Sunday 5 March 2017

Where Is Gent? - Tottenham Hotspur FC Vs K.A.A. Gent, Europa League Round Of 32, Wembley Stadium (23/02/17)

Making my way to the bus stop, my road is an ever so mild scene of destruction, the culprit ‘Storm Dorris’. She's buffeted my part of North West London all day, bins lie on their sides, fences are ever so slightly buckled and a few overgrown shrubberies have been toppled, it would be far too dramatic to call them trees.

Tonight is the first game since having a car, that I’m not using it. Watching my intended bus pass me, because it’s early, then moments later, despite my outstretched hand another does the same because it's overflowing with school kids, I’m less than five minutes into my journey, and I’m cursing the whole spectrum of Gods.

Third time's a charm, and at least I get a seat. I try to relax, looking out of the window at the moody pale blue sky, hoping it will distract me from the small child yelling in my ear or the medley of strange smells. 

My last Tottenham match was a close September night, full of hope, short sleeves, Chris Armstrong and the Champions League, today it’s late February, big coats, woolly hats, and a one goal deficit to a mid table Belgian team in the Europa League.

No Tom today, work has pulled rank, so he's unable to make it. I’ve therefore had to make a few calls, and I’ve managed to secure an emergency loan.

They’re what you might call ‘well traveled’, ‘in the twilight of their career’, but they are a solid and reliable pro, with plenty of experience. They are no stranger to the Bundesliga, or the rough and tumble of non league football, so I’m confident they will make a good addition to the match day squad. We might though have to think about changing our name and they've already made some somewhat divaish demands, they insisted I brought them a sandwich.

Trundling along on the top deck of my second bus of the night, two older chaps sit close by, both in matching Spurs baseball caps. At each stop the the spare seats become fewer and fewer, and when the young man with the blue and white jester hat, bells and all, takes the last spot, we are officially full, next stop Wembley.

Inching closer, one car length at a time, the mechano arch of our national stadium is visible in the distance, but for some reason it’s daubed with the colours of our enemy, red! As we weave through the traffic it disappears, it’s glow still unmistakable in the distance, however when it reappears, it’s still the wrong colour, this is not a good sign.

Barrelling down the stairs, like the unstoppable boulder from Indiana Jones, I exit the bus, dead ahead, perched up on its hill, thankfully the famous arch now a much more gratifying mixture of blue and white.

I find my less than impressed looking fiancee coat done up tight, scarf and gloves on, who is already well over tonight's conditions, “fuck off wind” she shouts in her mild mancunian accent. She’s keen to move on, having been waiting for me in earshot of the resident preacher with his megaphone, whose loud ever so slightly lipsy wisdom is driving her up the wall, “God is the referee on the pitch of life”.

Walking along the approach, stopping only to get a programme, she tells me of her underground encounter with tonight's visiting fans, the other ‘blue and white’ army in attendance, that of the K.A.A. Gent (KAA).

It was certainly noisy, I would have expected little else after their home performance, watching the first leg, we had both commented what a din they were making, and were interested to see what kind of number would travel, which is already clear, is a lot. I think what struck her most was one interaction between fans, which resulted in one person putting or trying to put his “fingers up the bum” of his friend.

Although there is the occasional shout of “Yid Army” the sights and sounds on the concourse, are most definitely dominated, by the flag waving, native american headdress, blue and white wig wearing, “que sera, sera……. we’re going to Wembley” singing, face painted fans of ‘The Buffalos’. Passing their entrance, it’s hard not to miss the solitary fireman on pyro watch, who is explaining to a baffled looking Belgium, that he must pour his away beer.

Once inside, and prompted by the Saturday morning TV voice presenter of Wembley's own radio station, that they insist on polluting the airwaves with, Rachel tells me “I could do with a hot drink”. It’s certainly a drink, however describing is as “hot” might be a stretch, lukewarm might be more accurate. Rachel with her sometimes dark outlook on life, suggests it is that way “so you can't burn anyone” with it.

Also the fact it's not exactly overflowing rankles her, “don't even fill it up, stingy”, she says pointing to the brown liquid, that's well short of the top of the cup, “don't get that in non league”, she adds. She’s a china mug and sandwich platter passed around by the club secretary kind of person rather than the faceless, money driven world of modern, top flight football.

“Dele Alli, he’ll be here” is the curious way the amphetamine addled voice reads out the teams, “where else is he gonna be, a party?” ponders Rachel.

