Supporting a club is about more than simply watching a sporting event. It feeds into a sense of identity and can provide points of reference by which we measure our lives. A new book, A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, by Martin Cloake and Alan Fisher, traces the history of a famous club’s support for the first time, examining what it meant to fans and how that support shaped the club…
Brian Dennis was born in West Green Road, Tottenham, in 1947. “In 1950/51, I was taken into care,” says Dennis, “and for the next eight years we went to live in Woodford. Then I came back to Tottenham, just round the corner from the ground and that’s where we lived for another four to five years. I guess it’s those years when we really came to support Spurs. Being round the corner that became my playground – the actual stadium.”
For Dennis, the return to Tottenham helped him feel part of something. Being in care can be a rootless childhood filled with temporary, disrupted relationships. Supporting Spurs and living next to White Hart Lane gave him a sense of belonging, a history. It was more of a home than the house he lived in. “I was three years old when I was taken into care,” he explains. “Me and my youngest brother and my next eldest brother. We were very young. My other brothers stayed with my father. So there was a period of eight years where we didn’t know the rest of our family. My father never came to visit us but my mother did so she was our connection with the family.
“So, when we came back to Tottenham, my mother brought the three of us together to Northumberland Park and we got rehoused there. And it wasn’t until I was 15 when I met my brothers again. But by then, of course, the damage had been done. They were Arsenal supporters and we were Tottenham!”
The stadium and the club were central to Dennis’s childhood. “I earned my pocket money at Spurs. Our lives centred around the ground. The footballers were all local. As soon as I realised I was moving back near the club, it was an inspiration to me, because all of my mates lived around the ground. In fact I took my first driving lesson, illegally, when I was 15, in Paxton Road. I crashed a Ford Prefect into one of the factories along there!”
Looking after the cars of the fans who turned up provided a lucrative stream of income. “You would pick your road,” Dennis remembers, “you had your patch and there were probably about six or eight of us in our little gang. People would come from miles around. You’d run up to them and say ‘Can I look after your car, mister?’ Most of them would tell you to clear off but you always got a few. Then it was your duty to be there when they came out. What they didn’t know was at half time the gateman on the Park Lane gates used to let all the kids in at half time for nothing. There were hundreds of us, and we’d watch the game and then five minutes before the end you had to get back to your pitch. So you never looked after their cars.
“If Spurs won, they were so happy they’d give you something – a penny, threepence, sixpence, a shilling. It was a good little scam because my mum was pretty poor. To get half a crown out of a night’s work or a day’s work for a match, it paid for the fish and chips and a bottle of drink. We all went home happy but broke.
“Underneath the Spurs ground there used to be factories. You could see Thermos Flasks being made under the ground. There was another factory that made KiteKat, the cat food. We kids used to be able to bunk in and play all our football underneath the pitch but above the factories.”
Dennis’s memories of the first game he went to give a vivid insight into what it was like to be a spectator in the late 1950s. “I was 11, it was against Nottingham Forest. My brother and I were crushed almost to death because the crowd used to sway from the back, the Park Lane end especially. They were dangerous, football grounds. And my brother and I virtually stopped breathing once and we thought that was our lot. There was over 70,000 in the ground that day. Too many.
“Every kid got passed down to the front. You stayed there and waited until the stadium started emptying and then, whoever was with you, they would make sure you got out. There was no control over the crowds. There was a hint of danger in the whole thing but it was kids, wasn’t it? It was fun. As soon as you get in the ground, the fact that you grew up and lived there, that’s your manor, your inheritance.”
Getting into the ground presented a challenge. “There were ways of getting in, in corners of the ground,” says Dennis. “When there were adults going through, you’d drop down underneath. You just hung around. The ground wasn’t filled in in those days and the corners were still open. Because there was no crowd segregation, you could get in one corner and walk round to wherever you wanted to be. So we literally climbed over walls. It was great fun, trying to bunk in for nothing.
“Outside the ground it was chaos. There were huge crowds. Most of my time was spent looking after my cars and my pitch so it wasn’t that often I actually went to watch a whole match – that would’ve had to be a special occasion as I was more interested in earning my pocket money and then getting in at half time!
“You always had your hot dog sellers and your rosette stall and your scarves. The tickets were just tickets. Or you paid on the day – cash. By the time the sixties came they started segregating. That’s when you started to see shirts appear and scarves and everybody started getting bolder. And there were police escorts for the away fans coming in.”
Once inside, the nature of the crowd revealed itself. “Most of what I looked at were men in cloth caps and cheese cutters. All in their macs. Everything was very dour. I don’t ever remember seeing women in a crowd then. I can’t remember an awful lot of singing, apart from ‘Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspur”, which Man United stole. That’s the only song that I can ever remember being sung. And it would be sung, of course, when we scored. There would be singing but nothing like it is today. It was all about making noise – with the rattles and things like that. I never remember seeing any violence. Maybe the odd swear word but nothing like you hear now.
Growing up when he did meant the attraction of Spurs wasn’t only the fact that the team was local. “Billy Nicholson was an absolute legend,” he remembers. “In the late fifties we were beginning to take over again from Arsenal. As a kid I was very, very lucky. We had a 10-year period where we were the top of the tree, the best club in the land.”
Dennis remembers the big parade down Tottenham High Street after Spurs won the Double in 1961. “They started at Edmonton Town Hall and four to six hours later got to Tottenham Town Hall. There wasn’t a single spare space of road all down either side. It was like the Jubilee. We walked down to Edmonton Fore Street and got behind the bus and tried to follow it but you got separated and pushed all over the place. I’ve never seen crowds like it. The whole of Tottenham was proud of the players and wherever you looked it was blue and white. All the shops were decorated, the houses were decorated. I can still see all the bunting up, the blue and white and the rosettes and the crimplene paper, like paper chains, all that would be out and all the shops would decorate their windows with Tottenham stuff in there, replica cups and the like.”
This is an extract from A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, by Martin Cloake and Alan Fisher. It is published by Pitch Publishing, and is available here.