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Doing the Rounds

31 October 2012

Russell Kempson makes the long trek up to Carlisle United, with Tottenham Hotspur fans from far and wide

Brunton Park on a chilly Wednesday night - just how many Tottenham Hotspur fans would turn up for the Capital One Cup Third Round tie against Carlisle United? Perhaps 300. Not bad for a long distance midweek trek to Cumbria. Maybe 500, top whack. Still, an excellent show of loyalty from the die-hard supporters of the North London giants.

But, no. It must have been 1200, possibly more, most of them encamped in a corner of the Carlsberg Stand next to the deserted terrace behind one of the goals - on which a banner had been draped proclaiming the undying allegiance of 'Welwyn Spurs' and a Saltire flag bearing the hallmark of Kilmarnock.

All the regulars were there; Paul Smith, Stuart Gibson and Dave Lambkin. Mark Rose, 'Rosie' to his mates, Dave Price, 'Cardiff Dave', Malcolm Armstrong and Steve Hall. And they hailed from everywhere - Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Greater London, Glamorgan and beyond; more from London, Hartlepool, Durham, Darlington, Newcastle, Glasgow, Blackpool, Preston and Chorley.

And there are also branches in East Kent, Bedford, South Dorset and Somerset. And Carlisle, too. The 'Cumbria Spurs' branch were ecstatic when the draw was made, a home-from-home fixture suddenly falling on their doorstep instead of them having to make the 620-mile slog to White Hart Lane and back. Not that they would have minded a game anywhere, anyway, however arduous the travel logistics.

Because Tottenham is in the blood, an ingrained, recurring theme among their fans that explains why they will set off by car, train, plane, or whatever mode of transport, to follow their club to the end of the earth. With respect, Carlisle, the npower League 1 club - on a Wednesday, in the mid-stages of the Capital One Cup - did, indeed initially, feel like the end of the earth.

But it was not. A more welcoming environment you could not imagine. From exiting the M6 at Junction 43 at 5.47pm and meeting the bubbly group of North East Spurs lads in the rapidly filling Toby Carvery on the Warwick Road, a 10-minute walk from Brunton Park. Beer flowed, the conversation was amicable.

So, too, at Carlisle Rugby Football Club, just five minutes from Brunton, as the Cumbria Spurs and other assorted members of the Tottenham diaspora gathered in the Bill Swarbrick Suite. As aerobics music and loud instructions rang out from the adjoining Carlisle Squash Rackets Club, the Spurs clan renewed old acquaintances.

"I think every one of our members, all 46 of them, are here," Malcolm Armstrong, the Cumbria chairman and a founder member, said. "It might be up to 75 with friends and family. When the draw was known, my phone just went crazy. I live just two and a half miles from the ground. I couldn't believe it. It was perfect."

Armstrong - a 52-year-old engineer, Carlisle born and bred - has supported Tottenham since 1970/71. "The bug just caught me," he admitted. Their group was formed in 1996 and they travel to home matches, budgets permitting, as much as they can. To be fair, getting back to Cumbria on the same day, from anywhere south of Birmingham, is no simple task. "No, it's not easy," Armstrong said. "But we've already got 26 people booked to go to the Swansea game at the Lane on December 16th."

And that's just it. The fans will beg, steal and borrow - well, maybe not steal - to get there. Wherever Spurs are playing - at home, away, or abroad - they do not claim to exclusivity. Other Premier League clubs have similarly loyal followings, but their passion remains undimmed by mileage or grade of competition.

"I'm a great believer that if you enter a competition, you're looking to win it," Steve Hall, the chief organiser of the North East Spurs, said. "Europa League, FA Cup, Capital One Cup, whatever. The Capital One Cup offers a day out at Wembley at the end of it, a magic occasion, like when we beat Chelsea in 2008. What a fantastic feeling that was.

"When I was 12 and on holiday in London, my dad took me to the Lane," Hall, a 59-year-old IT consultant and home season ticket holder, added. "Spurs drew 1-1 with West Brom, there were 55,000 in the ground, the lights, the atmosphere. That was it, I was smitten. I thought I might grow out of it but no way. And going to games has become very much a social outing, never mind the football."

All of the 35 North East members travelled to Carlisle. The 120-mile round trip, despite the storm-lashed and flooded conditions the previous day, proved no problem. No problems, either, for London-based Dave Lambkin, who kept up his astonishing record of not having missed a competitive Tottenham game since 1958.

Yes, 1958. And add to that, most pre-season friendly matches, at home and in faraway climes, and numerous youth team fixtures all over the country. "He has his own little group who he goes everywhere with," a fellow Spurs devotee confided. "That, I suggest, is serious dedication."

Serious dedication from Cardiff Dave, too. He's not missed a Spurs match in 19 years and that - against Newcastle United - only fell by the wayside because of a postal strike, when his ticket failed to arrive. Dave travelled to Carlisle by bus and then train, via Manchester, with his Welsh-Italian pal Ross Croci.