Through block 33 I enjoy that millisecond of excitement you get, as the sheer size of the ground unfolds before you. Don’t get me wrong I love the quirky, charming and character filled stadiums of the non league games we go to, the curves of Enfield Towns Queen Elizabeth II stadium or the Art Deco stand at Wingate & Finchley, but it’s something about the size, the dimension of somewhere like Wembley that sends a bit of a shiver down my spine.

Bang on half way, in line with the Europa League logo, that covers the centre circle, we find our seats, the KAA fans have almost filled their considerable allocation to our right, and are just finishing off an Icelandic style thunder clap as we sit down. “They’re fucking noisy them lot” says the person immediately behind us, who then asks for some clarification on “where is Gent?”.

I love a football, hell any kind of sporting montage, an emotionally charged shot of sporting romance straight to the jugular. During BBC Sports Personality in my house I can easily do a box of tissues, the end of a World Cup or European Championships, I’m a mess. Late nights watching ones from Italy ‘90 or France ‘98, are not uncommon, so much is my investment in them, sometimes I have to take the next day off work to recover.

There have been some good ones over the years, some vintage tear jerkers, Des Lynam reading ‘If’ for example, but the zenith, the absolute number one, is the Roger Lloyd-Pack narrated compilation Spurs play before home games. Jimmy Greaves "they're the finest team in Great Briton and one of the best in the world", David Ginola's volley against Leeds, "we're about winning with style" it’s a piece of art. A mix of old and new, oh and his wonderful voice, it gets me every time, “to dare, is to do”.

An army of children appear, who encircle the competitions logo, and get shimmering. Some late arrivals, confirm the fine view, “good seats”. Trigger is replaced by Lauryn Hill, black and white players of old, are replaced by a pulsating cockerel, that now fills the big screen. Each pulse is accompanied by the ticking of a clock, each tick getting closer to the arrival of the teams. One Spurs fan, stands, arms outstretched towards the moving mass of Belgian blue and white, in a kind of ‘come on then’ pose.

With all of about three minutes of the game gone, the tutting has already begun, “fucking useless” someone says, when a player makes a misplaced pass. We can though enjoy the most elegant of bulldozers that is Mousa Dembele. His ability to keep the ball, shrug people off and glide on by, has become one of my favourite parts of any recent Spurs match, “he's so fucking good” says Rachel.

“We've got Alli” starts, but soon finishes, highlighting the problem of playing in such a large stadium, with the fans so spread out it seems hard to really get a song going, no century old pillars and tight little corners here to contain the sound, like at White Hart Lane. The KAA lot on the other hand, condensed and distilled in their corner, are non stop. Led by a man with a mega phone, backed up by their drum, I find myself at times watching them more than the game.

“Yiddo, Yiddo, Yiddo” sing the Spurs fans following Eriksen’s ten minute goal, that draws the game level on aggregate and if Tom were here, he would undoubtedly deliver his catchphrase “game on”. The early goal shakes off the cobwebs and calms the jitters, brought on by being, and finally there is some energy and noise, among the home fans. It doesn't quite match the away end, you wouldn't know their team had just conceded, they’re still jumping and singing, like nothing has happened.

Next door to me in his brown flat cap, a man sits half out of his chair, hunched over fidgeting, giving a running commentary. “Ohhh” he says when Vertonghen clatters into the referee, wiping him out and knocking him to the floor. “Give him an option” he demands of the Spurs players, as just like at the game against Monaco, they look “very narrow” as Rachel put it, lacking in any outlets on the extremities of the pitch. When one of Spur’s widest of wide players, Walker does well to get into the box, he shoots, but it's well over, “did all the hard work” groans flat cap.

I'm no great tactician, but even to the layman, KAA’s plan seems pretty damn obvious: Spurs are going to press, play a high line, keep on the front foot, so we’ll just sit back and do them on the counter. This is exactly what happens, when they make their first meaningful foray into the Spurs half. The break is received with an almighty roar from the away supporters. The attacker makes it into the box, before he is tackled, sending the ball out for a corner.

“Poch will be furious” is what I just about hear Rachel say over the nearby blue and white krakatoa, that follows KAA’s equaliser, that puts them 2 - 1 ahead on aggregate. Spurs now have got to score “3”, states a person nearby having already worked out the required permutation, much quicker than I could.

The KAA section is now a churning mass of some now topless men, most of whom are in a small pale skinned gang in the first few rows. After such a promising start, this is the last thing we needed, one person behind us demands “lets get his game going now Tottenham”.

Despite being ahead in the tie, KAA continue to sit back, they seem content on springing their very obvious trap, every time we lose the ball high up in their half. Spurs go close, the ball is fizzed across the box, but no takers. When fans shout it sounds like a prayer, more than an attempt to motivate, “come on Spurs”.

