Tales From The North Circular

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 October 2012.

On Friday evening, with the arid desert of the two week long international break thankfully behind us, I felt like an excitable five year old on Christmas Eve. We all remember that feeling. On any other night of the year, as a child, it was typical to eke out as much time in the evening as possible before it was time to head up to bed. I can well remember the glee when my parents relented after persistent pleading to have “ten more minutes” outside (to play football in the street usually, with light fading), before being herded inside and then taken upstairs to bed. Christmas Eve was different; get to bed early, try to get to sleep quickly, it will soon be Christmas Day, with presents and jollity and fun.

At 6.30am, the alarm sounded and, unlike weekdays, there was no need for me to utilize the snooze button.

This was Tottenham Away.

Bearing in mind the rivalry between the two clubs, the magnificent denouement to last season, which of course resulted in us elbowing Spurs out of the Champions League, and the added frisson of Andre Villas-Boas as Spurs’ new manager, I regarded this as the most important away game of the domestic season.

Love it.

At 8.15am, I had packed my match day essentials – ticket, wallet, camera, coffee – and I was on my way. Within a minute of driving through the misty village, I had disturbed some pigeons as they sat idling in the middle of the road. Feathers flew, but I didn’t have time to check if there had been fatalities. I think they had a lucky escape. I wondered how we would fare with our feathered friends from Tottenham later in the day. Would the cockerels be quite so lucky?

The early morning was shrouded in mist as I headed east. As I drove along the quiet country roads to the north of Frome, a huge lock of birds suddenly appeared to my right. They swooped down and across my field of vision and the sight was rather impressive, if not slightly spooky. I let my imagination run away with me for a few seconds and I chuckled as I wondered if the pigeons had been in touch with the starlings after the incident five minutes earlier. As I drove on, I looked back and saw around twenty black birds sitting, ominously, on an electric wire, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Gulp.

I took a swig of coffee and told myself to pull myself together.

Pigeons, starlings, cockerels, Hitchcock.

What did it all mean?

Thankfully, the next hour or so was devoid of similar incidents. In fact, the drive through Somerset, into Wiltshire and on into Berkshire was simply fantastic. Back in my childhood, my father used to take this route on his drive up to London for our twice-a-season pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge. For games at White Hart lane, I usually drive into London and then take the tube up to Seven Sisters. For a change, I had decided to drive all the way in and chance my arm with a parking spot near the stadium. The first hour was spent driving along the idyllic roads of Wessex, through towns such as Devizes and Marlborough. While thoughts of previous games at White Hart Lane flitted in and out of my mind, all was good with the world.

Slender church spires piercing the monotone grey sky, prim thatched cottages hugging the road, trees peeking out over valleys of low-lying fog, delicate Turneresque smudges of light as the sun attempted to burn its way through the grey clouds, red brick farmhouses, the surreal lunar landscape of the chalk down lands, the first tints of autumn on beech trees and the dull purr of my tires on the road below.

As my little capsule of contentment headed east, I was happy with my lot.

And Chelsea’s game at Tottenham was only a few hours away.

Seriously, what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

Typically, my mind wandered back to my youth; my first ever two visits to White Hart Lane during the early weeks of the 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 seasons.

In September 1986, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out in N17. After a far from impressive start to the season, we travelled to White Hart Lane and triumphed 3-1. The weather was dreadful, I got drenched on that long walk back to Seven Sisters, but I was euphoric. Only five months earlier, my first ever visit to Old Trafford had resulted in a Chelsea win. Two debut wins at my most despised opponents’ home stadia was just perfect. Although unmemorable in the main, 1986 at least provided me with those two excellent away days.

Less than a year later, we had got off to a flier with two wins from games against Sheffield Wednesday at home and Portsmouth away. The Chelsea hordes travelled in our thousands for this one. The attendance for the 1986 was just 28,000, but the 1987 one drew 37,000. I travelled up by train with Glenn and it felt like we were part of an invading army. We bought tickets (Glenn bought his from a tout) for seats in the upper tier of the Park Lane End and watched as our ranks were swelled with each passing minute. As I thought about the current limit of 3,000 away fans at all Premier League games, I became misty-eyed for those distant times. On that day in August 1987, I’d say that we probably had 10,000 fans at White Hart Lane. Those were the days my friend; for a moment, I was transported back in time. As kick-off approached and the terraced areas in front of our seats became swelled to capacity, there were calls by the Chelsea fans for the police and stewards to open up extra sections in the lower tier of The Shelf terrace, which ran along the side of the pitch and housed the Tottenham hardcore.

Eventually, an extra pen was given to the away fans. The Chelsea fans charged into the section, much to the chagrin of the Spurs fans above. It was all about territory in those days. It was all about how many you took to away games. It was all about numbers. These days, it’s difficult to gauge the size of various clubs’ travelling support because the limit is always 3,000. Back in those days, it was the size of our away “take” that was in many ways as important as the result on the pitch. In 1987, we travelled to White Hart Lane not because we were in the hunt for silverware. We just travelled to make a statement and to support the team.

