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I’m so glad we won but this was the strangest North London Derby

The silence which greeted victory over Arsenal, celebrated alone, underlines what coronavirus has taken from our game

12 July, 2020 — By Dan Carrier at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

Dan Carrier watches the north London derby at an almost empty Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

WINNING goals scored in derby games against Arsenal are treasured, treasured moments.

They make fans grin randomly for weeks after the event, and each fills supporters with warm memories to recall for years to come. I’m closing my eyes and thinking Lineker, Allen, Popsecu, Armstrong, Bale, Walker, Lennon, Kaboul, Kane, Kane, Kane –

Yet today (Sunday), when defender Toby Alderweireld rose highest on the 81st minute to direct a header home and give Spurs the lead against Arsenal, the expected feeling of unbridled joy was stifled.

It was a telling moment in terms of what, deep down, is the real attraction of going to the football.  

Without 60,000-odd other fans around you to celebrate that bulging net, it just doesn’t have that same chaotic, head spinning buzz.

Sure, we won, it was amazing to be back at the Lane, and bragging rights would be mine if I was going into the New Journal office tomorrow – but without packed terraces to share it with, it feels emotionally empty. 

Today has highlighted what we all knew already: there is no doubt that what makes football such a spectacle isn’t just the brilliance of the sportsmen in front of you – it is sharing the moments they create with others who support your side. 

Without that, it’s a ghostly spectre, a half shadow, and almost loses it meaning.

The outside of the stadium: It should have been buzzing with fans

Before stepping foot in the cavernous, 62,000 seater stadium, the build up to this NLD felt peculiar as my pre-match routine was out of synch.

I wasn’t sure I’d get a ticket – one of just 25 golden press passes – so the first surprise was being told I was in. Then there was the getting there: I usually meet with family and travel up by train. This time, I was on my lonesome. I had no one to work on pre match nerves with Spurs chat.

I haven’t driven to the Lane for about four years – but Spurs emailed me to say reporters should not take public transport if they can help it.

Send us your car registration number, and park up in the ground, they said. 

I ignored the multiple spaces a few minutes walk from the Lane which on match days of yesteryear I’d have thanked my lucky stars to find. I swung in to a sparse looking High Road – just as it should in close-season.

No burger vans, no people swigging from cans as they march up the middle of the street, no badge and flags stalls, no noise from the pubs, no songs raised above a background hum of excitement, no groups lingering, old friends waiting for each other, no ‘buy or sell tickets’ said out of the corner of the touts’ mouths.

No old vet shaking his tin for the British Legion, no overflowing bins with chip wrappers stacked, no squads of police waiting on side roads, no police horses, no Burberry boys being accompanied from Seven Sisters, and no sea of blue and white.

After sweeping up a ramp and parking about 50 yards from the south stand’s goalmouth, I had my temperature taken by a steward, and then walked through a deserted concourse.

There are about 100 other people in the West Stand. 

One row out of three is accessible, and in that row only every third seat remained in place.

Before we got under way, the referee signalled a minute of silence for the late Jack Charlton. When you have such a tribute paid in a stadium full of fans, the roar when the ref blows up after 60 seconds is a terrific torrent, a way to say: Right, let battle commence.

Today, hauntingly, there was just the sound of a few seats being pushed back down.

Dan Carrier misses the magic of matchday

And then kick off. 

In the opening minute you can hear the sound of your keyboard echoing about the stands, and the simple fact is football without the roar enveloping you is a very different kettle of fish. 

What look like half chances that bring a collective intake of breath suddenly look less like such clear opportunities. It’s as if the crowd is sucking the ball goalwards, and their reaction makes everything more dramatic than it really is.

Both sides struck the woodwork – usually something that creates a collective moment of tension and has a marked effect on the players. Instead, without fans, the emotional power of the so-near-so-far has been stolen.

Tackles, greeted with roars of either approval or anger, look less aggressive. Fouls committed appear more planned and cynical, and not the result of clumsiness caused by adrenaline.

And then there are the eery breaks in play.

When the ball has gone off for a goal kick, and the players are finding their shape, the giant bowl feels particularly empty – you can hear air conditioning units whirring somewhere beneath. The silence is broken by a boom as a boot connects to the ball. And it feels astonishing to think the sounds of the game we can hear so clearly now are always there, masked by the crowds. 

The old rivals in Tottenham’s magnificent stadium, but without the traditional derby day atmosphere

Arsenal took the lead on 17, and the strike, by Alexandre Lacazette from the edge of the box, brought cheers from the visitors’ bench. Their echo lingered above the audible retributions from the home side.

Then, two minutes later, Heung Min Son brought Spurs level with a cute finish and this time the stadium PA gave us a blast of some 90s dance music. The striker wheeled away to the South Stand, basking in empty adulation from the ghosts on the terraces.

Without the fans, it is hard for the players to inject tempo: instead, the game felt measured for a Derby. 

On 81,  a Spurs corner saw Alderweireld nod home. 

A smattering of semi-strangled delighted yelps from stadium staff and claps from the subs bench greeted a moment that would, in our other life, have brought the stadium to its feet and cue’d up 10 minutes of raised voices.

How long will it be like this?

Will it be safe to have fans back when the new season starts?

Judging by the way watching the NLD was organised – it was stringently professional, with a medical form filled out in advance, a temperature check, compulsory face masks – it will be a tough task. 

If the measures used today are needed, in even a greatly reduced form, it takes a lot of imagination to see how it will work. 

A derby victory, celebrated alone: another sobering reminder of quite how completely upside down our world has been turned.

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