Lifelong acceptance of Spurs being Spurs can all change in Madrid
Bobby McDonagh: Nothing Spursy about this team
Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino arrives to the team’s hotel in Madrid ahead of the Champions League final. Photo: Javier Soriano/Getty Images
Shock horror. Peter Robinson and I, former DUP leader and former Irish diplomat, share a secret allegiance. At 9pm Spanish time this Saturday, Peter’s unionist heart and my nationalist heart will be beating faster and in perfect unison. We will share a single identity. We will belong to one tradition. When Spurs kick off against Liverpool in the Champions League Final in Madrid, Peter and I will be nurturing the same optimistic shoots of hope in the frustrated allotments of our Tottenham souls.
When Peter was Northern Ireland’s First Minister and I was Ireland’s Ambassador in London we went to several Spurs matches together. Sport can transcend barriers while leaving our beliefs secure and our integrity intact. The simple experience of seeing the world through the same eyes, even if only for a couple of hours, can remind us of what we have in common. People otherwise divided by songs and slogans and folk memory can, through sport, be brought together by those very things. To meet Kipling’s triumph or disaster together, to share a team’s joys and disappointments, can remove some of the banal barriers and glib graffiti which otherwise keep us apart.
The beautiful game is indeed beautiful, as the magnificent spirit and talent of both Liverpool and Spurs in their respective Champions League semi-finals so thrillingly reminded us. Like everything in life, football has its faults and its foibles. But on Saturday, when I look back on 57 years of addiction since I borrowed a book about the Spurs 1960/61 double winning side from the Terenure library, I will be remembering the passion, not the serial disappointments but the undying hope.
There is much to criticise about soccer. The power of money, for example, and the outlandish salaries. The occasional violence between fans. The persistent pockets of racism. But on the day of what promises to be an exceptional final between two great teams, there will be many things to celebrate. The multiracial and multinational make-up of teams like Spurs and Liverpool which ensures that, week-in-week-out, intrinsic support for diversity trumps petty xenophobia. The alternative football universe in which, for the most part, passions can be safely indulged, identities asserted and allegiances celebrated. The educational role which football can play, especially for many young people, in illustrating human qualities both good and bad, in demonstrating the importance of leadership and team spirit, and in explaining the nature and importance of a rules-based system.
But on Saturday I will be celebrating not just football but my team. Spurs like every team has its own identity. Like other teams we have our heroes and our villains, our memories and our turf. But the team also has specific characteristics which make us who we are. A taxi driver once asked me what Premier League team I supported. When I replied “the team most associated with attractive losing football”, he knew straight off it was Spurs.
Attractive and losing indeed. Spurs fans always expect a certain style of football which its managers seek to deliver and its players, from the Hoddles of the past to the Eriksens of today, so often embody. For Spurs fans it’s about more than winning; it’s about how you play the game.
To be honest, over the years we would have liked it to be just a teensy-weensy bit more about winning. Our team has its own adjective, Spursy, which means bottling it when push comes to shove; and even our own ‘day’, St Totteringham’s Day, on which traditionally Arsenal, our nemesis, are so far ahead in the league that we can no longer catch them. We Spurs fans smiled wryly at the theological observation in Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruges that purgatory is “like the in-between one; you weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either, like Tottenham”. Salman Rushdie once noted that the worst day of his life was the day he became a Spurs fan. Andrew Anthony put it beautifully in The Observer recently when he wrote that the Spurs “psyche is decorated like a Renaissance church with scenes of torment”.
But our distinctive history also gives Spurs fans important insights. The bitter experience of so often being “there or thereabouts” necessarily compels us towards optimism. And we know in our hearts that life is about more than winning.
Spurs fans, including Peter and myself, are understandably excited about the possibility of a famous victory on Saturday. We take heart that on our road to Madrid the Spursiness belonged to our opponents. But if we lose, we will shrug our much-shrugged shoulders. We will continue to have faith that a better world is possible. And we will quietly celebrate another St Wenger season in which Spurs, rather than Arsenal, have qualified for next year’s Stations of the Cross.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom. And a lifelong Spurs fan.