Taking Our Ball Back: Spurs Writer Martin Cloake On Football’s Culture Wars

In a down-at-heel corner of southeast London the Holmesdale Fanatics are not just getting behind their team, they’re taking giant steps towards reclaiming football for the fans. These Crystal Palace supporters stand, sing, wave banners and flags and generally have a good time. Known in the past for restrained loyalty, the atmosphere in this old fashioned ground lifts the team and intimidates opponents, bringing Liverpool’s seemingly irresistible sprint for the League Championship to a grinding halt at the end of last season. The ground was rocking and so were the Reds’ title hopes. The result was a draw but the experience unforgettable.

The Fanatics are amongst the most active and vocal participants in a movement loosely known as against modern football. High ticket Taking-Our-Ball-Back-coverprices, regimented stewarding inside and outside grounds, the fixture list the plaything of Sky TV, the dominance of the Premier League and the Champions League, all these and more have alienated large swathes of football’s core support and kept an entire generation of young fans firmly in their armchairs in front of the tele. Yesterday the results of the BBC Price of Football survey shows the stratospheric PL seat prices – Spurs have the third most expensive seat after Arsenal and Chelsea – and rises substantially outstripping inflation.

There’s a distance between us and the game we love. We call it the People’s Game – perhaps it never really was but for 90 minutes every fortnight, at least it felt that way. It’s been a recurring topic on Tottenham on My Mind, for example here and here because it’s changing the way we relate to our club. Spurs fans are amongst the most loyal there can be yet this resentment at being exploited by the club is at the root of the poor atmosphere at many home games. Average performances are a factor but we’re used to those by now. It’s the underlying alienation that makes it worse.

But hang on a minute. You’d think the groundswell of opinion would become a tidal wave of change, but you’d be mistaken because not every fan sees it the same way. Many are quite happy in front of their 42″ plasma screens – expensive but affordable, watch every match in the comfort of your own home.

Or how about this from the Manchester City Supporters Club. In a statement regarding Financial Fair Play they have joined a legal action against FFP because it discriminates against clubs, or more precisely against the rule that is “a prohibition to invest that prevents ambitious owners to develop their clubs, that therefore shields the established European elite from being challenged.”

In other words they’re complaining that their owners can’t spend even more money than the squillions already invested. Breaking even is bad. I get the established elite bit but surely FFP, however flawed the current rules may be, aims to encourage clubs to operate within their means and broaden the opportunities for clubs to reach the elite in ways other than finding a sugardaddy.

Their language is as interesting as their logic. They demand a hearing as “consumers of the football product”, not as supporters even though the club was established in 1949. They conclude by saying they are doing this in the interests of all supporters of non-elite clubs, apparently oblivious of the fact that to the rest of us, they are the elite. Seems a far cry from the Holmesdale End.

In this mixed-up mumbled-up shook-up world, reading Martin Cloake’s new book Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars is an essential route map out of this quicksand. Part compilation of existing essays from the New Statesman, In Bed With Maradona and elsewhere, part new material, it’s the best single-volume coverage of football culture and support in the modern era. Long-time (and long-suffering) Spurs fan, Martin understands terrace culture and was actively protesting against the closure of the Shelf and other iniquitous developments at the club long before anybody coined the term ‘against modern football’. Combine that with his journalist’s eye for a story and the acumen of someone who has been writing about finance as well as football for many years and you have a sense of the depth and breadth of the book.


FSF 4There’s plenty of fascinating detail but Martin is not afraid to confront the big questions about the future of football. This is about a battle over the definition of what football is and what it means to be a supporter, timely given many are questioning their . Many of the examples are familiar to Spurs fans and readers of this blog. He piles into Stubhub and the ‘Y word’ debate is a perfect example of how the law has been used unfairly to target football fans. His incisive approach to the football authorities slices through the hypocrisy and flannel.  Throughout explicit links to history and culture provide perspective and solidity that’s absent from most debate around these fundamental issues. For example, the discussion on the ‘new ultras’, including our own 1882 movement, is situated in a broader context of oppositional culture and protest. The very different topics of business and football and the law in football, vital but often overlooked, are placed in context too.

