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Can You Be a Proper Football Fan If You've Never Been to See Your Team Play?

The football ground's role has changed. Once a Saturday pilgrimage, it's now just one part of the over-televised circus.
White Hart Lane. Image via Wikimedia Commons

I've been a Tottenham Hotspur fan for 24 years, despite never having visited my club's stadium White Hart Lane – until last Sunday's match against West Ham.

Most die-hard supporters of a football club have an origin story when it comes to explaining why they spend their life following the team that they do, but I had no family member who had "always been a Spurs man". My dad's football passion extended to passively staring at the odd World Cup Italia '90 game, wondering aloud which side England were.


When I was six-years-old, it so happened that my mate from round the corner supported Spurs. It was 1991, the year they got to the FA Cup Final, which was televised and beamed into my family living room in fuzzy colour. Spurs won 2-1, and Gary Lineker, back then more the children's TV presenter of footballers than the jovial exponent of lite bantz and barely-there beard styles on Match of the Day, smiled at the end. So that was it. Spurs were my team, becoming a distant, mediated passion, beamed from north London – wherever that was – to Southend, Essex.

In the decades since, I've routinely daydreamed about going to see Spurs play, but never have. I blamed a lack of funds and living a seven-hour drive away during my years at university in Cornwall. But even when I moved to Hackney and Walthamstow, both a short train or bus ride away from the ground, I didn't bother. I was priced out, so I reasoned – as are many.

By the time I started earning regular money and could have saved up to at least attend the odd game at White Hart Lane, I felt it was too late. Spurs has always been a mediated concern, played out through screens of different shapes and sizes. David Ginola's wonder goal against the admittedly un-mighty Barnsley was seen as part of an FA Cup highlights reel from the comfort of my sofa; Gareth Bale tearing Inter Milan a new one at the San Siro with his face-saving hat trick that clawed us back to 4-3 was watched from a shared house in Dalston. Danny Rose's thumping left-foot volley that beat bitter north London rivals Arsenal in 2010 was celebrated at the Duke of Wellington pub opposite the big Tesco in Hackney (now a Pringle outlet store).


But this all changed last Sunday, when my wife's uncle took us to a game on his company's season ticket. For years I'd wondered what the Lane was like. Approaching the ground, it looked incongruous on Tottenham High Road, squeezed in and surrounded by houses, offies, tatty pubs and empty buildings, the usual edge-of-London fare. We took our seats at the upper deck of the West Stand, which holds less fans than the more cherished East.

Suddenly I'm watching Spurs from one angle, without a commentator telling me what to think. The pitch seems more diminutive and inconsequential in real life, as do the expensively assembled squad, some of whom play appallingly. Midfielders Moussa Dembele and Ryan Mason are wasteful in possession to the point of capitulation at times.

Instead of the trek to Tottenham, as a teenager I'd go to my local team Southend United's home games, as they were just about affordable. The few opposition fans who bothered to turn up would sometimes taunt us with the chant: "You all support West Ham," being that Southend is a place full of ex-east end families. But I could never have done, as my football awakening, however rootless, happened with Spurs. As I'd been told often happens at White Hart Lane, the away support make all the noise. Forever bubbling West Ham's ability to bellow out admittedly puerile (and allegedly at times racist and disablist) chants made the fact that Spurs were wilting in such a soggy fashion after all this internal buildup all the more disquieting.


By the end of the first half, West Ham are two up. A familiar misery and disappointment is etched on the faces of many who earlier swarmed the streets of Tottenham on the way here and now sit around me (Spurs haven't won the league since 1961). After being hampered by first-timer sheepishness, I soon flout the "Mind Your Language" sign at the team's woeful performance. Spurs eventually fight back with a fluke hit from Danny Rose and Harry Kane's even flukier rebound from a saved penalty. The game finishes 2-2, which seems a very Spurs-y score, achieved in a Spurs-y type way: laced with weaknesses, but somehow the flashes of excitement and hope send you off satisfied enough to come back for more.

"In our age of stadiums that look like kitchen appliances, the ground itself has become part TV set, part business lounge, with the players taking their places as particularly performative passengers en route to their final destination: in Spurs' case, Real Madrid"

"The experience of visiting a ground is inseparable from the game itself, for every ground provides a different backdrop and a different atmosphere colouring your entire appreciation of a football match," wrote Simon Inglis in his imperious 1982 book, The Football Grounds of England and Wales. The football ground's role has changed in the years since from the site of Saturday pilgrimage to just one of the many fulcrums around which the wider, whirring hubbub of the over-televised football circus plays out (albeit still an important one). The colours and the noises and the banter that all churn in near-constancy, save for a few weeks in pre-season (provided there isn't a World Cup or Euro Championship on).


Unlike, say, snooker, football's rise into prominence wasn't down to television: for years after its rise in the late 19th century, going to the ground was the only way to see the game. But my Spurs fandom dovetailed almost exactly with the rise of football as a TV-first concern, with the launch of the Premier League 23 years ago, in February 1992. The default experience of the football fan today is one of arguing over tactics and player transfers from detached positions.

A recent gargantuan TV deal looks to cement that fact even further. The "big screen" pub has long taken over from the local man walking to the ground. But in a way the transition is fitting. The pub industry's affiliation with football clubs goes back to the very beginning for many top sides – including Tottenham. White Hart Lane was built on the wilderness of some overgrown nurseries in the late 19th century, and funded by the London brewery Charrington, who helped transform the club from a well-attended kickabout at Tottenham Marshes to a professional club with its own stadium.

White Hart Lane has been deemed too small for the club's ambitions. Spurs look to be going down the same route as Arsenal's Emirates stadium, looking to demolish the original stadium, and replace it with a newer, shinier, bigger ground with a new name chosen by whoever bungs it the most cash. In our age of stadiums that look like kitchen appliances, the ground itself has become part TV set, part business lounge, with the players taking their places as particularly performative passengers en route to their final destination: in Spurs' case, Real Madrid.


This Sunday, Spurs face Chelsea in the League Cup Final. I won't be at the game. I'll be bent double in front of the TV, updating the minute-by-minute coverage online. "Tottenham are the greatest team the world has ever seen," goes the club's Chas and Dave-popularised anthem, "Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspur". In our age of pro-zone stats being pored over every week by self-declared expert pundits, it's a statement that doesn't hold up to event the smallest amount of scrutiny. But it persists.

People dream, they need to. This is what Tottenham is for, really. If you believe the myth that all that matters in football are results, then it is one hell of a miserable game. With Spurs, as with most football teams, you learn to live for the fragments of joy and skill – however you wish to access them. #COYS


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