Gary Andrews had never been to a Premiership game before, choosing instead to spend many a cold afternoon watching non-league football. How would he fare at White Hart Lane?
Relief was evident on the faces of my travelling companions in the carriage. We’d managed to get the beer in for the journey and had just made the train, and would just get to the ground on time. We relaxed back into our seats, and started the banter and discussion for that evening’s game. If I closed my eyes, I could have almost been taken back to two weeks previously and my train journey to Crawley Town.
There were two main differences for this train journey though. Firstly, there was no unscheduled stop at Gatwick airport on a whim, where the double whiskeys did nothing to enhance the viewing pleasure of that night’s game. Secondly, this wasn’t Broadfields but White Hart Lane and I was about to take in my first ever Premiership game.
What? You write a column for Soccerlens and have never been to a Premiership game? Get outta town Andrews.
The early 1990s were a heady time for a young teenage supporter. Italia 90, the advent of the Premier League and Sky Sports. As an impressionable youngster, the 1990 World Cup had me hooked and I was well on the stages to football addiction. There was just one problem. I was living in Devon. My nearest top flight team was Southampton. And Exeter City were doing quite well. The die was cast: I was condemned to a life of obscure hell-holes and long train journeys to grounds I didn’t know I existed.
Actually, I’m exaggerating here. The camaraderie of the terraces at Exeter had me hooked and I loved the feeling of lower-league games. Moving away to Wales, I was still miles away from the nearest Premiership ground (Villa or, still, Southampton). But that didn’t matter: Sky Sports saw me through top-level football.
The love of lower league and non-league grew stronger. Trips to Forest Green Rovers held a strange attraction. Champions League on the box or a wet night in Hereford. No contest.
You can’t be a supporter and see some top teams live in the flesh, and there’ve been trips to Old Trafford, The Valley and Craven Cottage, none of them Premiership fixtures. I was probably in Shrewsbury, Altrincham, or Dorchester when they were on.
We get the idea. Just hurry onto the Premiership game.
Moving to London offered up a wealth of footballing opportunities. Watching AFC Wimbledon at home was top of the list, but given the proximity of the likes of Chelsea, Spurs, and Arsenal, so was watching a Premier League game. So when fellow Soccerlens scribe and Spurs uber-supporter Andy Greaves offered me a spare ticket to Tottenham v Chelsea, there was no way I could refuse. And so it came to pass that I found myself on a train to White Hart Lane, drinking a can of Stella and talking the limitations of 4-4-2.
Up to this stage, we could have been any supporter going to watch any club anywhere in Britain. But off the train, there were two immediate differences from an archetypal non-league ground. Firstly, there were police everywhere. More police than I’ve possibly seen in my life. Secondly: people. Absolutely tons of them. It’s only at this stage you realise just what a big deal the Premiership is.
White Hart Lane (station) to White Hart Lane (ground) is a short, if unpleasant, walk. There’s a lot of estates, similar to the kind near Millwall, full of supporters emptying their bladders. There’s also a distinct smell of horse dung from the police horses as we head towards the ground. Still the people grow in number, before I turn the corner and see the lengthy queue by the turnstiles. I once laughed at a Southampton-supporting friend who asked if he needed a ticket to watch Exeter. Inwardly, I take back my small piece of non-league superiority (of sorts) mocking.
Hello? Is this a travelogue? Get the hell onto the game.
Andy and I race up the stairs as the game kicks off to our plum seats behind the goal. Except we don’t sit. For the entire game, the entire block remains standing, much to my delight. And, as with any terrace around the country, the atmosphere is better for it.
I’m still taking in the atmosphere when Chelsea take the lead when Didier Drogba heads home from close range. There’s a brief moment of stunned silence before the whole stand responded with a roar of ‘Yid’ Army’ and the singing begins again.
There’s silence a minute later when Joe Cole looks to have put Chelsea two up but the linesman’s flag is up and, off the back of this, Tottenham push forward and ten minutes later a pinpoint corner finds Jonathan Woodgate, who nods in to send the crowd wild and the Chelsea supporters to our left into silence. Cue taunting of ‘You’re going to win fuck all’.
When a few minutes later the chant of ‘Small club in Fulham’ was given an airing, I’m briefly taken back to the terraces of St. James’ Park and the ‘Small town in Farnborough’ chant to Aldershot supporters. Geographical rivalries surface no matter where you are.
But the crowd have barely had time to get into full mocking mode before Chelsea regain there lead. A superb run by Joe Cole, who skips past three or four players, ends up with Michael Essien sliding home. Silence, bar the Chelsea supporters celebrating, before the now familiar refrain of ‘Yid Army’ starts up again.
And from that point the Spurs fans continue singing for the whole half. It’s a far cry from my expectations of seated families clapping politely to an impressive pass, and the occasional chant of ‘Come on Spurs.’ No, this is non-stop noise that puts supposedly more passionate supporters to shame. Even though Chelsea are having the better of the half, the Spurs faithful never stop the noise, and there’s constant banter and abuse between the two sets of fans. But the banter and insults are mostly swear words and references to the recent Carling Cup win. It’s a cracking atmosphere, but I’m longing for a chant along the lines of ‘Fourteen and you’ve got two kids’ that the Exeter faithful gave an airing at Crawley. The banter’s fun, but lacking in wit, unless Ashley Cole is on the receiving end.