Where Taking Our Ball Back really scores over other writing on the topic is that it manages a nuanced approach without losing any of the power of its argument. Many may be against modern football but It’s just not that simple. A variety of currents are attempting to preserve the game’s meaning, as I’ve indicated above, and this is one of the few books able to disentangle the various strands. The problem fans may have to deal with in the future is less about conflict with the clubs and more about conflict between groups of supporters, all claiming righteous salvation through their approach but in fact representing very different interests.

Taking Our Ball Back adroitly handles these topics in a readable, accessible manner. Times are changing. The sense of place  and belonging that surrounds clubs, the link between club and community, is less important as each year goes by because of the national and global consumption of the PL. There’s a real danger of these foundations shaking and with it our identity as supporters and therefore, because this bloody club means so much to so many, the foundations of how we see ourselves as individuals becoming shaky too. As Martin says, “modern football seeks to replace community with commodity.”


Unreservedly recommended, and continue the discussion on Tottenham On My Mind because these issues are coming to a head at Spurs. Prices remain high, morale low, the prospect of the lowest WHL crowd for years next week and waiting in the wings the new ground and a possible move to Milton Keynes. For £3.04 on Kindle and only £6.97 in paperback, you can’t go wrong.

Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars by Martin Cloake  available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback

Pics from the FSF demo against the PL and ticket prices in August this year.

Coming soon on Tottenham On My Mind on this topic: an interview with the founders of the Spurs Small Shareholders Association



What Tottenham Hotspur Means To Me – Martin Cloake

No match report from the 3-0 cup win against Coventry. I missed this game and can’t concoct a report from 29 seconds of ITV highlights. Instead, the second in a series of articles about what it means to be a Spurs fan. Martin Cloake is a journalist and prolific author of books about Tottenham Hotspur.

In an age where football is examined from every conceivable angle and dissected to the point of extinction, the modern game is in danger of becoming flatulent and predictable, in the process alienating many existing and potential supporters. Yet talking Tottenham with Martin Cloake is a search for something deeper that forms the essence of his relationship with the club. In the process, it’s reassuring to know that whatever it was that originally captivated and entranced us is still around.

Already in this short series, one theme stands out above all else. Whichever route we take, when it comes to Spurs, there’s magic in the air. However, for Martin it could have been so very different. He was brought up in Haringey so Spurs seem a natural choice. In the absence of any existing family allegiances, what else would you do as a football-mad 6-year-old but ask your mum.

“I asked her who’s the nearest team, she said ‘I think it’s Arsenal’ so I thought I’d be an Arsenal fan.”

Then fate stepped in. Martin continues, “That Saturday, they lost. I thought that was a bit rubbish so then, Queens Park Rangers, that’s quite a good name so I’m a Rangers fan. They lost too, so that’s not good. I knew Tottenham were in the other bit of Haringey ( I lived in the west), thought I’d be a Tottenham fan, they won and that was that.”

Martin chuckles at the inescapable conclusion: “I was a total glory-hunting so and so at 6 years old.”

It sounds as if even then he was a bit of an obsessive, which means in this blog he’s among friends. As he read more and more, he realised he had chosen a special team.

“When I started finding out about Spurs, there was this magic about them. That was before I’d even been to the ground.  Pat Jennings was larger than life, a superhero. We had the Mirror every day in our house, I’d read Ken Jones and Frank McGhee. I was 7 in ’72. Nicholson was still there, I didn’t really understand but knew he was something special.”

Even then, Europe had a particular fascination.  “I looked up places where we were playing in the atlas. That was special. The Spurs blog 87Arsenal weren’t doing that! I listened to the ’72 and ’74 finals on the radio.”

