A love letter to White Hart Lane
It was an inauspicious start to a love affair. Saturday 30th March, 1985. Aston Villa at home. Lost 2-0.
But the course of true love never did run smooth, and anyway, I was in for the long haul with this particular corner of north-east London.
"White Hart Lane, the world-famous home of the Spurs," as the stadium announcer would describe it. Home, also, to thousands of Spurs fans, for a few hours every other Saturday afternoon, and too many midweek evenings to count.
Over 32 years, the hours I have spent in N17 would add up to more time than I’ve spent at some places I’ve actually lived.
Not that it’s comparable. You love some of the places you live; others are a roof over your head, forgotten almost as soon as you move on.
None are invested with the memories of seeing Paul Gascoigne dismantle an opposition defence single-handedly, Glenn Hoddle deliver a pass nobody in the stadium could see before he made it, or Gareth Bale render one of the world’s best full-backs utterly helpless.
I’ve seen all of those and more, and shared them with thousands of strangers, dozens of friends, and a handful of family members, all of whom have memories which match, overlap and diverge from mine. We all watched Klinsmann, Waddle, Lineker, King and Kane, but the end of White Hart Lane will stir varying emotions, trigger different memories, for each one of us.
I’ve been to White Hart Lane with my Dad, my Mum, both my sisters, really good mates, work colleagues, my then-girlfriend who became my wife, and both my children.
In each case, you remember the rituals around the game just as much, or even more, than what happened on the pitch.
You want to see your team win, and after seeing me cry at Tottenham’s 2-0 loss to Villa the very first time he took me to the Lane, I can only imagine (as a parent now myself) my Dad’s probable relief that the next time we went, early the following season, Spurs despatched Sheffield Wednesday 5-1, with two of my heroes, Hoddle and Waddle, on the scoresheet.
Real football fans, however, appreciate that the result of the game is not the only bit that matters. Maybe it’s not even top of the list. What we remember, when we say goodbye to White Hart Lane, is what happened around those games. The rituals.
My Dad and I used to drive to White Hart Lane. Games used to mostly take place on Saturdays at 3pm, and at 1pm, BBC Radio Two would begin its afternoon coverage. The show started with a theme tune, later used on BBC Radio 5 Live when the football moved to that station. Even now, it makes my heart soar to hear it.
The more famous theme music was the piece used to close out the show, at 5pm, in the section entitled Sports Report (still used to this day). My Dad and I would try to be back in the car, after the game, before that music came on, because then you would hear the results from the other games. With no mobile phones, no internet back then, radio was the only way to find out what the other teams had done.
My Dad would try to guess the result by the intonation of the first team’s score. You would hear, for example, “Arsenal 1 …” and if the “1” was said definitively, my Dad would call out “home win”. If the announcer lingered, almost questioningly, on the “1”, we knew the home team had lost.
I like the Sports Report theme and can see why it has the status of a national treasure, but for me, by 5pm our day out was mostly over, save for my Dad pulling over to get us a bag of chips in Seven Sisters on the way home.
In contrast when you heard the 1pm music, all things were possible. It had an excitable urgency to it which the more statesmanlike Sports Report theme did not. My Dad would bang the steering wheel as he drove, and I, sitting in the passenger seat, knew that Spurs might win, and everything lay ahead: the day out, the chips, the companionship.
The stop-off point for a pre-match meal changed almost as often, over the years, as the line-up on the pitch. At various points our Saturday ritual included The Hotspur Cafe across the street from the ground, the King Neptune Fish Bar on the High Road (“sausage-in-batter and chips for the boy please” - I was, always, “the boy”) and then a semi-legendary man who sold burgers behind the Paxton Road stand and shouted “ON THE GRIDDLE” every few seconds.
When I took the future Mrs Wiltshire to the Lane for the first time, I told her as much in advance about the ON THE GRIDDLE man as I did about David Ginola, the star on the field at that time.
Things change and move on. We lost my Dad in 2000, and two years after that, Spurs relaid the pitch and you could go and get a chunk of the old turf, which I did, and laid it on my Dad’s grave. In 2003 my daughter came along, seeing her first game in 2010 (FA Cup 3rd round - beat Peterborough 4-0). My son was born in 2007, and went to the Lane for the first time in 2012 (drew 1-1 with Norwich City).
This year, I went with one of my sisters to the FA Cup game against Millwall. Knowing this was the last year at the Lane, we said goodbye to the old place at a game against a team our Dad grew up supporting, before he was lured north of the river by Tottenham’s 1961 Double team. His heart was always, thereafter, at White Hart Lane, and when the stadium breathes its last, so too will be mine, and that of thousands of others.
Thinking about it now, my first game, 32 years ago, was watched from the old East Stand. My wife’s first game, in the South Stand. My son’s in the rebuilt East Stand, my daughter’s in the West Stand. I have memories from every part of the stadium, from every season. My family history literally surrounds that famous pitch.
And now, after one year at Wembley, new memories will be made, at Tottenham’s new stadium. It is already a thing of wonder, as it rises up and around the old stadium, as a visual metaphor for the club improving, and making progress. A new generation will know nothing but the new stadium, their own rituals and memories surrounding a yet-to-be-laid, brand new pitch.
I’m already excited to make the pilgrimage to the new stadium, to watch both Spurs and my other great love, the NFL. I’ll look across to where the old White Hart Lane was, and be glad for everything that came before, whilst also eagerly awaiting the new.
Bring it on, and to White Hart Lane, thanks for the memories.
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