhaps because this time last year it rose by over 6%, way above other increases. Meanwhile, my salary has gone up 1% in 4 years. Last evening on twitter @cobthfc told me his Shelf side ticket is now £840, a rise of £70. The venerable @lustdoctor is now down a further £100 and 9 years of loyalty points for his Paxton vantage point. Inflation in N17 must be different from the rest of Britain. It hasn’t quite reached that of post WW1 Germany but expect fans with wheelbarrows of cash turning up at the box office.

I’m lucky to have a season ticket and a job but these rises to prices that are already amongst the highest in the world to watch a football match serve only to alienate Tottenham’s core support. It’s naked exploitation, of the fan’s passion, their loyalty to their team and of the club’s current success on the field. Players and manager praise the support, they couldn’t do without us, but there’s no reward, only a further turning of the screw. Here the law of supply and demand rules supreme. Levy will point to the lengthy waiting list, choosing whatever figure between 20,000 and 33,000 that suits at the time. To him, it doesn’t matter who turns up, it’s just bums on seats. If lifelong supporters turn their backs, there will be others to take their place.

However, the ultimate victims of this short-sighted policy could be the team itself, because this is simply storing up trouble. Things are fine and dandy now because we are doing well but as soon as standards fall, as they will as surely as day becomes night, dissatisfaction will grow, and it will be expressed in the only way fans around the country and across the globe know how – abuse.

In a logical world, protest will be expressed by simply not going but despite efforts at several clubs, that’s not the way we do things. We will complain by shouting, screaming and moaning, out loud, at the ground, in front of the players and staff. This does no good whatsoever for the team and its prospects, and if it happens, the board have to take a large share of the responsibility because they have alienated fans and exploited our apparently inexhaustible supply of goodwill towards the team we adore.

There is an unspoken but palpable and profound bond between fan and club, not just at Spurs but at very ground. We’ll support you, we’ll certainly take the bad times, provided you do your best. It’s a implied contract that is as powerful as anything that could be written down yet Spurs like many clubs in contemporary football do not understand that it’s a two-way agreement. Instead, we give, they take.

They can do so because one aspect of the old contract no longer holds good. ‘We pay your bloody wages’ was a familiar terrace cry during the lean spells but the fact is, we don’t any more. ‘We make a small contribution to your vastly inflated salary’ hasn’t much of a ring to it but it’s accurate because most of the cash comes from TV these days. I look forward to the day an impatient player snaps back with, ‘Ah but you haven’t taken Far East merchandising revenue into account.’ The price increases will probably fund a back-up squad player’s salary for 9 or 10 months, not much more.

Tottenham are lucky that most of our support are long-standing loyalists who wear the shirt through thick and thin, and we’ve seen plenty of thin over the years. In contrast, there is a generation of Arsenal and Chelsea fans who have known nothing but unbroken success. I’m not having a go (for once) – it’s a fact. That’s all they know. To us and the rest of football, it can make their recent complaints the subject of ridicule – Chelsea sack world-renowned managers because they only win the league once every two years, Arsenal are currently struggling, apparently, and fans are washing their hands of the club when they were “only” 5th.

However, we may have more in common with our north London rivals than we may wish to acknowledge, because the underlying reason for this discontent is high ticket prices, even greater than ours. The massive expense of football means we want something for our money, and before you say it, make no mistake that will happen at Spurs if prices stay high and we slip down the table, because this is no local problem, it’s a feature of the Premier League era. Manchester United have lost season ticket holders this season. Sunderland, Newcastle, Liverpool, fans all over the country will give voice to their indignation. This is not just about league position, it’s about the increasing distance between fan and club that high ticket prices engender.

Spurs know this. It’s no coincidence that the two photos that accompany the new price structure on the website are a player’s huddle and Rafa in the crowd celebrating a goal. We’re all in this together, but that phrase isn’t going down too well lately. It’s OK, we get it. My fear is that Spurs, like other Premier League clubs, don’t. It’s a two-way stretch and like Easter, giving means something as well as receiving. Tottenham could have given something more than a free plastic ticket wallet to reward our loyalty and they are stirring up problems for the future, because if we don’t get behind the team, the team don’t play. It’s not just about the money, it strikes at the heart of what really matters, on the pitch.

Tottenham Stories: Always On My Mind. The Do.

The attendant opens the door with a grand gesture and fusses over my coat and bag. More than my gilt-edged invitation, this absurd attention confirms my new-found prominence, and makes me distinctly uneasy.

It’s a break for me, an opportunity to put behind me those wasted years and chances spurned, but my tentative tread as I stroll along the oak-panelled corridor festooned with self-satisfied portraits betrays my sense of not belonging. I affect an air of disinterested nonchalance, trying to take in the grandeur and undeniable beauty without looking like I have wandered in from the streets, a refugee of the London Big Bus Company tour.

The crystal chandeliers lie heavy from the ceiling, their brilliance eclipsed only by the glittering egos of the great and good. And the not so good, as long as they have money to ease their guilty conscience. I glance around, wary of eye contact. With the right person, it’s fine but an itinerant gaze is a sign of desperation. A stirring in one corner: within this room any spontaneity stands out. Adriana throws back her thick wavy hair then bends forward slightly from the waist, the laughter flowing through her body and rippling out to the group of six or seven guests around her. The women look away, the men shuffle a fraction closer and laugh a little too long. She catches my eye and shrugs imperceptibly. ‘What can I do?’

I begin a smile in return but our line of sight is swiftly interrupted by a tuxedo, anxious to secure her undivided attention.

There is an art to these gatherings. My usual chosen option is to skulk around the edges, pretending that I am content in my solitude and that drinking a glass of fizzy water in 185 sips is really how I want to spend my time. However, today I’m at the top table and must drink my fill. An assertive stride towards my target, followed by a firm handshake. I’ve practised my lines. ‘We met briefly at last year’s conference” I lie but they won’t remember me, whether it is true or not. A few short moments to make an impression – in a good way, so my approach is unencumbered by champagne glass or canape. Well chosen words and a card pressed from a clammy palm.

They know after a minute or so. I’m desperately polite and flattering, adding a succinct and devastatingly accurate critique of the new Bill. But they strip all the baggage away – is this guy useful to me or not? After a minute comes the tell-tale glance over my shoulder, seeking someone more worthwhile to converse with. It’s over and I depart.

The hall is full now. As I gather myself for the next foray, an actress few people have heard of is welcomed on stage. I pause, then slip away. Adriana glares at me wide-eyed from across the room, angry and enticing. Now I shrug and continue on my way without a backward glance. The cloakroom attendant purses her lips in surprise as I disturb her flirting with the burly doorman. She hands me my coat and the carefully rehearsed plan is enacted with precision. Two minutes to the exit (unseemly to rush), seven minutes walk to Liverpool Street for the 19.22 and I’ll be in my seat at five to, just before Fulham kick off. It’s a shame that I’ve missed the pre-kick-off chat and atmosphere, but we all have to make sacrifices.

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