My Team Plays Across the Ocean. Doesn’t Matter
We are watching Tottenham play West Ham. We are in a bar on 14th street in Manhattan. We are drinking and we are singing. We watch as Dele Alli presses a West Ham defender into an errant pass to the feet of Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen, who quickly finds Harry Kane, who scores.
We who were sitting are now jumping. We are high-fiving. We are hugging. Together, we sing “Harry Kane, he’s one of our own.” It is just after noon on a Sunday in New York, which makes it just after five at White Hart Lane, in North London, where Tottenham has just extended its lead and the same song is pouring down from the stands.
This appears strange. We are 3,500 miles from our home team. The chances are for most of us that distance will never be closed. We come to this bar, Flannery’s, every weekend, sometimes as early as 7 a.m. to be together for Tottenham. There are, on any given Saturday or Sunday, hundreds of us, dressed in Tottenham jerseys, t-shirts, scarves, or just in the team’s colors, white and navy blue. We are mostly guys and most of us are American. Most of us have never been to White Hart Lane. I hope to go to White Hart Lane. The team is building a new stadium and I would love to go to the Lane, just once.
I didn’t grow up watching or even playing soccer. My dad pushed me toward basketball and football, the American kind. But when I was five, I played one season of youth soccer. The coach quit halfway through the season and, with no other parents willing to step up, my dad took over the team. His first task as coach? He went to the library and got a book explaining the soccer rules. I don’t think we won a game that season.
I fell in love with soccer during the 2006 World Cup and was desperate for more of the game long after Zinedine Zidane head-butted France out of the 2006 Final. To help get my fix, I began playing the video game FIFA. I chose to play with clubs in the English Premier League, since it is widely considered the best league in the world and, more importantly for me, it was on television. But I needed a team. I quickly shunned the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea as too good. Not enough of a challenge. I also moved on from teams like Newcastle. While I had heard of the club, it wasn’t good enough to compete with other FIFA players surely playing with Man United, Chelsea or Liverpool.
Then, there was Tottenham, the lovable band of footballers good enough to be competitive, but not so good they didn’t present a challenge. There was all 5 feet 5 inches of Aaron Lennon speeding down the right flank, Jermaine Jenas showing glimpses of his never-quite-realized potential in the midfield, and the languid brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov. I was hooked on this team.
It didn’t happen that way for all of us. We came to love Tottenham in different ways and at different times. Some came for a single player, some, like me, randomly found the club, and some say they didn’t find Tottenham at all, but just the opposite. We are all in love with the same thing and we are all cool with that. In fact, it makes it better.
Back at Flannery’s, a deep and dark, wood-paneled Irish pub, it was halftime and Spurs were up 2-0. Spirits in the bar were as high as they had been all season. An Englishman named Andy Smith came and sat across from me. He had noticed me writing in my notebook and he wanted to talk about the match. And so we talked. The conversation started at the surface. Nice goal by Kane. Defense is playing well. Good start to the season. But it wasn’t long before we were reliving Tottenham’s lone foray in the Champions League. Gareth Bale single-handedly destroying Maicon, then considered among the top defenders in world football. The glory, glory European nights at White Hart Lane. The fact that Spurs haven’t been back in that competition since 2011.
During our conversation, a slightly inebriated fan heard Smith’s North London accent and said, “How do you like it here?”
Anywhere else in the city, this question might have meant, “How do you like it in New York, as opposed to London?” or “Are you having fun at this particular bar?” But at Flannery’s, among the Lilywhite Tottenham jerseys, the question unmistakably meant, “Does it feel like home?”
Nearly 200 fans were packed into Flannery’s at this point, almost all wearing Tottenham apparel and holding beers. But did Flannery’s approximate what it’s like to watch a Spurs game in a London pub?
“It’s close enough,” Smith said.
He’s supported Spurs since 1986, though it wasn’t always clear he’d be a Tottenham fan. His dad supported Spurs, but his school was closer to Upton Park, West Ham’s stadium, and most of his friends supported the Hammers. Smith went to a match between Spurs and West Ham at Upton Park with his uncle in 1986, his fanhood wide open. But two goals from Clive Allen and a 4-0 Tottenham win moved Smith’s loyalty to North London.
For the last 12 years, Smith has had season tickets at White Hart Lane, even though he’s lived in New York for the past two. If Smith gives up his seat, he says there are some 30,000 people on the list waiting to take it. Any of the fans inside Flannery’s would take one of those tickets in a second. We are dying to go to a match at White Hart Lane.
Many conversations inside Flannery’s and contain the word “we,” a word the reveals a deep psychological connection to Tottenham.
In a Washington Post article last year, Eric Simons wrote, “a sports team is an expression of a fan’s sense of self.” Simons is the author a book titled “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.” He goes on to write in the Post, “it is not obnoxious affectation when a devotee uses the word ‘we’; it’s a literal confusion in the brain about what is ‘me’ and what is ‘the team.’ In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, action and even hormones of the players. Self-esteem rides on the outcome of the game and the image of the franchise.”
When I talk to other Tottenham fans, the use of “we” flows naturally. When I talk to fans of other teams, I use “we” when talking about Tottenham and “you” or “they” or “them” when talking about the other team. That’s the way our brains default when talking about the teams we love. We regard ourselves as part of the team, or at least part of a larger organization around the team.
It’s why we wake up with the sun on weekends and go to Flannery’s to watch Spurs, even though many of us could watch at home. It’s why we feel that Harry Kane really is one of our own.
Over his Guinness and my IPA, Smith and I watched the second half of the Spurs-West Ham match, which ended 4-1 to Tottenham, one of the team’s best performances of the season. Toward the end of the game, I asked Smith if it was strange to see so much support for Spurs from those with no obvious ties to the team. “I think it’s great. It’s clear that Tottenham have made the U.S. a priority and it’s obviously working. The mood is great.”
As Smith was leaving Flannery’s after Spurs beat West Ham, he told me he’d be back soon. Next time with his mates.