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Saturday 29 April 2017

A Sentimental Last Stroll Down The Lane?

5p for a programme...those were the days!
Can anyone identify any of the autographs?
            It was previously rumoured that the reason Spurs hadn't announced any plans to acknowledge the demise of their dilapidated old ground was because they hadn't quite given up hope of playing there next season. However Friday's confirmation that their home games will be played at Wembley means that Sunday will definitely be the last ever North London Derby at the Lane and I guess there's no better excuse for indulging in a bit nostalgia.

            For the majority of Spurs fans, the intense level of bitterness felt towards the Arsenal is in direct proportion to the lifetime they've spent suffering in our shadow. The resulting fervent acrimony between the two sets of fans has ensured that younger Gooners have grown up believing it to be their birthright to be able to have nothing but scorn for "the scum" at the wrong end of the Seven Sisters Road.

            Yet it was only on shooting the bitter cold breeze, outside the Emirates prior to Wednesday's game that I was reminded that there was a time when the North London Derby was more akin to the Merseyside equivalent, where families with supporters in opposite camps could happily stand alongside each other on the terraces, without risking life and limb.

            Before all the tribal aggro began in the 70s and back when "boring, boring Arsenal" were still trying to grind their way back out of the shadow of the Lilywhites' Glory, Glory boys of '61, it was fairly common amongst North London football fans to make the trip to opposite ends of the Seven Sisters Road on alternate weeks.

            My old man wasn't a diehard Gooner, he simply enjoyed watching footie and apparently like many others in those days, he was often in the habit of going to the Arsenal one week and Spurs the next. In fact, back when Bill Nicholson's team (including the likes of Chivers, Greaves, Gilzean and Mullery) was that much more entertaining to watch than Bertie Mee's more dour outfit (of the likes of Radford, Graham, McLintock and Storey), I can recall my dad taking me to the odd Spurs away game!

            I often say that I only ended up a Gooner because my bony little bum was far more comfortable on the padded seats of the West Upper at Highbury than the hard wooden equivalent at White Hart Lane. Perhaps it was merely youthful rebelliousness, as there were plenty of Spurs fans in my extended family, many of whom would regularly harangue me about the insanity of me forsaking the flair football on offer at Spurs, in order to support the Gunners more prosaic game. 

            The fact that I played as a left-back as a kid might've made me more appreciative of the Arsenal's defensive traits and their ability to shut shop, but whether it was the famous Marble Halls and the stadium's Art Deco grandeur, or the camaraderie evident in the steamy, crowded cafe in the bowels of the West Stand, there was a certain "je ne sais quoi" that seemed to make going to THOF that bit more special than matches at White Hart Lane.

            Mind you, as far as I was concerned there was definitely one major attraction about White Hart Lane, as my old man was an extremely gregarious geezer who could charm the leaves from the trees. There was a steward in the West Stand at Spurs who regularly let him pass through this magic door, which led to the players car park. So while my programme collection from the late 60s, early 70s includes Arsenal programmes with autographs from the odd celebrity Gooner, who frequented the plush 100 Club in the West Upper at THOF, like DJ Pete Murray, I've got tatty old Spurs programmes covered in the spider-like scrawl of the star players of the day, sadly many of which are utterly unidentifiable.

            I feel extremely privileged to have been present for both of our historic title triumphs at the Lane and compared to the euphoric ecstasy of these two occasions, it's ridiculous to get too depressed about the prospect of throwing Spurs fans a rare bone of finishing above us, for the first time in over a couple decades. 

            In fact, as I was trying to console myself in a teasing text battle with one of my Spurs pals, they've grown so accustomed to being left trailing in the Arsenal's wake that so long as they don't end up winning the bloomin' title, it's likely to prove far more satisfying if their expectations are raised and they are fooled into believing that their time has finally come, only to have all this hope quashed, when normal service is (hopefully!) resumed next season.

            In recent years the level of animosity from Spurs fans has become so intense at the derby game on their turf that I've grown to view the short hop from Highbury to Tottenham with the same amount of enthusiasm as I would have for a trip to the dentist, with the principal ambition being to get there, get in, get out and back home with the minimal amount of suffering.

            If I had a nine-year old kid, I'm really not sure I'd want to be taking him to tomorrow's game, knowing I've seen youngsters literally brought to tears by the frighteningly aggressive hostility witnessed in and around the ground in recent times. Fortunately it was a different story back in 1971, when I'm embarrassed to admit that I squeezed into White Hart Lane with nearly 52,000 others (with just as many locked outside), with an Arsenal rosette on one side of my tiny little chest and a Spurs rosette on the other.

            The Spurs rosette had long since bitten the dust by the end of the evening, when we worked our way around from the Paxton Road to the West Stand, to join all the Gooners who'd taken over the stadium and we took it in turns to serenade the thousands who'd invaded the pitch. Glory hunter that I am, I suppose this was the night when any sense of split loyalties evaporated and mercifully I became a firmly committed Gooner.