For many of us, football provides a rich seam of continuity in our lives. It’s certainly true in my case, where Spurs is the link between the boy and the man. Relationships, jobs, houses and friendships come and go but Spurs is always there. Martin continues to search for more of that magic he discovered as a 6-year-old,and it’s still there in those European nights, which are an integral part of Tottenham’s rich heritage. That search is the heart of the Martin’s latest book, the Glory Glory Nights, co-written with long time collaborator Adam Powley.

“It was part of the reason for doing the book, to rediscover the magic. When I was a kid, there was that bit of magic, where’s Zagreb, where’s Belgrade. It was a pioneering time. That Double team had done something nobody else had done before. They went into Europe. They were the standard bearers for the English game.”

Spurs were full of firsts in Europe, the first to win a European trophy, the first to win two, the first to fly fans to an away tie. However, these days european football is commonplace, with every tie on television and many relegating the Europa League, the latest incarnation of the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup where that Spurs glory lies, to the status of a worthless league for our second string. So has the magic gone?

“It was a different age, that’s true. People going up Everest, into space, running the 4 minute mile. Nicholson, Busby and a few other visionary managers had to fight against the football authorities to be allowed to compete in Europe! Inevitably things can’t stay new forever so some of that has been lost. Familiarity breeds contempt.”

This is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip to bygone, better times. Martin is quick to emphasise that history is still being written. The run to the quarter finals of the Champions League was remarkable because it was so unexpected. He went to all the games that year bar the away leg against Young Boys.

“The Champions League was new for Spurs. The magic was back. We saw some great games of football and surprised our own supporters as well. Yes, the familiarity, the marketing, the over-analysis means the magic has gone from a lot of football but when it comes down to 11 versus 11, those glory glory nights aren’t clichés. When it works, like Bale destroying that team [Inter in the San Siro], that’s what you go for. I’ve never seen Spurs supporters go quite as mental. Nothing surprises you in football these days, but that did.”

The Glory Glory Nights, reviewed here, allows the story of Spurs in Europe to unfold by using those self-same contemporary newspaper reports that fascinated Martin as a boy, plus excellent photos, some of which have not been published before, ably chosen by art director Doug Cheesman to complement and enhance the mood. The sections on the sixties and seventies are eerily atmospheric. The text sets everything in an historical perspective without breaking up the flow and access to interviews from Chivers, Beal and others not only gives the players’ insights but proves that Europe was very special for them too. No other team can tell this story.

Martin’s first game was towards the end of the 1978 season, a 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers at the top of the old Second Division. “54th minute diving header from Don McAllister. 52,500, schoolboys’ enclosure West Stand.” Martin recalls the details with boyish enthusiasm. “Hairs standing up on the back of my neck seeing the camber of the pitch, getting in for 50p. Spurs had gone down and we had to get behind them to get them back up again.”

He continued to go to home games but drifted away in the 80s when he had a Saturday job and discovered girls and music. He picked it up again later in the decade when he started going regularly with a group of mates who went to a lot of away games. Football remains a social activity. and he’s irrevocably committed now.

“I had to admit to myself years ago that I’m a bit stupid when it comes to football.” He mimics an AA meeting. “My name is Martin Cloake and I’m a Spurs fan! It would take a lot for me to give up my season ticket. That’s what I do, I go and watch Spurs, and I spend far too much time, money and effort on all things to do with Spurs. I’ve done the same as every Spurs fan. Another bad season, that’s it, I’m not renewing, but I know I will always go.”

I pause to remind myself this is not me talking but someone else, such is the similarity of our feelings for the club. This craziness, it’s our reality, but at least this is about as far as it goes for Martin because he’s never done anything too ridiculous in the name of Spurs, apart from a day trip to Austria for an early round in Europe. I wondered if he enjoys it more now or in the past.

