t’s the camber I remember. Emerging onto the stone terrace at the front of the West Stand and seeing the vast expanse of grass spread out before me, curving away towards the far side. It took my breath away, the size and majesty of it. It was April 8, 1978. Spurs v Bolton Wanderers. Don McAllister, diving header, 1-0, 50,000.
Since then, White Hart Lane has become one of the most familiar places in my life.
I have known it longer than I’ve known most people.
I have spent far too much time, emotion – and money – there. I have loved it with a passion and nothing will ever replace it.
Tomorrow will be difficult. Because it is the last time. For ten years I’ve known this was going to happen, but now I don’t know how I will deal with it. I know we are supposed to look forward with confidence to a bright new future, that you can’t stand in the way of progress, that the big new shiny expensive stadium is what is needed to take us on to the next level. But right now I couldn’t give a tuppeny one about all that.
I just want to be with my stadium. One last time.
That first time was not the kind of first time that’s usually in the script. I didn’t go with my dad or another relative. My dad wasn’t around. My mum and nan, who brought me up, would no more go to a football match than walk into a pub.
Despite growing up in Haringey, I had no school friends who were Spurs fans. So I went on my own. On the bus from Alexandra Palace. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I got there early because the rumour was it was going to be a big gate. I saw a sign for the schoolboys’ enclosure. I handed over my 50p and I was in.
It was a sense of duty that took me. We fans like our noble causes. Spurs had been relegated the previous year, something that had caused no end of bother in the school playground, and the word had gone out that ‘we’ needed to get behind the team and get them back up. My family was not a footballing family, I didn’t have any of it drilled into me. It was just there. So I took my 13-year- old self along despite my mum’s protestations. She’d seen front page pictures of fans with darts in their eye. I’d seen my team in trouble.
I grew up at White Hart Lane. I met friends, I became streetwise, I learned how to read a crowd. I picked up the history and traditions of my club from the terraces.
I started to feel part of it.
In those early years I loved getting to the ground early and watching the atmosphere build. You always looked for The Shelf, the best terrace in the country with the best view, stretching across the middle of Archibald Leitch’s iconic three-tiered stand with its mock-Tudor gabling. The Shelf was where the singers stood, and you had to earn the right to stand in the middle two pens. I spent months working my way around from the Enclosure, onto the Paxton, then under the floodlight at the north east corner, the lower tier of the east, and then the outer pens of that hallowed middle section. You needed to know the songs and learn the moves. You wanted to fit in.
On that first day against Bolton, the sight of The Shelf in full voice, scarves aloft, bellowing– it was 1978, give me a break here – inspired me. It was incredibly powerful. I wanted to be part of it.
I made the middle sections, surging dangerously and thrillingly down the terraces as another chorus ofbroke out, dodging the beers it sent flying, trying to catch the eye of the Percy Dalton’s peanut sellers.
“Nuts, all roasted”.
I formed lasting friendships. I waited outside and got Steve Perryman’s autograph. I walked across the borough in the early hours to queue for a ticket to the 1981 FA Cup final replay and got one of the last few hundred. I saw great games, ugly scenes, triumphs and disasters. I laughed and I cried. I got thrilled and I got bored senseless when the club lost its way. I saw great players. I got to know every part of that ground.
I lived at White Hart Lane, really lived. Being part of that crowd, in full voice, when the roof is lifting and the stands are bouncing, is better than drugs. It means something because it is ours. If you have never stood and given your all in the midst of a football crowd, your football crowd, you have not lived.
It is not only the stadium but the network of places that surrounds it that makes it special. And by places we really mean pubs. The Antwerp, the Brewers, the Bricklayers, the Irish, the Bell and Hare, the Gilpin, the Beehive…
I raise a glass to each and every one where I have sat and shot the breeze and sung the praises of the boys from White Hart Lane.
You’ll read plenty about the football, and rightly so, because this blessed plot, this earth, this realm has seen so, so much magic. But for so many of us this stadium is so much more than a sporting arena. This other Eden, demi-paradise has been the centre of a way of life. And now it is going, life will never be quite the same again.
My eyes have seen the glory, and my heart has felt the lift of true love. And I can say, unashamedly, that I have never known a love like it.
And when the lights are turned out and we take our leave for the final time, my heart will break.
- Martin Cloake is co-author of The Lane and A People’s history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.