Tottenham Hotspur: Goodbye To The Lane

by | May 22, 2017

There was a neat personal symmetry to Tottenham Hotspur’s farewell afternoon to what is already the “old” White Hart Lane.

My first-ever trip there was my first-ever football match. 10th November 1973. Then, as now, it was Spurs v Manchester United. Then, as now, Spurs went two-up. Then, as now, United pulled one back. Then, as now, it finished 2-1.

So, while Sky Sports were doubtless desperate to for referee Jonathan Moss to award a penalty when Dele Alli was tripped as he entered the penalty area with stoppage-time about up last Sunday, I was pleased that the next whistle drowned out by Spurs fans’ incessant noise was the final whistle.

November 1973 was less celebratory for both sides, languishing in the lower third of the first division, United having won the European Cup just five-and-a-half years earlier. And my memory has long told me that their top-scorer at the time had only netted twice, both penalties, and was…goalkeeper Alec Stepney.

They certainly had Yorkshire, and later briefly England, cricketer Arnold Sidebottom (Ryan’s Dad) at centre-half. “Dual” stars were not entirely uncommon in those days, when the football and cricket seasons kept themselves very much to themselves. But Sidebottom at centre-back was not a good thing. And such was United’s desperation that a bearded, bloated George Best was cajoled out of is “first” retirement to try and revive their fortunes.

Best, sort of, scored United’s goal that day. His 20-yard effort skimmed Brian Kidd’s head and Kidd, as he often has since, took the credit which wasn’t really his. But Best’s comeback went phut. And United were relegated after recent legend Denis Law tried to miss a late Manchester City chance at Old Trafford but mis-backheeled his shot into the net to win the game 1-0. Other results meant United were down anyway. But the symbolism of a tearful Law applying the coup-de-grace was irresistible.

What…White Hart Lane?…oh…yeah…sorry. That rainy November afternoon recognisably featured on one of the Lane montages broadcast on its final afternoon. The “action,” was the ball rolling into an empty net at the Paxton Road end, to the TV cameras’ right. And it jogged my memory of a quick Spurs free-kick against an even more all-over-the-shop United defence than normal.

The “goal” was disallowed. But Martin Peters plonked the re-taken free-kick into the net anyway, to make it two-nil, after Martin Chivers had given Spurs an early lead. Brian Kidd’s hair (pre-perm, otherwise he’d have stopped Best’s shot entirely) pulled one back before half-time. But Spurs held on with, I think, some comfort.

I remember marvelling at the pink newspaper being sold through car windows in the immediate post-match traffic jam. And I recall delightedly getting home to be told I could stay up for Match of the Day (it was a rare treat, I was only 28…ha…no…seven) as Spurs were the main match, something which was only revealed by the first half-time report to feature on the BBC’s marathon Saturday’s sports show Grandstand.

But almost as soon as I started going to the Lane, I had to stop again; a combination of the cousin who took me there deciding that Fulham were a better bet as they marched towards the 1975 Cup final, and parental guidance which made weekend Grammar School homework incompatible with Saturday afternoons at football.

I never understood that parental guidance. We lived, as I still do, on the slightly rude South-West tip of Greater London, so it was a long journey even BEFORE the interminable walk from Seven Sisters station. But, like most kids, if my weekend homework wasn’t done on Friday evenings it was rushed through on Sunday evenings, after The Big Match, London Weekend Television’s slightly snazzier version of MOTD which, naturally, more frequently featured Tottenham.

I was fortunate to miss Spurs’ execrable relegation in 1977. But less fortunate to miss a lot of subsequent fun. The 9-0 against Bristol Rovers, shown ahead of a Merseyside derby on MOTD. Hoddle “born” as “the Ki-ing of White Hart Lane,” especially those volleyed goals against Manchester United and Nottingham Forest (fans will know the ones). Wembley seven times in fourteen months.

I’d started watching Spurs a year-and-a-half after they’d won the Uefa Cup in 1972. I re-started a year-and-a-half after they won it in 1984. Spurs nearly won the league in 1984/85, with Mark Falco up-front. But they didn’t.

And the Lane to which I returned on January 8th 1986 was an almost-unrecognisably soulless place from what had seemed like packed, passionate masses to a seven/eight/nine-year-old in the mid-70s. They were relative masses, too. 42,756 at my first game (and I didn’t have to look that up). Over 50,000 at a game which violently (on-and-off the pitch) relegated Chelsea in 1975, a frightening occasion I was too small to properly see and too young to properly understand.

With the West Stand rebuilt in my absence and the epitome of the Lane’s new-found soullessness, it couldn’t hold over 50,000. And it certainly didn’t on my return, a Wednesday 2-1 FA Cup third-round replay win over Oxford United, remarkably one of football’s elite then and League Cup winners that April. I had to look THAT up, 19,138. And the scorers, Clive Allen and Chris Waddle.

