A week ago, it all seemed to be just about decided. A public meeting with Haringey Council ended with a vote that was unanimously in favour of the planning proposals for the new Tottenham Hotspur on a site adjacent to their current ground on White Hart Lane. The plans now only have to be signed off by the Mayor of London in order to be able to begin. Spurs supporters were understandably jubilant. The new ground would bring critical redevelopment to one of the most run down quarters of North London and would might perhaps finally bring out the latent Spurs support, which has long since been frozen out of the old White Hart Lane’s relatively meagre 36,000 capacity. Within seven days, however, there are question marks over whether Spurs might actually be more interested in moving to the Olympic Stadium, a move that has been framed by a very, very public exchange of words with the owners of West Ham United. Indeed, many are now wondering aloud whether Spurs’ interest in White Hart Lane might have been engineered for the benefit of both parties.
Earlier this week, some curious headlines started to appear in the press suggesting that the Olympic Stadium was starting to gain ground as at the very least a back-up plan, should anything go wrong with the plans to redevelop the White Hart Lane site. This story must have been leaked to the press from somewhere, and eyes turned towards the sports and entertainment giants AEG, who are Tottenham’s “partners” in the work towards a new stadium. AEG talked openly of plans to remove the running track at the Olympic Stadium and of how only a club the size of Spurs could fulfil the commercial potential of a stadium of that size. It wasn’t particularly edifying to read, and it has caused considerable anxiety amongst many Spurs supporters. By this afternoon, Spurs themselves had to release an official statement that seemed to be distancing themselves from AEG’s comments and concluding that, “…we continue to progress the application for the Northumberland Development Project with Haringey Council and will continue to do so with a view to achieving full consent”. An element of uncertainty seems to have been breathed into an issue that was all but signed and sealed just a few days ago.
What we know for certain is that West Ham’s owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, covet the Olympic Stadium for West Ham United very much indeed. Any degree of investigation into the subject, however, seems to reveal at the very least deep fault lines between West Ham supporters over whether their club should move to Stratford or not – indeed, this recent poll of West Ham United supporters seemed to indicate that a significant majority would prefer not to move there. This morning, however, the Daily Mail got in contact with David Sullivan, who managed to come out with a quotation that turned out to be as much of a headline-grabber as the original story about Spurs’ rumoured interest in the site:
It would be such a slap in the face to east London. If it happens, there will be real problems that could easily lead to civil unrest. I think there could be riots, such is the ill feeling between West Ham and Spurs and I know the police feel the same.
Such a statement, coming from the owner of a Premier League football club, certainly raises eyebrows. Why would Sullivan make such an obviously inflammatory statement? It has been suggested that he has an obvious motive for doing so. If the owners of West Ham United can unite the supporters of their club behind a common enemy, it may the job of persuading them that are looking forward to moving to the Olympic Stadium with, to say the least, a degree of concern somewhat easier. Considering that the two clubs still have to play each other once more in the Premier League this season, ratcheting up the tension between two sets of supporters that both have an element amongst them that don’t need much of an excuse to fight seems foolish, to say the least. If there is any trouble when the two teams meet again at White Hart Lane later on this season, we will look forward to his comments on the subject.
None of this isn’t to say that any notion of Spurs moving to the Olympic Stadium doesn’t carry an air of shabbiness about it. Unlike other parts of the country, London is distinctly tribal from area to area. Outer London is largely made up of villages, hamlets and small towns that have become subsumed into the city in recent years (this map of London, from the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, shows urbanised London petering out only as far north as Regents Park), and the rivalry between London football clubs that is possibly the most visible continuing manifestation of this curio of the development of London as one of the world’s biggest cities. It’s not just a matter of Spurs moving ten miles up the road. It’s a matter of Spurs talking of moving into what, by most reasonable definitions, would be considered West Ham “territory”.
The flip-side to this, however, is that Spurs could be playing a little brinkmanship of their own here. Haringey is not a wealthy part of the world and the redevelopment of the site around a new Spurs ground on Tottenham High Road would bring significant benefits to the environment that the club has inhabited since 1882. Such developments, however, won’t be cheap and where the dividing line comes in such paying for upgrades to the local area is blurry, even more so when we consider the sort of cuts that local government might be looking at over the next few years. The Olympic Stadium would be cheaper (converting it into a permanent stadium for hosting Premier League football would cost around £150m-£180m while the possible cost of a new stadium as per Spurs’ original plans could well top £400m), but could Spurs, as one of the biggest money-spinners in their particular corner of London, being trying to wrestle a better deal when the costs are divided up?
Ironically, for all of the talk of the Olympic Stadium, many – probably most – supporters of Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United would be happier to stay where they are. White Hart Lane remains the spiritual home of Tottenham Hotspur and the fact that the new grounds plans are so close to the site of the existing ground is no small part of the reason for the level of enthusiasm that many Spurs fans have for their new home. In recent years, they have been reasonably well run by Premier League standards and, at this stage, they are just the signature of the Mayor of London away from having absolute confirmation that they can start work. Brinkmanship or no, their existing plans are the ones that the club’s supporters want to see the club come through with. West Ham United, meanwhile, do have the option of looking elsewhere for a new ground of their own, but the fact of the matter is that The Boleyn Ground could also, if necessary, be upgraded. For Sullivan and Gold, however, neither of these two options seem to appeal to the sense of largesse that seems to follow these two around. Whether the Olympic Stadium is or ever will be properly suitable as a football ground, meanwhile, remains a debatable point and the broader question of whether any sort of “olympic legacy” would be best served by giving the most visible monument to the 2012 London games to a Premier League football club is more questionable still.