Tottenham Hotspur: My Eyes Have Seen The Glory
Accidents of birth can be the strangest of things. My father has been a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur since 1946, and from the first flat that I called home in Lower Edmonton we could see the White Hart Lane floodlights from the living room window when a night match was on. However, due to the complications of being born to an older mother in the early 1970s, I was born in a long-forgotten annex of the the Royal Free Hospital in Liverpool Road, a short distance from The Angel, Islington, the heart of Arsenal territory. Perhaps this explains why I’ve never felt the North London rivalry as keenly as some.
There are tens of thousands of people better qualified than I to commemorate the passing of White Hart Lane, which hosted its last competitive match last weekend. I was never a regular attendee there, even in the days when it was a tantalisingly short walk away and tickets didn’t have to be purchased months in advance, and my trips there became even more sporadic, the further I moved from that particular part of the world. But I have memories, the same as anybody else who visits a large football ground during their formative years would have.
My first visit there wasn’t even to see the Spurs go marching on. In January 1981, my first true loves, Enfield, improbably reached the Fourth Round of the FA Cup and earned a one-act draw away at Third Division leaders Barnsley. With the Es even then creaky Southbury Road unable to cope with the replay and a Fifth Round trip to Middlesbrough at stake, the match was switched to White Hart Lane where an astonishing crowd of more than 35,000 people saw the Yorkshire side win by three goals to nil, with a one reports claiming that a further ten thousand people were locked outside the ground.
White Hart Lane’s capacity that season was reduced on account of construction work being carried out there. The new West Stand took fifteen months to complete and ran way over budget, and some might argue that this acted as a fitting metaphor for the years following its completion. At the time of the formation of the Premier League, Spurs were one of the “Big Five” clubs – along with Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton – invited to speak to Greg Dyke to float the idea of the biggest clubs breaking away from the rest. It is striking that, of the 1990 iteration of the “Big Five”, only two have ever lifted the Premier League trophy. And in the summer of 1991 Spurs were purchased by Alan Sugar, the man who built the boxes that would facilitate Sky Television’s acquisition of the game. Tottenham Hotspur were very much a part of the creation of Modern Football.
Only six clubs haven’t been relegated from the Premier League since its inception in 1992, and Spurs are one of them. Yet, for more than a decade, the likelihood of relegation always seemed more plausible that the likelihood of winning it. For a full decade between 1995 and 2005, the club didn’t finish above eighth place in the final Premier League table, and the “glory, glory nights”, so eulogised amongst the older sections of the club’s support, didn’t occur at all between the 1991/92 European Cup Winners Cup – yes, that’s how long ago that was – campaign and the 2006/07 UEFA Cup. With only a brace of League Cups to show for the last quarter of a century, small wonder that pressure was building on the club for substantial change of some sort.
As football changed and Spurs underwhelmed on a year by year basis, so White Hart Lane started to feel increasingly like an anachronism. A ground that had somehow squeezed a record attendance of 75,000 in for an FA Cup match against Sunderland in 1938, just four years after the not-inconsiderable sum of £60,000 had been spent on rebuilding the East Stand, had seen its capacity fall and fall, and the requirement to become all-seater following the publication of The Taylor Report saw its capacity eventually fall to just over 36,000. Talk of the club needed a new stadium began to amplify, first with the possibility of a new home at nearby Pickett’s Lock at the start of this century, then through the Northumberland Development Project (NDP) and a curious attempt to get control of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford after the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Whilst the NDP stuttered through planning applications to be the route that Spurs ended up taking, the bid for the Olympic Stadium garnered most of the media attention, but the decision on the part of the club to apply had the potential to divide the club’s support. Like so many London clubs, much of Spurs’ fan base lived in the commuter towns surrounding the city rather than in the locality surrounding the ground itself, and Stratford, which had received substantial transport infrastructure upgrades for the 2012 games, might well have been appealing to them. There was, however, a counter-argument that Tottenham Hotspur should remain a part of the community that it has been a part of since 1882 – indeed, its community work since the 2011 Tottenham riots has been widely praised – for better, for worse. West Ham United won the Olympic Stadium in the end. Spurs supporters, seeing the teething issues that West Ham had there this season, have likely not felt particularly strong pangs of jealousy at missing out on that, no matter how cheap it may be for West Ham’s owners.
It won’t surprise regular readers of this site to know that I fell into the category that supported Spurs staying in Tottenham. although I never really felt as though I had much truck in the argument. My family moved away from North London when I was eleven, and I moved away from London altogether eleven years ago. It won’t be me, the once-a-season-if-I’m-lucky supporter, who will be affected if the local public transport service struggles on match days at the new, 60,000 capacity stadium. It has certainly felt, however, as though the decision to build the new stadium adjacent to the next one has eased the transition for the fans. Just to be able to continue to call it “White Hart Lane” (the old ground wasn’t on White Hart Lane itself, more a short distance from it), even if a stadium naming rights deal does eventually go through, feels psychologically important for us, at least.
But there is a hint of trepidation in the air. Arsenal’s move to The Emirates Stadium has hardly led that club to a land of milk and honey, and the knowledge that no matter what happens things will never be the same can be powerful. And on top of that, being a Spurs supporter is to have to submit yourself to insecurity. Form at Wembley in the Champions League and recent FA Cup semi-finals has given a hint of nerves to using that ground for Premier League matches, even if no suitable alternatives were available. Furthermore, the current Spurs team is without question the best in living memory for any Spurs supporter under the age of sixty. But there are predators hanging around the gates at White Hart Lane offering financial inducements and agents who may well see a big money transfer as an easy way to make a seven or perhaps even eight figure sum in fees. Can the young, popular and successful coach and his young, popular and successful team be held together until after the new White Hart Lane is ready? Only time shall tell.
Such is the very nature of a football ground that it carries with it a degree of a feeling of permanence. Manchester City, Arsenal, West Ham United and plenty of other clubs left their historical homes and Spurs never did, until now. Everyone has their own memories of White Hart Lane, from the crazily narrow old entrances and the vertigo-inducing angles from the top of the stands, from the walks down Fore Street in Edmonton or up in the other direction from Seven Sisters underground station. Towards the end of its life, with the atmosphere having been sapped from so many of its contemporaries, it even felt as though it had one of the best atmospheres in the game, on a good day. We don’t know what the new stadium will be like. The huge, single-tier stand behind one goal sounds highly tempting and the artists impressions look exciting, but no-one knows what it will exactly be like until its doors open.
And the fact of the matter is that time marches on regardless. Just as the Lower Edmonton of my infancy is no now more than a figment of my imagination, so White Hart Lane, where construction work began the day after Spur’s defeat of Manchester United last Sunday, is already but a memory for all Spurs supporters. A very, very recent memory, but a memory nevertheless. It’s now down to the players and supporters to create new memories to supplement those created during the one hundred and eighteen years that the club, and generations of supporters, called it home. Some people may think the new place is better. Some may well think it’s worse. Of one thing, however, we must all surely be agreed. It will never be the same again.
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