This blog post reflects on personal memories of White Hart Lane, the home ground of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, which the side will leave at the end of this 2016/17 season.
My grinning 12 year-old face reflects back at me from a shopfront window. We’re walking away from the stadium and down the Tottenham High Road. I’m proudly wearing my new Tottenham Hotspur flat cap and scarf, walking amongst my people, Spurs fans. And I’m elated, buzzing. Because we won. MAAAABBBBUUUUTTTTTT!! 2-1 to Tottenham!
Captain fantastic Gary Mabbutt scored a rare goal, a late winner in a tightly contested Premier League match against Nottingham Forest 2-1. It was December 28th 1992 and this was my first visit to White Hart Lane. That Christmas my parents had finally surrendered to the endless requests of their football crazy kid and bought tickets for a match at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, committing to a costly trip to London from a small village in Gloucestershire, a two and a half hour drive West.
That first dark blue plastic seat I folded down was in the upper tier of the East Stand. Memories of the debut trip were strengthened by watching the match on video several times afterwards. They include our new signing Darren Anderton looking weak in possession and receiving a lot of abuse from the fans; right back Dean Austin having a great game with one mazy Gazza-like dribble ending in a foul on the edge of the box; Neil Ruddock blasting the resulting free-kick just wide; an annoying loudmouth in the stand sitting behind us and a sense that he was annoying others too; an exciting touchline bust up between substitute Gudni Bergsson and possibly Stuart Pearce; Tottenham manager Doug Livermore not looking much like a manager; Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough in his trademark green jersey looking like a manager, albeit one of dwindling powers.
A young player in his first season named Nick Barmby gave us the lead after a flowing move neatly sliced open the opposition defence. We went into half time 1-0 up. In the second period Nottingham Forest had a renewed spark and built up a worrying amount of pressure before Scott Gemmill hit a speculative shot from distance. It left our Norwegian goalie Erik Thorstvedt grasping thin air and pinged into the goal off a post. My heart sank, a distant red corner of the ground erupted with tinny noise. We couldn’t lose now, could we? Here was my first taste of the jeopardy football fans live with from game to game. The score stayed level for most of the second half before Mabbutt struck from close range thanks to the tireless industry of Barmby. We held out for the win. On the full time whistle Neil Ruddock punted the ball high into the sky. Relief, joy, Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspur blaring from the speakers, a smile widening across my face. That was awesome!
Why Tottenham? It’s largely down to the Italia 1990 World Cup heroics of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker. Never hugely into football until then, that tournament ignited my passion. I would not see Gazza or Lineker play live and Tottenham remained a largely mediocre top division side for twenty years after 1990, but my support was unwavering.
This support was cemented by the 1990/91 season FA Cup win, and particularly that famous 3-1 semi-final win over our local North London rival Arsenal. The Gascoigne howitzer of a free kick goal from what seemed like half a mile away, Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman’s panicky flap, the commentary from Barry Davies: “…he is you know. Oh, I say!” I remember leaping from the armchair as it squirmed into the top corner of the net and Gazza set off on his celebration. Gascoigne’s skill across that whole season had been sensational and I watched the season review on video many times over. From then on I made my own VHS tapes of matches recorded off the television (technically illegal but everyone did it then, like cassette mix tapes), mashed together those stylish montages they showed in the build-up to matches, bought (or asked my parents to buy) video reviews of the season, overpriced merchandise. I pretended I was certain players, (usually Teddy Sheringham or Jurgen Klinsmann). I was Tottenham.
My later childhood adoration of striker Teddy Sheringham was such that a group of school friends succeeded in convincing me he had been sold to Newcastle United. With no other means of verification, only when I got home and rushed to check the football news on Ceefax page 302, as we all did every day, did I discover Sheringham’s transfer to be a hilarious joke. Deep scars of humiliation and fury remain detectable to this day.
My support was mainly restricted to the armchair: Match of The Day and the BBC’s live FA Cup ties. But for several years after that first trip in 1992, I regularly visited around my birthday in October and around Christmas time.
