Tales From White Hart Lane

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 12 December 2010.

Tottenham Away.

Throughout the week leading up to our game at White Hart Lane – and if I am honest, for a few weeks before it too – I was filled with some sort of grim foreboding. We all know that our form has dipped of late, but the thought of having to travel up to deepest, darkest North London on a cold Sunday in December was making me feel nauseous. The thought of losing to our old enemy was bad enough, but there were added reasons for my general malaise. The kick-off time didn’t help…a 4pm kick-off would mean that I wouldn’t even get back to my car until 7.30pm. There were recent memories of our past two defeats to add to the mix. The weather would be undoubtedly cold and grim. And of course, the thought of 33,000 baying Spurs fans is enough to make any Chelsea fan feel sick. A defeat at Spurs, too, would be the worst possible way to prepare for the two games against United and Arsenal.

My mind was muddled and I was reminded of one of those atmospheric Turner paintings of London, a cityscape out of focus and blurred with everything shrouded in a film of thick fog but, on this occasion, without any feint hint of light.

You get the picture.

I set off from my Somerset village at about 10.15am with the whole day ahead of me. It had been a cold night and the hedgerows were lightly dusted in hoarfrost. As I drove up the slight incline out of the village, with the former sight of a Saxon hill fort on top of the ridge of land to my left, a couple of pheasants flew up and over the hedge and clear of my onrushing car. The sky was pure winter blue with no clouds. The sun gave the naked trees a wonderful orange glow in the morning light. I was suddenly struck with the thought that I could have easily stayed all day in those fields around my home, photographing the twisted branches of those birch and oak trees, the rise and fall of the hills, the detail of the hedgerows and the ancient stone walls. The lure of the grim streets around White Hart Lane was not great at that exact moment in time. I had twelve hours away from this rural idyll and I let out a silent sigh.

So, a moment there for me to step back and question what motivates me as a Chelsea supporter to travel up to London, or wherever, and see us in the flesh. Maybe it’s just in my blood, to coin the old CFC advertising slogan.

I collected Lord Parky and we were on our way. We went through our plans for the day and we touched on the deficiencies of the team. Another sigh.

I spoke to Parky about an article I had read in the current “Four Four Two” magazine about an England versus Germany international played at White Hart Lane in 1935. It was a fascinating piece for a number of reasons. Over 10,000 Germans made the trip (a huge number for the time) in a propaganda exercise by the Third Reich. Most incredible of all, the England FA sanctioned the flying of a Nazi flag on one of the flagpoles atop the old East Stand. Even in those days, Spurs was noted for its large Jewish fan base (though I have often heard that Arsenal’s Jewish fan base is larger), so the local press was awash with protests leading up to the game. There is a chilling photograph of the German team on the White Hart Lane mud before kick-off with their right arms raised. It echoes the infamous photo of the England team, in Berlin three years later, being forced to do the Nazi salute despite protestations from the players.

The blue skies suddenly gave way to clouds as we headed into London and we were soon parked-up at our usual place at Chelsea. We then had plans to join Alan and Gary at The Railway near Liverpool Street. However, it sounded pretty rowdy when I spoke to Alan on the ‘phone and so we decided to have a quiet pint in The Famous Three Kings at West Kensington before heading east. We caught the tube to Liverpool Street and then the over ground train to White Hart Lane. We were fine, actually. Our friendly chatter was helping to allay fears of the game ahead. I had a text from a mate saying that Didi was on the bench, along with Frank.

This would be my eleventh visit to Tottenham. I admit, this isn’t a large amount of times, but I have a reason for this. As our unbeaten run against Tottenham gathered momentum, I honestly felt that I would jinx our form if I ever went to White Hart Lane. So, from 1993 to 2008, I only visited the home of our hated rivals on three occasions. Unfortunately, I didn’t witness the 6-1 triumph in 1998. My first ever visit was on a rainy day in September 1986 when we won 3-1 with goals from Mickey Hazard ( 2 ) and Kerry Dixon. Another highlight from way back was the 3-1 game in 1991 when “Judas” Gordon Durie was given the severest bout of booing I have ever witnessed. Happy days.