AND things got worse before they got better. By this stage of my football-following career, I had become a Kingstonian fan home and away. So, my Lane trips were either midweek or TV-enforced Sundays. I wanted to go as often as possible, although that doesn’t REALLY justify my next game being a Screen Sport Super Cup-tie, a mercifully short-lived competition for the teams who qualified for Europe but couldn’t play because of the post-Heysel tragedy ban on English clubs.

Even the “high” point of that first season back, a 1-0 win over a yellow-shirted Arsenal – the only game I ever watched from the “Paxton” – was a late March non-event with “that end-of-season feel to it.” Not as big a non-event, though, as my next game, a 2-0 win over Birmingham City. Many, many thousands might tell you they were there. Only 9,359 WERE there.

So, 1986/87 came from almost of nowhere. Manager David Pleat’s tactical genius of 4-5-1 with Allen, alone up-front, becoming Jimmy Greaves for nine months. Allen was fed by Hoddle at his imperious, worth the admission money alone, best. And when Hoddle was at his imperious best…even making Steve Hodge look good. And I retain golden memories of two particular nights.

I went to the Leicester City game mainly to watch Hoddle. So, the Evening Standard back-page announcing his injury absence was a mid-journey blow. But to return were as tedious as go on, as William Shakespeare once wrote (though NOT about the Victoria Line to Seven Sisters). And even without the Hod, Spurs were magnificent. Calling Belgian striker Nico Claesen the Vincent Janssen of the time would be harsh. But his starring role in a 5-0 joyride was an unexpected treat.

It was 5-0, too, in the League Cup quarter-final replay against West Ham, Clive Allen hitting a hat-trick in nine late minutes of a terrific match. Great though Spurs were, the late goals flattered them a touch. Or, as my West Ham-supporting friend said, every 50 seconds, shaking his head, ALL the way down Tottenham High Road: “TWO-nil would have been a travesty.”

Payback for whatever that night was came in the form of Arsenal’s two “one-nil down, two-one up” victories at the Lane in the (in)famous League Cup semi-final saga. Arsenal’s triumph was based on two of their FOUR 2-1 wins at the Lane in 1987; (and I was at the lot), Clive Allen missing horribly when clean through on goal three times, and…THAT announcement.

I’d like to think that I reacted disapprovingly when the tannoy announcer said “should we get there” as an afterthought to his Wembley ticketing announcement. But I’m sure I was as dismissive as anyone of Arsenal’s chances coming back from an outclassed two-nil down on aggregate at half-time in the second leg (I’d celebrated my 21st birthday standing at Highbury’s Clock End as Allen acrobatically gave Spurs a 1-0 first-leg lead)

The Lane were never the same again for me. I know I went to the first game of the Terry Venables’ era, an uncomfortably squashed Sunday afternoon on an over-packed Shelf and a two-nil loss to Liverpool. I remember a 3-1 win over Hajduk Split in the 1991/92 European Cup Winners’ Cup, if not the surrounding European nights against Sparkasse Stockerau and FC Porto.

I still smile when recalling how a piece of inimitable Paul Gascoigne skill brought simultaneous admiring outbursts of “f**k my old boots” from two apparently unconnected fans behind me. And a League Cup-tie against Brentford in September 1992 was my last ever Lane game – it is a matter of considerable personal pride that I have NEVER attended a Premier League/Premiership game.

But only one other game stood out. And not for footballing reasons, although Gary Mabbutt’s thunderstruck winner against Luton in the 2-1 win which completed 1987/88 was genuinely outstanding. After the match, in the spirit of fan-protest kick-started by the burgeoning fanzine movement, I joined fans sitting on the “Shelf” to register implacable opposition to the building of executive boxes on the Lane’s version of the Kop.

Even for futile fan-protest, this was futile. The sit-in lasted until fans started needing the toilet. And we sang on the High Road for another half-hour, until the fans who were only there to avoid the crowds at the tiny Bruce Grove station started for home. The boxes were built, without any further ado. It may have seemed pathetic but…actually…it WAS pathetic.

Beyond a wry smile when they recovered from 4-2 down to draw 4-4 at Arsenal in 2008, I gave up on Spurs entirely when not-a-crook-oh-no Harry Redknapp became manager. Despite the obvious temptations of the current team, I am no longer a “Spurs fan”; I can see that Dele Alli is a bit of a knob in a way that true fans largely cannot. And, as opposition fans have noted disapprovingly, Spurs are barely “moving” from the Lane…and were on Tottenham High Road, anyway.

Still, the personal symmetry was neat.

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