A pulsating 3-3 draw with Liverpool sticks out in the memory as one of the best games I saw at White Hart Lane in those early years of visiting. We’d been 1-0 up through a Vinny Samways strike at half time, then found ourselves 1-3 down (Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler x2) early in the second half. A Mickey Hazard penalty and a Darren Caskey diving header rescued the draw but there were still chances at either end after that. It was easily the best game I’d seen. The ebb and flow of open attacking football, two sides going at each other, the belly-churning worry: utterly engrossing.
Sitting in the South Stand lower tier, behind a goal and closer to the pitch, it felt more intimate than my first relatively sanitised and civilised trip up in the East Stand. There was greater atmosphere, urgency, more noise, singing, the thundering clatter of seats folding upright as people stood to get a better view heightened the drama.
In delicately poised matches when there have already been goals and there’s the distinct promise of more, a special window opens. Around the 70 minute point there is a fragile magic. Nervous looking defences face continued waves of menacing attacks. Nerves and noise reverberate between the stands and the pitch. Everything feels tantalisingly possible, teetering uncertainly. As a spectator, you are guaranteed a story will immediately unfold right here. You and thousands of other people around you are fully invested in it together. This expansive green canvas is ripe for theatre, entertainment, excitement, outrage, exhilaration, upset, devastation. It’s irresistible and agonising, a huge emotional bet you dare not make. Around the 70 minute mark, time becomes unfathomably malleable. Depending on the flow and the score it can feel suspended, stretched, condensed, or squeezed. How can all that have happened in 15 minutes? Until those three blows of the referee’s whistle and it’s over and you dare breathe properly again.
In fact-checking this post I have been shamefully sidetracked by match highlights on YouTube. Looking back, the Liverpool team of that day seems a bewitching blend of eras: Ian Rush, John Barnes and Bruce Grobbelaar lining up alongside Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman.
At full-time, jaunty Christmas songs played on the tannoy and people shuffled out of the ground. Before joining the hoards and moving to the exits I took a moment, wanting to prolong the stirring excitement of having witnessed and shared in the experience of this match. It was directly related to a similar pang of hunger I would experience around twenty years later after photographing the first of countless matches at an almost empty Cardiff City Stadium. Football was amazing and I would keep coming back to White Hart Lane for more.
This was the final match as manager for Ossie Ardiles after a weird and wonderful (if not glorious) kamikaze stint of attacking football which at times led with a famous five up front. Here we beat one of our arch enemies West Ham United 3-1 thanks to goals from Jurgen Klinsmann, Sheringham and Barmby, but the decision to fire Ardiles had already been made. I had a front row seat and was excited to catch the ball at one point – shiny, wet, bright white and surprisingly light – before throwing it back to full back David Kerslake. Seated in the West Stand lower tier near the away fans I was amused to detect the East End twang through the almost silent k during the chanting of “Wankers wanker wankers…”.
A match against Manchester City in early 1995 was postponed at late notice due to a waterlogged pitch. Hanging around the players’ entrance to collect autographs as players left, I felt glum about the wasted trip and wondered whether to return to my patiently waiting Dad, parked down a side street a short walk away. A forgettable looking bloke left the stadium, offering free vouchers up to the players’ lounge. I keenly rushed forwards, accepted a circular orange piece of paper (which I retained as proof for many years after), thanked the man and glided through the doors, giggling. After giddily climbing a a staircase to the lounge I collected autographs and met a number of players including Teddy Sheringham, who told me Jurgen Klinsmann had already gone home, and a young Stephen Carr, who seemed more interested in an Ireland rugby match on television than our chat. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was also in the room. I recognised him but didn’t get his autograph.
[Read the Composed piece: My Final Whistle At White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur v AFC Bournemouth, April 2017]
There were one or two organised coach trips for Tottenham fans from my area of the West Country in the mid-1990s. I went alone, but aged 15 recall being taken under the wing of a football team-mate from a village club I’d recently joined with a school friend. “Oi oi!!” he cried in recognition as I boarded the coach and walked down the aisle. There was no escape. A left back with a malicious streak on the field, ‘Taffy’ gleefully fed me beer, took me to a rowdy Tottenham pub and generally made me feel queasy. I have never visited the toilets in a ground so regularly. We beat Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 through a Chris Armstrong goal but I remember little else about the match.
