Thursday, 22 September 2016

Bless - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs AS Monaco FC, Champions League, Wembley Stadium (14/09/16)

“There it is” says a boy with socks almost pulled up to his knees. ‘It’ is Wembley, and instantly all eyes are transfixed on the windows of the tube carriage, as he, me, and almost everybody else waits to get their first glimpse of the arch. Seeing it every morning before I walk into work, has perhaps made me a bit blase about it, but I quickly snap out of that way of thinking, when it appears on the horizon.

Except for the odd commuter, my train, much like the ones that passed me on the platform at Willesden Green station, are full of men, women and children, all making their way to the newly erected big top on the edge of town, where our midweek service will be conducted, while the holiest of holy places is being remodeled. Much like the members of a cult or a Maoist regime, they have been instructed in what to wear, and have dutifully obliged, white is the order of the day, and white it will be, tinged though in most cases, with a little bit of blue.

Although I don’t attend nearly as much as I should, nor as much as I did, when I had a season long pew ticket, I still worship from afar, getting there when I can, usually on a Thursday night, for the visit of a missionary from some distant land, or on a Wednesday, when some much smaller congregation pops along, and most of the regular flock, can’t be bothered to trek down after work midweek, so then people like me can go, but I’ve never seen it like this.

No amount of moaning, whinging or passive aggressive emails from customers today, or in fact any day since I booked my tickets have been unable to knock me down from the ethereal cloud I have been floating on. Even the gouging and extortionate, £9 booking charge, was unable to dislodge me. Sleep has been at a minimum, time on social media has been at a maximum, desperate to see a hashtag heavy post, full of pictures of the changing room, or updates on how they have decided to decorate the toilets.

The scale of everything around me as I descend the stairs of Wembley Park station, once I've negotiated the countless people taking advantage of the photo opportunity, is so vast compared to the last game we went to, Sporting Bengal Utd Vs London Bari FC, in the Essex Senior League, that it’s like it’s not even the same thing. I’m here well ahead of kick off, but already many worshippers have beat me to it, their pilgrimage complete, they are now just waiting for it to begin.

“Tickets, tickets” say the touts in their own special way, loud enough so you can hear, but not too loud that the nearby coppers have to acknowledge them.

The occasional “Come on you Spurs” and “Yid Army” ring out, but most people seem interested in tucking into a burger, walking along in that eating on the go, slightly hunched over kind of way people do, trying to avoid it all going down their front. Where I’m standing, still in a mild state of shock, I witness a grown man announce like a toddler that he wants to get his "face painted" and someone actually purchase a 50/50 scarf. Having only ever seen this happen, via slyly taken pictures on Twitter, much like a wildlife photographer capturing a rare species of some kind, it can only add to my disbelief, however the man in the “The Moose is Loose” t-shirt both cheers me up, and gives me a hankering for a wine gum.

Some effort has been made to personalise the surroundings, a comfort blanket in this unfamiliar postcode, banners hang from the lamp posts lining Wembley Way, depicting the cockerel standing proudly on his old leather ball, however much about this, still feels surreal.

Yes I've been to Wembley, but never this early in the season, and never to so see Spurs, except in the Wembley Cup against Barcelona, but that hardly counts. Every occasion I’ve seen them play here, it’s been from the comfort of my own home, and except for Allan Nielsen and Jonathan Woodgate, it’s not been a very fruitful hunting ground, in my lifetime at least. Normally I’m here for the FA Trophy Final or like last season, Non League Day, but never on a Wednesday night in September. One man asks his daughter, who looks young enough for it perhaps to be her first visit, “nice, isn't it?”, she just continues to gawp, and gives no reply.

I have however, and should probably say this quietly, been here to watch a match in the Champions League before, nearly two decades ago, during Arsenals ill fated attempt at using the nation's stadium as their ‘home ground’. The narrow Gooner win was not what I remembered, but instead the nonstop rhythmic clapping of the Panathinaikos fans.

