It may have been 40 years ago now, but Ben Gilbert remembers his first Tottenham match like it was yesterday. “I went with my dad and my brother to see a League Cup match between Spurs and Man Utd,” he says. “I still remember walking to the stadium and being completely overwhelmed by the scale of White Hart Lane.”
For Ben, the game was “a rite of passage” and, from that point onwards, he was hooked. It wasn’t just the thrill of the walk down Tottenham High Street, swept along in a roaring sea of white and navy blue, that appealed to him. “I remember thinking, as a young guy, that lots of my friends didn’t spend much time with their fathers. But we had football, so we got to spend an awful lot of time together because of that.”
Today it’s Ben’s turn to take his son, Indigo, to his first match. “Excited”, says Indigo, grinning, when asked how he feels about the prospect of watching Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and the rest of the side in person for the first time. “This feels like a really symbolic moment,” his dad Ben adds. “I think once I sit down, I’m in the stadium with him and he experiences the atmosphere of 60,000 people… whether or not he becomes a Spurs fan in the same way that I’ve been, I think bringing your son to the football has real gravity to it.”
Shared memories are ultimately why match day rituals are so important to so many. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters: going to football together, stomping the same streets and supporting the same club are threads that run through the generations. The White Hart Lane that Ben first laid eyes upon 40 years ago may have been knocked down to make way for the gleaming vastness of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium but, having barely even moved up the road, cherished routines have largely been preserved. That’s not always the case when a club gets a shiny new ground and, as such, Spurs fans can count themselves lucky.
Family history is an “inescapable” part of supporting Spurs for Rob White. His grandfather, Harry Evans, was assistant to renowned double-winning manager Bill Nicholson. His father, John White, also won the double while playing for the club during their 60s heyday, securing his status as a club legend. He was killed by lightning in 1964, aged 27, when Rob was only six months old.
“I think we all have love-hate relationships with our clubs but, no matter how much I hate this club sometimes, I can’t leave it because, for me, there’s a massive attachment,” says Rob. He now lives five minutes from the ground, within earshot of the celebrations when a goal hits the back of the net. “My dad died when I was young, and it’s a really strange feeling for me thinking that he and my grandad probably walked around a lot of these streets at various times in their working lives.”
As a season ticket holder and board member of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust, Rob has upheld his family’s commitment to Spurs. He has also co-authored a book, The Ghost of White Hart Lane, about his father’s life. Given his family’s legacy, the stadium redevelopment left him with mixed emotions. “I do like the fact that the pubs are the same, that the streets are the same, because I can still sort of imagine things through their eyes,” he says.
For others, going to Spurs is an opportunity to strengthen friendships. “[My match day ritual] has changed a lot,” says Liam, a lifelong fan. “I used to come with my dad when I was a bit younger, but now I work with my mate Cam and his brother and they’ve let me into their family season ticket club.” A pre-match fry-up at La Barca is often followed by pints at The Beehive, a routine which will be familiar to many who slog to the ground from the direction of Seven Sisters. Others head to The High Cross or The Antwerp Arms, the latter of which was saved from developers in 2015 after a local campaign backed by many Spurs fans, the club and its Supporters’ Trust.
Having fallen in love with the rough edges of White Hart Lane as a kid, Liam also feels a lasting nostalgia for the old ground. “When you came to Spurs before you felt that everyone was suffering,” he laughs. “With this stadium, there’s this level of expectation that there really wasn’t at the old place… It felt like more of a family thing then, while now with the energy and atmosphere around the place it feels more like an event, like you’re going for a day out.”
While that no doubt suits a club hierarchy that has become ever more ambitious – sometimes damagingly so, as shown by their involvement in the failed European Super League breakaway – Spurs fans have retained their sense of community even in their new surroundings. That’s uniquely exemplified by the Proud Lilywhites, the club’s official LGBTQ+ supporters’ association.
Founded back in 2014, the group has provided a support network for LGBTQ+ fans and campaigned against discrimination on match days. “One of the reasons we set up in the first place was so people could know that there would always be someone to watch a game home, away or on the TV with,” says Chris Paouros, the Proud Lilywhites’ co-chair. “It might seem like a small thing, but for a community that may not always have felt welcome at football it’s really important to know that there are like-minded people, and people who’ve got your back, to go to a game with.”
Chris’s match day routine has changed significantly in the 30 years since she first started coming to Spurs, not least since the Proud Lilywhites were established. Where she’d “make a big drinking day of it” in her twenties, she started to attend games alongside her late wife, Monica, with their pre-match ritual consisting of a kebab from the legendary Tottenham Star. Since the formation of the Proud Lilywhites, meet-ups have become inherent to the match day experience. “We’ve got a really vibrant and active membership… when we dreamt this up seven years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that we’d make so many really good friends.”
One member, Bobby, has travelled all the way from Ohio for the game, though his routine usually consists of waking up at 6AM, making a Bloody Mary and watching from afar. Another member, Kyle, has made the trip down from Liverpool to meet up with the group, mixing drinking with talking tactics. “It’s an early start, getting up, getting ready and lining the stomach,” he laughs. “[Proud Lilywhites] are really important because homophobia is still rife within football, really. It’s good to have that support network where you can share your experiences and talk about anything, knowing that that there is an LGBT+ group that knows where you’re coming from.”
Craig, meanwhile, has got the train down from Scotland, where he’s also a member of the Loch Lomond Spurs supporters’ club. “We usually contact other supporters’ groups around the UK and meet up with them,” he says, with two other bustling Spurs pubs in The Bricklayers Arms and The No. 8 – formerly The Bell and Hare – among their favourite spots. “For us, it’s not just about the 90 minutes, turning up for the game and going home. It’s more about the whole weekend, catching up with folk we haven’t seen for a long time and taking it all in.”
For Craig, discovering the Proud Lilywhites a year and a half ago was “huge”. During lockdown, the group switched to a digital match ritual of Zoom calls and WhatsApp chats but, now that they can get together again, online friendships spanning countries and even continents can be reaffirmed in person. “I’ve been in football crowds before when I’ve heard [homophobic] chants and all the rest of it,” he adds. “I’d never known anything close to this group… With the Proud Lilywhites, we’ve got a voice.”
In one way or another, every football fan wants to feel a sense of belonging. After a year and a half locked out of games thanks to COVID, that has never felt more important than it has this season. For Spurs fans, that feeling usually dawns some time during the slow meander from Seven Sisters, Edmonton or Wood Green, as Tottenham’s tower blocks loom into view like brick beacons guiding the way to the stadium. It’s a feeling rooted in the streets of N17 – perhaps more so than a new ground where Spurs fans are yet to make many memories – but it’s also inseparable from the people, past and present, who give supporters’ match day rituals their meaning.