clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The death and birth of Tottenham Hotspur: Chapter V

New, comments

A non-league upstart begins to gain some national traction.

"FC Hotspur are a proper football club!
A proper football club!
A proper football club!
FC Hotspur are a proper football club!
But we are going up!"

Supporters of A.F.C. Sudbury weren't the first opposing fans to sing positive songs about FC Hotspur of Tottenham that season. They had captured the imagination of the country, with Ledley King and Ryan Mason becoming heroes for the section of the media that lamented an era gone by. They'd fought their way to two consecutive promotions, and they'd have a third if they could beat Sudbury on the final day of the season.

★★★

May, 2018

Up until this season, I'd spent my entire life utterly uninterested in non-league football. I only supported Tottenham Hotspur. I caught the occasional Watford game, not living far from Vicarage Road, but that was it. I had those mates -- everyone has those mates -- who went on about how it was a pure experience, the way football was supposed to be, but I just wasn't interested. I liked going to the Lane (or the new Lane) and supporting the club I'd followed since I was a boy.

But when Ledley King and Ryan Mason put together FC Hotspur of Tottenham, I was intrigued. I didn't go at all the first two seasons, but I had friends who went and kept up with their results. I was happy they were doing well. I caught myself thinking, "you know, I'd like to go catch a game sometime." And when someone asked me if I'd like to tag along to the season opener, I said yes, and went to my first ever non-league game.

I didn't stop supporting Tottenham Hotspur. I thought the NFL team was tacky, but Spurs were still my club, and besides, they were the best they'd ever been. Competing for trophies, signing world class players, consistently in the top four. This is what we always wanted Spurs to be. So what if it comes along with some added commercialism? Donald Trump might be tasteless, but at least he'd hired the right people to put together a winning side. And sure, the new stadium lacked the charm of White Hart Lane, but it was still special to hear hear Harry Kane's name ringing around the ground.

FC Hotspur games weren't a substitute for Spurs, but a supplement. They were something different to enjoy. I didn't go to every match, but made sure to catch one around once a month, when Spurs were playing away and playing on a different day than FCHT. But for the first time in my life, on the last day of the season for FC Hotspur, I decided to sell my ticket to Spurs (on StubHub, for which I was thoroughly derided) and drive up to Bishop's Stortford.

Incredibly, on the final day of the Isthmian Division One North season, second-placed FC Hotspur of Tottenham hosted top team A.F.C. Sudbury. FCHT sat two points behind their promotion rivals and needed a win at home in their last match to secure automatic ascension to the 7th division Isthmian Premier League.

"Ledley King, Ledley King, Ledley King, Ledley King! He told Trump to do one, Ledley King!"

Familiar songs rang around the ground for nearly an hour before the scheduled kickoff, with everyone making sure to arrive early at the ProKit UK Stadium in case there was a massive mistake and tickets were oversold. Thankfully, the only people who got turned away were those who lacked the foresight to call the ticketing office and buy ahead of time. And, amazingly, FCHT decided to hold back 500 tickets to sell to Sudbury supporters. Some casual FCHT fans were sad they couldn't get tickets, but the move was widely praised, and it created an incredible atmosphere. Their fans showed up early as well and the two sides had dueling songs in the build-up.

This was not a level of football that regularly featured crowds in the thousands. A four-figure attendance was a truly outstanding accomplishment for anyone. But Sudbury and FCHT had done an excellent job of teaming up to promote this match, it got mentions from national media, and unbelievably, over 4,500 bought tickets.

"All right supporters, it's just about time for kickoff. The winner of this week's walkout music drawing is ... Geoff Parkwell! Let's see what song Geoff's picked for the walkout today."

Everyone booed loudly.

As part of a rather fun and brilliant way to add a harmless additional revenue stream to the club, they started a raffle where you could pay £1 to put a song in a random drawing to be the walkout music for the following home game. Today's winner, Geoff, got a well-deserved bollocking from the supporters.

"If I had the wings of an eagle, if I had the arse of a crow, I'd fly over Geoff's house tomorrow, and shit on the bastard below!"

That chorus rang out until supporters got their first sight of Ryan Mason, at which point the crowd erupted into cheers with some smatterings of "there's only one Ryan Mason," which hardly registered with our stone-faced and determined captain. He looked all business.

No one in the stands scolded me for wearing a Ryan Mason No. 38 Tottenham Hotspur shirt.

★★★

Nothing really changed for Tottenham Spurs Gridiron Football Club once they stopped being the Oakland Raiders and moved to London. They were still, basically, the Oakland Raiders. They went 7-9 or 8-8, not embarrassing themselves but not making the playoffs, much to the relief of everyone faced with the prospect of traveling to London for a Wild Card game.

The NFL Draft also provided a bit of a problem for the new London club. Some agents began to specialize in international marketability, while others developed excellent tactics for keeping their players away from Tottenham. There were plenty of players who were just happy to have an NFL job and weren't picky about where they went, but most had a hard-line position well before the NFL Combine. When the Tottenham front office staff went to meet with prospective draftees in Indianapolis, they were told by some players that they absolutely would not sign with Tottenham if drafted, and would instead go play minor-league, arena or Canadian football for a year. Others told Spurs that they were more interested in them than any other team, and had a strong desire to move to London. As a result, the draft worked itself out for Spurs, which kind of defeated the entire purpose of the NFL Draft.