And doesn’t Cashley deserve it. He doesn’t stop moaning to the ref and on the stroke of half-time pole-axes Alan Hutton. It’s difficult to tell how bad the challenge is from my position but the Spurs bench are incensed and, predictably, John Terry leads the charge towards the referee. Eventually Mike Riley issues a yellow, to a cacophony of boos around the stadium.
At the interval, Andy asks me what I think of the game. “Great atmosphere, great ground, great match,” I reply. “Although I’m not used to seeing the ball passed along the floor.”
I’ll bet. This must be different to the non-league clogging you have to endure
If the first half was impressive, nothing prepares me for the second half. I’d been impressed with both sides. Chelsea were fluid and classy, and very dangerous on the counter. Spurs were playing a more direct English style, with plenty of movement to the wings and flick-ons from Berbatov, when he can be bothered. I’m more comfortable with that way of playing, but it’s still a class above the Blue Square Premier.
Five minutes into the second half and the game appears to be over when the impressive Joe Cole skips through the Tottenham defence and chips over Robinson. Spurs fans are still making noise, but it’s more muted. Chelsea aren’t the type of team to let you come back from two goals down.
But Spurs are trying and Tom Huddlestone is at the centre of everything: tackles, inch-perfect passes, you name it. If I’d had a criticism of Juande Ramos’ men in the first half, it was a lack of creative passing. “What they really need is a Matt Gill [Exeter City creative centre-mid] type player to open up the game,” I’d thought. In Huddlestone, they had this and it was his corner that picked out Berbatov to loop a header over the stranded Cudicini. At this point I involuntarily find myself mouthing ‘Come on Spurs’.
It was surely no more than an a consolation and Avram Grant showed his intentions to shut up shop a few minutes later by throwing on Alex for Salomon Kalou. This almost immediately backfired as Chelsea failed to clear a corner and Huddlestone controlled the ball before driving a low shot into the corner of the net. Cue wild celebrations around me and a lot of chanting. Suddenly the belief was back and Spurs pushed forward. And then concede.
Joe Cole, who was probably man of the match, got a second goal, and was then withdrawn for Michael Ballack in another tactical blunder by Grant.
Spurs were still in the ascendency and kept pushing forward and then came the moment everyone around me had been hoping for. A long ball bounced off Carvalho and into the path of Robbie Keane. The striker, who’d been quieter than usual, turned around drove and unstoppable shot into the top corner. It was an equaliser befitting of a 4-4 scoreline and the crowd went mental. I’m hugging strangers around me as the improbability of the situation sinks in.
And yet still more drama. In the last minute Berbatov looks certain to score but Cudicini somehow gets a hand to the shot and tipped the ball around the post. I turn to the big screen above the opposite stand for the reply. The screen had been malfunctioning all night, with random black lines appearing, making it look like we were watching a game of pong. But now it works perfectly and the save is even better in slow motion. There’s applause from both sides for a world-class save from a world-class striker.
So, what did you learn at the school of Juande and Avram?
â€¢ Joe Cole is an amazing player to watch. Even the opposition defenders are mesmerised by him.
â€¢ That said, Tom Huddlestone is also quite good. He’s got a great range of passes in his locker.
â€¢ Alan Hutton is calmness personified.
â€¢ Both defences have individually brilliant players but were poor as a unit.
â€¢ Ashley Cole is a little prat.
â€¢ Four-all scorelines don’t happen often.
â€¢ White Hart Line is miles better than Wembley for atmosphere and their fans are as good, if not better, than many non-league teams.
â€¢ The quality of football is both attractive and impressive. I rarely had to strain my neck, and any ball up in the air was greeted with cries of ‘hoooooof’.
â€¢ The tackles are rubbish, and were more quarter than full-blooded. You want a proper contact sport? Try watching Halifax v Grays.
â€¢ Mike Riley may have got abuse but he was miles better than any referee I’ve seen in the Conference. There were no mystifying decisions, and a complete understanding of the advantage rule that seems beyond many non-league referees.
As we made our way from the ground, the two sets of supporters were separated by a lengthy line of police, interspersed with more horse dung. Herein lay another key difference between the two leagues. At Histon this season, somebody had left a plastic bag containing indeterminable contents by the side of the pitch. My slightly drunk friend Tony spent much of the game shouting at the policemen: “Bomb! There’s a bomb in that bag.”
They ignored him. Histon isn’t renowned for being a hotbed of terrorist activity, although the Womens’ Institute is meant to be quite militant.
At White Hart Lane there was an uneasy sense of foreboding with so many police around. Had Tony tried that stunt tonight, no doubt a) the whole ground would have been evacuated and; b) He would have found himself taking a trip in one of the many police vans that whizzed by as we made our way to Seven Sisters tube station.
And as we walked back I found myself eulogising about the game, and especially the ground to Andy. My Premier League virginity had been broken in the most spectacular fashion. But even as I sat on the Victoria Line back home, in my heart I was far more excited about Exeter’s forthcoming clash with Kidderminster.
White Hart Lane or Aggborough? Stamford Bridge or The Wessex Stadium? Anfield or Edgar Street? It’s still no contest. And just so Andy doesn’t feel like he’s missing out, I’m threatening to take him to Rushden and Diamonds next month.
Threatening being the operative word.