"You reach a certain age in life when, really, there's nothing else to live for," Dave, a 60-year-old part-time lorry driver, said. "And, no, I don't like rugby. I watched the 1961 FA Cup Final against Leicester and picked Tottenham to win, which they did. I suppose I could have picked Leicester and have become a lifelong fan of them, but I'm glad I didn't. 

“I've got many fond memories, the League Cup included. You get a medal for winning it, don't you? And you don't get trophies or medals for finishing third or fourth in the league. You get nothing, as we found out last season."

Dave would be heading to Old Trafford on the Sunday, for Tottenham's Premier League showdown with Manchester United. And then on to Athens, for the Europa League encounter with Panathinaikos on the Thursday. Always planning ahead, looking for cut-price deals to ease the cash burden. It is an expensive hobby.

Paul Smith was already booked in for both, too. I had met him earlier at his home in Chesterfield and we enjoyed a countryside lunch at the Gate Inn at Cutthorpe. 

Smith, 60, moved to Chesterfield from Hertfordshire four years ago. He has been a home and away regular for the past 11 years and runs an in-depth and up-to-the-minute website for the Tottenham fanatics. He writes match previews, reports and, with others, much more. It is a labour of love and appreciated equally by their UK following and numerous ex-pats worldwide.

Over the main course at the Gate Inn, Paul, a retired civil servant, explains his devotion to the cause. "My dad [George] was a Gooner but my mum [Beryl] and her side of the family were all Spurs," he says. "And when I got to the impressionable age of eight, they led me down the righteous path.

"I didn't get to the Lane until I was 13. It was in November 1965, when Spurs played a friendly against a Hungarian Select XI. I went with a couple of my uncles, stood on 'The Shelf', Spurs won 4-0 and that was it. Bitten. It just so happened that they were the glory team at the time.

"All boys have a hero, though not necessarily in football, and mine was Jimmy Greaves. It might sound weird but, at times, you didn't mind losing as long as you saw Greavsie score. Because, usually, they were very good goals. I was in the ground when Jimmy scored one of the greatest goals ever, on October 5th 1968.

"We played Leicester, we won 3-2, and he picked the ball up on the halfway line. There is a photo of him when he is slotting the ball into the net, under a very young Peter Shilton, that shows four or five of the defenders who he'd beaten at various stages of picking themselves up off the floor. A great moment."

Games, dates, venues, scorelines - Smith remembers them all in the minutest detail. As do many of his fellow loyalists. And their foreign travels, too. "Our little group, maybe four or five of us, try to avoid the mass of fans," he says. "It can get ever so loud and you can't have a proper conversation. We like to find quiet bars in side streets.

"When we were in Braga [northern Portugal], we found such a bar and were given snacks and nibbles and some sort of meat in a nice savoury gravy. We were all lapping it up until we found out it was chicken gizzards. The lads threw up their hands in horror and wouldn't touch it again. But I liked it. Very tasty.

"The experience of going to football matches is not so much about the football itself. It's about the friends you make before and after, the social 'craic'. One of our catchphrases is, 'it's a good day only ruined by the football'. And, sadly, more often than not over the years with Spurs, that has been the truth."

A 10-year break - due to “falling in love, getting married, having children, financial circumstances," he reveals - did not dim his enthusiasm. And his website is flourishing. "People still want to hear what the ordinary fan has to say," Paul says. "About the game, the individual performances, the crowd atmosphere, everything."

Mrs Smith - Christine - has had to put up with much. Especially as sons Brad and Greg share their father's football obsession. Brad, 31, is a Liverpool fan but Greg, 27, has toed the party line and follows the mighty Spurs. "I do put my family first," Paul says, "and I'm fortunate in that I do have a very understanding wife."

We leave the Gate Inn en route to Brunton Park, Paul's first visit to the ground. Up through the Derbyshire Dales, past the magnificent stately home of Chatsworth House and on to Stockport. Another large addition to the 22,000 miles a year that Paul racks up, mostly following Spurs. The sat-nav urges us "to turn around when possible" for no apparent reason - I hate those things, I'd rather get lost - and we stop off near Preston to pick up Stuart Gibson.

Stuart has driven from his home in Tewkesbury and packs his foldaway bike in the boot of Paul's car. He uses it mostly for quick getaways after matches. "It goes with me everywhere, all round the world," he says. And around the world he goes, the sports nut not only following Tottenham but the England football, rugby union and cricket teams as well. Not to mention the Olympic Games - at a rough overall cost of £25,000 per year. Paul almost chokes at the startling revelation.

Gibson, a youthful-looking 61, went to his first Tottenham game in 1963. "At home to Fulham, Jimmy Greaves scored - 1-0," he says matter-of-factly. "I think that 81/82 were my favourite years, with the back-to-back FA Cup Finals. For me, winning a cup is like an affair. It's short, sharp, builds up to it, then it's over and you start again. 

