Journey to the Darkside

FA Cup, 5th Round Proper (replay) – Tottenham Hotspur FC v Stevenage FC
Wednesday, 7th March 2012, 7.30pm
White Hart Lane
Distance 31 miles, Attendance 35757
At school there were two sides. Two football sides I avoided like the plague. They were big, and popular, and wealthy clubs whose fans looked down on the likes of our Hertfordshire elite. I was twelve; these teams were centuries old and prised from under the fingernails of Satan himself. One was a huge mystical beast scuttling about in Liverpool’s shadow, the other, depicted as dandies and artisans, employed deadly exotic names, and ruptured the eardrums of the innocent with their residence on Top of the Pops. Worst of all, despite the fact these despicable forces of darkness could turn you to stone in a blink of an eye; my best friends supported them, both.
Due to these friendships, unsurprisingly, there were things I enjoyed about both these teams. Well there was one thing actually; them losing. It was innocent, and good natured. It was football. You know the routine; “Who are you playing?” “Orient” “Oh well, I want them to win then.” then quickly flicking through an atlas to find where the hell Orient was, getting sidetracked by The Great Wall being visible from space, before heading for a kick-about on the common determined to bag a few, just like John Chiedozie.
Back to the story of the dark side and my plan that, on Wednesday night, I was to venture right into heart the dragon’s territory. Of course, I’ve been there before, but that was with my own people. This was different. This time I’d be alone. Thus I set out, armed only with the splendid works of Harry Beck, a blind love of the FA Cup, and an unfeasibly tall learned* friend with a penchant for ornithology (let’s call him Finglas). No compass, no invisible cloak, no shield, no Hornets.
Finding the inn of Hampton Hill at Liverpool Street was easy. Finding Finglas and ordering his chosen tipple not so. Nor was it easy, it would seem, to catch the correct train (time-keeping isn’t his forte). Ale down and excuses aside we found our way on to a carriage and continued putting the football world to right. By this time it was clear we’d miss the coin toss, hand-shaking nonsense, and some of the opening exchanges, so using his not-so-modern technology Finglas sort the line ups. “If we’re 2-0 down when we get there…” he chortled with knowledgeable bravado to the carriage “…I’m going home”. When I told my disbelieving companion it was 1-0, really, there were sniggers from those listening in.
Four stops later we were there, striding manfully for the stadium (his one pace to two of mine) as Finglas highlighted the delights of N17, including the building site from which a new White Hart Lane will soar from the rubble. The old (current) one I noted, guarded by bottle top stealing stewards and a deathly silent staircase, looks deceivingly like an office block from our entrance. Inside it is anything but. We were high up but still felt close to the pitch. At this point the younger me would’ve been frankly suspicious of the politeness of the supporters standing so I could find my seat, but the older me just wanted to watch football.

   

As games go this was a good one. We’d missed fifteen minutes and the goal I really wanted to see (not out of gloating (anymore) but more out of appreciation for the underdog) but this was a good cup match. Tottenham were clearly the more consistent skilfully but Stevenage were brave and determined, and their supporters cheered them on ceaselessly. In the face of the games seemingly inevitable outcome the action for the first period was completely even. Even bigger interest for me was the vantage point Finglas perch afforded us. I’d seen Arsenal in an earlier round and wanted to see how Spurs fared, and from here I could focus easily on their movement off the ball. To be fair it was admirable. If Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe can be said to make great runs, Scott Parker is a master of positional strolling. Yes, Defoe scored three**, the first of which was a superb turn and shot from the D, and Bale had a blistering drive hit the woodwork from 35yds near the end of the game, and Kyle Walker and Rafael Van der Vaart  were livelier than most, but Parker was omnipresent. He watches everything around him, keeping the flair players in check, not grabbing the headlines but tying all the loose ends together. In recognition of this it can’t be long before the club shop introduces Scotty Glue to compliment the scrap books and stationery sets.
On the Stevenage team, man for man they were heroes, showing good touches and forcing enough goalmouth action for Carlo Cudicini to suggest a second goal wasn’t beyond them, and Chris Day did well to keep out Defoe on more than one occasion. When the final whistle went there was little doubt the result was fair but huge plaudits must go to the Division 3 team. On another day, with a little luck, this result would’ve been very different. They weren’t “plucky” as the BBC website made out, they worked hard, had lots of possession, and tried to win. Ultimately Stevenage were only undone by some great skill and a penalty (which could’ve gone either way). Leaving the pitch their proud supporters showed their appreciation long after the final whistle. Many Tottenham fans on the other hand were long since gone (Finglas included).

Emmanuel Adebayor guesses the right way against Chris Day

There’s a strange thing happening in football fandom of late; nonchalance. I don’t know where it creeped in from but somehow it become acceptable to leave for halftime beers ten minutes before the 45 is up, and to start to make you way home 15 minutes before the 90. Around the stands banners read “TO DARE IS TO WIN” “COME ON YOU SPURS” and “THE GAME IS ABOUT GLORY”. Maybe one should be added reading “THE ACTION IS ON THE PITCH”? This is a good Tottenham side who may be “on their way to Wembley” as the song goes, it just seems a shame that some football fans no longer want to savour the good times as they happen.
Eventually catching up with Finglas at the station we talked of the match, the goals, and the empty seats at the end, the next round, and his new found respect for Hampton & Richmond Borough FC. Growing up Spurs were one of the two teams I avoided. I never really hated them, but we like these rivalries don’t we. David Pleat might never hold sway for me, nor will I buy into the fawning over a hopeful Hoddle cross that went in over Steve Sherwood’s head, and the unkempt Ricky Villa will never be a match for Ardiles in my eyes (an outfield player wearing number 1 really IS special), but I like the current Spurs side, and the way they play. I like the compact feel of the ground and the bagels they sell, and if Tottenham win The Cup this season, good luck to them. What can I say?
Forgive me Graham for I have sinned… I strayed to the darkside the other night and enjoyed it.
 (*learned in the ways of the hot spurs, **the best one was disallowed)
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