A 2-4 defeat to Aston Villa attended with my brother in the fading days of the George Graham era. This was one of the darkest, angriest atmospheres I’d experienced at White Hart Lane. The native regulars were clearly deeply unhappy and expressed their feelings plainly. Every one of Villa’s goals seemed impossibly brilliant. They included a balletic Dion Dublin scissor kick, a stylish Benito Carbone dipping volley and a ferocious Alan Wright rocket into the top corner. David Ginola sulked and pouted his way around the pitch. When his hands weren’t on his hips they were often pointing fingers at team-mates.
2000/01. Dimly recalled wins against Southampton and Sunderland, one on the eve of 9/11, an abiding memory from which was Gary Doherty looking monumentally clumsy in the warm-up alongside the effortlessly nimble Robbie Keane. How was Doherty a professional footballer?
[Read the Composed piece: International Tournaments Make For Boring Football]
This was my only taste of the elite area that was the West Stand Upper tier. I was donated the ticket by an absent season ticket holder friend. People here were better dressed and there was less singing. I saw the heavily pregnant wife of our then player Jamie Redknapp, the former pop star Louise, on the way to my seat. She glowed more than Tottenham that day.
I can’t confidently recall every single visit now but there were several more which elude me. Probably with good reason, although it still frustrates me because I want to remember everything. Even the terrible games, of which there were a few. August 1996: Spurs 0 Everton 0. I remember nothing of this match except the dangerously inswinging corners of Everton full back Matt Jackson.
During a spell of almost three years living in West London up to 2010, it was possible to visit Tottenham more regularly. I was able to make it across town on week-nights, although at the weekends playing for a side was my choice, and it was never a cheap trip to make. There was one match in the North Stand upper and another in the East for a European game which was irritatingly obstructed by one of those awful pillars.
[Read the Composed piece, Bale’s Wales]
Most memorable during this time were the big matches watched on a television, usually in pubs around my patch of West London. Propelled by close but deserved late season wins over Chelsea and Arsenal, Gareth Bale growing in confidence, Tottenham found form and finally qualified for Champions League football. That 1-0 victory at Manchester City thanks to a Peter Crouch goal (and a pint or three) had me merrily iPod dancing in a supermarket aisle a good half hour after the final whistle (to the joyous debut album of Passion Pit).
Early 2012: an edgy 1-0 win over Wolves followed only a few weeks later by a 5-0 obliteration of a tame Newcastle United. The latter was an unusual match strangely neutered of any drama thanks to the earliness of most of the goals.
My last visit was back in 2012 during the mid term of Portuguese manager Andre Villas-Boas. I took my then newish girlfriend (now wife) along to witness the most dour spectacle imaginable. (Luckily she’d grown accepting of dour spectacles since we started dating). Wigan beat us 1-0 and it should have been worse. Tottenham were terrible that day and it’s always been a regret that she never experienced a live Tottenham goal.
In more recent years at Swansea City and Aston Villa I have seen Spurs play through camera viewfinders. While it has brought pleasure, you can never fully watch and enjoy a football match in the same way when photographing it.
Armchairs, sofas and pub stools have been my main places of proper concentrated viewing. Tottenham have had me on my knees in despair and dejection in the privacy of my various homes. They have had me sulking and skulking out of pubs, bitter, embarrassed, annoyed at myself for caring so much. The one most amusing for my friends was probably the February 2004 FA Cup capitulation against Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City. We squandered a 3-0 half time lead against 10 men to lose 3-4. How could the side betray us like that? Equally, there have been moments of pure joy thanks to heroes like Sheringham, Klinsmann, Keane, Defoe, Berbatov, Bale and Kane. They have had me punching the air with unbridled and uncharacteristic delight.
Hopefully there will be one final chapter and some slightly better photographs to add to these memories before Tottenham Hotspur leave the famous old White Hart Lane stadium at the end of this 2016/17 season, and move to a shiny modern structure next door from 2018/19. That could be a little emotional too. Watch this space.
POSTSCRIPT: Read my account of photographing Tottenham Hotspur V AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League, April 15th 2017.
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