DESPITE it being over 8 years ago now, I vividly remember my first ever trip to White Hart Lane. My mother had seen that Tottenham Hotspur were offering a cut price ticket to a Tuesday night fixture against West Bromwich Albion, which happened to coincide with my birthday.
I’d been to football stadiums before. Southend United’s home ground of Roots Hall was only a 20-minute drive from my house and, as it stands for any club that plays in League One, tickets are relatively cheap and easy to obtain. Watching Tottenham play on the other hand felt like a day trip, a weekend away. We had to leave three hours before kick-off, to have any chance of reaching North London from Essex in time for the match. I’d been to London stadiums before. Many in Essex hold West Ham United dearest to them, and again, in comparison to Tottenham, tickets were relatively easy to find if one wanted to see the likes of Mark Noble and Scott Parker ply their trade in East London. As a young fan, West Ham United provided me with a doorway, a window into “proper” football. Prejudices aside one could always expect a fantastic atmosphere at Upton Park and as the players walked out, the clubs anthem blaring and symbolic bubbles hovering above the playing field, any footballing connoisseur could tell that this was a “proper” football club. West Ham, however, wasn’t my club, and whilst I admired the club’s foundations, they weren’t my own.
My grandfather John was, as far as I know, the first member of my family to take up the mantel of following Tottenham Hotspur. Relocated to Enfield during World War 2 as the Blitz hammered the London’s East End, John joined the other local boys in choosing Spurs as his team, and over 68 years later is still an avid fan. He joined me, alongside my father Louis. Not a football enthusiast, it was quite clear that the journey to London’s northern tip on a Tuesday night was an immense effort for him, especially after a long day working tirelessly to provide for our family.
The journey was a blur. 2011 was a period of transition for mobile phone users from the Nokia, LG and Motorola to the smartphone. Twitter wasn’t readily available for team news and squad announcements. Talk Sport Radio was therefore on full blast and created an even more authentic pre-match experience, with news from the evening’s premier league fixtures around the country filling my grandfather’s Ford as we flew along the M25.
The walk from the car park to the stadium was less than 10 minutes, but with anticipation and excitement pumping through my body, it seemed like a lifetime. White Hart Lane’s exterior was imposing to say the least. The stadium was part of a dying breed of old school English football grounds. ‘The Lane’ had seen three centuries of football played on its hallowed turf. It had withstood two World Wars. It had seen first hand the rise of football hooliganism and the chaos of the 70’s and 80’s on the terraces. It had also adapted to life post- Hillsborough, as standing in English football faded away into the past, swallowed by seated stands for supporters. It had seen the highs of Tottenham’s 60’s and 80’s double winning sides, and the lows of the late 90’s, as Spurs, with help from a certain Jürgen Klinsmann, clawed their way out of relegation from English football’s top tier. White Hart Lane oozed history.
I don’t particularly remember the warmup, I simply just remember being mesmerized by my surroundings, and the vastness of the occasion and the atmosphere. On the match programme it was almost surreal to finally gaze and see elite names like Rafael Van Der Vaart, Gareth Bale, Jermain Defoe looking back at me on the team sheet. On the programme and also on the pitch, one player that night particularly stood out to me. Since his arrival from Dinamo Zagreb 2 seasons earlier, diminutive Croatian Luka Modric had been an outstanding addition to Tottenham Hotspur’s starting XI.
On the night Modric was dogged and ruthless in possession. Despite carrying an injury, the Croatian tirelessly chased West Brom’s midfielders down as they attempted to travel up the pitch or dithered in possession. Roy Hodgson’s side were well known as a compact and drilled defensive outfit, and despite the firepower that Tottenham featured upfront, it would need skill, precision, and most importantly patience, to break the Baggies down. Modric had a vital role in this composition, serving not only as that deterrent for a counter attack, but also as the orchestrator for any attack. So for Bale, Van Der Vaart, Lennon and Defoe to weave their magic, the Croatian had to be effective in the deep areas of the field. And effective he was, as Spurs ran out 1-0 winners in a performance more dominant than the scoreline suggests.