Spurs go close again, flat cap squirming more and more, his body reacting to every pass, tackle and shot. “Jesus” he shouts, when another chance to make a dent of the deficit goes begging.

“Yids, Yids, Yids” ripples through the crowd, but never gets going. On the half hour mark, the first attempt at “oh when the Spurs” starts, but it's too fast, and never takes off. At least we have Dembele, who once again shows his class, slinking past people with such consummate ease. You might say, Rachel is a bit of a fan, “Mousa is so sexy”.

Eighty thousand “noooo”’s is how most react, when Spurs take a corner short, which comes to absolutely nothing. It feels like as a club we are not very good at the normal kind at the best of times, so messing about with it seems a bit absurd.

“It’s happening again” says someone alarmed at the ball rattling around the Spurs six yard box, following you'll never guess what, another KAA break away. They agonisingly turn the screw again, applying just enough pressure to keep everyone on edge. “They know how to take a corner” points out Rachel as once again we go a bit flappy at the back and they look every bit assured at what they're doing.

There's no doubt in my mind the referee made the right decision, when he pulls the red card from his pocket, and shows it to Dele Alli. “silly fucker” says flat cap, which is about right, “heavy challenge” says someone else, which might be underplaying what was really an ugly lunge. Rachel is pragmatic, “he’s walking” she says nonchalantly once the KAA player gets back to his feat, after feeling his shin bone bend a little thanks to the England international.

One nearby person, a well dressed, respectable looking bloke, with a watch on that looks more valuable than my house, seems to think it was all the KAA players fault for putting his leg in the way of the Spurs player, “Belgian wanker” he snarls.

Alli is not a dirty player, but he has an edge, a hot headedness, which is a part of what makes him the wonderful players he is, however it's boiled over at the worst possible time and as he makes his way of, the KAA fans jeer, and the mood amongst the Spurs fans, turns a little sour.

On a lighter note the black trilby with silver spurs pin in the side of it, wins its wearer, who is sat next to a bit of a Robert Plant lookalike, the ‘coolest looking Spurs fan of the day award’.

There is an audacious attempt at a long range lob by Spurs, bang on half time, which sails over. Even with ten men, little has changed in the match, KAA are rigid to their plan, and will not be drawn out. Their fans whistle demanding the referee brings the half to an end, all while they wave at the leaving Spurs fans who are off for some overpriced chicken and chips, or tea they can't even throw over themselves, to distract from the pain.

One fan stays in his seat, summing up the mood of and I would think the opinion of most here, “it’s a long way back”.

Could eating in public be considered a fetish? I don't mean eating in designated places like restaurants, but the guy on the bus eating chicken and chips, the guy who has to have a burger at every football game he goes to or the woman next to me eating a ham and cheese sandwich, do they get some kind of kick out it? The sarnie destroyer claims it’s only because she's, “pregnant”, however I think there might be more to it.

Having devoured the expertly prepared snack I brought from home, “should do that at every game, cheeky little sandwich” she suggests, we spend the rest of the break debating the sacking of Claudio Ranieri. Rachel always no nonsense, no RAM or disk space for emotion, sentiment or compassion, thinks results speak for themselves, “no one wants to be Wigan” she says, alluding to the slippery slope that is relegation. I’m though, perhaps not unsurprisingly, am very much in the ‘guy gets a free pass’ camp, after last years heroics.

“Come on you Spurs” and a somewhat muted applause welcomes the returning players, it goes without saying the KAA fans are doing a lot more, people around me might be singing, if they weren't tucking into their cineplex sized buckets of popcorn.

“The fans are getting restless” says Rachel, minutes into the new half. They jeer and whistle, more and more in response to what is perceived as poor play.

Spurs though at least manage to draw the steadfast Belgians out of their shell, and are really showing some grit, an attitude of not going down without a fight, a trade mark of a Pochettino team. If you didn't count the players, you wouldn't think there was any discrepancy, in fact you would be forgiven if you thought KAA had one less man.

Slowly but surely, the on field performance starts to once again thaw out the Tottenham faithful, there is another attempt at “oh when the Spurs”, but once again it fails to take off.

Not content with out singing us, their latest chant a call and response between two halves of the away section. Just before the hour mark, the KAA end turns for a moment into a Robbie Williams concert, when there is a bulk holding up of mobile phone torches light show. Not that Rachel could care one jot, she’s more interested in what she's spotted over my shoulder, “oh that pie looks nice”.

Kane goes close, and then Pochettino decides to shuffle the pack, with the introduction of Son, which Rachel is delighted with. She is a big fan of the self imposed ginger Korean, his introduction reigniting her pre match positivity, “I still feel it's doable”.

