Cold turkey at Tottenham Hotspur
Does it taste better than the pies? Malehealth editor Jim Pollard with his most embarrassing revelation yet.
Weds 2/02/11, 8pm: I’m going cold turkey. My football team are playing right now and I’m not taking the slightest bit of interest. I’m not at the ground. I’m not watching on the TV. I’m not listening on the radio. I’m not even following it on the internet. I couldn’t care less. (That last one’s a lie, obviously.)
I just thought I ought to try it. It’s a bit like some of the drinkers I know who give up the booze for January to prove they’re not alcoholics. Yes, my name is Jim Pollard and I’m a Tottenham Hotspur supporter.
I’m sorry I had to mention the team name in a way because the result, I fear, will be a lot of blokes clicking away. But don’t do that (especially Arsenal fans as I’ll be saying some very nice things about your team shortly). The team is only important to me – replace my team with your team and see how much of what follows rings true.
Now I’ve been a Spurs fan since I was kid, following them with varying degrees of interest but not ever, I thought, obsessively or dangerously. Then last Sunday the team suffered one of their regular humiliations – two penalties conceded and a player sent off in the first 15 minutes, beaten 4-0 without creating a chance and dumped out the FA Cup – and even though I was a hundred miles from the scene of the crime, I felt it as if it had happened to me. Depressed for the best part of 24 hours. More upset than some members of the team. In a word: pathetic. Only a fool would allow his happiness to be determined by sporting chance and the whimsical performance of a dozen or so overpaid strangers. So I decided to ignore the next game just to prove I could.
'It's not the despair, it's the hope'
Addictions fill holes. (And if you’re visiting the Spurs website nearly every day and watching games on Portuguese telly, maybe it’s a pretty big hole.) So what’s missing in my mid-life that was there when I was younger? Hope?
I don't want to over-egg this. I’m not in despair. But there is a big challenge for us all in middle-age which is acceptance. Dreams unfulfilled might just stay that way. Some blokes then start investing their hopes in their kids and if you don’t have kids, why not in your football team where the players are forever 21?
There’s a quote from the film Clockwise that we Spurs fans are very fond of. John Cleese, as another false dawn is dangled before him and then rudely snatched away, looks up ruefully and exclaims: ‘It's not the despair: I can cope with the despair. It's the hope - that's what's killing me.’ In the stands at Spurs, they’ve been going down like flies with hope for years.
It’s not fair. I shouldn’t even be a Spurs fan. I’m from south London. My dad, my entire family, are Chelsea supporters. I like to think it was my rebellious independence that set me against him at the age of seven but it was really the big kid round the corner who I wanted to be friends with. He was a Steve Perryman fan. Yes, I should be cheering Chelsea, the team that have won everything. Ironic, really. Perhaps even a bit Freudian. When my old man said be a Chelsea fan, he knew what he was talking about. I wonder what other spurned parental advice I ought to have heeded. Don’t waste all your bloody money on those Deep Purple records, perhaps.
But I didn’t take any notice. Football-wise you probably couldn’t make a worse decision than to support Spurs. They’re not a big club with a lot of money who win the big prizes. Yet they’re not complete also-rans either.
‘No, mate, life’s not fair’
Of the 92 teams in the professional leagues in England, fewer than 10% have won any of the main competitions this century (by main competitions, I mean the Premier League, the FA Cup, the League Cup or a European trophy). Mostly it’s been carved up between the big four of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. But Spurs are up there alongside Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, Blackburn and Leicester, in the list of second-tier clubs with a token success. It’s not fair. ‘No, mate, life’s not fair’ – another piece of advice my dad gave me that I should have paid more attention to.
Most of the owners and supporters who lavish their money on their clubs know that their teams don’t have a cat in hell’s chance. They’re playing – and it might surprise you to hear me say this in these days of £50m transfers (Chelsea again) - for the love of it, for bragging rights over their local rivals, an occasional win over one of the big boys or an exciting cup run. It’s not quite like that at Spurs. Because they might, just might, actually win something, sides like Spurs, Aston Villa and Everton keep alive the illusion of competition in English football. An illusion that we the supporters are only too keen to absorb. In Spurs case, we guzzle it more hungrily then most because, for a few seasons before I was even born, we were the best side in the land.
But that's ancient history. For the last 20 years or so, Spurs have been a bit of a joke – always paying over the odds for players who turn out to be permanently injured, congenitally useless or both. One of the worst-run clubs in the league who managed - despite a massive army of supporters - to nearly go bankrupt in the 90s. No longer the best side in the land. Not even the best side in London or even north London. Yes, just a stone’s throw away there is Arsenal – probably the best-run club in the premier league, winning titles in style without ever pissing silly money up the wall and enjoying, in Arsene Wenger, the services of one of the few geniuses ever to manage a football club. Spurs meanwhile, always mentioned in the list of outsiders with a sporting chance, they pout, they tease and then they shoot themselves in the foot.
