Updated: May 10, 2020
There have been some very positive comments coming in about A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, the book I’ve written with Alan Fisher (@spursblogger). If you liked that, you might be interested in the first book I had published, back in 2005. It was called We Are Tottenham, and was written alongside my long-time writing partner Adam Powley (@adampowley). The idea was to show some of the individuals who made up the crowd, and much of the inspiration came from a fan and very good friend of mine, Bruce Lee, who I’ve been to games with for years and whose stories and experiences provided the inspiration for the book.
The original edition sold out, and we re-published the book in 2013. It’s available on Kindle or as a paperback. Here’s that first chapter on Bruce Lee as a taster.
When your name’s Bruce Lee and you’re growing up in north London, you need a quick wit. ‘You’ll never believe the amount of Hi-Karate aftershave I used to get for Christmas and birthdays,’ says Bruce, a 37-year-old tax consultant who lives in Enfield. He’d be the first to argue that a sense of humour is also required for one of his greatest passions — supporting Tottenham Hotspur.
Humour is probably what helps Bruce maintain the optimism for which he’s known and liked by the extended group of Spurs fans he’s been watching matches with for years. But as the 2003–04 season began, he admitted to finding his usual optimism hard to maintain.
The phrase Tottenham through-and-through certainly applies to Bruce, and he’ll admit that his life’s been shaped by Spurs. ‘I left school when I was 15 and left, if I’m honest, because of football,’ he says. But although he readily confesses to his obsession, he’s no one-dimensional fanatic. He’s almost as passionate about music as he is about Spurs, and his awareness of a wider world beyond football allows him a sense of perspective that often seems to be missing when football people talk.
Most of all, Bruce likes to talk, and for those who accompany him to matches the tales he spins are as much a part of the entertainment of a day at the football as the game itself. He’s got a rich vein of experiences to draw from, such as one incident from the late 1970s. ‘We used to go on the private coaches, the Grey Greens. We went to Norwich once and the coachload we were with turned over a sweet stall outside Harlow station. The police were called and we got pulled up further along the A11. I think they just followed the trail of lemonade bottles.
‘The coach was full of kids, and some of the older blokes, cramming bars of chocolate and bags of crisps in their mouths and shouting “Eat the evidence!”. We all got taken to Harlow nick, and my little brother Andrew was with me. He could only have been about eight or nine but he was a cunning little sod. They held us on the coach waiting for the ringleaders to own up, and my little brother looked at me at one point and said “this is silly, we’re going to be here all night” and he started crying.
‘Within two minutes some policewoman got us off this coach. I think it was when Andrew was getting off the he said “ I would have liked to watch this”. I mean, he’d eaten two dozen Mars bars himself!’
Bruce first became aware of Spurs around the age of seven, in 1972. ‘I lived about half a mile from the ground. There was no parental influence, no one else in the family interested. I was aged about five or six and just suddenly got into it, kicking a ball around with all the local kids. Spurs were the local team; everyone was a Spurs fan; it was quite rare living in Tottenham being an Arsenal fan. In fact in those days it was getting towards the period when it was unhealthy to be an Arsenal fan in that area.
‘We played just near Bruce Castle park. My first memory was saying “Can we look after your car, Mr?” to the fans turning up for games. Our estate overlooked the Tottenham end of the Roundway and we used to sit down there. You could hear the ground across Bruce Castle Park. So when a friend of the family said they’d take me along there, I jumped at it. It was a Spurs v Man United game; Martin Chivers scored for us.’
Once the die was cast there was no looking back, and Bruce soon started taking his little brother to White Hart Lane. They were formative years. ‘I look back at some of the games I went to and, I say this to my mother now, I can’t believe the things she used to let me do. I think because my mum and dad split up I was not necessarily streetwise but quite mature for a boy of my age. I would have only been about eight or nine at the time so there must have been a limit to my mother’s patience, or wallet or whatever. But I went a couple of times a season for a few years.
‘But my mother is eternally grateful to Tottenham to be honest. Although it got me in scrapes, I think it kept me on the straight and narrow. Once I’d been once it became all-pervasive very quickly.’