The funniest story about a Chelsea game at White Hart Lane involves the 1989 game when I was 3,000 miles away. This game took place just after I had left England to embark on a ten month holiday in the US and Canada. The old Leitch stand at Tottenham, the Shelf stand, the East stand – call it what you will – was being renovated and so Spurs ( Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle et al ) were playing to a limited capacity of just 16,000. I have the distinct feeling that Chelsea were not given access to any tickets. However, my good friend Andy and his mate Jonesy had somehow obtained tickets in the home Paxton Road End and they had to make out that they were Spurs supporters. We walloped Spurs 4-1 on that great afternoon and Andy tells the story that he and Jonesy even got the Spurs fans sitting around him singing “What a load of rubbish” as goal after goal went in. Andy always enjoys telling that story. I can well remember being at a state park in Virginia on the following day, having just put my tent up, phoning home and hearing the great news from my father that we had won 4-1 at Tottenham. It is with typical irony that during my 1989-1990 season-long sabbatical we finished in fifth place that season, our best finish since 1970. Great timing, Chris!

At 3.40pm, our train pulled in to White Hart Lane station and I was immediately reminded of the miserable walk back to the same station after our two springtime defeats in 2009 and 2010. As Parky and I crossed the High Road, with Spurs fans in the majority, I noted the shabby nature of the area around the stadium. There are two Spurs shops on that main stretch. There is a modern one on the corner with Park Lane, adjacent to the away section, but the shop on the High Road has boarded-up flats above. For an apparently glamorous club (discuss…) the area around White Hart Lane is as low-rent as is possible to get. The difference between N17 and SW6 is huge. I am reminded of an action-packed passage from Martin King’s “Hoolifan” every time I cross the road towards the West Stand at White Hart Lane…vibrant memories of bovver boots, Ben Shermans and shaved heads, circa 1967.

“We look wide-eyed out of the shop window as this herd of buffalo in Spurs colours gallops past, leaving clouds of dust in its wake.”

We were funnelled into the away stand, with home fans bellowing “Y*d Army” all around us. I reached my seat, high above the corner flag, four rows from the rear, next to Al and Gary. I had a lovely view of the police observation room with hangs, dramatically, from the stand roof.

OK – here we go, game on.

The Chelsea team were in all blue.

No white socks.

The skies were overcast.

The Chelsea support was in great form.

Hardly anyone was wearing colours.

Let’s go.

We were very surprised and, of course, pleased with our very positive start to the game. We peppered the idiosyncratic Gomez with a few shots and a lone shot from Bale was Tottenham’s only reply. Good vibes. However, after 15 minutes the entire Chelsea defence appeared to freeze as Defoe worked the ball into Pavlochenko who easily struck at Cech’s near post. The docile Spurs support roared and we groaned.

“Here we go again.”

However, we didn’t crumble and dominated possession in the first period. An Essien shot, a Kalou header, we kept going. We noted that Michael Essien still wasn’t back to his best and he looked rather sluggish…where were his surging runs? He needed to impose himself more. Anelka was a bit frustrating, but I had no real complaints in that first period. I didn’t like that their playmaker Modric was being given far too much space, but Spurs didn’t test Cech too often. Bale had a few runs down our flank, but Paolo was holding his own.

We were doing OK. I loved the two textbook tackles from John Terry. The second one broke up a threatening Spurs attack and as we broke up the left, in front of the West stand, JT was hurtling towards the box. The resultant cross was played ahead of him, but he still flung himself at the ball. What a goal that would have been. It was a pulsating match and I was getting stuck in to supporting the boys with gusto. It was a great performance from the Chelsea choir. On several occasions, I was croaking rather than singing, like in days of old.

At half-time, I was confident that we would get a result…I had seen enough to even wonder if we could snatch a win. Midway through the break, the Chelsea fans down below me began again…

“Don’t worry – about a thing. ‘Cus every little thing is gonna be alright.”

At the start of the second-half, Carlo substituted Mikel for Drogba. It was great to get Didi back on the pitch, but we all wondered why Ramires and not Mikel stayed on the pitch. If anything, for the first ten minutes, our performance dropped a few notches and I sorely wondered if our chance had gone. However, roared on by the Chelsea faithful in that tight south-west corner (how apt), we never gave up…we dominated possession and moved the ball consistently well. At times it looked like we lacked the cutting edge, but with Drogba on board we were able to vary our approach a little.

