10th April 2017
At White Hart Lane on Saturday you could suck in the air and feel the future rushing into your lungs. Everything at Spurs seems as if it is in a headlong rush forwards right now. The new stadium is taking shape and beginning to loom over the old ground. Down on the famous patch of grass Spurs brushed Watford aside. They scored four and could have had twice that. They are a young team with a bright young manager and even though their time hasn’t come this year you can sense that glory days are around the corner. There is energy in the air.
I ran into Pat Jennings in the corporate area on Saturday. A happy man. Pat came over from Ireland when he was about eighteen and after a season or so at Watford he went on to become the heart of Spurs for thirteen years. Then in an unlikely move he was transplanted to Arsenal before Spurs finally reclaimed him as their own. If you have enjoyed the corporate hospitality at Spurs then you have probably had food and drink in the Pat Jennings Lounge.
I came to London a couple of decades after Pat but I was the same age when I arrived in the smoke. I was lucky to hit Arsenal at a time when we had a youth set up which produced Michael Thomas, Tony Adams, Martin Keown (in his afro days), Gus Caesar , David Rocastle , Martin Hayes, Paul Merson with Ray Parlour and Kevin Campbell tagging along not far behind us.
I look back at that group and wonder why we don’t now own the London equivalent of Salford City (maybe Haringay FC lads?). United’s Class of 92 are definitely overrated!
One thing that was drummed into us as feckless kids was the importance of Arsenal’s relationship with Spurs. We were looked after at youth level by two legends of the club Pat Rice and the late Alf Fields. They were a great double act. Alf had been at the club so long that he had actually played himself in the 1939 movie The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. He’d suffered a bad injury against Bolton that finished his career but he never left the club and was always around London Colney helping with the youth teams.
Pat would speak to us before games and at half time. He’d finish by nodding to Alf and asking; “anything to add, Alf?
Alf had the knack of being able to speak passionately without removing the cigarette from his mouth. Alf would say, “no Pat, I think you’ve covered it all, just one thing though” and he’d set off into a speech that would only be interrupted when the ref knocked on the door to ask if we intended on coming out to play today.
We dreaded the prospect of losing to Spurs, partly because they were the local rivals and partly because there was nothing on earth like facing Pat and Alf if we lost.
I remember one day we beat Spurs kids 10-0 and there was such a buzz about the place we wondered could anything we’d do as senior players ever top it?
It did. There was a feeling about Arsenal at that time which reminds me of Spurs at the moment. The club knew good times were coming, there would be setbacks and landmarks along the way but there was a lightness in the air.
It’s thirty years ago but I was lucky to be involved in one of the great landmarks on the way to Arsenal becoming champions in 1989. In 1987 we played Spurs in a two legged semi-final of the league cup or the Littlewoods Cup as it was then called. We lost the first leg at Highbury and went a goal down in the second leg at White Hart Lane when Clive Allen scored in the first half.
At half time as we sat in the White Hart Lane dressing room we could hear the delirium outside. Spurs were on their way to finishing above Arsenal in the league that year and would also go onto win the FA Cup. This was the only chance we had left to prove to ourselves that the potential we felt in the club was genuine.
Then we heard the tannoy playing the Chas N Dave number “Spurs Are On Their Way To Wembley.” This was followed by an announcement instructing Spurs fans how to secure tickets for the final. All George Graham had to do by way of a speech was the old Alf Fields trick – “just one more thing lads”.
We went out all stoked up. I remember the late great David Rocastle having a brilliant second half. Viv Anderson and myself scored and the tie went to a third game (the idea of away goals counting double was regarded as some crazy European invention and treated with suspicion by the FA. So Brexit began).
David Pleat and George Graham had to go out onto the pitch to toss a coin for home advantage in the third game. The toss was a draw initially when the coin actually landed and stuck in the mud on it’s side. Pleat won the replayed coin toss and had no option than to bring the game back to the pressure cooker of White Hart Lane.
Clive Allen, as he had in the previous two matches, gave Spurs the lead but Ian Allinson and David Rocastle pulled a really famous win out for us. We went on to beat Liverpool at Wembley and as a little footnote we became the first team to beat Liverpool in a match that Ian Rush had scored in. He’d scored 144 times for them before that without finishing on the losing side.
For that Arsenal team those nights against Spurs were formative games. North London although part of the great city had its own distinct feel in those days and the relationship between Spurs and Arsenal was part of it.
As players we were fierce rivals but occasionally we would run into each other at The King’s Head pub in Winchmore Hill. I recall drifting off as Graham Rix and Glenn Hoddle would endlessly discuss tactics and football philosophy . I’d usually end up in the company of Paul “Maxi” Miller discussing how much we were looking forward to playing the next north London derby and kicking lumps out of each other.
Though I played three league games in the 88/89 title winning season I was elsewhere by the time Arsenal truly fulfilled the great promise of those days. I never had any doubt that it was coming.
Those were good times at Highbury and I could get the scent of that optimism again on Saturday. This time though it was at White Hart Lane.
Spurs and Arsenal meet in a huge PL game at the end of this month and may even meet again at Wembley in May. Spurs look to be on their way to being north London’s biggest club if they aren’t there already but the relationship between the two clubs has always been a separate competition in itself.
Spurs have had so many false dawns down the years but this team look the real deal. So much so, I’m braced for a West End musical adaptation of Chas n’ Dave’s 1991 hit, We’re Off To Wembly Cos We Beat the Arsenal.
I know exactly what Alf Fields would have to say about that!
By Niall Quinn