Twenty-four hours at Wembley on Tottenham’s derby day

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustrations by Philippe Fenner
February 12, 2018

Archive. First published on February 12th 2018.

When the floodlights are off, Wembley is eerie. The stadium, of course, but also the area. Tall cranes guard Olympic Way on both sides, with construction projects steepling towards the sky, but the place itself is transient. Workers come in and out and schoolchildren straggle to and from the classroom, but this is very much an events town; it’s somewhere which either overflows with humanity or stands vacant, lit up by London’s dull orange glow.

For the purpose of a contrast, on the Friday night before the north London derby it’s supposed to be empty. But it’s not. The Strictly Come Dancing tour has rolled into town and the Arena’s forecourts are crammed. The restaurants above the outlet store are packed, too, with Ben Sherman shirts and foundation-clogged faces stuffing every doorway.

“…it’s going to be at least half-an-hour for a table.”

This introduction is ruined, then. The stadium’s cold, grey shape looms as it is supposed to, but the prosecco glasses clink and hundreds of different perfumes waft. Bennie or Terry or Bruno is about to dance a celebrity back to life and Wembley isn’t even thinking about tomorrow yet.

The hotel rooms here are strange. It’s such a built up area that each window seems to look out onto another highrise block. Televisions flicker in boxy studio apartments and singletons are bunkering in for another long weekend in front of the mirror.

When morning comes, the sun should rise above the arch. The smell of frying onions should fill the air and a thousand other cliches should flower around the ground. That’s not really how Wembley is, though, not on Saturday at least. The merchandise is being sold and the programme sellers are barking, but it’s a cold, wet February morning and symbolism is in short supply.

One of the ironies of this place is that, although it remains the apple of many supporters’ eyes, it actually offers a glimpse into their nightmare. This is how modern football looks. Once, fans weaved between red brick houses and down local highstreets to get to their local ground, now – increasingly – this is their route; it’s all glass facia, Starbucks and gourmet food. You can still buy cheap scarves and knock-off t-shirts, but now with the chance to get a vanilla spiced latte and a premium German sausage, too. The more effort that goes into making the game an event, the more the supporters turn away.

It’s contrary, perhaps, but then fandom is peculiar. On derby day, it’s especially so. The routines and habits are the same and the journey from front-door to seat is presumably the same, but everything seeems multiplied by the occasion – even the neuroses. Conversations don’t bounce with the same freedom and the pained expressions outside the ground show that this isn’t just an escape from work or a day away from the kids. Today will be an ordeal. Something to suffer through.

Wembley is largely empty until just before kick-off, but from as early as 10am black dots start appearing in the stands. Programmes are bought, seats are taken, and the odd, lonely figure sits alone in the drizzle, staringly blankly at the pitch and seeking refuge from the day.

This is a strange place for a local rivalry. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume it to be a precursor to Scuadmore’s 39th Game nightmare. Two teams dragged out of their catchment area and forced to dance for the largest Premier League crowd ever assembled? Yes, that has Gloucester Avenue’s fingerprints all over it.

As the players emerge from the tunnel, though, adrenaline gushes. It’s loud. Really loud. By the time the walk-out jackets have been shed and the tuneless Premier League melody has played, you wonder whether all local derbies shouldn’t be played here.

The players don’t initially seem to feel the same way. Tottenham start well, passing the ball freely and moving well, but they’re quickly spooked by Arsenal’s counter-attacking threat. It becomes one of those days on which the players are too aware of the consequences. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang strides into space a couple of times and Harry Kane thuds a header over Petr Cech’s bar, but it’s a phoney war of a half, each team too afraid of the other to truly be themselves.

When the game restarts, the rain is heavier but Spurs’ gears are newly slick. Moussa Dembele pirouettes away from the yapping Arsenal midfield and starts a move which will end with Kane powering over Laurent Koscielny and scoring the game’s only goal. It’s too early for the corporate seats, which remain irritatingly vacant, but the rest of the ground spasms with joy. Koscielny lies skittled on the turf, Arsene Wenger berates the fourth-official, appealing for a phantom push, and Kane – with that manic, near-to-tears look he wears in this fixture – runs for the supporters.