By the mid-70s, going to a football match could be a risky business. ‘I went to that Chelsea game, I think it was 73–74, when there was a famous punch-up on the pitch because both teams were dreadful then. Spurs actually managed to beat Chelsea and it was more or less a knockout blow about five or six games before the end of the season. Alfie Conn took the mickey out of them. The game kicked off about 20 minutes late because there was fighting and I watched the game from an aisle on The Shelf. Supposedly there were about 55,000 in there.
‘At that game, a fella on our estate got turned in to the police by his old dear, because there was a big ruck on the pitch before the game — all these blokes in loon pants with scarves tied round their waists kicking seven bells out of each other. It was on the evening news. One of them was this kid on our estate and his mum apparently took him down by the ear hole to Tottenham nick.’
The growing culture of violence at football matches worried many parents and Bruce found his match-going curtailed. ‘The most obvious example was Millwall in ’77 when all the stuff about Harry the Dog had been on Panorama. There was a lot of talk about what Millwall were going to do to Tottenham, and we played them on Boxing Day. By all accounts it was fairly fearsome. It was an 11.30 kick-off and I really wanted to be there, but my mum put her foot down on that occasion.
‘Up until that point I was taking my little brother with me who was three or four years younger and she trusted me not to get involved. There was the isolated occasion where she would firmly say you’re not going, but other than that I don’t know whether she really thought about it. I don’t think she realised it was quite as rough as it was, but I look back and even though I take the piss a bit, I do thank her because I grew up quick. I just saw things and got fairly grounded fairly early on.’
Away games are a whole new adventure, and regular travelling to see Tottenham play away soon became a real draw for 10-year-old Bruce. ‘The first couple of times I was chaperoned with another friend of the family. I don’t think he ever came to White Hart Lane with me but he would have been late teens, early twenties, and we went to Burnley on Grey Green coaches. They used to drop you outside the Co-op in Tottenham High Road and pick you up.
‘Burnley was an eye-opener. Even at that age I knew the Hovis adverts were a stereotype, but Burnley did look like that. I’m not playing the sophisticated Londoner because Tottenham’s always been fairly unsophisticated. Maybe some children are always off to Cannes and Hollywood and I got to go to Burnley and Norwich.’
But for a 10-year-old from Tottenham, those trips were every bit as exotic. ‘There was a period when the home games became very run of the mill, you were looking forward to the away trips. It was great going to a new ground that you’d seen from a certain angle on the television and then you’re there and it’s all fresh.
‘You used to read about all these long-haired layabouts banging on the coach windows singing “Tottenham boys we are here.” I remember people jumping up and down and singing and hollering and seeing these locals looking up, it was an amazing feeling. It wasn’t hoping they were thinking “oh my God, lock up your daughters”, it was a sort of expression of pride of where you’re from. It was strangely liberating at the time.’
Once a kid develops a strong enough interest in something, the family usually fall in with it. Bruce’s proved to be no exception. ‘My dad used to work for Tottenham bus garage and for a while after we’d moved out to Buckhurst Hill I carried on going to school in Tottenham. He used to run me down to Tommy Moore’s school on the bus. Sometimes he used to take his bus out during the day and I used to say “go and pick us up a couple of tickets”. He’d do it, even though he didn’t know the first thing about football.’
‘Then we started going with the supporters club coaches. They were quite maternal, the old dears who used to run it.’
Supporters clubs at this time were not the bodies that have become identified as the voice of football fans. They were essentially travel clubs run by slightly older, respectable types who wouldn’t have dreamt of passing comment on how the club was run. Bruce began to use the coaches and trains organised by the Spurs Supporters Club, whose distinctive oval badges are still a prized possession today.
He has also made trips abroad. For football fans, particularly English ones, it’s a fact of life that reputations precede them, and Bruce has seen the best and worst of English club fans overseas while following Spurs in Europe. Spurs fans have a chequered record on the Continent, although there can’t have been many trips like Bruce’s first European experience.
