A couple of weeks ago I took another late season trip to London to photograph a Tottenham match for Prime Media Images.
Twelve months ago, my April trip was something of a pilgrimage to photograph a first and last match at White Hart Lane, the football ground of Tottenham Hotspur I had visited on countless occasions as a fan over the previous 20 years. This season, the club has been playing its home matches at Wembley, England’s national stadium in north west London, ahead of next season’s move to a brand new purpose-built complex next door to the old White Hart Lane.
[Read the Composed piece: Final Whistle At White Hart Lane]
Again I had wondered and dithered over what match to cover. A big Champions League affair would have been nice. Or perhaps a North London derby against Arsenal – a match I have long wanted to cover. But with the matches ticking down, this one presented itself: an FA Cup semi final match against Manchester United. There was undeniable romance and a slew of early memories associated with Tottenham and FA Cup finals. From the famous 1991 Paul Gascoigne inspired victory over Arsenal which kickstarted my love of the club, to the painful defeat to Arsenal two years later, as well as later 1990s defeats to Everton and Newcastle. Since 1991 we had not won the trophy or made a final. But I had photographed them at Newport and Swansea in previous rounds of this year’s competition and they had not lost, so perhaps this time…?
My first time shooting at Wembley felt like the first day of big school. I queued outside the wrong media entrance like an idiot for about half an hour. Once eventually inside I kept getting slightly lost and told I couldn’t be in places when I was trying to find distance away from other photographers. When eventually settled into a position along a touchline, I was told I could not be there and had to move. With the clock counting down to kick off, only one spot close behind a goal remained, with a television camera largely blocking the goalposts. This meant I at least had a small distance away from the closest photographer, because nobody else had been dumb enough to position themselves with a television camera blocking their view of the goal. I decided to try and work with it. Challenging yourself by shooting from unusual, difficult positions can sometimes reap rewards.
A cup win would have been especially valuable for Tottenham during this delicate transition period for the club. Elusive silverware success might have served to bond and bind the players and staff. In recent years the side has achieved a consistently elite level of performance, finishing high up the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions League. That shiny new ground will be unveiled next season and the general infrastructure appears solid. But the club still has to look back ten years for its last cup win. With every semi-final defeat, failed Premier League chase and tournament elimination, the stigma of being ‘nearly men’ and ‘Spursy’ grows. Across London, Chelsea have experienced more upheaval and managerial changes but still scooped titles. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal also know how to win silverware, sometimes without always being at their best. Other clubs like Leicester and Wigan have enjoyed fleeting success. Tottenham never feature much.
But there was reason to be hopeful. Tottenham had comfortably beaten Manchester United here in the league a few weeks earlier. They should have scored more than two goals but were typically wasteful. United’s recent form had been better, but Tottenham were used to these surroundings. The game promised to be close.
It started well enough for Tottenham. Bright passing football on the front foot yielded an early Dele Alli goal after a smooth move. As in the Premier League match, Spurs looked in control. But unlike that match, the control steadily weakened. Former Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez expertly angled his head onto a cross and reversed its direction back across goal and into the corner of the net.
The beaming Chilean raced into the corner where was I was sitting for a knee-slide celebration. It was the only key moment of action in my corner of the ground and I captured it reasonably, the goal-obscuring television camera ultimately no major hindrance.
The balance of play after the break appeared, through the viewfinder at least, to be equal enough. That was until United crafted an opportunity which Ander Herrera finished firmly and simply. Big screen replays made me wonder if Tottenham goalkeeper Michel Vorm wasn’t a little slow to get down. Television pundits questioned if he shouldn’t have gone to block the shot with an outstretched leg. After this point Tottenham were downcast, spent. They passed and passed but without ideas, invention or belief. Harry Kane appeared blunt, comfortably marshalled by his England team-mates Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Tottenham faded out of the match. Manchester United won because that’s what Manchester United tend to do in semi finals. And having now lost eight consecutive FA Cup semi finals, losing is what Tottenham tend to do. But it doesn’t hurt any less. If anything, that familiar agonising heartache gets worse.
It’s painful to observe as a Spurs fan, and must be even more so for the legions of silverware-starved supporters more dedicated than me. In previous generations the best Tottenham players have moved on, often to Manchester United, and they have succeeded. Winning cups is what matters for players, staff and supporters. You wonder how much the current crop are now wondering, particularly Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. Will it ever be our turn? Have I had enough of this? Should I move on?
Watching it makes you feel weary, bitter, old and frustrated. It affirms the general unfairness of life. It makes those steep steps to Wembley Park tube station feel even steeper.
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