Modric was strong considering his diminutive character. He was hardened. Modric was almost a cross breed. He had the footballing ability and swagger of a big money, continental signing, but the intense work rate and effort that fans in England laud players for. He “put in a shift”, was a “grafter”, he “did a job” anywhere in the midfield. He carried the toughness that, according to the general stereotype, flamboyant foreign signings lacked.
Modric was also a product of his environment. Born and raised in war torn Croatia, he became a refugee at a young age. He had to deal with the death of his grandfather at the hands of paramilitary forces before his seventh birthday. His family were so poor that he couldn’t afford a pair of shin pads, his father making him a wooden replacement until he could buy a real pair. For 7 years, Modric was forced to live in a Hotel in Zadar on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, existing in limbo as a refugee until the conflict in Croatia ended.
At first, despite a clear footballing ability, Modric was dismissed by Croatian sides because of his size. Hajduk Split, one of Yugoslavia’s big four, refused to gamble on Modric, viewing him as too small to become a professional. Even when his talent was finally noticed and Croatia’s biggest club Dinamo Zagreb came calling, Luka Modric’s trials and tribulations weren’t over. His loan move to Bosnian side Zrjinski Mostar, Mostar’s Croatian side, was symbolic and significant. Mostar’s Croatian contingent were gifted the opportunity to witness the future of Croatian football in their “backyard” and the move aided Modric’s development significantly. It’s a well-known fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s top flight is a gritty affair. Referee’s try to let the game go as much as possible, and extravagance and exaggeration is frowned upon. It’s incredibly similar to the lower leagues of English football, where physicality is key. At 5 feet, 3 inches tall, Modric had to adapt his game, if he wanted to survive the season without breaking a leg or two. In the process, Dinamo Zagreb not only received a gifted midfielder in possession and on the ball, but a hardworking beast of a midfielder.
Of course, I didn’t see that from my view at White Hart Lane’s south stand. What I did see was a side that would I would assume would be the best Tottenham Hotspur team during my lifetime, with my favourite player as the jewel in our crown. Personally, it felt like an end of an era when Luka Modric left Tottenham Hotspur for a well-earned move to Real Madrid. I was getting older. The reality that my childhood hero had left my club because they weren’t good enough was devastating and I was old enough to realise at this point, that was exactly the truth. When you were younger it was easy to blindly scream false rhetoric about your club being “the best” but as you become more aware of the Premier League’s structure, the role of money in football, and your team’s own expectations, hopes and the realisation that you simply aren’t the best, it’s almost as if the pure joy of football is somewhat lost. Instead of living for the match day experience, you’re looking at the games in hand. “No, we haven’t won at Stamford Bridge for eighty years, so we’re dropping points next week”. As Modric signed that contract with Real Madrid, my own footballing innocence officially died.
I still hold a tremendous amount of respect for Luka Modric for turning down rivals Chelsea in January and getting his head down for the rest of the season, continuing to play his heart out for the club until he moved to Spain. That being said, it didn’t make his departure any easier. It hurt then, and it still hurts now.
Rumours of late have been suggesting that there could be an opportunity for Modric, now 33 and with less than 6 months left on his contract at Real Madrid, to return to North London, this time under Mauricio Pochetino. Gone are Defoe, Van Der Vaart, Lennon, Bale, replaced by the next generation of talent. Harry Kane, Dele Ali, Christian Eriksen, Heung-Ming Son and others are carrying the mantel of beautiful attacking footballing. Except now, Tottenham Hotspur have a backline worthy of their forward line, Davinson Sanchez, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen all arriving courtesy of Ajax. Modric’s experience could potentially be what the current spurs team needs to now push on and secure trophies. After all, with Real Madrid, Modric has won 3 Champions League trophies in 4 years. Part of me would love to see Modric back at our new White Hart Lane, the new breed learning from his advice. The very possible idea that Tottenham Hotspur’s current team has surpassed the 32 year old Modric is not one that I, nor the 12 year old football supporter inside of me, would like to dwell on.