I’m flying solo, for now, Tom has ducked out of this one, even though he still owes me one, after the Arsenal snooze fest against Hull in last seasons road to Wembley attempt. Rachel is stepping into his shoes, and will be here shortly, so I have some time to kill, but refrain from getting one of the ice creams so many people are walking along and enjoying, however I can at least be thankful that I wore shorts, it’s unseasonably warm, and the last time I saw this many bare legs, was on a beach in Margate.

The moustachioed one from Sky Sports news, stalks the fans with a cameraman in tow, desperate for a suitable sound bite for the 7pm headlines, but so far most are intelligent enough to ignore him, instead taking a selfie or six and continuing on up the slope to the stadium bathed in evening sunshine, on the front “Glory, glory night at Wembley” flashes, drawing everyone in like a tractor beam. One woman is so excited she produces an old blue and white rattle from her handbag, and gives it a few turns in celebration.

Surely not, I think it is, but surely not, that can’t be him. A few feet away from me, someone is talking to, then hugging a Rastafarian in a Spurs shirts, to be clear this is not some cock in a comedy hat, with dreadlocks, this is a full blown, rasta. Nothing too miraculous about that, football fans come in all shapes and sizes, but this follower of all things Haile Selassie is ringing a bell, and for the life of me I don’t know why.

I stand, trying not to stare, flicking through my marijuana singed memory, trying to recall, why he is so familiar to me, and then it hits me, a true eureka moment, a picture of the same person on a tube platform flashes up from some folder in my mind, marked football miscellaneous, and I have to stop myself from shouting “yes” I'm so delighted I’ve worked it out. It’s only former Millwall, Crystal Palace and of course Tottenham Hotspur, might have played up front once or twice with Steffen Iversen, forward of the late 90’s early 00’s when I had my season ticket, Chris Armstrong.

Not usually one to badger a ‘celebrity’ or someone in the public eye, I can't stop myself, from at least saying "hello" and telling him he was playing for Spurs in my formative years, and he is more than happy to accommodate the large sweaty man who asks him to pose for a pic, and replies to most of my garbled sentences with one word, a quiet, but friendly “bless”. Underneath his wooden beaded necklace, beard and Tam, he is wearing a Spurs shirt, and I ask him “how does he think tonight will go?” he replies in his softly spoken voice, “for my sons, I hope it is ok”. I thank him once again, he shakes my hand, and hits me with one more “bless”.

Numbers continue to swell, Wembley Way is a sea of Spurs. The occasional AS Monaco FC (ASM) fan potters about, clearly dumbfounded by the extent of the turnout, and probably amazed that this many people actually go to watch football, considering they get about an average attendance of four at the Stade Louis II. A couple in their red and white shirts, are just watching it all go by, each drinking cider from a glass bottle, the odd Spurs fan stops to wish them luck, and there is not an ounce of animosity or tribal rivalry. When one of the ASM fans sees a Spurs fan struggling to push a man in a wheelchair, he pitches in and helps, and the football Gods can go to bed happy.

“Mental”, “look at that”, “I’m buzzing” are quickly turning into the catchphrases of the night, as people look back down from where they have just come from, as more and more people continue to flood forward, like a replica shirted hoard from the Dawn of the Dead. In the distance I can hear the rumbling of a chant “in that number” and the sporadic shouts go up of “Yid Army” which ripples through the crowd, quickly being emulated by others as it goes.

The repeated loop of welcomes on the big screen high up on the front of the stadium, change to the large heads of the Spurs starting 11. When a certain number 20 appears, his song fills the air “we’ve got Alli, Delli Alli”. One fan demands “plenty of singing boys” from those around him, and like a choir in a grand cathedral from the balcony above, just in front of the Bobby Moore statue, they serenade those below “come on you Spurs, come on you Spurs”, which is accompanied by the blast of an air horn, and what I think in the distance is the distinctive sound of steel pans.

Rachel has now joined me, and keen to see if the inside is as mesmerising as the outside, we set off for our entrance via Club Wembley, under a sign that reads “Welcome To Tottenham Hotspur” and past what she quite rightly describes as “big plant pots” in fact I’m not sure “big” does them justice, they are BFG size and line the way to the glass doors, where men and women in suits greet us.