Gary and Alan were baying for Kalou to be replaced and eventually got their wish when Daniel Sturridge entered the fray. Not long after, a high ball up towards Drogba, a turn, a tussle with Dawson and a volley straight at Gomez. I was right behind the course of the ball and I could hardly believe our luck when the sheer pace and power of Didi’s shot meant that the ball spun up and over Gomez.

The Chelsea end went into orbit. We screamed and screamed. I began jumping up, grabbing and hugging a few strangers, and then I turned around and just “eyeballed” several other fans, screaming and pointing at them. I was well aware of this quite demonic behaviour, but knew that it was a sign of how important this goal was to our season.

Passion, noise, vibrancy, euphoria – all of it encapsulated in those top rows of the away end at White Hart Lane. I gave Gary a lasting hug and grasped Alan’s hand. This was a massive goal.

We pushed on and still dominated the play, even more so than in the first-half. We were playing as a team for the first time in quite a while and it was so pleasing. Malouda was getting more involved. JT and Ivanovic were holding things together at the back. Even Ramires was growing as the game progressed…there is a chance our new Brazilian can easily become a target for our boos, but we need to resist. This is a new ball game for the lad.

Throughout the weekend, I had been texting Danny in California about obscure Tottenham songs and midway through the game, I remembered another one – based on the Terry Jacks song from around 1974…“Seasons In The Sun.”

“We had joy, we had fun, we had Tottenham on the run, but the joy didn’t last ‘cos the ba5tards ran too fast.”

Oh dear – how many of our fighting songs really are fighting songs!

Frank Lampard had been warming up on the near touchline for a fair portion of the second-half and he enjoyed our support of him. In response, he clapped us and urged us on. Eventually, he came on and it was so lovely to see him back in Chelsea blue. I said to the bloke next to me “we can still win this mate.”

Still the Chelsea fans were going strong. One song in particular was met with a stony silence from the Tottenham fans –

“There’s no trophies at The Lane.”

In the last minute – the memories are rather blurred – the ball was pushed through to Ramires down below us. He touched the ball wide, but Gomez clattered him…I immediately glanced up at the ion-rushing Mike Dean and there he was – pointing at the penalty spot.

Oh boy – what a beautiful sight. All of us immediately began bouncing again, grabbing each other, yelping, even hitting each other…the things we do. I’m sure I would react along similar lines if I was watching in a pub or at home, but surely not so intensely. That is – I guess – going back to the start, why I bother to travel to watch Chelsea in the first place…everything is heightened, the senses go into overdrive, I participate in our history, I’m part of it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My camera was poised as Didier (why not Frank?) spotted the ball and we prepared ourselves for the biggest celebration since Anfield.

“Come on, son.”

“Go on, Didier.”

The shot and the save – 33,000 Spurs fans roared and we slumped.

Lastly, a Gareth Bale free-kick and, surely not! I was reminded of Robbie Keane’s last minute equaliser in the 4-4 game in 2008. Thankfully, the shot was high and we could hang on for the draw.

The final whistle.

As Alan said “we’ve played worse here and won.” It had been a fantastic game and I had enjoyed every minute of it. We clapped the players off and JT made a lone walk towards us. He had been quite magnificent. His best game for ages. He was an inspiration. He appeared to thump his chest and shout out “We’re alright, we’re alright!”

I texted a few mates, Chelsea and non-Chelsea alike – “Reports of our demise are exaggerated.”

What a game. It just goes to show that for even an old-stager like me, this fantastic game of ours can still leave me gasping for more. I met up with Parky outside the away end and we dashed back to join the quick-moving line at the train station. The home fans were subdued and we blended in. We spotted a few mates just as a punch-up took place a few yards ahead. One against one, the thud of attack and then the police arriving to arrest the lone Spurs fan.

We called back at Salvo’s at Earls Court for one last drink before we drove home. Back in the car, we admitted how much we had enjoyed this foray behind enemy lines. It had been lovely. It renewed my spirits for the tough days ahead – the next two games to start with – and it made me realise that even in the bleakest of days in a cold English winter, Chelsea Football Club still has the ability to raise our spirits like nothing else.

Love it.

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