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At Large: Spurs are home, then, or so the hashtags tell us

SportsPro’s editor-at-large (and Arsenal fan) Eoin Connolly attempts a balanced perspective on Tottenham Hotspur's return to N17.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Spurs are home, then, or so the hashtags tell us

After a decade of planning and replanning, seven years of construction, two years of exile at Wembley Stadium, a Brexit-worthy succession of mishaps and delays, and an outlay now confirmed at UK£1 billion, Tottenham Hotspur have finally played a Premier League game in English soccer’s newest ground. 

The reviews so far have been close to ecstatic, with fans enjoying an emotional homecoming and a cathartic 2-0 win over Crystal Palace under a hail of fireworks and, well, hail. The club’s owners have given no quarter in their efforts to build a venue to be talked about, from a confounding array of hospitality experiences to a microbrewery and a retractable pitch for gridiron. They have also found room for the kind of nods to history that supporters appreciate, while incorporating a 17,500-capacity single-tier stand that brings the character of a classic soccer ground into a cutting-edge design. 

Then again, you knew all that already.

It also means that Wembley Stadium, where Spurs had been tenants since 2017, and the ground owned by that mob at the other end of the Seven Sisters Road - who, full disclosure, are the team I follow - are now very much of the last generation. This summer marks 13 years since Arsenal’s opening day at the Emirates Stadium, and a testimonial match for Dutch legend Dennis Bergkamp against an Ajax side so starry that Marco van Basten and Johan Cruyff came on in the second half.

Yet my overwhelming memory of that day was the uncanny sensation of walking into those roomy stands and seeing the pitch - like stepping into a still frame and realising it’s moving. That rush was quite something and that afternoon, lit on all sides by sunlight and spectacle, seemed to beckon a lifetime of promise. 

The impression fades, and reality filters in. The Emirates is still a remarkable piece of work, and the act of building the thing within half a mile of its cherished predecessor an underrated achievement. There have been fantastic days there - even noisy ones, believe it or not. Yet over a decade in, it’s inevitably become associated with the weekly frustrations of fandom - long, restless evenings watching a team in managed decline - and the faint alienation of the gilded soccer era into which it was born. 

Last weekend, Tottenham consecrated their new surroundings by summoning great spirits of the past, Jurgen Klinsmann and even Paul Gascoigne among them, in a legends’ friendly with Inter Milan. But the ghosts won’t play there every week. It’s not Elysium, it’s a soccer stadium. 

The technical pre-eminence of Spurs’ new home will inevitably be surpassed at some point, too. European champions Real Madrid - apparently unable to stand the idea of any team, let alone another white-shirted one, getting all the attention - chose this week to announce plans to recreate their own Santiago Bernabeu as a 66,000 square metre entertainment megacomplex with a 360-degree video scoreboard and a surrounding skin of steel bands allowing images to be projected on the outer walls.

Fireworks light up the sky above Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on its opening night

So what matters now is the everyday. The role of the sports venue in urban spaces will be pored over as never before in the years ahead. In some areas, there is a drift towards disciplines like parkour or 3x3 basketball with a kind of community park feel, with events could be happily combined with live music and a food festival.

High-end stadiums in the near future look like being playgrounds for leisure technology, and laboratories for the study of human behaviour in shared spaces. Facial recognition scanners, footfall monitors, smart transit and every data-driven retail opportunity you could imagine will be fed into a succession of steel, glass and concrete feedback loops. 

What all that means for the urban spaces outside them is hard to ascertain. Grounds in the UK, at least, have famously been nestled among neighbouring shops and houses. The Art Deco facade of Arsenal’s old Highbury home - still intact, its status as a listed building having precluded further development of the stadium there - could easily be missed by a supporter scanning a smartphone for team news while strolling over to Ashburton Grove. 

There would be no missing the Emirates on its concrete plinth, though, and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium looms monolithically over White Hart Lane. As Premier League teams become organisations with an increasingly global outlook, their matchday fanbases scattered farther and wider, and as suspicions of gentrification grow wearier, the relationships between clubs and the communities that they rose from will only get more complicated. 

Daniel Levy will appreciate that the club were making up for lost time after the sometimes bitter process of fulfilling compulsory purchase orders, and a pretty serious flirtation with a move to Stratford’s Olympic Park 

There’s a story in The Club, a new business history of the Premier League by Wall Street Journal soccer writers Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg, about the visit the soon-to-be Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich made to London in 2003. The Russian oil magnate was in his Mercedes on Tottenham High Road, looking for somewhere to park a few of his billions and having been advised by his banker that nearby Arsenal were not for sale. 

According to Clegg and Robinson, Abramovich surveyed the passing shopfronts, turned to a companion and said: “This is worse than Omsk.”

You probably don’t need to know that Omsk is the remote Siberian location of one of Abramovich’s refineries to get the gist. South West London was more to his taste. 

But Spurs now insist they will make the kind of commitment to Tottenham that Abramovich - whose money has yet to fund any meaningful upgrade of Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, and maybe never will - would not even countenance. Chairman Daniel Levy will appreciate that the club were making up for lost time after the sometimes bitter process of fulfilling compulsory purchase orders, and a pretty serious flirtation with a move to Stratford’s Olympic Park. He says now that discussions with community leaders including local MP and fan David Lammy after the London riots of summer 2011, which were sparked when a Tottenham resident was killed by police, were a stark reminder of the scale of the club’s responsibility. 

A proposal to rename White Hart Lane station as Tottenham Hotspur, due to be cleared by Transport for London, is a neat touch but also a sleight of hand

There are indications of real intent. Spurs’ operations are already based at Lilywhite House, a smart set of offices alongside the rebuilt ground. That also houses the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham, a school for outstanding local children which is funded by the club. Spurs promise to be a significant local employer, and work hard to bring businesses to the area, while publicly funded improvements to local transport links should bring real benefits to the lives of residents. 

Still, the Tottenham Hotspur that built this new facility is a growing international business, one that made a record UK£113 million profit last year as it geared up to service stadium-related debts around six times that. Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will also be the scene of National Football League (NFL) games for the next ten years, and of Saracens rugby union showpieces for the next five, while there are ambitions to make it a conferencing and entertainment destination of real clout. 

A proposal to rename White Hart Lane station as Tottenham Hotspur, due to be cleared by Transport for London, is a neat touch but also a sleight of hand. As Rory Smith noted this week in the New York Times, opponents worry it communicates the idea that ‘the place exists to serve the club, rather than the club existing to reflect the place’. It also covers the gap between the new stadium opening and a naming rights sponsor being announced - it dissuades fans, in other words, from lapsing into the habit of using the buried ground’s title.

All of this is background for now to a project that, delays apart, has been executed with panache, and will set new horizons for a club on the rise. The dynamic it sets up will have much to tell us about where major teams and arenas fit in the 21st century city. 

Tottenham Hotspur have rebuilt their home, and it is something to see. How they live in it will be something to watch.