There is something a little bit special about living in close proximity to a sports stadium. The sheer imposition of a magnificent open air theatre rising above your dwellings and pushing out into the street, where people conduct their daily lives. The joy of matchdays when the anticipation begins with the arrival of the first stewards and doesn't end until the caretaker switches off the stadium lights in the early evening. From the first echoing cries of the boisterous groundsmen discussing at length their previous night's exploits across the vast field's expanse, to the final feedback of the tannoy closing down.
Having spent most of my life living in Twickenham, where the roar of the rugby crowd used to echo throughout the town, on to the surrounding playing fields and into the ears of me and my friends playing football, stadiums are in my blood as much as Old Father Thames, who ran past my back garden. On matchdays, when the wind carried the sound of 70,000 people screaming and shouting and singing and whistling, it pricked the senses like the sound of a babbling brook or a radio drowned out by the sound of a lawnmower in the middle of summer. It is peaceful in a manic way.
Stop for a moment (just a fleeting moment, mind) the next time you are late for a game, dashing along Loftus Road, peering up at the blue walls of the Ellerslie Road/Loft corner, watching other latecomers scrambling up the steps inside the stadium ahead of you, and listen to the sound of the crowd. Now take away the anguish, the sense that you are missing something and try to imagine the sense of mysticism in guessing what's happening inside. With no ties it is a wonderful feeling. It was with this sense that I moved from the relative quiet of Twickenham to the darker, inner city bustle of Tottenham to take up a place at Middlesex University. And over five years spent in the area, I learnt so much about the less-than-joyous experience of living next to a football stadium and in the lap of our North London neighbours.
Tottenham is conversely a lively and desperate place. Everywhere, stories of the riots in the 80s are mingled with sporadic death, beatings and drug raids. But amongst all the hatred lies one of the most enlightened pub licensing policies in London. With a police perennially overstretched, there is an unwritten agreement that pubs don't close. The last thing the Old Bill want is hundreds of drunk nutters spilling out onto the streets at the same time. A side-product of this policy is that it's perfect for students who have nothing to do the next day.
That time, more than any other in my life, strengthened my love of QPR. It is impossible to live with Chelsea because they have no real base. They sleep in Fulham, work in London and originate from all over the place. But in Tottenham, to my very great surprise, there were only two clubs - mainly Spurs, with a little hint of Arsenal thrown in for good measure. At college it was no better. There was the usual sprinkling of Liverpools and Manchesters and Newcastles, as expected with any college in the Western Hemisphere, plus a surprising amount of Brummies (probably because it was the nearest college to their homeland in London, and Brummies are susceptible to homesickness for some reason), and an inordinate amount of Spurs fans.
There were people who had actually chosen the college because of its proximity to White Hart Lane; and one sad, mad Spurs fan actually spent three years just yards from her favourite team and didn't go to a single game. Even when I offered to take her, she said she couldn't because it would spoil the mysticism. Last I heard she married a Gooner. Figures.
When I got there, the first thing I did was find myself a local and I found one almost immediately - a lively mixture of locals and students. It was called the Coach & Horses, and was on the High Street, just yards from the ground. I had a great time in there for a week and a half, until Spurs played at home. At midday, I strolled out of my house, with my QPR shirt on as usual, up to the Coach & Horses, only to find a bouncer on the door, who made it perfectly clear that I wasn't welcome. No matter what.
The following Sunday I ventured back to the Coach & Horses and found the pub exactly as I had left it on the Friday night before, alive with students and pleasant rough diamonds drinking lager and playing pool. After a few drinks, I got chatting to the landlord, a wideboy named Mark, who understood the importance of the student pound. I asked him why they had such a strict policy on matchdays. "You don't want to drink in here when the boys are in town," he warned me darkly. "Why on earth not? I've drunk with opposition fans many a time all over the country and never had any bother. You only get trouble when you start trouble," I told him. "Not with this lot. Every matchday we get the Tottenham firm in here and they don't like drinking with anyone in the pub who isn't Spurs."
