The attendant opens the door with a grand gesture and fusses over my coat and bag. More than my gilt-edged invitation, this absurd attention confirms my new-found prominence, and makes me distinctly uneasy.
It’s a break for me, an opportunity to put behind me those wasted years and chances spurned, but my tentative tread as I stroll along the oak-panelled corridor festooned with self-satisfied portraits betrays my sense of not belonging. I affect an air of disinterested nonchalance, trying to take in the grandeur and undeniable beauty without looking like I have wandered in from the streets, a refugee of the London Big Bus Company tour.
The crystal chandeliers lie heavy from the ceiling, their brilliance eclipsed only by the glittering egos of the great and good. And the not so good, as long as they have money to ease their guilty conscience. I glance around, wary of eye contact. With the right person, it’s fine but an itinerant gaze is a sign of desperation. A stirring in one corner: within this room any spontaneity stands out. Adriana throws back her thick wavy hair then bends forward slightly from the waist, the laughter flowing through her body and rippling out to the group of six or seven guests around her. The women look away, the men shuffle a fraction closer and laugh a little too long. She catches my eye and shrugs imperceptibly. ‘What can I do?’
I begin a smile in return but our line of sight is swiftly interrupted by a tuxedo, anxious to secure her undivided attention.
There is an art to these gatherings. My usual chosen option is to skulk around the edges, pretending that I am content in my solitude and that drinking a glass of fizzy water in 185 sips is really how I want to spend my time. However, today I’m at the top table and must drink my fill. An assertive stride towards my target, followed by a firm handshake. I’ve practised my lines. ‘We met briefly at last year’s conference” I lie but they won’t remember me, whether it is true or not. A few short moments to make an impression – in a good way, so my approach is unencumbered by champagne glass or canape. Well chosen words and a card pressed from a clammy palm.
They know after a minute or so. I’m desperately polite and flattering, adding a succinct and devastatingly accurate critique of the new Bill. But they strip all the baggage away – is this guy useful to me or not? After a minute comes the tell-tale glance over my shoulder, seeking someone more worthwhile to converse with. It’s over and I depart.
The hall is full now. As I gather myself for the next foray, an actress few people have heard of is welcomed on stage. I pause, then slip away. Adriana glares at me wide-eyed from across the room, angry and enticing. Now I shrug and continue on my way without a backward glance. The cloakroom attendant purses her lips in surprise as I disturb her flirting with the burly doorman. She hands me my coat and the carefully rehearsed plan is enacted with precision. Two minutes to the exit (unseemly to rush), seven minutes walk to Liverpool Street for the 19.22 and I’ll be in my seat at five to, just before Fulham kick off. It’s a shame that I’ve missed the pre-kick-off chat and atmosphere, but we all have to make sacrifices.
I am having coffee with my friend Adriana.
“So,” she says, “I see”.
She sets the handle of the cup to the right, with the spoon at a decorous diagonal.
“You were in charge in there. Very perky.”
I leave in the air the unspoken implication that this is not always the case. “Something is doing you good”.
Adriana has been marvellously supportive of my writing even though she has never read a single word. Not only is she not interested in football, she is not interested in being interested. Such is the grasp of the Premier League on modern entertainment and the world of celebrity, it’s impossible to escape totally from its clutches so most people will be able to contribute to a football conversation when the topic comes up, as of course it always has for the past 40-odd years whenever anyone enquires innocently about my weekend or leisure interests. Adriana is pleased for me if I’m going to the game because she knows how much it means to me but that’s as far as it goes. After so long it feels wrong for me to bring up the subject, and that’s fine. It’s actually refreshing to talk about something else.
She fixes my gaze with her bright blue eyes. “So – must be all these new people you’ve been meeting.” As usual she’s keen to probe deeper and ponders a variety of entertaining reasons for my resurgence, her favourite being that this is a consequence of allowing my Jewish heritage to surface. The logic is frankly sketchy but with Adriana it’s the theorising that is delightfully engaging so I’m happy to go along with it. Or it could be my new tie. That she chose.
