The North London Derby: An American Spurs fan’s pilgrimage to White Hart Lane

Mostly due to the lack of an American television presence, my relationship with Tottenham Hotspur remained limited to the video game sphere for seven years, until August 18, 2013.

Even the most devoted Spurs supporter would be hard-pressed to give you details about that day—a rather boring 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in the season opener—but for me, it exists like a B.C./A.D. divider for my fandom: everything before that date is pre-obsession, and everything after is tinted in club colors, blue and white.

Spurs became a part of my life in the most arbitrary of ways. While scrolling through managerial offers in FIFA 06’s career mode, I, for reasons I can’t now and probably will never recall, settled on the North London-based squad as my club of choice. During the summer of 2006, I spent countless summer nights winning trophies and obsessively pushing Jermaine Jenas to the brink of superstardom. Despite stiff competition from the likes of virtual Paul Scholes and virtual Frank Lampard, as far as I’m concerned, neither could hold a candle to virtual Jenas.

In 2013, the Premier League came to America in full force thanks to NBC Sports Network, meaning that I could—and would—watch every one of Tottenham’s league matches. Quickly, I learned that reveling in the failures of Tottenham’s despised neighbor, Arsenal, is almost as important to the Spurs experience as hoping for success.

At least twice a season, the two clubs meet in the North London derby. Spurs lost 1-0 in my first derby. But at that point, I was less concerned with the team’s play and more drawn by the intensity surrounding the game. That was when everything became clear—I had to experience it firsthand.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06:  A general view of a White Hart Lane sign outside the stadium before the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace at White Hart Lane on December 6, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Fast forward two seasons. It was time to make my pilgrimage, or at least make an attempt to make my pilgrimage. That would require game tickets.

As you might expect, acquiring tickets to the North London derby isn’t a simple task; in fact, for me, it was a venture of Odyssean proportions.

My phone alarm jolted me out of a deep slumber at 4:15 on a January morning, leaving me wondering for a few moments why the hell I was up at such an ungodly hour. Then I glanced down at the Spurs shorts I’d worn to bed and realized the gravity of the task ahead.

The next two hours entailed waiting in a digital queue, having multiple credit cards rejected for unusual and hefty international charges, purchasing Skype credit to dial the ticket office in London, frantically explaining my dilemma, and having my first two credit cards rejected again before arriving at a moment of truth.

A third and final credit card stood as the difference between a 7 a.m. wake-up call to catch the train to the Spurs’ spiritual home, White Hart Lane, and a 7 a.m. wake-up call to make the now-regular exodus from my bed in Miami to the couch.

I rattled off yet another series of numbers over the phone to an operator feigning a thinly veiled attempt at patience. And then waited.

Screaming at such an early hour is surprisingly therapeutic. Sure, my neighbors may disagree, but I was heading to London in two months to watch my beloved Tottenham take on Arsenal.

Soccer Balls
2 WHL overground platform 2Charlie Hulme/Fusion

In some ways, the start of a weekend Premier League match day feels like a morning commute to work in many major metropolitan areas. We set out for the overground station around 8:30 a.m., to the mild protests of my visibly jet-lagged friend Davis, who wondered if we might be arriving early, even for our own ambitious standards.

Several minutes into the trip, our early wake-up call was justified, as the frequency of passengers clad in all manner of blue and white clothing entering the train seemed to increase with each stop en route to our destination.

We exited to a fairly crowded platform at 9:15 a.m.—a full three-and-a-half hours before the match was set to kick off—and joined the herd strolling in the general direction of the stadium. Eventually, we peeled off with a large group making a beeline for Bricklayers, a local pub,

This would become the common theme of the morning: Each train arriving at the White Hart Lane stop would create another wave of Spurs supporters rolling into the pub, pushing the existing patrons into every available nook and cranny until there was enough room to take a sip from your pint glass or raise it to join in whatever song the rowdiest of the group had just begun.

The mood at Bricklayers was optimistic, mixed with a cautious sense of realism. While waiting in line for a drink, a middle-aged man behind me repeatedly uttered “believe, believe,” seemingly less as a rallying cry and more as a reminder to himself to remain positive in spite of the building pressure.

The pressure isn’t about a single game, or even a series of games. The damaged Spurs psyche has been cultivated over years of relative disappointment. An essential part of every Tottenham fan’s experience, at least in recent memory, is the club’s propensity to put itself in a place to succeed, only to find a way to make a massive mess of it. This has been such a consistent trend that there’s even an adjective, “Spursy,” to describe disappointments like the infamous 2006 lasagna incident or the 2012 loss of a Champions League spot despite finishing top four.

Spurs fans’ fragile psyche has only been made worse by the fact that the team hasn’t finished above Arsenal in the Premier League since 1993. In fact, Arsenal fans have a term, “St. Totteringham’s Day,” which is the day, during the league season, when it becomes mathematically impossible for Spurs to finish ahead of Arsenal.