This I had to see. Two weeks later, and with me more of a fixture with the proprietor, I took the same walk, leaving the shirt at home this time, and managed to talk my way past the monkey and into the bar beyond. I think I should have taken the landlord's advice. As I walked through the door, a sea of gnarled, snarling faces with white football shirts squeezed over sizeable beer bellies twisted and stared at me with looks that suggested I had just extolled the virtues of David Seaman's winsome moustache. I stumbled as coolly as is possible to the bar and was relieved as hell when a friendly face greeted me from the other side of the mahogany. "What on earth are you doing here on a Saturday, Sean."
"Oh, you know," I tried to say as casually as possible with a hundred pairs of nutty eyes stabbing me in the back, "just passing and I thought I'd pop in." He laughed and I was glad he did because I am sure that nobody could have heard what I had said - only the frown on his face as he struggled to understand me over the hubbub. His laugh was a signal of my acceptance and no doubt saved my life.
Anyway, the throng departed en masse and left me to my beer and Teletext (QPR were playing away when Spurs were home that season) for a peaceful hour and a half, before returning rowdier and nastier than before. This went on throughout the onset of winter, into and beyond Christmas, and on to spring. They got so used to me perching at the bar gazing at the barmaid and the Teletext intermittently that I became almost a mascot in the pub on matchdays. I would come in, take a bit of abuse (it was inevitable that the landlord would let it slip that I was QPR), sit in the corner and settle in whilst they carried out their ablutions along the road at the field of fallen Ferdinands.
In fact, it started getting all too comfortable. Here I was with these thugs, who regularly delighted in quite sickening violence, and I was on their manor, in their pub, drinking their beer with them, and they had turned a blind eye to it. We are talking about people who for proof of their thugdom and stupidity appeared on that hooligan video narrated by Sean Bean a few years back. Check them out if you can bear Sean Bean's nasally nauseating tedium.
Now it was pretty obvious which was the match that I was longing to see all season and, thanks to the stupidity and arrogance of the Tottenham administration, we were allocated a paltry 300 tickets because they had begun work on a new stand a few weeks before the end of the season. When I found out, I was gutted and, to rub it in, over the next few home games was forced to endure a tunnel of season tickets waved at me every time I walked in to the Coach & Horses. (Why is it that Spurs fans like waving things at people? Don't they know it's rude to over-use your wrists in public?)
But my days at college had not been wasted, and feeling rather brave in my new-found status as a temporary "safe geezer", I decided to hatch a revenge which was likely to cost me very dear - if not with blood, then certainly with severe memory loss. As it happens, the pub was solely decked out as all Spurs pubs should be, top to toe in all things White Hart Lane. Scarves on the ceiling, signed football shirts, bunting and photos. But the pride of the pub was the collection of match programmes religiously placed in glass cabinets on every wall of the pub. Well, I thought, this was far too good to resist.
On the day of the match, I was up especially early and knocking on the door of the Coach & Horses well before any decent landlord should be woken. Mark the landlord, who was a Spurs fan through and through but had a wicked sense of humour and a very large rottweiller to match, answered the door and allowed me to deposit the materials for my plan. Off I went to get some breakfast and spend a couple of hours praying to as many gods as I could think of. In no time at all midday came around and I found my feet stepping along Tottenham High Street as per usual, past the stadium and on to the pub.
For almost three hours I endured the abuse, the ticket waving, the goading and the occasional comment about how I couldn't be a real fan if I wasn't going to the game. There were a few claiming that 300 tickets were more than enough tickets for QPR, but I ignored them. Anyway, 2.45pm came and went and so did the mob, staggering the 200 yards to the match for their fortnightly ritual. As soon as the last one left, with a "see you after we beat you", Mark closed the pub and we got to work.