The escalator ride is a bit of a blur, as we ascend to our level from the inside. One young boy points out the “old World Cup” which is part of an exhibition of the 60th anniversary of 1966, and one wall is covered in decapitated mannequins wearing Spurs shirts. It’s not until I receive another “welcome sir” from the most well dressed stewards I’ve ever seen, and Rachel comments that “everyone” has got their “best retro shirt” on, and we play name that year, and both simultaneously say ”gutted” when a guy drops face down what I’m sure was a very expensive pizza, do I start to acclimatise. We head straight for our block, do not pass go, do not buy a £5 pound pint, I want to see what our seats are like.

The glass double doors to our section muffle what is beyond, and I’m not sure I’m quite prepared for what I’ll find once I open them. When I venture through, I’m instantly bowled over, and have to compose myself. An overly romantic football type at the best of times, but chuck in the added fact that this is Spurs, I’m close to making a tit of myself.

“This is interesting” says the man sitting next to Rachel, who is in an equal state of awe. Two large flags appear above the heads of the supporters below us and shimmer across the crowd, their arrival triggers the first mass rendition of “glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur” and I genuinely have to pull myself together.

An army of children appear, in two neat rows they cross the pitch, surround the Champions League logo that is covering the centre circle, and lift it. With expert timing the faces of the Spurs team appear on both of the giant screens, screens that put Alan Sugar's jumbotrons to shame, and the place goes up a notch “COME ON YOU SPURS!!”.

The point that gets me, not long after the teams arrive, standing in two steady rows of granite like manliness, with the camera slowly panning along them and broadcasting their square jaws to the world, is the Champions League anthem. It's not the Gazprom theme tune that moves me, it's what it represents. I didn't get to see Spurs at White Hart Lane the last time it played, I’ve only ever heard it on the TV, and who knew if anyone would hear again as far as Tottenham is concerned, we like to do things the hard way, it feels very special indeed.

Post wiggling, the children make their way off with the logo, and kick-off is moments away. The big top is then filled with what I think is our finest hymn “oh when the Spurs” a chant that at the best of times will stand the hairs up on the back of my neck, but combine this with the sheer amount of my fellow fans, I’m unable to join in, my voice cracking on every attempt, I’m on the edge.

Spurs get the first chance, and most people are on their feet, each one letting out an “ohhhhh” as it's blocked, close to the line. It would seem for now that everything is falling into place, fresh in the memory is the 4 - 1 win in the Europa League in December, so everything is crossed that tonight will be just as straightforward, although I have read a few ‘watch out Spurs, this is not the same Monaco’ articles online, and they beat PSG in their last domestic match, the Parisians first defeat in Ligue 1 in God knows how long, so I’m wary not to count my chickens and all that.

There are about the same amount of flags dotted around, as there are ASM fans in the small pocket, low to our right, who are drowned out again when Spurs fashion another chance, which prompts another 80,000 thousand people “COME ON YOU SPURS”.

Fuck, is all I can muster, without any of the comedic delivery of Hugh Grant, when those from the Riviera go a goal ahead. The tiny bunch below us are all standing, obviously overjoyed and for the first time I can hear them sing. Their team have somewhat ruined this party, and for the first time a momentary hush descends, until most realise there is still seventy five minutes to play, and do what they can to lift the atmosphere.

Rachel's reflection on the goal is that “it must have been good, if Hugo didn't save it” she is a card carrying member of the Lloris fan club, so of course will never find fault in the Frenchman's goalkeeping.

Our neighbour is a fidgeting mess of man, a few years older than us both, I can see the torment of being a long suffering Spurs fan written across him. This affliction causes him to squirm in his chair, every poor pass and miss timed shot, has a physical affect on him, he shifts from the edge of his padded seat to the back and forward again as the minutes tick by. “That's better Tottenham” he says, but he looks like their on field performance is hurting him, his very own kryptonite.

I think it's safe to say the finesse of football is a little lost on Rachel sometimes, an advocate of two up front, and a staunch opponent of 4 - 2 - 3 - 1, she demands that Spurs just “smash it” their attempts to equalize are over intricate at times, and are failing to break ASM down. A Spurs fan through osmosis, after nearly ten years together, she has got one thing straight “we always go 1 - 0  down” which our neighbour agrees with “yes, we do” so she knows as well as the rest of us, we have got ourselves out of plenty of sticky situations before.