She’s right about me today. I led the meeting that we had both attended with focus and humour, overcoming some resistance to reach consensus and a set of decisions and tasks, and it feeds my vanity to be praised for it so I settle in my chair and enjoy the moment. The reasons for my performance are clear, at least to me. Our victory against Manchester City the previous evening means that today my mind is alert and sharp. Exactly the right words come to my lips without a second’s hesitation. I instinctively understand the moods and perspectives of those around me, as if a pea-souper has blown away to reveal a world bathed in sunlight. The group pick up my drive and enthusiasm and respond in kind. We did some good things today that could have a beneficial impact on others for many years to come.
There’s no conscious thought here. It’s instinct, as much a part of me as breathing. I am energised, bright and, I have to acknowledge, as such presenting a side of myself that has been invisible to many of my recent acquaintances. Spurs have won, won well, and I am a better person. There – I’ve said it.
There are two sides to this passion, so losing hurts but I’ve learned over the years to deal with it. Permanently in the grip of this football thing yet powerless to control my fate. I keep these thoughts to myself, because she won’t understand this arcane mystery that cannot be explained to the uninitiated. To people who live in the real world.
And if I am honest, it’s scary to think that what happens on a football field, something totally out of my hands, has so strong an influence on my personality. All the more reason to push these ideas to one side, at least for the time it takes to drink a cappuccino.
Adriana turns towards the café owner and smiles warmly. He’s made her toast, she’s made his day. She wistfully talks of her new coat, a sale bargain put aside and ready on Friday, the delayed gratification merely heightening her excitement. I share her pleasure. It’s something real, tangible, something she’s worked for and will give her pleasure for years to come. And she will look gorgeous in it. It’s another world, refreshing to be away temporarily from systems and transfers, resilience and defensive midfielders. But not for too long, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Always on my mind.
Happy New Year to you all. Sincere thanks to everyone who has read my labour of love since it began in the summer, especially those who have taken the time and trouble to comment. It’s really appreciated.
And in the words of one correspondent, Daveyboy, “Great blog, especially late at night when you’re stoned.” I think that says it better than I ever could.
A version of this piece first appeared in My Eyes Have Seen The Glory
Chris Parker, loving husband, doting father, loyal friend, died this time last year. A few weeks before his sudden passing, family and close friends gathered in a secluded pub garden to celebrate the christening of his first child. Under a fierce sun, we basked in the warmth of his naïve delight in the virtues of fatherhood and friendship, a good natured young man marvelling at the discovery of family life as if he were an Elizabethan explorer returning from the New World with tales of strange creatures, heroic deeds and untold riches.
We never really got to know each other – he’s related on my wife’s side of the family – but it’s peculiar how much you find out about someone only when they’ve died. Shortly before the funeral, I discovered that Chris was a lifelong Spurs fan. So is his father, and many of his mates. Our snatched conversations had never progressed beyond bland pleasantries and for some inexplicable reason we’d never mentioned football, decidedly odd as I can recall who people support long after I have forgotten their names.
The funeral of a young person bears excruciating poignancy. We mourn with desperate intensity both the tragic loss of life and the passing of hopes and dreams, ours as much as theirs, unfulfilled and laid to rest. Emotions veer crazily between a surreal this-can’t-be happening quality and the cold reality in the centre of this Catholic church, a six foot wooden box.
It’s a struggle to engage as the ceremony floats around me like the incense swirling in the breeze. I want to demonstrate respect and sympathy but I’m an outsider here, a non-believer, so I stick to respectful silence. It works. I know, I’ve practiced hard lately, more practice than I can stand.
The congregation cling to the priest’s consoling words but I find no solace in the notion that somehow this is part of the plan for a better universe, only anger and frustration at a life cut short. Absentmindedly I turn to the final page of the Order of Service. Suddenly the organ strikes up a familiar tune. I join in ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah’ with all my heart, my singing lusty and utterly tuneless. The shameless substitution of ‘Spurs’ for all references in the chorus to the Lord seals my eternal damnation.