“Hmm, not sure. It feels like I enjoyed it more then but I still enjoy it now. I miss some of the edge. It was like in those days you went to gigs, it was overcrowded and there was no fire exit but it was part of being a kid. I got streetwise going to football. It shapes who I am. Some of my best friends, I’ve known over 30 years, been to their weddings, know their kids, that friendship began because we supported the same team. Some of the best times of my life have been going to football.”

Those friendships sustained him through dour times under Sugar and particularly under Graham where going to Spurs became a great day out spoilt by the football. “It wasn’t the fact he was an ex-gooner. We were not investing in the team and going nowhere. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, there wasn’t even a tunnel.”

“One thing I don’t like now is all the arranging, planning in advance. It’s annoying that some spontaneity and anarchy is missing, but there are great times when the ground still bounces. There’s a change in the crowd this year. I never want to be an old git moaning about how things were better in the old days, but something’s around. I like what the 1882 lads are doing, good to see a different generation finding out about the same things.”

Time for some choices. Hoddle or Roberts? Martin is reluctant to plump for one or the other. “I love Roberts’ spirit but Hoddle was the best player I ever saw live, a god to me when I was a kid. Roberts, you couldn’t wish for a more committed captain.”

His favourite Roberts’ story takes up the tale after Robbo put Charlie in the stand. “To let them know he was there, he kept sliding and ended up near the Arsenal bench. Peter Storey asked him if he was all right. Roberts said, yes, then Storey belted him in the eye and said, ‘Well, you’re not f**king all right now.”

Gascoigne is the other player that makes Martin wax lyrical. ” I would just watch him, he was so much better than anyone else. With the Hoddle team you had Ardiles too.” Modric and Berbatov are the more recent players singled out for praise.

And the scenario.  Under manager Tony Pulis and backed by Russian squillions, our long-ball, muscular game will win the league. Alternatively, we play great football the Spurs way, are contenders for the top 6, maybe more, but there’s no guarantee of winning anything. The club’s fate is in your hands. Martin deliberates carefully.

“Well, there’s something wrong about celebrating a 4th place finish but I guess I would have a duty to the club to get a top four place. We could go for the league playing the Spurs way but part of that is that we will find some of screwing it up. With a gun to my head, it’s Pulis and win the league.” He shudders. “I feel a bit dirty now….”

I can’t leave such a warm and generous interviewee on the horns of that dilemma for a moment longer. Time to move on and end with some great memories:

“Perryman, he was one of us, Labour voter, a suedehead….Chivers was a big hero, a goalscoring giant….i was terrible at getting up in the morning and I remember my mum shouted the news up the stairs, Spurs had bought two Argentinians. I strutted into school, Spurs have got two World Cup winners, what have you got!?…I bunked off school to go to Highbury for the cup semifinal in 81, one of my favourite Spurs games, Archibald and Crooks were brilliant, then I queued up all night for the final replay, the greatest final of the 20th century and saw Ricky score the greatest goal in a cup final in the 20th century, you’ve got me now, that’s where the drug started…”

It’s more important than ever in changing times to hold on to our heritage. The debate over our new ground brought this debate to fever pitch. Martin can see both sides but is clear where he stands.

“Look, I buy into the idea but know Spurs is not of its place any more in the sense that people round there don’t go to games, largely because it’s not a well-off area and they can’t afford it. It’s a little like us imposing our memories, creating our own heritage theme park when we go back there. But I’m glad that if the new stadium ever gets built, it will be close to the same stands where ‘glory glory hallelujah’ first rolled out. It was in that same patch of ground. I don’t know if the club realises the mistake it would have made if they had moved [to Stratford]. The magic and the connection the Spurs crowd has with the game is part of knowing that this is where its gone on for all that time. You are in the same stands watching the same pitch where Blanchflower, Mackay, Jimmy Dimmock played. How far do you want to go back?”

Amen to that.