“Arsenal will be laughing” says our neighbour, slunk back in his chair, as ASM continue to ignore the pre agreed narrative, and are shitting all over our big day out, they were supposed to just roll over like they did in December, weren't they? Their small turn out once again are celebrating, scarves whirling above their head and our neighbour could not be more right when he says “need one before half time”, but that is going to be hard, Spurs are “second to every ball” as he puts it, are narrow, flat and perhaps showing signs of being overwhelmed by the big occasion.

The fans do their bit, and try once again to lift the place “COME ON YOU SPURS”, the players need to respond, and Rachel is now resigned to the fact “we are not having pizza” as I said I would get us takeout, on the proviso we get the win. What is it with the people I go to football with and food?

Regular football goers will know what I mean when I say, there are times at games when you strike up a connection with someone, I don't mean a first dates kind of connection, I mean, the kind when you catch the person's eye sitting or standing near you, and without having to say anything, you know exactly what each other are thinking. Within less than 45 minutes the chap to Rachel’s left and I have transcended the need for words, and are communicating with our third eye, no longer needing to verbally express what we are feeling, but simply exchanging a quick glance, that speaks a thousand words. His way of communicating with Rachel though is a physical one, again without the need for words, his twitching hand tapping her on the leg, once again, not in a first dates sense, but in the same sense why we no longer sit next to each other at home when we watch a game, because she was fed up of me leaping on her, or elbowing her in the ribs.

A late comer behind us is a little shocked to say the least when he takes his seat “2 - 0, shit!”, but doesn't hang around for long “better get something to eat” he says to himself out loud, he takes an order from those he’s sitting with, and is off again, he is however around long enough to describe Spurs issues, like an Edwardian “need a bit more gumption”.

It suddenly dawns on me that the current state of affairs, might be my fault. Before nigh on every Spurs game I've ever been to, without fail, I always shout “come on you Lilywhites” at kick off, however today I didn't, so consumed with trying not to cry at Wembley, again, I forgot to say it. Like Hercules, I have angered the Gods, and this is their punishment.

“Attack the ball” shouts him next door, half out of his seat, his hands gripped to the metal railing in front, as Erik Lamela sends in a corner, late in the half. Toby Alderweireld, or Toby to most spurs fans, as it's easier to avoid using his tongue twister of a surname, but certainly not ‘Toby’ in a Danny Dyer, cockney rhyming slang kind of way, but because it's his name, was listening, and rifles a header into the back of the net.

His hands peeled from the railing, having left the faintest of impressions such was his pent up tension, he sits back cheeks puffed out, eyes to the heavens. He has though seen enough, scooting past us, half bent over, as to not get in anyone's way, he makes his way to get a drink, “want a tea or a coffee?” he kindly offers, we decline, but I imagine his will be a double scotch.

The goal has lifted spirits, both on and off the pitch, and only for the same margin as Gazza’s boot against Germany in 1996 do Spurs fail to equalize in added on time “Tottenham, Tottenham” sing those in white, and on the whistle let out a mighty ‘we are not out of this yet’ roar.

A familiar voice comes over the tannoy, who is so loud, he makes Rachel jump and he has to wait a moment while he is turned down. Continuing the theme of the White Hart Lane comfort blanket, his excitable tone tells us all we are “part of Spurs history” as a new attendance record has been set tonight, one that had stood since 1936. He finishes his address, after introducing a couple of Spurs fan Olympians who are in attendance, with his signature sign off, “up the Spurs”.

Highlights from the rest of Europe play out on the big screen, and Rachel feels with them watched, we won't have to bother when we get home. I explain that I can’t hear them, but she can't quite get her head around it, I’ve seen them, surely that's enough, “what? you can’t hear a goal?” she asks.

