Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Memories of the old White Hart Lane

I suppose I might be considered a fair weather supporter because it was not until the year after Spurs won the double in 1961 that I began to watch and support them. I was 12 at the time and with a group of friends would board the special supporters trains that ran along the eastern line to Liverpool Street stopping at White Hart Lane whenever Spurs played at home. Ever since I have supported and in latter days just "followed" the team. This has been through both good times ( generally when the year ended in a 1) and bad - its always been entertaining ( that's the Spurs style) but most of the time exasperating as well.

It was a toss up whether by car from Harlow (New Town) the local team was Arsenal, Spurs or West Ham. Many families hailed from North London and brought their past loyalties with them. But I was born in South London and was only 18 months old at the time we moved. Tooting & Mitcham FC would have been the club to support had we not moved I suppose.

Anyway, by public transport, White Hart Lane was the nearest ground for us to get to. The train fare was reasonable and we could generally sit on the way out but the return journey was a different matter. We would walk for about 10 minutes from the station in Tottenham to the ground and then join the queue for the juniors turnstiles. I seem to remember we paid a Bob ( 1 Shilling "in old money" or 5p ) to get in. This was considerably less than the adult price so made the up to 2 hour wait worthwhile. If we were late however we would pay the full amount as otherwise we could not be sure of standing somewhere where we would see much of the game. Once in the ground with our programme (often bought outside the ground), bags of Percy Dalton roasted peanuts - still in their shells - we would then join the rest of the crowd and try to get down to the front.

In the early years we would bring small wooden boxes - which we had made ourselves - to stand on to get a better view above the adults around us. Sometimes the grown ups took sufficient pity on us that we would be passed down to the front. All the way around the stands in those days was a low iron railing consisting of overlapping semicircles painted white. We would establish our position by pushing our small arms through the gaps and holding our hand together tightly.

This was most important because these were the days when everyone stood. The capacity of the old ground was around 62,000. Highbury had a capacity in those days of around 75,000 and Wembley was 100,000. All these capacities reduced when all seater stadiums were introduced after the Hillsborough and Bradford stadium disasters.

Many people have written about the atmosphere that existed in the old football grounds before they were all seater and it is now something that few people will experience. When Spurs played one of the other top teams the attendance in the ground would near "capacity" which for us small ones meant we would not be able to move independently until we got out of the ground after the match.

When the action on the pitch moved to the corners we would strain along with those around us to see what was happening out of sight. Never mind that we would not be able to see any better because everyone else was doing the same - we could not help ourselves. Goal mouth action would somehow cause everyone to want to get nearer to the action so we could move 2 or 3 steps down the ground because of the crowd behind pushing us there. If we stood behind the many crash barriers every 8 to 10 steps or so dotted around the "stands" we might find ourselves almost being crushed as we could not move down any more. Even without these incentives to get a better view there would be times when the crush of the crowd would make it difficult to draw breath easily without wriggling around.

On one occasion I can remember the crush being so great on leaving the ground after the game that our feet did not touch the steps as we left. We were wedged should to shoulder with grown ups and "hitched" a free if somewhat terrifying ride down the steps. The trouble with this was on reaching the bottom and before our feet again made contact with the ground some of us would be herded to the right ( and away form where we wanted to be going) while the others were herded left. The fight to regroup for those of us forced to walk against the stream was very tiring.

On the way back to the station the new cheap Japanese transistor radios would blare out the strains of Sports Report and because all team played on the same day and at the same time we would listen out for other results. Cheers and groans would break out from the travelling hordes from time to time in response to what were picking up on the radios held to the ears of those we were passing by at the time. Those that had not managed to hear clearly would soon be informed by others who had what all the noise was about. I well remember one of these moments it was after an away game at Upton Park against West Ham. Dave McKay a Spurs stalwart who had broken his leg the season before was returning for the reserve team after almost 12 months out of the game. We juniors decided to stay in the ground until much of the crowd had left. During the lull before the storm we listened to Sports Report on nearby transistor radios when it was reported that in his first game since breaking his leg Dave Mckay had been stretchered off in a reserve game and it was believed he had broken his leg again. Even in a half empty stadium this news led to a deep communal groan that was eerie because it was as if we had no individual freedom of thought but were just a collective herd.

That feeling was most exaggerated on one occasion at White Hart Lane and is the memory I wanted to record withthis posting. It was the first home game since another old stalwart of the double winning team lost his place to a young upstart we had not heard of. The stalwart was the Scottish goalkeeper Bill Brown, the young upstart was Pat Jennings from Watford.

There was a lot of animosity toward Pat that day. That was until early on in the game with the ball heading clearly over the bar he jumped one handed to catch it. For a split second the background rumble of crowd noise was replaced with the beginnings of discontent - we could all see it was heading out for a goal kick so why try to stop it and perhaps give away a corner. The growing discontent was never fully voiced however because a strange thing happened that first brought the ground to a split second of utter silence (the silence of disbelief) followed by a tremendous crescendo of cheering. The young upstart had jumped one handed to stop the ball a foot or so above the bar ( or so it seemed to us) - the ball just seemed to stick to his single glove which he curled around the ball and safely brought it down into both hands ready to thump it back into play.

We could not help it - we all grumbled as one, then were all briefly silent in disbelief and finally cheered at the top of our voices to welcome a new hero to the old ground.

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