What is a football club without its fans? That is the central question asked by Martin Cloake and Alan Fisher in their new book, A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club: How Spurs Fans Shaped the Identity of One of the World’s Most Famous Clubs.
The book is thought to be the first attempt to chronicle the history of a football club through the lens of the club’s supporters and their experiences. These are stories told by fans who love Tottenham with a fierce determination, sometimes so much that love turns the corner to frustration and outright anger. It’s an attempt to distill the fan experience, as much as that experience can be distilled, into a single chronology, and is a window into the soul of Tottenham’s supporters.
The book is somewhat curiously divided, and the authors are quick to point this out themselves in the preface, between historical accounts and more recent experiences by living Tottenham fans. This is a consequence of book’s nature: with Tottenham’s origins stretching back 134 years, history is about all we have to go on to get an understanding of what it was like to attend a match at Tottenham Marshes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The opening chapters read more like a historical account of the early days of the club’s history, from its founding under a Tottenham High Road street lamp through the end of World War II, but with much less attention to the players and more on the cultural life of North London at the time and how Tottenham’s fans were crucial to the its development in those early days. Questions are raised: why form a club on the Tottenham Marshes? What were the cultural and economic factors that led to Tottenham forming a fan following?
And more topically, what was it like to attend a match on the Marshes back in the early days of the club? What kind of person was attracted to football at that time, specifically to Tottenham Hotspur, and why? The authors address these questions and more — how long it took for actual seating to appear pitch-side, when the club decided to build a ground behind the White Hart pub, how much it cost to attend a match and how easy it was for young fans to sneak in to watch their favorite club.
From there, the book pivots from a straight historical account to issues of fandom that transcend time, often spanning decades, and that involve common themes of both support and conflict with the club. The pivot itself is the decade of the 1980s and the era of Thatcherism. Prior to this, football was considered a blue collar past-time, a diversion for the working man (and, to a lesser extent, woman) where they could blow off steam and spend time in the company of friends and family while watching sports.
In hindsight, the rise of Thatcherism affected not only the working class in England, but also brought about significant change to football. This was the point where the game started to become significantly monetized and the relationship between football supporters and the clubs they support was drastically altered. For Tottenham, it was also the era of Irving Scholar, Alan Sugar, and an extended period characterized by supporter anger off the pitch and mediocrity on it.
Within this context, there are chapters in the book dedicated to hooliganism, Jewish identity, supporter-driven football writing from fanzines to online blogs, and the continued rise of football as big business. These developments are all viewed through how fans reacted to the changes happening in football, and how their voices were heard, or not heard. All are told, whenever possible, through the stories and experiences of actual football fans through interviews and written accounts. If you have read any of Cloake or Fisher’s previous writings or are involved in Tottenham forums or social media, you may recognize some of the more infamous characters.
The idea of a People’s History of Tottenham is one that appeals to me greatly, though like any people’s history there is the thorny problem of how to chronicle what is at its nature a hugely diverse and varied fanbase that started in one neighborhood in north London but now encompasses millions of fans and stretches world-wide. Indeed, there’s also the question of whether to even attempt to be comprehensive. The authors both admit the tension of balancing “atomization” of individual stories with the challenges of generalizing an entire fanbase.
Cloake and Fisher are life-long fans of Tottenham Hotspur and season ticket holders. Fisher runs the popular and excellent Spurs blog Tottenham On My Mind. Cloake is a board member of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporter’s Trust (THST), the author of several books on Tottenham’s history, and a prominent voice on Spurs social media. They would classify themselves, If I were to hazard a guess, as fans first and historians second.
And for me, therein lies one of the small issues I experienced while reading the book. The consequence of Cloake and Fisher writing a people’s history of Tottenham is that the end result at times comes across as the chronicling of their stories, their experiences. The authors have direct connections to prominent fanzines like The Spur and When Saturday Comes, supporters organizations such as THST, Left on the Shelf, and the Tottenham Independent Supporters’ Association. All of them are mentioned in the text, with some of them having large sections of chapters devoted to them. There are numerous examples of self-reference sprinkled throughout the second half of the book, though to their credit Cloake and Fisher do not reference themselves by name.
Considering the authors’ own place in the history of Spurs fandom since the 1960s, which is significant and laudatory, I wonder whether they are at times too close to their subject matter. That closeness at times comes through as a subtext that rises to the surface of the written page. The irony is that perhaps this people’s history might have had more impact if it had been written by a neutral third party, with both Cloake and Fisher as primary contributing sources, rather than as authors.
But this is a minor issue. Maybe this is the consequence of my being an American fan who follows the club 7500 miles away from London, and a relative newcomer to Tottenham fandom. I chose Spurs (or, the club chose me) back in 2007, Martin Jol’s last year. I’ve never been to London. My story is different than someone who was born into Spurs fandom and who were regulars in the Shelf in the 1970s and ‘80s, and it colors my opinions on what it means to be a Tottenham supporter.