Sadly, a last minute goal by Nico Claesen gave Spurs a 1-0 win, but the over-riding memory of that day twenty-five years ago was the fearsome size of our travelling support.

At 9.30am, I flicked on a Morrissey CD as I joined the M4. The next hour, save for some familiar tunes making me chuckle, the driving was rather monotonous. The fog thickened. It wasn’t so much fun.

Heading into London, the fog was still thick and the Wembley Arch to the north was not visible. Ah Wembley – memories of that 5-1 annihilation in April.

I exited the M4 and began a clockwise circumnavigation of inner London via the fabled North Circular. I don’t often travel on this road; the last time, in fact, was with Beth on our return from Leverkusen via Stansted airport last November. Before the advent of the M25 in around 1986, the North Circular – and the South Circular – was the main road used to traverse the great city of London. It acts as a ring road. It was and it still is notoriously busy.

As I drove through Ealing Common, with the road at its narrowest, I easily thought back on the years from 1975 to 1980 when my father would park on an adjacent side road and we would travel in by tube to see games at Stamford Bridge. My father was terrified of the London traffic and Ealing was as far as he could manage. Ah, how excited I was on those walks to Ealing Common tube station. My father’s last ever Chelsea game was against Everton on New Year’s Day 1991 and I’m pretty sure he parked at Ealing Common on that occasion, too. My mind became full of memories of match after match. They were layered one on top of another, just like the piles of bright autumn leaves on the Ealing Common walkways.

After Park Royal, from where we travelled in by tube for my very first game in 1974, the road broadened to three lanes. I had an eye on the clock and an eye on my speedometer. The traffic slowed to a halt on a few occasions. The road cut through inter-war housing estates, industrial areas and small parks. Signs for Wembley, Neasden, Finchley, Barnet and Wood Green. North London proper. It didn’t seem like Chelsea territory and, of course, it wasn’t. Sure we have pockets of support in this vast section of England’s capital, but this area of suburban sprawl belongs to the two North London teams. A large advertisement hoarding for an Arsenal shop at Brent Cross shopping centre emphasised the point.

I continued on. As I neared my destination, the traffic crawled along and my frustration was rising. How I’d hate to have to do this every two weeks. The only place to be every other Saturday certainly isn’t driving around the North Circular.

At last, I turned off at Edmonton and, via yet more slow moving traffic and a rather circuitous route, I eventually parked on Wilbury Way. It had taken me three and a half hours to cover the 125 miles.

Phew.

It was 11.45am.

I walked along Bridport Road and then Pretoria Road, past small industrial units, past the Haringey Irish Centre, where Cathy sometimes stops for a drink at Tottenham. I was soon outside White Hart Lane. Land was evidently being cleared for the construction of their new stadium which is planned to be built directly to the east of the current site. A computerised image of the new stadium appeared on a few hoardings. It looked impressive, but eerily similar to Arsenal’s new pad. This is no surprise; most new football stadia look as if they have been taken from the same blueprint these days.

Lower bowl, two tiers of executive seats, undulating top tier.

There is nothing special architecturally about White Hart Lane from the outside. It’s all rather dull to be honest. What makes it special are the memories of past matches and past players.

I shuffled past a heavy police presence in the south-west corner and entered the stadium. It was 12.15pm. While I waited for the kick-off, I spoke with a few acquaintances. It’s amazing how slow it takes for grounds to fill up these days. With fifteen minutes to go, the place was only half full. The team was the same as for Arsenal, apart from Cahill in for Terry. We heard that Gareth Bale wasn’t playing. Alan and Gary joined me just before the teams entered the pitch. There had been a few Chelsea songs in the pre-match build-up, but nothing from Tottenham.

As the match began, we soon serenaded the home fans of memories of Munich.

“We know what we are…Champions of Europe…we know what we are.”

Two lads arrived with a twelve foot long banner, obviously nicked from Munich, which we tied to the barrier right in front of us.

This was the Champions of Europe section.

Happy days.

Down on the pitch, Chelsea were in the ascendency and were pushing the ball around intelligently. The sun briefly broke through the grey sky and White Hart Lane looked a picture. It is a very neat stadium.

The songs continued.

“We won 5-1 – Wembley.”

“We won 6-1 – at The Lane.”

“We are the champions – the Champions of Europe, we are the champions – the Champions of Europe.”

“That song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

“You got battered, you got battered, you got battered – in Seville.”

“Love the Old Bill – in Seville. Love the Old Bill – in Seville.”

We were certainly in good voice and our team were responding well. Our midfield maestros Oscar and Mata were soon probing away and we looked calm and relaxed, often finding room on both flanks. A corner to the far post was headed back across the box by Gallas. Gary Cahill had peeled away from his marker on the near post and met the dropping ball on the penalty spot with the sweetest of volleys. As a planned corner it could not have worked better if Gallas was still a Chelsea player. The ball thundered into the net. It was a volley which reminded me of the strike by Ivanovic in the Norwich game.

I captured Gary’s joyful run back towards us in the southern Park Lane end on camera. He was being chased by his gleeful team mates and their happiness was matched by ours.

