The off season. For most of us it’s a time of fervent transfer speculation and endless fretting about losing our star players. For others, like myself, it’s a time to reflect on the season gone by and to re-evaluate whether our crazy, destructive relationship with this club we love is worth the money, the time and the severe heart palpitations.
When I heard on their recent podcast episode that the good men of The Fighting Cock team were looking for stories and reflections on the impact of Tottenham Hotspur and, more specifically, White Hart Lane on our lives, it got me thinking about what it all really means. My own origins of supporting Spurs are probably quite typical. Born of a Jewish family, my dad supports the club and so it was only natural I would to. Spurs forms a huge part of our own relationship and many of our most cherished memories echo across the lush turf of White Hart Lane. Nowadays he doesn’t go to many games, his place by my side taken up by a dear, lifelong friend who I have known since we were barely out of nappies.
However, as I listened to the podcast whilst driving down the A3 in the small hours of the night, I found myself focusing not on my own deep link to the club, but one I witnessed unfold in the two seats to my left in the Park Lane lower over the last few years.
22nd January 2008. The night we booked our place in the Carling Cup Final with an astounding 5-1 demolition of Arsenal. Stood to my right was my aforementioned mate and, to my left, an older gentleman whose name I never knew but would always greet upon arrival at our seats. Next to him stood his 17 year old daughter who came with him to almost every game.
As Steed Malbranque fired in the final goal at the far post I dived to my left, hugging the old gentleman, this familiar stranger who sat next to me every week, with unbridled joy. I then asked him for permission to hug his daughter, which he happily granted.
The next 15 minutes flew by in a blur of euphoria, song and Robbie Keane’s Irish jig. We said our farewells to the man and his daughter and practically skipped out of the stadium.
At the next game the man and his daughter weren’t there. Nor the next, nor the one after that. At that third game I innocently asked one of the other regulars who sits near us where they were. To my shock I learnt that, two days after that glorious semi-final night, the young daughter had died in a car accident whilst out with her friends. The news took my breath away and the rest of the game we were watching that day became somehow irrelevant.
That plastic blue seat wasn’t just the designated spot the club had given him to watch the game. It marked the location where he and his daughter enjoyed some of their greatest days together for many years.
The man didn’t return to White Hart Lane until the West Ham match a few months later. He looked a pale, thin imitation of the man who had been excitedly bouncing up and down back in January. He was with his wife, both of them in Spurs shirts featuring the face and name of their daughter on the back. The club had allowed them to drape a crude flag daubed with a message of bereavement over one of the advertising hoardings at the Park Lane end. For them, revisiting the ground was clearly part of the healing process as they attempted to piece their lives back together.
I remember trying to mutter some sort of condolences but felt that nothing I said could possibly help. The look on his face was absolutely heartbreaking. I’m sure he was in tears for almost the entire 90 minutes.
At full time, with a dominant 4-0 win secured, he let out a guttural roar and gave me a huge hug. “She f***ing hated those c**ts!” he cried, lapping up the victory as if it was the Champions League final.
For the next few seasons he attended every home game with his wife or his eldest daughter, but he never looked well. The loss of his youngest daughter had obviously taken a large toll on his health. He would clumsily haul around an oxygen tank and mask to help with his breathing. He could barely stand up for 45 minutes at a time. Once a portly frame pushing 16 stone, he looked gaunt and tired. He barely spoke a word other than to acknowledge the greetings he received from the other fans around him.
Yet he carried on coming. I’m sure to this day he didn’t really feel up for being there, but did so out of a sense of duty to his recently passed daughter. That plastic blue seat wasn’t just the designated spot the club had given him to watch the game. It marked the location where he and his daughter enjoyed some of their greatest days together for many years. White Hart Lane was not simply a stadium made of bricks, mortar and metal. It was a spiritual place that, for 90 minutes or so, bridged the broken link between this man and his lost loved one.
Towards the end of the season 2011-12 season, I noticed that he hadn’t been to a game for a while. His wife and older daughter had been attending in his place. At the start of last season I plucked up the courage to ask one of them where he was and if he was ok. I think I got the answer I was expecting. He had passed away several months previously.
Now these two women sat one and two seats to my left, his surviving close family, have inherited the spot where the un-named man and his young daughter had occupied. I may be wide of the mark, but I get the impression they might prefer to be elsewhere on an afternoon, but attend matches nonetheless, preserving the memory of their deceased family members with an almost stoic support of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
For them, the phrase ‘memory lane’ could not be more appropriate. Because that is exactly what White Hart Lane is to them – a place to remember loved ones and happier times. That’s precisely what is was before the old man died.
Pan away from this small corner of the stadium and zoom in elsewhere and you are likely to find similar stories of deep, familial connections with our little ground. Perhaps less tragic, equally as important to those that hold their memories dear.
The current ethos of football fans, players and clubs too often disrespect the honour of the past, casting morals aside in the pursuit of trophies and untold financial rewards. But those of us who fill White Hart Lane with our voices of support and derision, our cries of ecstasy and agony, our tears of joy and pain. We are the privileged custodians of those memories. And it’s those memories that make the years of supporting Tottenham Hotspur Football Club irrefutably and absolutely worth it.
[author name=”Jimmy Riggle” avatar=”https://si0.twimg.com/profile_images/3498570766/288c2044a346b0d2b25aaf2eb835dbe3.jpeg” twitter=”jimmyriggle” tag=”jimmyriggle[/linequote]