It should be pointed out that the book rightfully goes to great lengths to include other people’s stories and experiences, including from those outside of England. One of my favorite sections in the book is, unsurprisingly, when Cloake and Fisher discuss the rising prominence of the Premier League in overseas markets, and the increasing popularity of Tottenham Hotspur in America. The book has quotes from a number of prominent American Spurs fans including Rolfe Jones, the ex-pat founder of LA Spurs, and Ken Saxton, co-host of the Hotspur America podcast.
In a time when American football fans are often derided for their lack of understanding of or historical connections to English football, Fisher and Cloake are extremely complementary to Spurs fans in the USA. They note that American fans are, generally speaking, savvy sport consumers who diligently research and choose their adopted English football clubs, and go as far as to express that they may in fact be more likely to fully embrace Tottenham’s long history than those who are born into fandom.
British fans cite family, geography, friends perhaps or being enthralled by the magic of watching a big game. None have told us that logic was involved in any way. Not so in America, where supporters know their history because they have researched it meticulously, and it is precisely that heritage that they have fallen in love with.
... What’s interesting about these newer fan groups is the hunger with which they devour the history and traditions of the club. There’s a palpable sense of a search for something real and rooted, not just for another brand to consume.
Another chapter that resonated deeply with me was one that delved into Tottenham’s flirtation with moving to the Olympic Stadium several years ago. As a foreigner I do not have the deep-set connection to Tottenham-the-neighborhood that a native Londoner would have, and yet I distinctly remember the conversations that I had with fellow fans about the idea of Tottenham moving to Stratford – a mere six miles away. They were complex, nuanced conversations. We didn’t always agree.
Cloake and Fisher appropriately relate the local fans’ aghast reaction to the prospect of moving to a different London borough, even while noting the irony that the majority of the fans who attend Tottenham matches do not actually live in the area around the stadium. Nevertheless, it is that connection to a particular place that resonates with so many Spurs fans. Spurs’ presence on the High Road and in the N17 post code is hugely important to Spurs fans, not necessarily because of the actual physical location (which is, by all accounts, kind of a dump) but because of the history of the club and the almost irrational emotional connection that it has on supporter’s psyches. I appreciated the authors’ balance approach to the issue, even as they acknowledged in subtext their personal preferences on what Spurs should have done at the time.
I thoroughly enjoyed A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur and I learned a great deal about the way that Spurs fans, both past and present, interacted and continue to interact with the club and the sport. It is well written, approachable, and says important things about the nature of football fandom and how it continues to evolve as the sport evolves. Even non-Tottenham fans could learn a great deal about issues important to them by reading this book. By virtue of reading, I grappled with the very real issues that supporters have grappled with, even if I come at it from a different angle and come away with a different perspective.
And, the authors would certainly say, that’s the point. In the epilogue, Cloake and Fisher take great pains to say that this book is a people’s guide, not the people’s guide. They tip their hat to the fan experiences of the past, acknowledge the wide range of opinions and interpretations of fandom within modern supporters, and set the stage for the stories that are yet to come.
It’s impossible to fully encapsulate the experience of every Tottenham Hotspur fan. It would be folly to even try. Thus, I greatly appreciate what Cloake and Fisher have done here. In the process, they have shone a spotlight on football fandom with both its beauty marks and blemishes and provided a new way in which we can examine the history and future of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.
In many ways, with Tottenham set to build a new stadium by 2018, this is the perfect time to release a book like this. The club is at a crossroads, and the only thing that supporters know for sure is that dramatic change is coming. What that change means for the modern Tottenham Hotspur fan is unknown, but what is known is that there will be stories ready to be told. There always are.
Our lives are full of our stories, our stories are full of our lives. We tell stories about ourselves, about what we do, what makes us laugh and cry, happy or sad, what makes our heart beat faster. It’s how we make sense of our world and our place in it...
We tell our stories to fellow Spurs fans so we can have a laugh over a pre-match beer. To our children so they will follow in our footsteps and if not, at least they will understand and take pity... To ourselves, during interminable journeys to and from the ground, when we bash the credit card once again, for comfort during restless nights worrying about a result or moments, and we all have them, where we doubt our faith, ‘this is why I do it, this is who I am.’
...Now is the time for new stories to be created as we pass on the flame. There’s only one Hotspur.
A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur: How Spurs Fans Shaped the Identity of One of the World’s Most Famous Clubs
Martin Cloake & Alan Fisher (Pitch Publishing, released August 15, 2016)
256 pages; $15.15 (Amazon.com), £17.34 (Amazon.co.uk)
Postscript: I was provided a complimentary pre-release copy of this book by the authors for purposes of review.
Note: a previous version of this review erroneously listed the founder of LA Spurs, Rolfe Jones, as “Graham Rolfe.” The author regrets the error.