At the time of writing, Spurs are six points ahead of Arsenal, although the Gunners have a game in hand. And there’s tempered hope that Arsenal fans will need to come up with new terminology, because with seven games left in the season, it looks like this could be the season that marks the end of Arsenal’s North London reign of terror.

Currently second in the league (behind Leicester City, which itself is an absolutely insane story), patrons I spoke to varied greatly in their levels of confidence that Spurs would win the title. But they all agreed on the factor that gave them the most hope. To quote one lifelong supporter at the pub, while refrains of “Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur” steadily climbed in volume: “As you can hear around you, in Poch we trust.”

“Poch” is Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs’ 44-year-old manager—the man who has not only steered a floundering ship back on track at Tottenham, but who consistently dares the fans to dream of their first-ever title in the Premier League era. The new belief in the club and its manager is tangible; every third or fourth scarf I see is inscribed with the text “MAURICIO POCHETTINO’S BLUE AND WHITE ARMY.”

5 pochettino scarfCharlie Hulme/Fusion

I see one of these scarves draped around the shoulders of the loudest member of a very raucous crowd in the outdoor area at Bricklayers. His shaved head and fierce scowl exude a sort of tenacious energy that seems to feed everyone within his general vicinity.
As I sheepishly approach, his hands are outstretched over his head while he belts out the refrain of “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In.” I introduce myself, and as he begins to speak, I realize—wait, that’s not a cockney accent at all, is that … a Scandinavian language?

“I am Thomas, from Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Sweden.”

Swedish SpursCharlie Hulme/Fusion

Everyone, meet Thomas from Sweden.

I’m thrown for a loop. Not only did I expect this to be an intensely British affair, I never would have expected a Swede to be the main ringleader in the rowdy courtyard. I ask him if, at any point, his heritage made him feel like an outcast while amongst Tottenham supporters.

“It’s like home. When I come here, they make me feel right at home.”

And then, for the first time that day, the tables are turned on me. Thomas wants to know my background, how long I’ve been a Spurs supporter. I freeze, fearing I’ve been found out. I admit, somewhat embarrassed, that I’d enjoyed playing with Jermaine Jenas and the rest of the Tottenham squad on FIFA 06, but hadn’t become a fervent supporter until as recently as 2013.

A grin spreads across Thomas’ face. “You,” he says while opening his arms to me, “are my brother.”

He wraps me in a warm embrace. I take a moment to glance around at the other members of his group, wondering if this is some Swedish practical joke that’s gone straight over my head. They all share the same honest smile. This is really happening. I wasn’t quite aware that I was seeking acceptance, but it turns out, maybe I was.

I float away from my new family sporting their same ear-to-ear, almost maniacal grin, before deciding with Davis and my third friend along for the journey, Gill, that it’s high time to make our way into the Lane.

We slither through the Bricklayers crowd—narrowly avoiding a Carlsberg bath during a rendition of “If you hate Arsenal, drinks up”—before bursting out the entrance onto High Road, the path that will take us to the stadium.

I’ll discover later that several fights kick off about the same time we make our trek over, but thankfully our day isn’t marred by any senseless violence. After a brief security check and a few flights of stairs, we arrive at our section.

Soccer Balls
White Hart Lane's Block HCharlie Hulme/Fusion

The view from Block H is glorious. We are in row 18, the very last in the East upper shelf with our backs up against a concrete wall, but none of that matters now, dammit, because we are about to witness the North London freaking derby.

“COME ON YOU SPURSSS!” rings loud and clear throughout the stadium as I nervously rock back and forth in anticipation. Suddenly, the choral introduction to “Duel of the Fates” begins. I’ve always found this choice of walk-out music to be slightly amusing, but all I can feel now is adrenaline coursing through my veins as both teams exit the tunnel. Arsenal’s squad is showered with boos; Tottenham’s with cheers. Both sides take the field. The head referee blows his whistle. The 183rd North London derby is underway.

Watching any sport live is a far different experience from watching the televised broadcast, but that holds especially true for a Premier League match. As the game ebbs and flows, you can feel the confidence of the home supporters taking a roller coaster-like trajectory with each promising attack or squandered opportunity. The first half of the derby is a case study in the psyche of a Spurs fan: after dominating most of the half in possession and time spent in the final third of the pitch, a blunder at the back line creates just enough space for Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey to open the scoring with a gorgeous backheel. As Ramsey wheels off in celebration, shushing the Paxton End, you can actually feel the stadium deflating. Shrugs, shaking heads, and arms thrown up in disbelief all seem to illustrate a shared thought: “Same old Spurs. Here we go again.”

A nervous energy permeates the concourse at halftime with Spurs 1-0 down. I overhear several different conversations—some offering tactical adjustments, others placing blame for the goal, still others seeming resigned to the possibility that this would be the death blow for Tottenham’s title aspirations. While I consider myself to be generally optimistic, I’m feeling the pressure, dreading the thought of leaving empty-handed after the next 45 minutes.