I look around. I’m not the only one. Inhibitions shatter, grown men proud and strong break down. Chris’s spirit is amongst us. We begin to grieve, openly and fully, for the first time. It does us all good.
Afterwards we make introductions with unabashed candour. Men aren’t good at sharing feelings but in football we find a means of expression. This maddening, frustrating and wonderful club brought us closer just at the moment when we needed it most. The game creates and sustains lasting relationships. Together in our allegiance and our grief, we could communicate with people who were no longer strangers.
The drink flowed, Chris would have approved. We chatted, laughed and shed a tear. Chris, I wish we had talked more, but now rest in peace. Football is a healer.
Tottenham Hotspur approach the away match against Bolton this Saturday knowing that we have an appalling record at the Reebok. However, let history count for nothing, at least in this instance, and ensure that we return with a victory.
Since they returned to the top division, Bolton have performed with a brusque physicality that in truth we have seldom coped with. Hard running plus brute force have been our undoing and we have been incapable of mounting a serious challenge. One abiding memory from the Allardyce era was thinking that Bolton have an extra one or two players on the pitch, a function partly of their dominance but also, tellingly, of our inability to resist.
Bolton regularly exposed perhaps the single biggest problem with our team over the last decade. No matter the personnel or managerial changes, we lacked spirit and caved in under pressure. Soft. Weak. Spineless. Leaderless.
This blog has threatened regular readers with massive over-use of the word ‘resilience’ this season and makes not the slightest apology for raising it once more. We need it because we haven’t got it, and without it, we won’t get anywhere. Now is the time to make real inroads into the problem by defeating one of our bogey sides, at least away from home. We have the form and certainly the players, so all that is left is the mental attitude to focus on the job at hand for 95 minutes, deal with the pressure and the inevitable periods when the home side will be on top, and push on to a win.
Lack of confidence in our own ability is the main, perhaps only, impediment to success. We have played some gorgeous football recently and are well set up to make that talent count. Even without Defoe, chances will come and surely there is little to fear in the post-Allardyce Bolton. Davies remains a difficult opponent and will both unsettle our central defenders and drift over to the left where Megson will believe he can out-muscle Benny and drift in from wide positions. Dawson may play alongside Bassong to deal with this threat, well though Hud performed last week. Fuller can come from deep and Cohen is scoring from midfield. However, the protection offered by their physical approach has dissipated and JJ and WP will able to compete in what promises to be a crowded midfield. We will strike swift and sure on the break, but may end up playing like a home team for long periods because Bolton will go for a defensive formation with 5 in midfield. They are down the bottom for a reason and even the home fans have little time for their manager. Remember the stick he received from the Bolton fans when they came to the Lane last year.
Last season’s match at the Reebok was notable for the debut of Wilson Palacios, the Man Who Saved Us All. Otherwise, it was all depressingly familiar. By January, the new-manager bounce of Harry’s arrival had well and truly worn off. A desultory first half performance looked to have been turned around as two goals from Darren Bent put us level. With four minutes left, we gave away first the ball and then, from the resultant corner, a soft headed goal. Those were the days, when at dead ball situations we may as well have stood to the side of pitch and noshed a burger, for all the good our defenders were.
Much has changed for the better since then but we still suffer from those two faults, namely giving the ball away too frequently and conceding unnecessary free kicks and corners, as I said in my report of last week’s Burnley game. Cut this out and we are well on the way. Our Saviour must stay on his feet and not dive in, or soon we will worship no longer.
I understand that Spurs have sold 4000 tickets for the game, testament once more to the phenomenal support for our club and passion aroused by even the merest glimpse of good football. It’s the same for Arsenal away, where the loyalty points total is way above that required for the corresponding fixture last season.