Get in.

Our excellent play continued, but we didn’t carve out many chances. Tottenham tested Cech a little, but the defence held firm. Mata should have made it 2-0 as the interval approached but he shot over after he followed up his own shot after it was parried by Brad Friedel.

With memories of that night in Naples, Ashley Cole was able to scurry back and head a dipping cross off the line. Two fantastic blocks in quick succession – I think by Cahill and Ivanovic – told me all I needed to know about this new Chelsea team. Both players flung themselves at the ball with no respect for personal injury. It was magnificent to watch. Fantastic stuff.

At the break, talk was all about us playing well, but we were all rueing the lack of a second goal.

Well, the opening period of the second-half was a nightmare. Our concerns about that missing second goal came to fruition. Within ten minutes, defensive lapses had presented Tottenham with not only an equaliser through Gallas but a second goal via Defoe. The home crowd roared both strikes and the sight of all the gurning Spurs fans goading the Chelsea fans to my left and right was sickening.

White Hart Lane came to life. The uber-slow dirge “Oh when the Spurs…go marching in” echoed around the white tub of the old stadium. I hate it because it reminds me of that 2008 Carling Cup Final, but the Spurs fans certainly love it. It’s the one time they all get behind the team. The noise was deafening and we were momentarily quiet and subdued.

We were staring our first league defeat in the face. We hadn’t won at Tottenham in the league since 2005. Our unbeaten run of thirty-two league games against Spurs from 1990 to 2005 suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was time for us to buck that trend. It was time for the players to respond. It was Roberto di Matteo’s first real challenge of the 2012-2013 league season. There was a niggling doubt that our three marauding midfielders would not be able to offer the two holding midfielders enough cover and assistance. Not just for this game, but throughout the whole campaign. I sat and wondered if our new playing style might be one-dimensional and too fragile. I looked at the Spurs midfielders – Sandro, Sigurrdsson, Huddlestone – and I looked at the slender Mata, Hazard and Oscar.

This was a big test alright.

To be truthful, Hazard had been the least impressive in the first-half. Suddenly, the overwhelming good vibes at the break had turned into feelings of worry and concern. There were cat calls amongst the away support. Fernando Torres, though neat in possession, seemed to be unwilling to run and test the Spurs defence. Too often, he stayed still, rather than exploit space.

Tottenham fired a few long range shots at Cech, but thankfully they tended to be straight towards him.

We need not have worried.

With Mikel and Ramires starting to re-exert themselves in the middle, the rhythm of the first-half soon returned. We enjoyed watching some wonderful flowing football. A loose clearance by Gallas – it was turning out to be his afternoon after all – fell at the feet of Juan Mata on the edge of the box. With ice cold blood in his veins, he took a steadying touch and calmly drilled the ball into the goal, with just inches to spare by the post.

YEEEEESSSSSS!

We were bouncing again. The Chelsea corner exploded with joy.

This was turning into some game. Remarkably, Defoe forced a supremely athletic save from Cech with a dipping shot. Then, a magnificent move resulted in more joy for the three thousand royal blue loyalists. Mikel played the ball to Hazard, who was now a lot more involved. His delightful first-time ball cut straight through the Spurs defence and into the path of the advancing Mata. It was the pass of the season.

Mata clipped the ball past Friedel and we were 3-2 up.

YYEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!

Oh boy.

What a game.

I found myself yelling awful abuse at the Spurs fans in the distance and I somehow felt cleansed for the experience.

Spurs had a couple of half-chances. Juan Mata could have scored another. He then played in Torres, but his studied strike towards the far post narrowly missed the target.

To our surprise, Daniel Sturridge took the place of the magnificent Oscar when we all expected Torres to be substituted. I commented that Jose Mourinho would have brought on at least one defender with us being 3-2 up. The days of narrow pragmatic wins were now a distant memory.

Attack or be damned.

With Spurs pushing for an equaliser – amid horrible memories of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser in the ridiculous 4-4 draw in 2008 – Walker was robbed by Mata on the far touchline in front of The Shelf. He painstakingly passed the ball across the six yard box for Studge to almost apologetically prod home from four yards. Behind him, Torres.

It was one of those days for Nando.

We roared again, though our screams of delight were mixed with howls of laughter too. We turned to the intense figure on the Tottenham bench for one last bout of piss-taking.

“Andre – what’s the score? Andre, Andre – what’s the score?”

Mr. Villas-Boas was not available for comment.

This was a stunning game of football. Not only did we play some wonderfully entertaining stuff, but the nature of our recovery was emblematic of the new found confidence running through this team. Although Mata deservedly garnered all of the attention, and Cech kept us in the game, I need to mention Mikel and Ramires, our two quite dissimilar bastions at the base of our midfield five. They were quite simply magnificent. Who could have possibly thought that our movement away from a physical style of football to a more entertaining variant would be so easy?

Transition season? What transition season.

On the walk back to the car, all was quiet among the Tottenham fans. There seemed to be an air of sad acceptance that Chelsea had prospered. I hate to say this, but I’m genuinely starting to feel sorry for them.

Wink.

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