The date was 17th May 1972. A Wednesday night. A glory, glory night.
I was 15 ½ years old and at a posh English boarding school on the other side of London to N17. But that inconvenience wasn’t going to stop me from going to White Hart Lane. At that time I was a bit of a rebel and (my own children don’t really know this) catching the train from Windsor up to London for an illicit night on the town wasn’t exactly unknown behaviour for me and my mates.
I‘d been in love with Spurs for at least a decade. I was so young I don’t remember the precise moment that Tottenham Hotspur Football Club placed its hand around my heart and squeezed. I was four, maybe five. I have absolutely no memories of a life ‘pre-Spurs’. By the time Jimmy Greaves signed for us in December 1961 (a month after my fifth birthday) I was running round the room at the news with all the excitement of a kid at Christmas.
My father had taken me to the 1961 Charity Shield completely by chance. We lived in the Midlands. He was a Southampton fan, inasmuch as he supported any team before he had sons. But he’d been given two tickets for the game and my mum didn’t much care for football anyway. So my first ever football match was seeing Double-winners Spurs beat England 3-2 at White Hart Lane with my dad. On another day I’ll write about that sepia-tinged memory. My club beat England. I mean how cool was that?
But fast-forward to 1972. It was the UEFA Cup Final. In those days the UEFA Cup was very different from the Europa League today. It was considered as hard to win as the European Cup (although it didn’t have quite the same kudos). The European Cup was for Champions. Only the league title winners from each country entered it, but that actually meant there were relatively few teams who could win it in any single year, those 4-5 clubs from the major footballing countries.
The UEFA Cup was different. Second, third and sometimes fourth places from each major European League qualified. So there were plenty of tough opponents to be drawn against. Every round was straight 2-leg knockout. No group stages. Spurs and Wolves had already knocked out Milan and Juventus respectively. It was rare for two clubs from the same country to reach the UEFA Cup final.
Spurs had squeakily beaten Wolves 2-1 at Molyneux in the first leg. So we expected the return match at White Hart Lane to be tight but, eventually, there could only be one possible winner. Surely? I’d snuck out of school with my best mate, an American, we knew as Mac. He spent his teenage years in England but was from Ohio (where he’s since been living for forty years). We’d already converted him to soccer. He turned out to make a pretty nifty striker. But fan-wise his sole allegiance was to the recently formed Cincinnati Bengals. It was my mission to change that.
Somehow we obtained tickets from a tout on the street (I have no idea how, this was all a long time ago). I remember arriving in our seats five minutes after kick-off. We were in the back row. I mean the very back row. Right up at the top of the Park Lane End. Not that we ever sat down. The noise was incredible. There were apparently 54,000 packed into the old lady that night. The sound of drumming feet sticks with me. The swearing was no worse than at school. The tobacco smoke. In those days every fan thought nothing of chain-smoking throughout a game. I can visualise the grey haze billowing in the floodlights as daylight faded.
And then Mullery put Spurs ahead. 1-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. After half an hour, Martin Peters took a free-kick and Alan Mullery scored with a diving header (see photo). The noise was immense. Think of the sound that 30,000 or so at the Lane can still make today and imagine doubling it. Not doubling it with corporate sponsors and funereal fans like at the Emirates. But a ground rammed to the rafters with genuine, beer-fuelled, excited fans watching the mighty Spurs about to raise their second European trophy.
I don’t recall Wolves’ equaliser. It was just before half time. I just remember the tension of the second half ticking down as Wolves pushed for a goal to take the Final into extra-time. But it was not to be. Our ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah’ Anthem rolled up and down the terraces as every Spurs fan roared us to victory. Afterwards the pitch was invaded, although sadly not by me and my mate.
White Hart Lane was less unique back in those days. Most major stadiums were still ramshackle and intimate, with the fans near to the pitch, disgusting toilets and corrugated iron roofs. The likes of Old Trafford, Anfield, Upton Park and Highbury weren’t really that different to the Lane.
And that is what makes Sunday even more poignant. White Hart Lane is more than just Spurs’ home. She is one of the very last of those great old dames that once symbolised working class English football. The others have married well, relocated, had facelifts or dropped down the leagues. That night back in May 1972 the world was a different place; it was a much simpler, black and white era of tobacco smoke and warm beer, of beige flared trousers and fluffy sideburns. No smartphones. No mobile phones even. No Stub Hub. I was just a teenager and Spurs were the most glamorous club in England (read ‘The Glory Game’ by Hunter Davies and you’ll get the picture). I obviously had no idea how difficult the 1990s and 2000s would turn out to be for Spurs fans.
So it is fitting that, as the cranes hover over what’s been our home since Queen Victoria was on the throne, we all say goodbye to the place with a Spurs team that’s once again fit to grace her tight pitch. I’m 60 now. I’ve spent much of my life working and travelling abroad. I’ve been to the Lane less than I’d have liked and I was spared our worst seasons by geography. Nevertheless, our club’s been beating in my heart every single day.
And, what’s best, Sunday’s only a temporary goodbye, not a farewell forever. Whatever the sponsor’s name, the gleaming new beast that is already growing like Alien inside our old home will be White Hart Lane too. We’ll still wander down the High Road and feel our prickling anticipation in the same N17 air.
My friend Mac? He’s been a committed Spurs fan ever since that night. We rattled home together on the milk train, drunk and happy, and snuck back into school without being caught. For many years, he was about the only American he knew who felt any allegiance to an English football club. But now that’s totally changed. I went to Mac’s daughter’s wedding last year and met a mid-western Spurs fan who’s never played soccer or been to England. But he knew his history, players, tactics as well as anyone, and was a wonderful introduction to me of the insight that a new fan base can bring.
The old and the new. Sunday will be sad. But rather wonderful too.