The debacle last Saturday wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. Not even the first time this season. Twice in recent months we’ve let in three in the first half hour. Now even my mum knows that can’t be good.
Yes, clearly only an idiot would be a Spurs fan.
‘You’re very hard on them – just like you are on yourself’
Except that that is only one way of looking at it. My way of looking at it. And what does that tell me about me? My girlfriend watched Sunday’s cup defeat with me and as I was alternately yelling at the telly and then sitting there with a face like thunder, she said: ‘you’re very hard on them – just like you are on yourself.’
That struck a chord. Both those things are true. The disappointment I feel when Spurs flatter to deceive once again is very much like the disappointment I feel with my own life. Spurs win not a big trophy but a consolatory League Cup; my books get nominated for a prize nobody has heard of.
I had a very big disappointment a decade ago when my first novel was accepted by and then, in a last minute change of strategy, unceremonially dumped by one of the big publishers. At the time, I thought I’d taken the blow in my stride. I thought the cancer I was then just recovering from had helped me to put it in perspective. But now I wonder if the legacy of that disappointment is not bigger than anything cancer’s done to me. Despite starting several, I haven’t finished a novel since. Why would you finish when you know what a big kick in the teeth awaits you when you do?
So what’s this psychobabble got to do with football? Only this: that by focusing on the result you lose all the pleasure in the process. Football’s a game. If you can’t enjoy the 90 minutes because the result – and the fear of humiliation at the hands of your Arsenal-supporting friends that may accompany it – is too important, what’s the point? (The same is true of life in general, of course. Starker in the case of life because, since we know the result, the only thing left is to enjoy is the game.)
'The game is about glory'
A different man could look at the history of Tottenham Hotspur in a completely different way. They’re one of the few teams in the world to have a style of football associated with them. Manager after manager down the years – and there have been a few – have promised to play in ‘the Tottenham way’.
The Tottenham way was defined by Danny Blanchflower, the captain of that one great Spurs side: ‘The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.’
And that, despite the relatively small trophy cabinet, is why Spurs ground is still full and why the current board know that if they make it bigger it will still be full. Only a handful of players are alone worth the price of admission – especially in these days of inflated prices – but a lot of them have pulled on a Spurs shirt. From Blanchflower and Greaves through Hoddle and Ardiles to Waddle and Gascoigne to Ginola to Bale, Van der Vaart and Modric today.
All players to make the heart beat faster, they ensure that Spurs games are seldom anything but exciting. There’s no grinding out results at Spurs. The only things grinding are the fans’ teeth as the team turn from a bunch of talentless slackers to world beaters and back again in the parp of an outrageously biased referee’s whistle: coming back from two behind, throwing away even bigger leads themselves and then just occasionally getting all the balls in line, turning on the style and murdering the opposition.
If you look at Spurs in terms of the process, the pleasure of the 90 minutes, rather than the result, the picture is whole lot rosier. I don’t see it like that – or at least I haven’t until I just started thinking about it – because the way you see the world reflects the way you see yourself. My view of Spurs is actually my view of myself and my own work: good but not good enough. A glass half empty guy.
In Nick Hornby’s brilliant book about football Fever Pitch, his obsession with Arsenal melts away as his career takes off. That’s good for him but it’s not going to happen to most of us. Just as most of us will never score at Wembley, most of us will never win prizes or achieve glorious results in our lives so, like the 90% of clubs who will never win anything, we need to enjoy the game.
For me, my novel was eventually published by a smaller, nicer press. Fewer people bought it, fewer people read it but what is between the covers is still exactly the same. How can the pleasure I got from writing it at the time be spoiled by something that happened later? That’s warped thinking of the highest order. I still enjoy trying to write novels. Perhaps, if I was less obsessed by the result I might actually be able to finish one of them. And why not do it with style and with a flourish regardless of where it ends up? The same applies to everything in life.
It’s nearly midnight now. The game long over. And whilst I’ve been writing this, Spurs have won away, Peter Crouch has scored in the league for the first time since the ice age and, for a change, we didn’t even concede a goal. Perhaps I should do this more often if this is the sort of result we get. No, Jim, that’s not the point. Enjoy what's happening while it's happening and the glass is always half full. The Tottenham way.
- How about you? How healthy is your relationship with football?
Page created on February 3rd, 2011
Page updated on March 5th, 2012