‘It would have been about 78–79 I guess, Spurs played a friendly against PSV Eindhoven. A mate of mine saw it advertised in the local paper, and coaches were leaving from Harlow. This game wasn’t even in Eindhoven, it was somewhere called Beilen or somewhere, some small non-league town.
‘The ground had temporary stands all around it and there were loads of boisterous Spurs fans there, but no real misbehaviour. This fella that I booked with, his older brother was a nutter, one of the main boys, and he lived out our way. I knew he was going on a different coach and that they’d run into loads of trouble in Amsterdam. But we ended up going straight to this place and it was just fantastic. You start to feel so grown up when you get out there, it wasn’t because we were into any trouble or anything, it was just hilarious. You could just wander on to the pitch and there was a 50-a-side match going on at half time. As we left the town on the coaches the locals were out on their front lawns waving.’
Bruce’s appetite was whetted, and the growing success of Keith Burkinshaw’s early 80s side meant that soon the team were back in Europe proper.
‘The first competitive one I went to was Ajax in 81 after we won the cup, which was the first game back after we’d been banned. There was trouble there. I remember Stevie Perryman on the pitch beforehand telling everyone “let’s not get us thrown out again, it’s taken us this long to get back”.
‘But for the same reasons that five or six years before Burnley had been such a treat, Amsterdam was special. I went on the organised Spurs tours in Europe, although I shunned that at home. So it wasn’t really a question of carousing, you weren’t given any chance, it was just going somewhere different and seeing the different fans and the different faces.
‘We had a good side in those days so after that I went to a few. We went to Frankfurt in 1982, which was an experience. We got off these coaches in Frankfurt and there was these German policemen, very militaristic in their stance — 7 ft 3, refugees from a sci-fi movie, all in combat gear — stood there passively looking at us as we got off.
‘By the end of the night, Spurs had lost but got through I think, so people should have been in good spirits. I remember thinking there’s not going to be trouble here because everyone’s seen that these policemen are armed to the teeth. But there were people climbing over the gates and going toe-to-toe with these blokes in visors and helmets. In the end the German police didn’t know what to do and they opened the gates. I don’t know if it was widespread trouble that day but it was almost like they were prepared to test the limits. It was unfortunate because I think that sort of mentality lasted for long, long after it should have done.’
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before events off the pitch were to again overshadow what the team did on it. In the 1983–84 season, Tottenham’s successful UEFA Cup run was accompanied by ugly scenes in Rotterdam for the match against Feyenoord and in Brussels for the first leg of the final against Anderlecht. Tottenham fans were labelled “the shame of Britain”, but many, like Bruce, had gone for the football and the experience and were appalled at the scenes they witnessed. He takes up the tale of the Rotterdam trip.
‘I’ve never seen so many Spurs fans in a place. At a game like that in an English city they don’t allow you to congregate in such numbers at football matches. If you’re there two or three hours before kick-off then that’s extreme. It was the era where people were going around thieving, and we’d be standing outside the pub and somebody would come and try and sell you a Lacoste T-shirt still in its cellophane.
‘We got into this ground and there was lots of history between Spurs and Feyenoord. Stupidly some Spurs fans had bought tickets to cause trouble in the other end. Even by that stage it was just about past the era of taking the other end and widespread disturbance inside football grounds. So it was quite weird, we were sat there about ten minutes before kick off and at the opposite end the crowd parted and this mob of Spurs fans had gone steaming down the middle of the terrace and this big hole appeared. There had been a good atmosphere and all of a sudden it all closed around them and you could see people thrown out covered in blood.
‘Coming outside that ground was just horrific. You could see people coming back down talking about Dutch fans with knives. I had two programmes, one I bought for someone else and I had one, so I adjusted them under my clothing and I thought “if anyone comes at me with a knife they’re going get the programme first”. But there were people openly brandishing knives, you don’t often see that really, even going to as many football matches as I have; openly brandishing knives. Spurs fans, to be honest, were being ill-behaved. We heard there were people that were thrown off motorway bridges and all sorts.
