It was the collapse of the refreshment stand that did it. There were 15,000 inside the ground at Northumberland Park and many thousands more locked out. Those inside for the game against Woolwich Arsenal were packed in tightly. A few climbed onto the roof of the refreshment stall, more followed, then still more until the structure gave way. Dozens were injured. It could have been worse.
Tottenham Hotspur realised they needed a new stadium after that incident in 1898, and in 1899 moved to a patch of land behind the White Hart pub on Tottenham High Road. The ground would become one of the great cathedrals of football. But this weekend, after 118 glorious years, White Hart Lane stadium will stage its last game. Once more, the club has outgrown its ground. There are thousands more waiting to get in, and in the modern game the income a bigger stadium can generate is vital for any team wanting to compete at the top.
Progress, always progress. But just for now, the memories.
From the beginning, the club developed the stadium to be as much a source of pride as the team. Spurs were the up and coming team of the suburbs, the Flower of the South, and wanted a stadium to match. In 1908, as the club secured election to the Football League, it contracted Archibald Leitch to design a new stadium. Leitch was the pre-eminent stadium architect of the age, and his iconic stands graced football grounds across the country throughout the 20th century. His White Hart Lane was completed in 1934 with the opening of the magnificent East Stand, with its three tiers and distinctive gabled fronting. It held 23,000 people and took the ground’s capacity to 80,000.
Huge crowds came to see the Spurs at a stadium described as “the finest in the land”, with a record 75,038 turning out to watch an FA Cup tie against Sunderland in March 1938. During the Second World War the stadium hosted rivals Arsenal while Highbury was requisitioned for the war effort.
It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the character of the stadium as we’ve known it began to be established. The crowd was partisan. Knowledgeable but demanding. And capable of generating such noise that complaints began to surface in the press about whether the ‘Tottenham Roar’ was not a tad unsporting. That idea got short shrift from a proud crowd never afraid to assert itself.
Those golden decades saw the teams of Arthur Rowe and Bill Nicholson change the face of football, with league titles won in 1951 and 1961 – neatly enough each secured in a home game against Sheffield Wednesday. That second title was the first half of The Double, the first to be won in the modern game. It took the Super Spurs into Europe and gave rise to the Glory Glory Nights under floodlights that define the ground for many.
That first game in Europe, against Gornik Zabrze from the Polish coalfields, saw 56,000 turn up to see Spurs overturn a first-leg deficit and blow the opposition away 8-1. Riled by Polish press comments that Spurs had been “no angels” in the first leg, three fans dressed as angels and paraded along the touchline. The singing of Glory Glory Hallelujah in response gave the crowd one of its defining anthems.
Glory nights aplenty followed – the Uefa Cup won at The Lane in 1972 against Wolves and again in 1984 against Anderlecht, the night the crowd sang the name of Danny Thomas after the defender missed a penalty in the shootout and celebrated wildly when keeper Tony Parks saved a spot kick to bring the trophy back to Tottenham. There was the night when Johan Cruyff turned up to get the measure of a young pretender called Glenn Hoddle and departed second best, the night when Diego Maradona played alongside Ossie Ardiles in a lilywhite shirt in a testimonial match…
The sight of the ticker tape welcomes for Ardiles and his compatriot Ricky Villa are another of the iconic images the stadium has thrown up over the years. The spectacle and the noise, especially from The Shelf terrace, the middle section of Leitch’s East Stand that offered the finest view in the country, was something to behold, something those of us who were part of it will never forget.
The ground is loved by many, not just Spurs fans, because the stands are tight into the pitch and the atmosphere, when it bounces, is incomparable. That’s been as true recently as it ever was, with victories over Arsenal and Chelsea giving the lie to the view that all seater stadiums don’t rock. And then of course, there was the Bale game, when the blessed Gareth tore European champions Inter Milan apart. The sound of “Taxi for Maicon” reverberating around the stands will never be forgotten.
Bale follows in the footsteps of the greats, Berbatov, Ginola, Gascoigne, Hoddle, Perryman, Chivers, Gilzean, Mackay, Blanchflower, White, Burgess… the names stretch back across the years, all gracing that same patch of turf, all watched by fans who walked the same streets and occupied the same stands, all just a few hundred yards from where a group of schoolboys founded the club under a gas lamp.
That physical connection matters, because a stadium is more than just bricks and mortar, more than steel and glass. It is a product of accumulated experience, a repository of daring deeds and heightened emotion, a place made by those who acted within it.
On Sunday the lights will go down for the last time. A new chapter beckons but for now we want to savour the memories of White Hart Lane. The World Famous Home of the Spurs.
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