Friday, May 12, 2017

My White Hart Lane Story

SB Nation's fantastic Tottenham Hotspur blog, Cartilage Free Captain, is posting stories from supporters about White Hart Lane, the venerable old ground for the club that will host its final game on Sunday against Manchester United. Since they have quite a backlog of stories to post, and seeing as they'll likely not post a story solely about a guided tour, it's probably best that I post my own story here.

But even though my story is only about a guided tour, it still is my only experience with the ground for a club that has quickly become one of my deepest rooting interests. When I went on that guided tour back in the summer of 2012, I had only been a "Spurs supporter" for maybe a year at most, and was still learning the lay of the English soccer landscape and what it meant to support Tottenham Hotspur. I had already learned the hard way that it would be a struggle after a certain Champions League Final with a certain club that shall not be named, but that pain wasn't quite as searing as it would be for supporters with longer histories.

In my lifetime as a sports fan, I've only seen one of my team's stadiums close down, and that was Shea Stadium for the Mets. I went to one game there that was called after 4.5 innings because of rain, and I only needed that long to learn that Shea was an absolute dump. But, since I had only been there once, I didn't quite feel the emotional attachment to it that many others did, so I wasn't that sad to see it go. But with White Hart Lane, I've felt something different, despite like Shea, only going there once.

When you see where White Hart Lane is, you marvel at how stadiums can appear in places like that in the first place, but then you realize it's been there in some form or another since 1899! Quite a bit changes from 1899 to 2012 when I sauntered up to it. And then you realize that it's actually kind of... dinky. English soccer is defined by cathedrals like Old Trafford and Anfield, and while White Hart Lane has plenty of history, it certainly doesn't meet those standards. The day I turned up also turned out to be the day that Spurs legend Ledley King had announced his retirement, which made the day a little more special. Even an idiot like me could sing the great Ledley King chant about him playing on one knee.

Inside the ground, what struck me was just how... small it was. The concourses barely fit three people across, the concession stands to buy pies weren't much more than shacks, and the plastic seats barely were able to fit 18 year old me and my then overweight frame. If you sat in just the wrong spot, you'd have a support post blocking your view of the pitch, too. But looking around at the whole stadium from those seats, and then the player's tunnel, you realized that was the charm of the place. With everything just not right by modern standards and the pitch being just small enough for Spurs to easily exploit it when they were good, you realized that everyone that played for Spurs and supported Spurs at that ground left a little bit of themselves there (in a good way).

In the tour, we saw pictures of all of the club legends that even I knew by heart at that point; Bill Nicholson, Ozzie and Ricky, Klinsmann, King and so many others. We saw the few trophies that Spurs had won, including the two UEFA Cup's, a Champions League ball from the magical 2010-11 campaign, which was even more special to see then because at that time it seemed like Spurs would never play in the Champions League again and even the dressing room, with the kits of players that would soon be sold to Real Madrid. And through all of it, I felt like I belonged there.

Keep in mind that my choosing an English soccer team to support was an un-scientific process that boiled down to rooting for a club that wasn't swimming in oil money, not owned by an idiotic American (much easier to do then than now) and was just good enough to be seen on FOX Soccer every weekend, basically leaving me with Spurs and Everton to pick. I settled on Spurs because I had a distant family member who used to have season tickets at the Lane, figuring that would be a good excuse and front if I ever had to explain myself. But sitting in the Spurs dugout that day, and trying to convince my guide that Clint Dempsey would actually be a good signing and just hoping that Andre Villas-Boas wouldn't be an awful manager, I felt like I belonged at Spurs.

The club was just good enough to attract idiotic Americans like me to their cause, but not good enough that they won all the time. They had a history, a soul, and a passion that just wasn't present at Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal that made the experience of supporting them seemingly worthwhile. And that day at White Hart Lane confirmed to me what I already thought: I made a good decision.

I left that day thinking I'd be back to see a game there once, and it never happened. That will be one of the biggest regrets of my life. But at least I can say I was there once, if just for a tour. I know that I'll see many games at the new stadium, maybe even call a game or two there. But White Hart Lane has a little piece of every Spurs supporter there, even a dummy like me who was there only for a tour. And since it's the first time I've ever watched a stadium like the Lane close down for one of my teams, it's a new feeling. But seeing how Spurs have become such a fundamental part of me in just six short years of fandom, I can't imagine what longer term supporters and those who have been around the club way longer than I have are thinking heading into the final game. My best Spurs experiences were waking up preposterously early to watch games and then yelling at my TV when they did something stupid. What could the same thoughts be like for people whose best Spurs experiences were watching Derby wins at the Lane and chanting how Ledley King playing on one knee will always be better than John Terry?

My abiding memory of the Lane will be talking to a steward about how Clint Dempsey will actually be good for Spurs if we signed him. That's my unique White Hart Lane memory, and it will always be mine. The picture I took looking at the golden cockerel which has watched over the Lane since 1899 and the entire stadium is still my phone background, and it probably always will be. When the stadium gets torn down bit by bit, a very small part of me is going with it.

And while that part of me is miniscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of Spurs supporters who left a bigger part of themselves there, I can say that I was there, and that my White Hart Lane experience, like my Spurs fandom, is unique to me and unique to this bizarre, maddening, but brilliant club that we all share.

I just spilled a lot of virtual ink for a ridiculous hunk of sheetmetal that I went to once, in a part of London no tourist ever ventures to for a club that I've supported for maybe six years.

But that's Tottenham Hotspur, and that's White Hart Lane.

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