Commentary

Behind enemy lines

Updated: April 12, 2011, 12:01 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

Luka Modric Ian KingtonAFP/Getty ImagesWhat happens when a die-hard Arsenal fan attends a Spurs game at White Hart Lane? He almost crosses over to the dark side.

LONDON -- It had been six years since I had ventured boldly behind enemy lines and lived to tell about it.

This was in May 2004, when Arsenal had just won the league at White Hart Lane, drawing 1-1 with Spurs to clinch the last trophy the Gunners have lifted that hasn't been a figment of Arsene Wenger's imagination.

Capturing the title at the home of Arsenal's bitter rival caused the river of hatred to overflow onto Tottenham's High Road, and only a cavalry of mounted police on horseback prevented mayhem of epic proportions.

So when my friend Emma Hayes, a lifelong Tottenham supporter, invited me to attend Spurs' home match against Stoke on Saturday, I asked her whether she thought it was safe for a Gooner to return to the scene of the crime when his team wasn't even playing and he hadn't packed his Kevlar boxers.

"No problem," she assured me, "as long as you don't do anything stupid like wear your Arsenal kit or start chanting, 'We won the title at White Hart Lane.'"

Emma, it should be noted, has her own twisted history with Spurs. Although she grew up in a rabid Tottenham household where Arsenal was the devil incarnate, she went on to star as a player and coach for Arsenal Ladies, whom she helped lead to the European title in 2006.

"I can't say my family was thrilled when I went to play for Arsenal," she said. "But they always knew my heart was with Spurs."

She also claimed that the hatred between the teams had waned in recent years, as Spurs had overcome its inferiority complex playing in the North London shadow of Arsenal. In fact, this season, Tottenham had even eclipsed Arsenal in the Champions League, advancing to the quarterfinals, while the Gunners were knocked out in the previous round by Barcelona.

Thankfully, not everything is sweetness and light at the Lane.

Technically, Spurs may still be in the CL, but even the most deluded Tottenham supporter is aware that joyride is about to end Wednesday night when Spurs hosts Real Madrid in the second leg. Of far greater concern is that Spurs' most dashing team since its Austin Powers heyday is in danger of failing to return to Europe's elite competition next year. It currently sits fifth, trailing Man City by three points for the fourth and final Champions League berth. Should it come up short, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy already has said that the club would face a financial crunch that could result in the unthinkable: selling off its prize asset, Welsh winger-savior Gareth Bale, who has become this season's "It" boy of British soccer.

Then there's the fallout from the Madrid debacle, which caused a rift between Harry Redknapp and Aaron Lennon, who felt the manager had made him a "scapegoat" for the loss, as well as Peter Crouch's blubbering apology to his teammates for his reckless 15th-minute red card that forced Spurs to play a man down for the duration.

In a way, I felt like a spy at White Hart Lane -- think Anna Chapman with a mustache -- hoping to witness Spurs' further implosion. Plus, I had a bet with America's most famous Tottenham fan, Bill Simmons, that Arsenal would finish ahead of Spurs in the league, and this was a chance to work my Gooners mojo.

When we emerged from the Seven Sisters tube stop an hour before kickoff, Emma immediately pointed out the police station with the bright blue door across the street. "If you listen closely," she told me, "you'll be able to hear the screams of incarcerated Arsenal supporters."

[+] EnlargeHarry Redknapp
Ian Walton/Getty ImagesWill Harry Redknapp's Spurs qualify for Europe's elite competition next season? Time is running out.

Although the neighborhood surrounding White Hart Lane is down on its luck, the cherry blossoms lining the road along with the brilliant sunshine and summery temperatures had put Spurs fans in a festive mood. They were in full voice, singing "Glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur -- and the Spurs go marching on" with the kind of gusto that belied the spiritually depleting loss their team had suffered only four days earlier.

Emma thought it might be a good idea if I lip-synched the words just to fit in, but I told her that would be sacrilege and instead remained resolutely mute. It got worse when we stopped for a beer at a local pub named the Bell and Hare, where we were greeted by a sweaty mob bellowing "Yiddo, Yiddo" in honor of the club's defiant Jewish heritage.

"How can you hate your own people?" Emma asked over the din.

"Bernie Madoff is Jewish," I explained, "and I'm not a big fan of his, either."

As we neared the stadium, Emma asked if I wanted to buy a souvenir and pointed to a kiosk selling T-shirts featuring Homer Simpson relieving himself on a Gooners jersey and another that screamed, "Me and My father hate Arsenal."

No sooner had I began to jot the charming messages into my notebook when the proprietor, a robust-looking woman, got up in my grille.

"What are you doing?" she snarled, fixing me with her gaze that could seemingly penetrate through my jacket to my Thierry Henry T-shirt underneath. "You better not be stealing our ideas."

Vexed by her hostility, I asked Emma, "How did she make me?"

"I think everyone in East London could hear you banging on about how Arsenal has won more titles at White Hart Lane than Tottenham has."

Just before we took our seats in the North Stand, I stopped at the Ladbroke's outlet to place a wager on the game. "I'll take 40-1 on Stoke winning 3-2," I said to the guy working the betting window. Emma howled with delight. "Are you aware that Stoke hasn't won away from home since Prince Charles had hair?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied, "but Spurs are a broken team after the 4-0 mauling by Real Madrid."

The player most devastated by the Champions League humiliation was Crouch, who was eager to make amends in front of the Tottenham faithful, many of whom booed the introduction of his name in the starting lineup. Now I'm sure Crouchie is, as Redknapp says, a "lovely bloke," but he's no member of the Mensa society. His rash challenges against Madrid were the personification of stupidity, and let's not forget his tabloid escapades last year when he was branded the world's tallest "love rat" for playing away from home with a prostitute in Madrid.

So I joined in the booing, perhaps a tad too aggressively for the beefy, heavily tatted Spurs supporter in front of me, who said, "That's enough, mate. He didn't kill anyone."

Well, I thought to myself, he did kill Spurs' Champions League dream, but in that case I should be cheering him. The crowd forgave Crouch soon after, when he headed in two goals inside the opening 34 minutes, but neither was exactly a work of art. That distinction fell to my favorite Spurs player, Luka Modric. The Croatian is all guile and dancing feet, combining the vision of Xavi and the dribbling flair of Samir Nasri. When he skittered like a water bug through the Stoke defense in the 18th minute to score Spurs' second, I stood and applauded along with my newfound Tottenham brethren.

"Pure class," said my beefy Spurs friend, high-fiving me as if he would a fellow member of the Yid Army.

"I feel like a traitor," I whispered to Emma.

"Better a live traitor than a dead Gooner," she said.

The moment of truth came in the 81st minute with Spurs desperately holding on to a 3-2 lead (hey, I got the score right, if not the winning team) in a game Redknapp called a "must-win" for Tottenham to stay in contention for Champions League soccer next year. Perhaps hoping to distract themselves from the high anxiety enveloping the Lane, the fans in the North Stand began to bellow, "Stand Up If You Hate Arsenal."

Suddenly, all the people around me were on their feet. Emma slyly poked me in the ribs as if to say, "Get up if you know what's good for you." But I couldn't bring myself to stand.

All afternoon, I had tiptoed along the line separating me from the Dark Side, but in the end I refused to cross it. Not even when my high-fiving, red-faced Tottenham tormentor leaned down and hissed, "What's your problem, mate?"

I looked at Emma, took a deep breath and replied, "Bad knees."

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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