            In view of there being more than a little sentimentality attached to tomorrow's outing, I hope you'll forgive me if I take the opportunity to give this particular anecdote one more run out (with apologies to anyone who's read it before). It was the 20th anniversary of my old man's passing a few days ago and it was amazing that my memories of that incredible night in May '71 were so fuzzy that it wasn't until the occasion of my dad's funeral, some twenty-six years after that I was able to fill in some of the blanks, thanks to a Spurs supporting lad who lived down the road, who was with us on the night and who I naturally found myself reminiscing with, when he came to pay his respects.

            Ian was (and still is) a couple of years older than me and with his old man working on the day, dad offered to take him with us to White Hart Lane. Going to football wasn't an outing that required military planning, months in advance back in those days, prior to era of football hooligans that sadly resulted in the advent of "all ticket" matches. The fact that one could turn up and queue for unreserved seating meant that going to a match was a far more spontaneous thrill.

            Growing up in Edgware, long before mobile phones, my old man would often walk back into the house midday Saturday and if he fancied going to a game at either Arsenal, or Spurs, we'd walk down to the main road and stand on the corner, waiting for anyone he knew to pass by heading to the match, so he could flag them down for a lift.

            I've heard several tales over the years of those who actually had tickets for the momentous meeting on Monday 3rd May '71, but who never made it into the ground before the gates were locked. I was extremely fortunate that my old man had "more front than Sainsburys" and with him having driven us up to White Hart Lane after school, the queue for the unreserved seating in Paxton Lane already stretched around the corner and along Tottenham High Road.

            It was Ian who reminded me that my dad had marched up to a copper and come out with a yarn about leaving his pitch in the queue just to fetch the two of us from school. I'm sure we wouldn't have made it into the ground, if he hadn't blagged his way in near the front and amongst my most vivid memories of that magical night was the mad rush, when the gates eventually opened and reassuring protection of my old man's arms, wrapped around the shoulders of the two of us nippers, as he shepherded us to into the turnstiles.

            In such extremely fraught circumstances, where only a win, or a 0-0 draw would suffice to take the title, I've a vague memory of the explosion of pent up euphoria when Ray Kennedy's header hit the back of the net, with only minutes left on the clock. But with this being the moment when Arsenal fans were finally able to consign Spurs feats of '61 to history and lord it over our North London neighbours, it was the tumultuous post-match celebrations and subsequent events which stuck most firmly in my mind.

            Having joined all the Gooners in the West Stand, chanting back and forth to those on the pitch, we eventually made our customary exit, through the door which led to the players car park. And as we're wandering around, with me in absolute awe, as my dad collared some of my heroes for autographs, who should pipe up asking if anyone was going past his parents' hotel, but the title winning goal-scorer, Ray Kennedy.

            Naturally my old man didn't need a second invitation and promptly offered Kennedy a lift and us two kids were left agog in the back of the motor, as I whispered to my mate "they're never going to believe us at school tomorrow!" I'm assuming from the "to whom" in the dedication, my dad might've suggested to Kennedy what to write, but the inscription of "to Bernard whom I travelled home with" has obviously ensured that this programme is without doubt my most treasured piece of memorabilia.

            I get seriously pissed off with all those Gooners who fail to appreciate quite how spoiled we've become in recent years. Fans of the vast majority of clubs must find our incessant whinging irritating, when they'd give their eye teeth to have enjoyed two decades at the top table, with the promise of Champions League football every season.

            The vast majority of Spurs fans haven't seen their team win the title in their entire lifetimes, while I've savoured SIX gloriously historic title-winning seasons watching the Gunners, including the icing on the cake of a second crown won at White Hart Lane in '04. Even in the unlikely event that Spurs should ever achieve a successful league campaign, it's doubtable that we'll ever have to endure the humiliating ignominy of it happening at our gaff.

            So perhaps their fanatical hatred is understandable, but any sympathy I might feel certainly doesn't extend to me wanting to gift them an opportunity to be able to crow even more than they are already, by winning our last ever meeting at the Lane. It would be most amusing if Chelsea slip up at Goodison in tomorrow's earlier KO, only for us to subsequently put a definitive spoke in Spurs title aspirations. Yet there's already enough riding on the outcome of this encounter and I'd prefer that the pressure wasn't ramped up even further, by Chelsea dropping points.

            The Gunners need to prove that last weekend's gutsy display wasn't a one off, since the bare minimum that we can afford is a draw, if we're to come away from the Lane for the last time, with our pride intact. With the London Stadium such a far cry from the atmosphere at Upton Park and recalling how my football experience has deteriorated since departing THOF, I keep reminding my Spurs mates to savour their remaining matches because football as they know it will never be the same. Nevertheless, worryingly it appears as if Levy has taken lessons from our experience and with its single terrace at one end, I wonder if Spurs new stadium might not be nearly so sterile as our antiseptic arena. 

            Still we're guaranteed at least one season's worth of laughing at Tottenham, while they struggle to come to terms with playing at Wembley. It remains to be seen whether we'll look back nostalgically at the Lane in future, or whether we'll be glad to see the back of "the Shit Hole"? 

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