It’s the same pyschosis as always. Dele Alli is with him and they’re arm-in-arm, but Kane is really by himself, alone inside the revenge fantasy.

These are occasions that demand an unwavering focus and during which fans are totally invested in every touch of the ball. It’s an environment where every miscontrol of the ball is potentially fatal and every opposition raid seems destined to bring doom. When the first goal comes, then, the tension shatters. It’s not a celebration, it’s a release.

Spurs surge forward. Kane heads narrowly wide before catching a volley flush and Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela all waste chances to finish the game. Arsenal are meek, though, and offer little in return. They work the ball down the far side as four minutes of injury time announced, but Alexandre Lacazette volleys the cross into the atmosphere.

Deeper into stoppage-time, Lacazette has another chance, running beyond the defence and sliding a shot beyond Hugo Lloris and across the empty goalmouth. There’s a flash of silence, eighty-thousand hearts stop, knowing that all the chances their team have wasted deserves this punch to the gut, but the ball slides beyond the far-post and out of play.

Seconds later, now beyond the four minutes of time added on, Arsenal are awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box. Everyone dressed in lilywhite knows it’s going in. Football has a dark sense of humour and this is headed straight for the top-corner. Nobody in the Arsenal end think it’s going in. In fact, they know it’s not; Ozil has let them down too many times before and his shoulders aren’t broad enough to save them from the pasting their team is about to take in the press. Football just isn’t that kind.

His shoulders aren’t broad enough. His shot clatters into the wall, ricochets clear, and the full-time whistle blows.

Football is now nearly always about tomorrow, next month and next year. Supporters, pundits and writers spend as much time discussing what might have happened as they do what actually did

These are precious moments. Football is now nearly always about tomorrow, next month and next year. Supporters, pundits and writers dedicate as much time to discussing what might have happened as they do to what actually did. The little weaknesses which weren’t exposed today will be punished next week and the fabric of the victory will be unpicked until it has no real shape at all. Not here, though. Winning and losing is finite and not even the score really matters.

A couple of Tottenham players jump on each other’s backs, a few Arsenal players sink to their knees. In the middle of the field, Lamela goads Jack Wilshere one more time.

Yes, it still matters. Wilshere has spent the day being swatted away by Dembele, made to look like a child in a man’s game, and he’s furious. He wears his hatred of Spurs like a badge of honour and the bloodlessness around him has hurt his pride. Lamela loves every minute. He may be one of the most divisive players in Tottenham’s recent history, but today he’s a hero and the more he smirks at Wilshere the more the fans love him for it.

“What do we think of Tottenham?”

Here’s what I think of you.

Think of the children, everyone says.

That’s exactly what we want, everyone thinks, hoping for a brawl.

The Hollywood ending would have supporters flowing joyously out of the stadium while the credits roll, skipping towards home under a setting winter sun and hugging strangers on the way. But this is England and it’s February. The rain falls on the throng outside Wembley Park, while sporadic chants rise up and sag. It’s deep satisfaction more than joy and the final moments of community before the fanbase scatters once again.

Fans who are not quite ready to leave have seeped into every hotel bar and restuarant within walking distance, cramming inside until the windows fog with condensation. Glazed expressions and unsteady feet tell of a long, hard day and deadened nerves.

By 5pm, the tube trains have been loaded and even the preacher has gone home. The stadium’s giant screens still beam out promotion, but Olympic Way is virtually deserted again. A man heaves Tesco bags in the distance and a mother is trying to lasso her children. The orange hue is back in the sky and the cranes are back on the silent patrol. It’s like nothing has happened here today at all.

But alone, as nobody watches, two sodden, drunken teenagers run laughing through the rain and towards the station, a Tottenham flag flapping between them.

Today, North London is theirs.

What are you looking for?