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Is Tottenham Hotspur still clinging to the past?

27 April 2022

From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Tottenham High Road is unusually straight by the standards of London’s streets. It owes its linearity to the Romans, having begun life as part of the road connecting Londinium with Lindum Colonia (modern-day Lincoln). Extending two and a half miles north from Stamford Hill to Edmonton, it is a scrappy place of betting shops and pizza parlours, Polish delicatessens and Turkish barbers. Low-rise apartment blocks mingle with 19th-century terraces and prefabricated superstores.

Towering over it all, as I found on a recent visit, is the glass and steel frontage of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which has just celebrated its third birthday. The stadium occupies the plot of an old ground, known as White Hart Lane, which was demolished in 2017. Tucked into a tight space a little off the High Road, White Hart Lane lay hidden behind a collection of buildings that gestured to its suburban roots: a decommissioned dispensary, a Victorian ‘chocolate factory’, a beefy pub and a Georgian townhouse that was once home to the motorcycle-engine manufacturer John Alfred Prestwich. Walking up the High Road from the nearest Underground station, you could never quite gauge how far off it was until you were upon it. One has no such trouble with the new stadium. A mile to the south it is already visible, its polished silver panelling glinting above the red and brown brickwork of the local streetscape. 

Many of those old buildings were pulled down with White Hart Lane, but on this trip I found another building drawing attention. A small crowd had gathered opposite the stadium in front of a previously inconspicuous rectangular block housing Tottenham Community Sports Centre. A giant blue-and-white mural had just appeared on one of its ends, depicting the head and shoulders of the former Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King. The work of MurWalls – a company that brings together street artists and ‘globally recognised brands’ – this surprisingly old-fashioned portrait is disturbed by a second likeness superimposed on the first, showing King in more conventional footballer pose, arms outstretched in celebration. On one side of the image is scrawled, ‘This is my club, my one and only club.’

A similar message of continuity, coincidentally or not, has been the keynote of Tottenham Hotspur’s sometimes fraught stadium-rebuilding exercise. The club outgrew White Hart Lane long ago. Its local rival Arsenal left its historic ground in the mid 2000s, moving to a new stadium a few hundred yards up the road from Highbury, on the site of a rubbish dump. With 20,000 more seats, dozens of corporate boxes and new commercial facilities, it enabled an exponential increase in revenue. Tottenham Hotspur were slower off the mark. The club for a time dallied with a low-cost, off-the-shelf option: a move to the newly built Olympic Stadium in Stratford, five miles away in east London, a relocation that would have rendered the club’s name a little incongruous. As things turned out, the Olympic Park Legacy Company spared Tottenham Hotspur a ticklish rebranding exercise by awarding the tenancy of the stadium to another club, West Ham.

Mural of Ledley King, who played for Tottenham Hostpur FC from 1999 to 2012, on the side of the Tottenham Community Sports Centre (photo: 2021) Photo: Rob White

The outbreak of rioting in Tottenham in August 2011 – a few months after this decision was announced – quashed further thoughts of relocation. The riots drew global attention to the area’s social problems; for Tottenham Hotspur, its most famous outgrowth, to have abandoned it would have been PR kamikaze. Making a virtue of necessity, Tottenham Hotspur vowed to remain at the address to which it owed its name and consciously placed itself at the heart of regeneration efforts. The international architecture firm Populous was commissioned to create a new stadium on the existing site. Planning permission was bustled through, White Hart Lane was bulldozed and in spring 2019 the new stadium opened. 

It might have looked from afar like a giant sauté pan had been dropped onto Tottenham High Road, but supporters were reassured that the long history of the previous stadium was embodied in its replacement. Bricks salvaged from the old East Stand, designed early in the 20th century by the celebrated stadium architect Archibald Leitch, were incorporated into the interior of the new stadium. Crushed aggregate from the foundations of White Hart Lane was worked into its floor. Plaques indicating the outlines of the old ground were installed. A giant abstract map depicting the stadium at the heart of the local community was placed on one of the concourses. 

The club’s owners reassured themselves that at least part of the £750m cost of the new building could be recovered by selling ‘naming rights’ to the stadium. Naming rights are part of the sporting architecture of the United States. In Miami, one can watch American football at the Hard Rock Stadium and baseball at the LoanDepot Park. In the UK, modern, purpose-built arenas now attract similarly improbable names. The Millennium Dome’s short, inglorious career as host of an ‘experience’ to the mark the year 2000 has been airbrushed away through its reinvention as the O2 Arena. That quintessentially English club Arsenal, with its tradition of marble halls and Old Etonian chairmen, now plays at the Emirates Stadium thanks to a £100m sponsorship deal.

Yet three years after its opening, Tottenham’s new ground remains officially ‘Tottenham Hotspur Stadium’. More problematically, in popular parlance it is ‘White Hart Lane’ or ‘the Lane’. Supporters, it seems, have taken the club’s message of continuity, localism and tradition a little too seriously. It might look like the stadium of the future, but to those who go every other week to 782 Tottenham High Road, it is still recognisably a place of the past. Naming rights are only worth something if people actually use the name, and a corporate trademark stands little chance against a hundred-year-old alias.

So the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium remains caught between old and new. To the casual observer without time to seek out commemorative plaques or historic brickwork, there are strikingly few identifiers of the stadium’s association with Tottenham Hotspur. Among the ranks of navy seats, no attempt has been made to spell out the club’s name. Digital signage allows club slogans and emblems to be illuminated or extinguished as occasion requires it – such occasions being the Lady Gaga concerts, career fairs and homeopathic medicine conventions the stadium hosts during its downtime. Yet by persisting with the old name, supporters have put sponsors to flight. Continuity doesn’t always pay.

From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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