Tottenham have one more game at White Hart Lane. But, alas, I do not: Sunday’s north London derby was my last time inside and, when Manchester United roll into town in two weeks’ time, I shall watch from afar.
The modern tendency is for new stadiums to be built in the suburbs. For the past two decades, city centre sites have been abandoned by clubs. The availability of land and relative ease of planning have encouraged a new generation of out-of-town grounds, taking uneasy residence alongside Volvo dealerships, Harvesters and fragments of forgotten industry. That’s the most heartless trick: the supporters lose their home and their routine. No more familiar walks, no more coffees or food from local shops, and no more sense that a match day journey must pass through a community’s arteries.
Spurs have been spared that. By the time White Hart Lane’s successor opens, the rejuvenation projects which are supposed to accompany it will still be in their infancy. Fans will still take the tube to Seven Sisters and they will still meander down the High Road; the pubs will still be there, teaming with match-day exuberance, and the burger vans will still fry their onions in the same way.
It’s merciful – it’s modernity with minimal sacrifice.
People tire quickly of stadium obituaries. They lean so heavily on personal experience that they quickly draw accusations of self-indulgence. But they must, surely? Without the anecdotes and the memories, the ground is just bricks, mortar and – in White Hart Lane’s case – corrugated facia. There is no magic in the building itself, only in what it allows people to see. When the full-time whistle blows at the end of that game with Manchester United, people will leave seats they’ve sat in for years, descend those charmless concourses for the thousandth time, and then walk away from a place that they’ll never see again.
It’s a trauma. Nostalgia is highly seductive, of course, and it brings warm recollection to where it doesn’t necessarily belong, but this is like leaving a family home. When the removal van pulls away and the keys are handed over, nobody remembers the arguments, the boredom, or their grievances with the immersion heater, only that a source of great stability has gone. Likewise, when the seconds tick down at White Hart Lane, thousands of fans will enter that very same place, caught in a purgatory between yesterday and tomorrow; temporarily homeless.
I’m writing this from the press-box, two hours before the north London derby. Better before than after, just in case Arsenal are in one of the crueller moods. By aquirk of coincidence, I’m also directly opposite the stand I in which I sat on my very first visit. That was the 25th February 1995 and Spurs lost 2-1 to an Efan Ekoku-inspired Wimbledon. An underwhelming game, save a diving Jurgen Klinsmann header, but an experience which left an indelible mark: the size of the ground, the number of people, and even those view-obstructing pillars in the East stand. Twenty two years later, that afternoon remains remarkably vivid.
Later that night, Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan would fight savagely in the Docklands, leaving the latter in a coma and, eventually, with brain damage from which he would never recover. That’s anchored in my mind, too, not – as it should be – as an independent tragedy which happened to occur on the same day, but as something inadvertently woven into my personal history and a day remembered because of White Hart Lane. It’s hard to explain, harder still to justify without sounding insensitive.
It was a friend’s tenth birthday and his mother and father had driven us from Witney to north London. I don’t remember anything about the day before, less about the day after, and yet I can remember what we talked about in the backseat. Which of our school friends we laughed at on the way there, which of the newly-learnt chants we weren’t allowed to sing on our way back. I know also that I became ill that night and shivered and sweated through the early hours.
Logically, the football should push all those other memories into the shadows of my mind. Curiously though, it actually keeps them under light.
But then, that’s really the nature of football fandom. Over time, matches act as prompts. Supporters have remarkable recall for events which occurred before or after a game, extending even to how they felt or thought at a particular time; events which would be unremarkable were it not for a football match. Consider the stadium as part of that: not just as a structure or some fabled mecca cheerfully associated with a range of cyclical sporting events, but as a connecting piece of a fan’s mental jigsaw. The sense of attachment, therefore, doesn’t come from the physical surroundings or even through familiarity with the people you meet, but from some bizarre metaphysics.
Growth is essential to a football team’s survival and, almost without exception, every supporter who has lived to see a stadium demolished and a new one constructed understands the imperatives driving such change. But, still, to swing a wrecking ball through something so obviously personal is barbarically insensitive and, no matter what happens as a result, the ends will never quite justify the means.