The setting was quintessentially English: the sportsclub lost at the end of a narrow lane, a ground with no stands and a pitch as green as grass in a five year old’s painting. On Saturday afternoon a few hundred Spurs fans gathered to share a minute’s applause for John White, tragically killed in 1964 as he approached his prime in the Tottenham midfield.
I never saw John play and neither had 95% of those present. Yet stories have been told about one of the finest midfielders to grace the white shirt, handed down through generations. People talk of Hoddle, Gazza and Ardiles, of Mackay and Blanchflower, then someone will mention John White and a far-away look comes into their eyes. Wistfully, they shake their heads in wonder. Now there was a player, they say. Proper footballer. If only…
A team of Scots travelled down to play the game. I travelled 60 miles to clap a man I had never seen. But I have heard the tales told and that was enough. It’s what Spurs means to me.
Spurs Legends are the opposition. Some are, frankly, more legendary than others, some are twice the man they used to be. If the Spurs Shop is out of size XXL shirts, there’s a reason. Before the kick-off they pose for photos and do what footballers do, rip the pee out of each other.
The whistle blows, the Scots slide a ball through into the box. Stuart Nethercott takes off, quicker it seems than ever he was in the nineties. Who cares, it’s a friendly? Let it go. But he wins it and clears. He cared. Because he takes pride in being a pro. Because he wants to win. Because he’s wearing the white shirt. Because he is Spurs.
Next day, we have as much of the ball as the Legends did against scratch amateurs but we can’t break through, try as we might. Not everything worked. Not the most fluent performances but we kept at it. Three off the line I counted, one off the post, two good chances spurned. The second came to Gareth Bale and we held our breath as he advanced on the keeper. At last, the ball in the box at the feet of the one man who can make the difference. No magic from our saviour this time. The keeper saved and despite our heavy hearts we forgave the Welshman. After all he has achieved for us this season, how could we be angry?
Yet they pursued the win, knowing that it could all be futile. Despite the false hopes from Newcastle, our fate rested elsewhere. All we could do was win. They did not let up. Parker tried to win the game on his own, harking back to the urgent, compelling determination of last season, his only reward a cruel substitution. It may be his last match but he was Spurs. This is my team.
After the Legends game as we strolled back to the clubhouse, a willowy fresh-faced young American asked us who was signing autographs up ahead. It was Clive Wilson, a Gerry Francis free transfer on his way down the ladder until we gave him an indian summer at left back, cultured, quick and athletic, He’s added a pound or two since then but haven’t we all.
So we talked some more. Mike had come from the States to see his first ever game at the Lane. In the country for three days only, he saw this was on and made it to Chigwell, just to see Spurs legends play. In Georgia, he wanted a team, his flatmate supported Liverpool, he chose Tottenham and here he was because he knows what Tottenham means to him.
So we talked Spurs, with Pete who comments every week, with Daniel Wynne who does the match commentaries, loves this club and gave up his time without a second thought. With Crackers who did the bonkers Spurs fanzone and who puts on meet the legends evenings and laments the fact that this generation of player won’t need or want to take part in these events in twenty years time.
This Spurs team play to the finish. Bale on the right, a pause, a deep breath then away. Left foot, body contorted over the ball to get the point of contact right. I am in line, as I was for the replica versus Southampton except this piece of brilliance flies into the top right hand corner rather than the bottom. The arc of the ball matches the desperate curve of the keeper’s body as he dives in vain. No camera can match an image like that, which will stay with me until I die. A true and worthy Spurs legend at 23.
Back in the car, I turn on 606. Robbie Savage is touting Bale’s transfer. Why stay, he asks, when Champions League football could be his? It’s a reasonable question but there is an answer. Bale is still young, at 23. He has a young family, he’s well-paid and could get more this summer. Also, his income has leapt because of his sudden appearances in several undoubtedly lucrative adverts for the home market.
Perhaps, just maybe, he’s not focussed solely on getting as much money as humanly possible in the shortest possible time, a concept Savage appeared to have a problem grasping. Possibly he wants to be part of something that ultimately could be more fulfilling at this stage of his career than uprooting his life to live abroad (Levy wouldn’t sell to another Premier League side). A team that like him is getting better all the time, that like him has ambition, where he looked after and cared for by teammates, fans and his manager.
Perhaps the most revealing moment of this season was his lastminute goal against West Ham, not the stupendous mind-blogging talent that put the ball in the roof of the net from 25 to win the game but headlong dash to celebrate in the arms of his manager. Perhaps that’s more important than the Champions League, at least for now.
It is to me. I’m disappointed that we didn’t make it and I’ll spit out the dirt as our north London rivals rub our noses in it once more. Neither will I forget the missed opportunities. Points dropped along the way, one from six from Wigan, and looking back a fatal home defeat by Fulham.
However, there’s more to being a fan, more to football than the Champions League. This time next year I may not be as sanguine but I reckon we’ll keep this team together, including Bale, for one more year. Unless Levy spends big, the hard work will be wasted but this is my team and I’m going to enjoy them.
606 and in the queue for the Blackwall Tunnel, three Chel**a fans call in. Never mind third place and the Europa League, all the first is concerned about is the fact Benitez did not come out for a lap of honour. The second thinks Rafa deserves little credit because it’s all down to the players, as if they run out onto the pitch and sort it all out then and there. The third introduced himself as a lifelong Blues fan who vowed not to support them until Benitez left.
If that’s what success does to you, I want no part of it. Caller three is no supporter at all. Supporters don’t lay down conditions, because it’s in the heart. Thick and thin, good times and bad.
Villas-Boas reaches the Shelf on the lap of honour. He’s done a fine job in building this side, encouraging them, getting them to play until the very end. The crowd sang his name and he deserved it. He knows what it means. He is part of Tottenham now, that’s why he has put so much into it. He knows.
Instead of acknowledging the crowd, he turns to his daughter who is little bigger than the flag she is delightedly waving. She probably doesn’t know they are cheering her dad. She looks pleased and bewildered at the same time but she’s willing to go along with it. He pauses, brushes a wisp of hair from her forehead and continues. Priorities right, attention to detail, everything as good as it can be. In the summer, Mr Levy, please back your man. He’s earned it. He’s one of us.