Out came every piece of QPR memorabilia I had collected over the years: scarves, shirts, programmes and fanzines - and the transformation of a pub began. Some of my more artistic friends from college had created come magnificent bunting for the bar. Out went the Spurs programmes and in went the QPR programmes and copies of AKUTR’s. Out went the shirts to be replaced by half my wardrobe - and the bunting covered the bar magnificently. And then something happened that I hadn't even considered planning for... typically, QPR went and won the match, 3-1. Bollocks. I had expected a multitude of things to go wrong, but the last thing I was expecting was the R's to actually win.
So there I was in the heart of Tottenham, having transformed the shrine of some of the biggest hooligans in the country into a shrine to the Superhoops, and praying that the doggie biscuits in my pockets would keep the hound from hell close enough to save my bacon.
But bless them. Bless the lot of them. They trudged back in, muttering and griping to each other. But no reaction. I don't know whether it was the unusually warm sunshine in May or the fact that it was the end of the season, but none of them batted an eyelid. An hour passed, two hours even and still nothing happened. I didn't know whether to be relieved or downright indignant about the fact that I had gone to all that trouble to get my head kicked in and nobody bothered. Perhaps they refused to believe something that couldn't possibly happen. Nobody, surely, would possibly dare to deface their shrine. Maybe they were so used to their surroundings they didn't look at them any more. I never thought about that.
Anyway, 11.00pm came and went, and the only people left were myself, Mark, a few student friends and a hardcore of about 10 Spurs fans. I had happily slipped into a comfortable stupor and quite forgotten about the whole thing when one of the largest Spurs thugs, a guy who went by the name of Grunt, stood over me silently. I looked up, smiling and asked him if I could help him. "Are you taking the fucking piss or what?" Now all 10 of them were stood over me and the colour drained from my face. I could see the veins on Grunt's neck pulsating as he screwed up his piggy face. "I... I don't know what you mean." He snarled menacingly again, each word cutting the atmosphere like a Stanley knife. "Are you taking the fucking piss, or what?"
Eight tattooed arms grabbed my four quivering limbs. Grunt expertly pulled my QPR shirt over my head as I was dragged and pulled up and over a table upsetting glasses and a chair. I felt my back hit the hard surface of the covered pool table as I was dumped and held. I could see something sharp and shiny glistening through my semi-permeable top. Someone stuffed a beer towel through my shirt and into my mouth. I tried to shout but all I got was the bitter taste of stale beer. I could hear the silence around me. And then the repugnant smell of a 20-stone monster leaning in towards me. "You're dead," Grunt whispered. I whimpered pathetically as I heard glass smashing by the side of my head. One of the girls I had been talking to screamed and I felt a warm sensation on my stomach. I kicked out, wriggling free. I crashed to the floor screaming in agony clutching my stomach. My eyes tightly shut, I felt the room spinning and a warm sticky sensation all over my abdomen.
But through my screams I could hear another sound. It started slowly, and as I caught myself, it rose - and then it was unmistakable. They were laughing. The callous evil animals were laughing. But wait - through the acrylic of my top there was something else - yes, it was definitely there. A girl's laughter. They were hysterical now. All I heard was cackling, guffawing and complete bedlam around me. I was more curious than in pain now. I took a hand off my soaking stomach and lifted my top over my head.
Around me were my attackers clutching beer slop buckets, happily pissing themselves. I looked across at Mark and he was finding it difficult to keep his organs inside his rib-cage. A glance the other way saw my friends, the very people who had helped me in my deceit, doubled up in absolute glee. I'd been done. I had obviously underestimated quite how wicked Mark's sense of humour actually was - or where his priorities lay. Whilst I thought he was plotting with me, all he was doing was leading me into a trap. It had never occurred to me that a bunch of Tottenham hooligans would have a sense of humour.
It took a few hours and several more pints for me to see the funny side, and I don't think I ever did live down that night in the Coach & Horses. But, as I was to tell anyone who would listen to me, at least I took their pub. And QPR stuffed Spurs into the bargain. So, in retrospect, it was probably worth it.
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