“The league is like a marriage: it drags on, with its ups and downs. The League Cup? Seven finals, four wins and three defeats. Yeah, I've seem them all. It's a great day out at Wembley. Not taking the cup seriously is just not for me. Go all out in it and see how you go."

Stuart is semi-retired and cares for his 99-year-old father, Bruce. Occasionally, though, he hits the road again as a tour bus driver for some of the biggest names in rock 'n' roll. Bill Haley and the Comets, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bryan Adams, Tina Turner and Status Quo are among the legends who have entrusted Stuart with getting them from gig A to gig B across Europe. So the UK motorways, following Spurs, hold no fears for him. "I'm used to driving long distances," he says. "In the music business, you leave at 2am, drive through until eight or nine, sleep and then do it all again."

Smith and Gibson disagree over a scoreline from a previous Carlisle-Tottenham encounter at Brunton Park. "Maybe my mind's playing tricks on me," Stuart ponders. "I'll have to look it up." Near Penrith, we pass a blazing Range Rover that, mercifully, has managed to disconnect itself from its trailer full of sheep. Anyone for roast lamb?

Game time arrives and, in the Carlsberg Stand, Mark Rose nears the end of his fasting. Many Tottenham supporters embrace the Jewish faith and Rosie has had to endure the gentle teasing of "eat, eat" from his mates as the clock ticked down. The following day, he posted his thoughts on Smith's website, which I've abbreviated...

"I got to Preston at about 4.45pm and then caught a connecting train at 5pm to Carlisle on which I carried on reading my prayer book," Mark wrote. "It arrived at 6.10pm and I wandered around for a short while to look for somewhere to eat after the game and also to buy water and sandwiches to break my fast. I then went in the ground and sat down in my match seat at 6.50pm and carrying on reading my prayer book as Yom Kippur came to an end [I later found out that someone took a picture of me doing it].

"At 7.40pm, as the players were walking out on the pitch, I broke my 25-hour fast as it ended with water and a few bites of a sandwich. I then watched the first half and had the rest of the water and sandwiches at half-time. I then watched the second half and then walked back into town with the other guys.

"We eventually found an Italian restaurant that was still open and I had Pollo Milano [chicken in breadcrumbs with tomato sauce and potatoes and salad on the side] with a lemonade. After that we wandered around a bit more and then went into a Wetherspoons where I had a pint of some kind of dark mild, which was nice."

Interaction, sharing thoughts and impressions, using social media to the maximum; the Tottenham faithful remain a close, tight-knit bunch. Michael Dawson, the Tottenham captain, trots over to acknowledge their presence before kick off - a nice gesture - and then proceeds to lead his team to a comfortable 3-0 victory. A chant of 'Spurs are on their way to Wembley' breaks out.

A swift walk back to the Toby Carvery car park for 'customers only' - well, we were for about 20 minutes pre-match - and we're off back down the M6 at 9.55pm. Fifteen minutes later on the radio, we hear the draw for the Fourth Round - Norwich City away. "I'd have quite liked Bradford City," Paul says. "Maybe just over a three-hour trip for me," Stuart replies, not at all fazed by the long haul to Norfolk. An easy gig for the rock 'n' roll driver.

Paul narrowly avoids mowing down two workmen attending to roadworks in the poorly-lit fast lane ahead - despite the full moon - and, after dropping off Stuart and his foldaway bike at Preston, we head for Chesterfield. "In the initial stages, if you've lost, you do feel a bit depressed afterwards," Smith reflects. "And sometimes you can feel really angry, depending on who the opponents have been.

"Fortunately, I have an outlet, my website, on which I can vent my spleen if I need to. I usually do my reports the morning after. I can compose myself a bit better then, and when you've chewed it over, when it's all gone, then you just start thinking about the next game.

"I've just turned 60 and, yes, I do subconsciously think about when all this is going to stop. I use public transport a lot now and I can't see myself driving such distances much beyond 70. I just hope I'm fit, alert and active enough to do it for another 10 years.

"I still haven't seen my team win the league. Once I've seen that, maybe I'll start thinking about putting my feet up and getting out the smoking jacket. The pipe-and-slippers syndrome. It must be a wonderful feeling to see your team win the title. Now that would be something."

We arrive at Chesterfield at 12.41am. I bid farewell to Smith, an engaging companion for the day. But I don't get home until 4.05am, having had to halt dramatically at Warwick Services on the M40 as I realised that my brain and body were shutting down, especially after passing a multi-vehicle Army convoy that had me seeing double, triple, quadruple and the rest. Strong coffee, a ham-and-cheese croissant, and I was fine.

It must be what the Tottenham hardcore go through week in and week out, month after month, year on year. Home, away and in Europe. And yet I had barely coped for 24 hours. Brunton Park on a chilly Wednesday night? Child's play. Good going, guys. When the Capital One Cup Final comes around at Wembley in February, may the winner's medals and trophy be yours.

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