On the business side, the games were selling out, but wouldn't be for long if the team didn't have something to market. They needed big names or more wins. Signing big names is easier than building a title contender. So in the 2018 offseason, Tottenham's NFL club did exactly the type of thing you'd expect from either Trump or the old Raiders -- they traded David Carr for Johnny Manziel and signed Tim Tebow.

At the original football club, much of the credit for the club's success was being directed towards new scout Peter Crouch, who'd scared ownership off some potentially costly transfer mistakes, while talking them into a few excellent signings. Unsurprisingly, Trump wanted some marketable American players at the club, and Crouch managed to prevent the club from signing their initial targets, and instead bringing in Emerson Hyndman and Jordan Morris. In their first seasons at the club, the pair had become excellent bench options and were attracting new American fans to supporting the club.

★★★

From the center of the park, Mason ran the show. King had spent FC Hotspur of Tottenham's first three seasons as manager, but anticipated needing to spend more time on the business side of things as the club grew. He'd be stepping down at the end of the season, but instead of hiring a full-time manager, the club announced that Mason -- who had been working on his coaching badges over consecutive summers, and would start doing so again after this match -- would take over as player-manager.

Between that, the club's current ability to get points without him scoring goals and his likely decline as a goal-scorer as the team went up and he got older, Mason and King decided that he should play as a regista in a 4-3-3, spraying the ball around the pitch and organizing everything. He was the non-league Andrea Pirlo.

A cross into the box was headed clear by Sudbury in the 25th minute, but only as far as Cyrus Yeganeh. The FC Hotspur midfielder controlled the ball, took a second touch forward, then ripped an absolute rocket of a shot into the top corner from 30 yards. The crowd erupted as FCHT took a 1-0 lead.

Yeganeh, a 20-year-old box-to-box midfielder, was released from Swansea City's academy two years ago. The Welshman always had the physical talent to become a top player in professional football, but lacked the technique or tactical aptitude. At 6'2", 220 pounds, he looked like Tom Huddlestone, but he ran faster than Big Tom did even in his dreams. FC Hotspur supporters joked that he got lost on his way to a tryout for the gridiron team.

He couldn't pass, he couldn't tackle and he had no idea where to stand on the pitch, but Yeganeh was effective at this level for two reasons. The first and most obvious one was that he was a physical freak of nature. The other was the one and only footballing skill that he possessed -- an unbelievable cannon for a right leg.

His family moved to London following his release and Yegnaeh went on a series of trials at lower-league clubs, hoping to find one to stick with. Bishop's Stortford declined to sign him to a professional contract, but he was spotted by King during his trial, and offered the chance to join up with FC Hotspur.

Sudbury equalized just after halftime when FCHT goalkeeper Paul Robinson flapped at a cross and missed wildly, letting the visitors score a tap-in. Robinson had spent a year at Leyton Orient after leaving Blackburn Rovers, but his body had broken down enough that he wasn't quite good enough for that level either. But even at 39 years old and not quite up to the Football League, Robinson was an excellent 8th division keeper. However, he was still Paul Robinson.

The match became a tight one after that, with neither team willing to throw caution to the wind. There were occasional chances and a couple of big saves for each keeper, but no breakthrough. Slowly but surely, FC Hotspur started committing more men forward, while Sudbury tightened up, eventually substituting a defensive midfielder for a striker in the 80th minute and putting 10 men behind the ball.

And then, in stoppage time, tiny Michael Woodburn scored the biggest goal in FC Hotspur of Tottenham's brief three-year history.

Woodburn hailed from East London and signed with Leyton Orient as a 10-year-old boy. He was small, but one of the most skilled players in his age group, and Orient were willing to take the chance that he'd have a huge teenage growth spurt. He did grow, but not like they hoped he would. At 18 years old, Woodburn was still just 5'4", and subsequently not offered a professional contract when his age 18 season ended. He scored some excellent goals in under-18 football, but his lack of stature held him back at times, and he didn't have quite the pace or prolific skill to make up for it. If he was a touch faster, a bit trickier or six inches taller, he'd be playing for a fully professional team. Instead, the biggest club that would take him was FC Hotspur.

"I want Michael on," Mason told King on the sideline during a stoppage.

"Are you f--king serious?," King asked. "This game's a bloody war and you want Tiny f--king Tim on?"

"He scores goals and we need a f--king goal. Plus, Cyrus is knackered."

"If we don't go up over this rubbish..."

King put Woodburn on for Yeganeh, the smallest player at the club in for the biggest, and it paid almost immediate dividends. He made a run out wide, picked up a pass from Mason, turned away from his defender and got hacked down for his troubles. Mason hit an out-swinging free kick towards the six-yard box, finding the head of Leigh Mills, who flicked towards the back post. No one was marking little Michael Woodburn, who tapped in the winner, sprinted towards the stand and jumped straight into the crowd.

The noise from the supporters in Bishop's Stortford was so loud that Donald Trump would have heard them in N17, had he not been wearing the biggest, best, most spectacular, most expensive, most luxurious noise-canceling headphones on the market today.

Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4 |