“COME ON YOU SPURS, COME ON YOU SPURS” we all cry, after Wanyama side foots one in, which not only means Spurs are one goal away from going through, assuming we don't concede that is, but it leaves the distress caused by Kane blocking a goal bound shot, nigh on the line, just moments before.

Now that's a rendition of “oh when the Spurs” that will get close to getting hairs up on the back of your neck, that's a rendition worthy of a mild break out of goose bumps, that finally fills the whole stadium, and for the first time KAA are quite, all that can be heard is the drum, but not much else, Spurs fans on the other hand, are now on their feet, with an iota of belief.

Whereas before people sat, sullen in their seats, except for flat cap, he’s not stopped, people are now up and down, every near miss or good pass, gets approving sounds. Heads are very rarely out of hands, as Spurs continue to push for the all important third.

It’s tense, but the introduction of Son, “he's beautiful” coos rachel, has given us a bit of dynamism, a bit of much needed trickery. He whips the ball across the box, it evades everyone in white, but manages to squirm out the other side, and is tossed in again, the resulting header is smothered on the line. The banging feet of the tier above us, sounds like thunder.

With quarter of an hour left, we reflect on the match so far, Rachel summarising, “everything of our own doing. Set piece, shit red card, this could have been done and dusted”, she also wonders if all this strain is “good?” for our unborn baby.

KAA think they've scored, but the angle has deceived them, its wide, “ahhhhhhhh” taunt the Spurs fans, Rachel suggests such goading, is “mean”.

Tackles start to fly in. Firstly one by a Spurs player which is deemed a foul, moments later, a replica from a KAA player on Kane, and it's deemed ok. “That's terrible” says a woman behind me in a thick American accent.

Flat cap continues to be positive, he continues to squirm around in his seat. When Spurs miss with a free header, he blurts out frustratedly, “should of done better”, but he’s quick to praise the players again, particularly Alderweireld, who he like most of us, he clearly a massive man crush on, “well done Toby”.

2 - 2, there seemed only one way KAA were going to score, and that's exactly how they've done it, with all the pressure we've managed, all with ten men, it feels like a sucker punch after so much effort and with ten minutes left, it seems all but over.

The KAA keeper runs almost the full length of the pitch to celebrate, not that I can see, the goal has triggered the upturning of many red folding chairs, followed by scores of leaving people, obscuring my view. The respectful man the other side of Rachel, with the fancy watch snaps, jumps to his feet, pounding his brown leather gloved fist into his other open hand, like a German from a bad war movie, frothing at the mouth, with a scarlet face, he lets out his tirade, “fucking cock sucker”.

The KAA fans on the other hand, have hit a new level of ecstasy.

Spurs keep on plugging away, although it's in front of an ever decreasing amount of fans, and an ever increasing amount of empty seats, including flat cap, who's had enough. Son blasts over in the dying moments, “you know it’s not your night when that happens” says some behind us dejectedly, another fans conclusion is a little more cutting “fucking wanker”. The much maligned Janssen is the last roll of the dice on about eighty nine minutes, I want to have faith in the Dutchman, but he's not a miracle worker, Rachel just feels bad for him, “sorry Janssen”.

“All these people leaving early, will miss the two last minute goals”, says a wishful thinking Rachel, showing an uncharacteristic amount of positivity.

The away end is a sea of scarf waving and triumph, they’re now whistling even more vehemently than ever before, begging the referee to end the match.

Some KAA players lie on their backs some walk around agasp, the size of the scalp they have just taken is just dawning on them, they've done it, they've knocked Spurs out.

Lined up in front of the flags that hang around the pitch, the KAA players and staff of the visitors reel off a repertoire of choreographed routines with the fans. What started off as simply applauding the jubilant supporters, soon goes to another level of appreciation for each others efforts. On the edge of the pitch, down low on their haunches the players bounce, the fans do the same squatting where they stand. A deep rumbling chant, suddenly gets louder as players and supporters shoot up right, many in the crowd spilling out into the aisles, dancing. They leave the best to last, another ‘Thunder Clap’, players and fans alike, hands above there heads, sign off what has been an excellent nights work, in the best possible way.

Outside, the Spurs fans disappear into the night discussing I’m sure, what on earth is it going to be like here next season when it becomes ‘home’ for every match, the KAA fans in high spirits, continue to sing and frolic about. One, an older man, has taken to wearing a flag like a cape, that flutters in the aftermath of ‘Storm Dorris’.

I’ll leave the last words to Rachel, as we join the crowds making the journey home, “Wembleys not really working”.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

For our video from the match, click HERE

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