The Glory Glory Nights by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley is published by Vision Sports


The Glory Glory Nights by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley

Order this book. As a Spurs fan, you must, or else drop so many hints to your loved ones that you wake up on Christmas morn to find ten coffee-table book sized parcels under the tree. Between now and then, listen to the radio, read the blogs, watch TV and make a note of how many callers and pundits say either that the Champions League is vital for financial survival or that finishing fourth defines success.

Then read the Glory Glory Nights. Take a quiet moment, all to yourself. Turn the pages slowly. Take in every detail of the photographs that cover every page. Read the text that describes the exploits of bygone times, of heroes whose time has passed but who will never be forgotten by those of us who ever seen the all-white strip with the proud cockerel.

Now close your eyes. Under lights, your world is spread before you. Nothing exists beyond the shimmering bright rim, not for 90 minutes at least.  Close your eyes and feel the chill in your lungs, the breath billowing steam from 50,000 pairs of lungs rising high into the dark north London sky. Feel the Lane shaking beneath your feet. This is what Europe means to Tottenham Hotspur. Glory. It’s what football means. Read and marvel at the glory of those european nights and anticipate nights to come.

This loving history takes its title from a book written in the mid 1980s and commissioned by Irving Scholar, which co-author Spurs blog 87Martin Cloake wryly describes as the best thing he ever did for the club. It keeps two key elements of the style too, the liberal use of photos and incorporating quotes and headlines from the following morning’s backpages, which gives a sense of time and place. As Martin says,  until comparatively recently fans relied on the papers for an account of the match because there was no other way of finding out what happened. Even the radio was confined to the bigger ties.

However, this is no mere revamp. It stands up in its own right as a tender tribute to a glorious past and brings out the enticing beauty and wonder of this entralling, all-consuming passion. The unobtrusive but insightful text sets the match reports, one for every single game, in context. Then, it allows the reader to explore the story for themselves as it unfolds. The images are stunning, chosen with care by Doug Cheeseman with an eye for the drama and passion the glory glory nights inspire. While the book rightly gives due regard to our modern successes, the black and white images are irresistibly evocative. Fans with rattles and cut-out cups gathering at the gates, players celebrating together and plenty of goals frozen in time. Mixed in is the surreal too; the Double team on an open-top bus with a man dressed as a clown clutching a stuffed monkey toy, Peters leading out the team past a row of giant Romanian urns in the tunnel or a man dressed as an ‘Aspurnaut’ parading round the pitch in the early 70s.

As a kid I had no doubt as to the meaning and significance of Spurs in Europe. My glory years began in the early seventies. We may have put 9 past Icelandic part-timers Keflavik but I knew I was part of a great tradition, the first British side to win a European trophy. Erratic and underachieving in the league (nothing changes…), play in all-white under the lights and we were transformed, a team that could beat any side in the competition. Frequently the glory glory lifted us to new heights, and to see Spurs win the UEFA Cup on our own ground not once but twice will live with me forever.

The book does my memories justice. There are extensive interviews with managers and players. In an age when we tend to think of players as primarily motivated by personal glory and vast wads of cash, it’s refreshing to see that they too bought into the myth. Europe was special to them and still is. The book avoids falling into the trap of becoming just a nostalgia-fest by giving due prominence to our remarkable Champions League run. Gareth Bale and Michael Dawson both fully recognise the magic of the Glory Glory Nights and were inspired by them. Make no mistake: those games away and home versus Inter or the astounding away victory at Milan rank up there with the best of the best.

European ties were magical affairs in far-off, mysterious places. It’s not that long ago, for example, when Spurs would kick-off not having seen their opponents play before. They had to think on their feet, changing tactics at half-time in order to cope with the unknown.  And Spurs were pioneers; the Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, the first to win two trophies, the first fans to fly abroad to watch their team. It tells the story of why Spurs and Europe have a special relationship, the tale of what it means to be a Spurs fan. Simply wonderful.

The Glory Glory Nights: The Official History of Tottenham Hotspur in Europe by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley published by Vision Sports. Click here for a special site to see inside the book

Look out for an interview with Martin Cloake, coming soon.

