November 2 1996 at White Hart Lane

The event: November 2 at White Hart Lane Tottenham Hotspurs v West Ham, premiership

Result: Tottenham 1, West Ham 0

It’s beginning to annoy me that I have to miss Football Focus every week. And there is a sentence I never thought I’d write. But it’s frustrating. Lifelong football supporters keep telling me “You’ve got to watch Football Focus, you know; it’s a ritual” — but I’m always on a train somewhere on Saturday lunchtimes, and can’t. Last Saturday, heading for White Hart Lane (Spurs v West Ham), I made a cunning detour to the telly department of John Lewis on Oxford Street, so that at 12.30 I could watch it. But of course I could only whimper at the multiple soundless images of men, balls, and greensward emanating from the tellies, and paw feebly at the glass.

Football Focus is timed for armchair supporters, I suppose: those luckless (or do I mean lucky?) people who don’t know the thrill of the burger van on Tottenham High Road on a darkening November afternoon; or of crowding onto a packed train at Seven Sisters against rough-looking adults curiously emblazoned with Latin. Audere est Facere it said on this bloke strap-hanging next to me, and I’ll admit I gave him a pitying look, wondering why he was wearing a school blazer at the age of 40. But since it turned out to be the Spurs coat of arms, I’m glad in retrospect that I didn’t strike up a conversation on the wrong lines. Audere est Facere means “To dare is to do”, I suppose — a bit like the SAS motto, only without the ruthless emphasis on winning.

Anyway, a London derby is the real thing, and the only problem was that this week I had to sit in the press box, which was odd. Having always pictured the press box as a smoke-filled lounge enclosed by picture-windows, with men in trilby hats barking excitedly into phones, the environment on Saturday was a bit of a let-down. Well situated beside the players’ tunnel, and with a good panoramic view of the pitch, it was otherwise the normal cramped draughty seating, but with little flip-down desktops, making it a bit like a Sunday school in rural Africa. The tables serve a dual purpose, of course: they help when you are writing notes, and they also inhibit sudden upward movements, such as jumping up for a goal.

But nobody does jump up in the press box, of course, so it’s all right. Even polite applause is frowned on. An invisible force field shields this little enclave from excitement, so that the job of reporting can be done without distraction. But Saturday’s match was not, in any case, an affair to set reports aflame. West Ham made lots of brave and splendid charges, and their “little fella” Hugo Porfirio was hailed with justified cheers. But though the game surged back and forth with considerable energy, the teams simply cancelled each other out. When Tottenham’s Chris Armstrong scored the only goal of the match in the 68th minute, the chaps in the press box were naturally relieved (something to write about) but remained grumpy nevertheless.

What impresses me week after week at football matches is the try-try-again spirit on the pitch. Midfielders, wingers and playmakers keep delivering that ball to the front, but if nothing useful is achieved with it, they just turn on the spot and run off again without sulking, which is odd. I personally would sulk, wouldn’t you? I personally would refuse to continue, until someone said sorry, mate, thanks for all that effort back there, can’t apologise enough. Nothing upsets me more than fruitless labour, yet fruitless labour is 95 per cent of a footballer’s existence, and they really don’t seem to mind.

In fact, watching a nil-scoring football team at work, I have decided, is like witnessing the miracle of a robot learning to feed itself with soup. Effort and ingenuity propel the muscles of its arm (hoorah), raise the elbow to the exact position (phew), swivel the fore-arm (amazing), and then tilt the wrist sharply (no!) at the last minute so that the soup shoots over its left shoulder, and the whole process has to begin again.

I had a few daringly original thoughts on Saturday. One was that Tottenham ought to get some new players, preferably with exotic names and hairbands.* No respectable Premiership team can do without hairbands any more, and a few South Americans at White Hart Lane would really pep things up. I would gladly help pick some out, if a trip could be arranged. Obviously they need not go so mad in this respect as the Hammers. West Ham has clearly got over-excited buying foreign players, and its Eurocheque facility should be withdrawn at once, for its own good.

The advantages of watching the match from the press box were few, I would say, and were easily outweighed by the loss of contact with the crowd. Some sandwiches were served in a nasty room at half-time by some jolly women; afterwards, in the same room, West Ham manager Harry Redknapp appeared before us a crushed and bewildered man, his eyes (like Alex Ferguson’s whenever the camera dwells cruelly on him these days) all red and peculiar like those of a martyr when the flames begin to lick.

“If anyone can tell me how we lost that match,” Redknapp began, hopelessly. And then he stopped. Either he has a very staccato manner of expressing himself, or he was genuinely speechless. Coaxed by questions, he said the usual banal things: that his team had played well, but you couldn’t
argue with the score, cheers lads, and all that. Tottenham’s Gerry Francis was scheduled to appear about an hour later, but I thought about waiting and concluded I had been delighted long enough. I suddenly remembered I could be at home reading Pride and Prejudice, so I made an executive decision to bunk off. Audere est Facere, that’s me.

*Such prescience. (Again)

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