‘We had a tendency to think of the Dutch as all very friendly and smoking spliffs and wearing clogs and wanting to speak English better than you and knowing all about Port Vale reserves. I think they just proved that night that a proportion of their population is the same as ours; they were rabid, out looking for English.
‘We were supposed to stay the night in Rotterdam and a few friends and I squeezed on to the train and I said, “Look, I’m not getting off at the main station, I’m going straight home” and about two or three of us did.’
When Spurs arrived in Brussels for the final, the fear some of their supporters had spread in previous rounds led to a tragic incident, as a jumpy barman fired a shotgun into a crowded bar and killed a young Tottenham fan from Wood Green. Bruce remembers it well.
‘It should have been one of the high points, but a Spurs fan got shot dead in a bar round the corner from the hotel we were staying in. A friend of mine was in the bar. In the morning people were apologising to us and we didn’t know what they were apologising for until we heard what had happened.
‘That was the night before the game, so on the evening of the game itself there was a real atmosphere. After the game we were caught up in the aftermath because we came out of the ground late and we were wandering around — we lost some people and we were wondering what the easiest way to get back into town to our hotel was. We happened to be behind a mob of Spurs fans who were taking out some vengeance for the night before. There were bars turned over and cars on fire. We got out of it pretty quick.’
Things had gone so far that even committed fans like Bruce gave up on travelling abroad for a while. ‘It really did put me off and I stopped going’, he admits. ‘I also met my wife around about that time and then there was Heysel so there wouldn’t have been any English competition anyway.’
Despite the bad experiences, Bruce has never lost his affection for the Spurs crowd. He is philosophical about the criticism thrown their way. ‘If we’re disliked it’s because we’re seen as big-time Charlies with no reason to be swaggering. Obviously there’s an element of truth in that.’
But, in common with many Spurs fans, it’s the f word that really gets him going. ‘One of the things I get a bee in my bonnet about is Spurs fans being called fickle. I think there’s plenty of adjectives you could apply but I don’t think fickle is one of them. Fickle to me always meant the opposite of loyal and I think that Spurs fans are as loyal as ever, perhaps slightly above the Premiership average. We’re quick to jump down the players’ throats as a crowd, but I would still stick the loyalty tag on them because I think we’ve had an awful lot of gruel over the last ten years. We’re always hanging on for a better day and I think the crowd has held up reasonably well.’
In the end, maybe it just comes down to believing in your own, and Bruce is clear about the greater scheme of things. ‘When the old genius Peter Cook used to be on the telly, I used to say you can’t tell me that the fact that he’s so funny isn’t down to the fact that he’s a Spurs fan. Jeremy Beadle’s Arsenal, Peter Cook’s Spurs.’
Since he first started going to Spurs, the club as an organisation has changed beyond recognition. ‘Spurs is the English football club model’, he says. ‘It was the family firm, the local firm of undistinguished businessmen as I understood it; funeral directors or butchers or something, some of them, but Spurs became the archetype, the first quoted, the first live game on telly… I think Spurs have definitely changed, no different from anybody else. It’s more business-orientated.’
The mixed feelings Bruce harbours about this new, more corporate side to the game are not uncommon.
‘I always thought it was slightly distasteful, all this business of adverts on the telly and pictures of Spurs stars in the stock exchange and stuff’, he says. ‘I thought it was all a bit naff but there was also a certain amount of pride in it. I think we tried to be a forward thinking club, but then you started spotting them investing in bra-making companies .’ When this period of history is discussed, one name is unavoidable — that of former chairman Irving Scholar.
‘Apparently he’s written in his book that it’s all everyone else’s fault, which I suspect is the idea of autobiographies,’ laughs Bruce, who traces the change in his relationship with the club he’d followed since he was so young to Scholar’s most controversial idea — replacing the popular Shelf terrace with executive boxes.
