Those glorious European nights at White Hart Lane of days gone by. Spurs in their all-white kit. Powerful teams visiting from the continent. The stadium full to bursting. The crackle in the air.
Tottenham was at least decked out in its all-white kit for the visit of Asteras Tripolis to White Hart Lane. Aside from that, last Thursday’s Europa League match may as well have been an early round of the League Cup played on a cold, wet, miserable Tuesday night.
Commuters outnumbered football supporters on the overground train that shuttled me from Seven Sisters to White Hart Lane. The atmosphere was muted, not raucous. I found a seat. A seat! On the way to a football match! I sat down and looked out the window, only to see my own reflection in the darkness.
At White Hart Lane station there was calm, no excitement. Passengers sauntered along the platform and down the stairs, swiping their Oyster cards as they exited.
It was one hour before kick-off, and the only crowded place in N17 was the fish ‘n chip shop next to the station. Even then the queue barely made it to the door.
“Programmes, three-pounds-fifty, programmes!” The call cut through the night air, and I was powerless to resist. I handed over a tenner and received a programme and the correct change in return. Bill Nicholson resurrected on the front cover; it’s been ten years since his death.
The Haringey Irish Centre on Pretoria Road has become the pre-match drinking establishment of choice for Tottenham Hotspur’s faithful, especially since the Railway Tavern closed some years ago.
Despite being navigationally challenged, I found the Centre without getting lost. Although I did try to enter via a locked door at the side of the club instead of the well-lit main entrance.
The bar at the rear of the Centre was humming – I couldn’t make out the tune – but far from packed. I joined a group of Spurs supporters at the back of the bar.
“Big news,” one of them said, “The club has allowed the drummer back.”
Negotiations to allow the return of the drummer to White Hart Lane had been tense. The club was nervous. What would happen if the drummer thumped out the Y-word chant? Boom… boom… boom-ba-boom-boom-boom, LAWSUIT!
“Are we allowed to say that word?” I asked. Everyone around me groaned.
Two-and-a-half beers later (or, in my case, a glass of apple and mango juice later), we exited via the rear doors and headed towards the High Road.
White Hart Lane’s floodlights radiated over the stadium. Down on earth, meanwhile, crowds were sparse.
We walked past takeaway joints, mini-cab firms and hand-painted car park signs. Soon we were walking past hoardings proclaiming White Hart Lane’s grand, redeveloped future. A future that seems distant – the new stadium won’t be ready until 2017-18, which will mark ten years since the original plans were announced.
With a zap of a barcode, a push through a turnstile and a swift bag search I was in. The Park Lane end: where Spurs supporters are wedged up against the travelling support, causing a mad, competitive atmosphere, like a furious chemical reaction.
But not tonight. The Asteras Tripolis faithful were few, congregating in the lower part of the corner stand. Row upon row of seats in the home end were empty.
“I haven’t seen a crowd as small as this since the 70s,” said a bloke near me.
The wide open spaces of White Hart Lane during a midweek Europa League fixture were a world away from the oppressive conditions of the London Underground.
A couple of hours earlier I had been crammed into an airless tube, clinging to consciousness as my olfactory system was assaulted by a thousand Londoners’ BO.
As the tube headed north, passengers minded the gap between the train and the platform edge, and I could breathe again. A man wearing a Spurs shirt and beanie was hugging a pole in the middle of the carriage.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to the game tonight?” I prompted, waggling my eyebrows in a manner that was supposed to be amusing and not suggestive.
He was indeed going to the game. “They’re topping our group,” he said of Spurs’ opponents, “but they’re tenth in the league at the moment. It’s their first time playing in Europe.”
Well, strictly speaking this is Asteras Tripolis’s first time in the group stages of a major European club competition, but let’s not split hairs. And I only knew that by looking it up on the internet, days after the conversation on the Victoria Line took place.
“Twenty-five quid for a ticket, no wonder no-one’s here. Twenty quid last year, twenty-five this year. No explanation, just a bloody price rise. We’re being bled dry,” lamented a bloke behind me, snapping me back to reality. I spread myself across a couple of seats and waited for kick-off.
The main talking point of the game became instantly famous thanks to the internet: Lamela’s outrageous rabona goal that put Spurs 2-0 up. A left-footed rabona from the “D” – a goal that will live on in YouTube perpetuity. A shame more people weren’t there to see it.
A quarter of an hour or so later the referee blew for half-time, triggering a mass rush for the urinals.
The bloke next to me returned after the half-time break – relieved, no doubt – with a salmon and cream cheese bagel. “Last time I asked for one of these they gave me a salmon bagel and a cream cheese bagel,” he said.
On 68 minutes a Spurs supporter in front of me stood up, saluted his mates and left. “Earliest I’ve ever seen,” said my neighbour, picking salmon from his teeth, “never seen anyone leave this early when we’ve been winning.”
It was an odd evening. The small crowd, Spurs winning comfortably, a rabona goal, a mind-blowing salmon and cream cheese bagel – what more could possibly happen?
With Spurs 5-0 up, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was sent off. Tottenham had exhausted its substitutions, so Harry Kane (who had scored a hat-trick) put on Lloris’s goalkeeping top and gloves.
The free kick resulting from Lloris’s foul resulted in a goal – Kane let the ball squirm underneath him and across the goal-line.
“England’s number one!” sang the crowd.
The final whistle drew applause and the crowd filed out in good spirits. The queue for the southbound platform at White Hart Lane station was unusually short.