Nearly 10 minutes into the second half, something magical happens, and it’s fitting that Tottenham striker Harry Kane is involved. Kane was born just 15 minutes from White Hart Lane, and after his famous release from Arsenal’s academy at age eight, he joined Spurs’ academy at eleven. Eleven years and a Professional Footballers Association Young Player of the Year award later, he’s already a club hero, as evidenced by the strains of “he’s one of our own, he’s one of our own, Harry Kane, he’s one of our own” that ring out from all corners of the Lane whenever the young forward plays at home.

As Kane races down the left touchline, Francis Coquelin—already on a yellow card for a first-half handball—comes flying in with a clumsy tackle that sends Tottenham’s No. 10 tumbling to the turf. Arsenal’s holding midfielder barely has time to register a protest before the referee jogs over, second yellow in hand.

Arsenal is down to 10 men. White Hart Lane comes roaring back to life with urging cheers of “COME ON YOU SPURRRS!” once again ringing throughout the ground.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: Arsene Wenger (3rd L) Manager of Arsenal watches Francis Coquelin walking off the pitch after his red card during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at White Hart Lane on March 5, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Five minutes later, Spurs finally break through. Arsenal fails to clear a Christian Eriksen corner whipped in to the near post, and Toby Alderweireld coolly slots home to send the crowd into a frenzy. I try my very best to get a clear recording on my phone but the end product looks like the work of a crazy person on a pogo stick.

It feels like the celebration from the equalizer hasn’t even fully finished when it happens. Cutting in from the left side of Arsenal’s goal, Kane curls in a right-footed ball. There’s a brief moment when I’m not sure whether he’s shooting to the far post or crossing for Erik Lamela, until I realize the gravity of what he’s done.

It was a shot. Most definitely a shot. And an outrageous one at that.

There is a distinct difference between the celebration for Alderweireld’s equalizer and Kane’s goal that gave Spurs a 2-1 lead. The first released all the pent-up stress carried for the first two-thirds of the match, while Kane’s curler off the post is met with sheer awe. In between my jumping and screaming I find myself locking eyes with people I’ve never met nor will likely ever speak to again, each of us saying the same thing with our stare: “Did he really just do that?”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: Harry Kane (L) of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his team's second goal with his team mate Kyle Walker (R) during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at White Hart Lane on March 5, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)Clive Rose/Getty Images

Even Harry Kane seems shocked at what Harry Kane just did.

Several minutes pass before the heavy rain begins. We’re fortunate to be covered, but you can hear sheets of precipitation pounding the East stand’s overhang like hail on a tin roof. As the play grows faster on the now-slick pitch, the weather seems to coincide with a familiar, anxious feeling: Will Tottenham, a man and a goal up, find a way to make a mess of this in classic Spursy fashion?

Our anxiety was not wasted. Just inside of the 76th minute, Alexis Sanchez somehow sneaks ahead of two Spurs defenders and strikes a well-placed pass past a diving Hugo Lloris to make the scoreline 2-2. “COME ON YOU SPURRRS!” is struck up once again while the scorer’s name is read over the PA system, but this time it feels less like a show of hope and more like a nervous coping mechanism.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 05:  Torrential rain falls during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at White Hart Lane on March 5, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Tottenham doesn’t fold, by any means—if anything, the rest of the match is marked by a series of narrowly missed Spurs chances. But the clear-cut star of the final 15 minutes is Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, who makes a variety of acrobatic saves to ensure the scoreline finishes at 2-2.

Soccer Balls

A draw is a funny thing. How you feel about the result almost always depends on how you arrived there. Had Spurs gone down 2-0 and come back to recover the point, I’d be leaving elated; the other way around and I’d be massively depressed. Today, it’s a mixture of both.

We head right back to the Bricklayers for postgame pints, where we meet up with the Pattison brothers, three friends that Davis and I met last season at the Leicester City match who live just outside of London in Essex County. The usual hindsight analysis ensues. Who should have been where to prevent the goals? Which players performed well? Which ones were off the mark?

And then we arrive at the inevitable topic of the moment.

Can Tottenham win the league?

“Do we think we can do it? Probably not,” answers David, one of the Pattison brothers. “Do we believe we can do it? We have to, because we’ve never been this close.”

On the train back to our rented flat, I give that same question some thought. It reminds me of something I’d seen a few days earlier while touring White Hart Lane with Gill: a quote from the last man to captain Tottenham to a league title in 1961, Danny Blanchflower.

“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It’s nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It is about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

I want to believe that Tottenham can win the league, and nothing would make me happier. What I felt I learned as an American at my first North London derby, though, is that there’s something even more important than that: players like Kane, who do things with a flourish; leaders like Pochettino, who encourage their charges to go out and seize the game. Often, these things go hand-in-hand with winning, like it did for Blanchflower’s side in 1961. But even in the absence of a title, these are attributes to be proud of as a fan, that are deserving of glory.

Besides, if all else fails, I have a new FIFA obsession and his name is Dele Alli. At least virtual Jermaine Jenas now has some real competition.