‘Some of the ideas he had were good, but it was the Left on the Shelf campaign that was the first time I ever remember being overtly critical of the club. I wasn’t really as passionate as anybody else but I remember going to a couple of meetings at Wood Green Civic Centre. So that would have been the start of it and from then it just went on, right up to the Sugar years. We were on a high really, all the build up to the FA Cup Final in 91, and there was the question of the club maybe not even existing and people getting really jumpy. I had a mate who was a Midland bank manager telling me “It’s not looking good’, and he could see the accounts.
‘We’re only just starting to get out of all that really. Maybe still being a quoted company is a double-edged sword because a lot of the washing is done in public which is ultimately for the good. I’m getting some encouraging signs now. I’d like to think we’ve had our share of fans with no business idea and businessmen with no idea of being a fan to perhaps a happy medium — but then I am one of life’s optimists.’
It’s also often been said that Spurs fans harp on about the past so much it becomes a burden. Bruce reckons that’s an easier point to respond to. ‘I’m one of the traditionalists’, he admits. ‘I think we should celebrate what we had, it’s why we go. I’m so old now, I saw some of it, so that’s probably why I keep going back, it keeps me grounded. Otherwise, why wouldn’t any football fan switch to Man U or Arsenal? I think some of our fans have lost touch with reality a bit, in terms of continually saying “we’re a big club” because you’re going to get the response “well bloody prove it”. But if that puts pressure on people to keep performing to a certain standard then I don’t think it can be a negative influence because I don’t think you should accept that we’re going to be also-rans.’
Which seems as good a time as any to return solely to football matters, and the question of who Bruce’s favourites on the pitch have been.
‘I suppose it would have to be Glenn Hoddle. Across my era he just was so special, he was a very, very good player who was there for a long time. Then Ardiles, Mabbutt for different reasons, Ricky Villa was a particular favourite of mine, Steve Archibald, Chris Waddle… I got into hero worship long after I should have done, because there were a couple of seasons when Chris Waddle could do things with a football that you’d thought you’d forgotten.’
For favourite games, Bruce chooses two very different ones. The first would be near the top of any Spurs fan’s list, the second one many would rather forget. But his choices neatly illustrate the range of pleasures fans draw from following their club.
‘One-off games I think would probably be the semi-final against Arsenal in 91. Coming home from that game with my mate in the car, (we were going to do our celebrating later) and just seeing normal grounded people waiting for buses people and walking the streets, I said, “Look at them, they can’t know, they obviously don’t know what’s just gone on round the corner there.” It was just like sheer nirvana.’
Bruce’s second choice is the unsuccessful trip to Kaiserslautern in Tottenham’s all-too-brief return to Europe in 1999, a trip which he undertook with a large group of fans including one of the writers of this book. We flew out early on the morning of the game and met up with various friends who’ve become regular travelling companions over the last 15 years or so. It was a peaceful, friendly trip and we’ll remember the kindness and hospitality of the local people — who’d apparently been rather apprehensive about our arrival — for some time. Thanks to this, the efforts of a fluent German-speaker in our party, and some fantastic food and beer, we’d had a great day out — so more’s the pity a typically-negative George Graham side paid the price by conceding a last minute own-goal to go out of the competition.
‘The trip to Kaiserslautern in 99 I immensely enjoyed,’ says Bruce, ‘especially when you contrast that from a football perspective. That’s one of the darker moments. People were crying on the terrace and I could feel it, you know, I wasn’t far off it myself. To concede an own goal, to go out when you were singing about who you were going to get in the next round, its all what football’s about. You know, a football experience is a kick in the ribs as much as a leap into the roof but I still look back on that trip as absolutely fantastic.’
So, what does Bruce expect to see happen to his club in the next few years, and is this far from what he wants? There’s a familiar struggle between fantasy and reality played out in his answer. ‘What I’d like to see happen is we get wedged in behind as a 3rd or 4th or 5th most successful club in the English league. Well no, obviously if I’m honest what I’d want is to win the league in my lifetime, but if I’m being realistic with what I want, I would say I want us to get into Europe on a regular basis, carry on on the trophy trail in terms of cup competitions and to stay in touching distance of the big three.’