‘It’s Not Over Yet’ by the Klaxons feels an appropriate halftime song choice, and along with the announcers positive, “game on”, the stadium is prepared for the second half. With the departure of the half time fork men, and the appearance of Spurs who are out first, the crowd respond “come on you Spurs”, our neighbour wonders if there will be “any changes” and right on cue the appearance pitch side of a certain Belgian, gets everyone out of their seats “oh Moussa Dembele”.

The introduction of the rangy, striding central midfielder has certainly shored Spurs up, and it is they who get the first chance. A group behind us are in good spirits, “think they might have been drinking?” suggests our neighbour, as they attempt a slightly slurred version of “oh when the Spurs” and when people don't join them, they request their fellow fans “sing up”.

Such is the size of Wembley, when a player in white goes down in the box following a corner at the opposite end, we are not sure if the blow of the whistle is to signify the awarding of a penalty by the referee, many turning to those beside them asking, “has he, has he?”. We are only able to gauge what has happened by the reaction of the fans behind the goal, who first cheer, as it looks like the referee is consulting with the fella with the stick to confirm the foul, and everyone is thinking this is our chance, until a chorus of “boos” confirms he hasn't.

Considering Wembley is one of the biggest pitches if not the biggest pitch in the country, it was a little bizarre that Spurs decided in the first half to play in a bunched narrow huddle down centre, ignoring the wide areas, like they were allergic to them. When they finally start to venture into what seemed before as a no go area, it's still not anywhere near frequent enough, and is causing the neighbour to lose it again “out wide” he shouts, Rachel is right when she replies “there is no wide”, which has been true in most parts, but when there has been, they have at least looked a little dangerous.

“Come on Spurs, it's getting important now” says one of the drinkers behind us, whose voice is getting more and more horse, as the game goes on. The neighbour has descended again into a leg twitching, nail biting, jumper fiddler, the cumulative power of his half time refreshment and the goal has worn off, and he is out of his seat, arms outstretched towards the pitch wanting someone to tell him “where’s the width??”

He is getting desperate, his next suggestion means either he has harnessed time travel, or he has lost his mind, “you know who would love this match” he asks me, on one of the few occasions he doesn't look like he is about to rip his shirt off in frustration, not wanting to wait around for my reply, he answers his own question, “Aaron Lennon”. Considering his mood, and doubting he has a DeLorean in the car park, I dare not break it to him that he left last year, so keep shtum.

Of all the people you would want standing on the penalty spot, to receive a cross from the wing, with only the keeper to beat, would be Harry Kane, ‘The Hurrikane’, he who is “one of our own” so the whole place is distraught when he fails to convert, what looks like a simple chance.

Time is almost up, the three man party behind us, are running out of songs “we’re Club Wembley, Tottenham”, one pleads with the players “Tottenham if you lose this, you’re shit, and I know you’re not shit”. People are starting to leave, the chance to avoid getting stuck queuing for the tube with 85,000 other people, is more compelling than seeing a 91st minute equalizer, so off they go, which is frankly mental. I’ve never left the cinema early, because I think I’ve got the gist of what the ending is going to be, nor have I not finished a book for the same reason, you stay to the end people, you see it out until it is done, tut, tut.

Perhaps vindicated on this occasion, although still daft to leave before the final whistle, those who did leave don’t witness any last minute glory, and Spurs's big night back in the Champions League finishes, in defeat.

The ASM players approach their standing, singing fans, thanking them for their support, who I think might well be the last to leave. What were white seats, are now empty and red, except for a few stragglers like us, who are either letting the initial rush die down or are already dissecting the performance.

“Can you imagine them lot against Barcelona?” says one of the knee jerk brigade, as we make our way out. Adele, celebrity Spurs fan number 1006 sings in her melancholic style, fitting perfectly with the mood of many, who contemplate what could have been, under the full moon tonight, but unlike Mr Doom and Gloom, who made the Catalan reference, most are clever enough to know there is a long way to go, and all is far from lost.

“£5 a match day scarf” says the man wearing about three or four like a polyester Mr T, hawking his remaining 50/50’s out of a JB Sports bag, I can’t think about that though, and truly how heinous they are, all I can think about is how unhappy Chris Armstrong's kids must be.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE





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