Review: The Biography of Tottenham Hotspur by Julie Welch

Why do we do it? The heartache and pain, the time, energy and money, the fury and frustration, all expended in support of a cause over which we have absolutely no control or influence whatsoever. Because we support Tottenham Hotspur. Read Julie Welch’s lovely, insightful and touching book and you will be inspired all over again.

More than just a history, The Biography of Tottenham Hotspur reaches into the heart and soul of the club. What marks out this club from most others is that it stands for something. Danny Blanchflower’s  famous statement that it’s not just about winning, it’s about glory and doing it in style, isn’t mere aspiration but articulates explicitly a culture and identity that dates back to the origins of the club in the 1880s on Tottenham Marshes.

For Tottenham Hotspur, it has to be good football, creativity and innovation. The Spurs Way is the right way. The pass and move approach lauded at Barcelona brought Spurs a league title in 1951 when Arthur Rowe called it ‘push and run’.Back in the early 1920s another great manager Peter McWilliam defined his tactics in exactly the same way. The mixture of flamboyance and exasperation, the sublime and the erratic that is familiar to readers of this blog would be instantly recognisable to Spurs fans of past generations.

As befits a biography, the book describes the club’s history while allowing the character to unfold and open up. Like Spurs, the Spurs blog 86writing is easy on the eye and draws you in. This is no dull history textbook. Rather, Julie is a storyteller, engaging and curious. She communicates her passion without allowing her voice to intrude or detract from the telling of the tale. It’s a measure of her skill and dexterity that she makes the journey from Tottenham Hale through the industrial landscape that covers the old marshes to our first pitch sound enthralling. And she’s not averse to the occasional gratuitous dig at our rivals: after all, she is a lifelong fan.

She freshens familiar tales such as the success of the Double side, the Nicholson era or the sordid conspiracies that brought the Gunners from Woolwich to north London, and by placing them in the broader context of the club’s culture and origins, enables the reader to look anew at more recent events that we’ve lived through. It kind of sneaks up on you, involving you in the story then in a couple of killer sentences nails its wider significance like a fine historian should. Be warned – set aside some time when you first open the covers because you’ll want to keep the pages turning, just to see what happens next.

Not all of which makes for pleasant reading. The late eighties onwards was a sobering read. Gross, Graham and Francis, and the inglorious reigns of Spurs idols Ossie Ardiles and Glenn Hoddle, goodness me how dispiriting they were, but as the current side teeters on the brink of new glory or yet another near-miss, it brings a vital sense of proportion. Being a fan isn’t about instant gratification. Read it and I defy you to rant on about the all-consuming Champions League.

Nothing really changes. Around the turn of the century the club was run by two dynasties of Jewish businessmen. ‘Up and coming club taken over by wealthy businessman in order to enhance his prestige. Club moves ground’ – 1890s or early 21st Century? ‘Club buys Scots, leads to great team’ – 1890s or 1950s? ‘Finances restricted by ground improvements, team slumps only to be rescued by a saviour who changes fortunes totally’ – that’s just page 58.

This is an enduring love affair. For better or worse. In any long-term relationship, there’s some give and take, although I suspect we supporters have put more into the relationship than the club has given back over the years. Through the anger and disappointment,  having been let down so many times, it’s worth it because when she touches me, nothing else matters. It’s a passion that makes us swoon and shake with unbridled joy, an experience like no other. Share that with thousands of others at the Lane and these are the unforgettable moments that make life worth living.

By the time you reach the end of the Biography, you feel closer than ever before to the club.  You will know more about the club and about yourself. About why you do those crazy things to watch a football team. About what it means to be a Spurs fan – about flowing football, pleasing the fans, about good football. About what it means to be you.

Look out for an interview with the author Julie Welch, coming soon.

The Biography of Tottenham Hotspur by Julie Welch is published by Vision Sports