London – It was a demolition derby – in more ways than one. There were penalties, a red card and red-raw tempers. Mauricio Pochettino will never forget it. The Tottenham Hotspur manager was an Espanyol player at the time and the visitors to the club’s Estadi de Sarrià were Barcelona.
The date was 9 February 1997 and it was the last derby to be staged at the ground that Espanyol had called their home since 1923. At the end of the season the bulldozers would move in. With the club in financial crisis, Sarrià had been sold to property developers. The fans were dismayed and distraught.
Twenty years on, and Pochettino can feel a rerun of history, albeit with tweaks to the plot. Tottenham are primed to say farewell to White Hart Lane at the end of the season, or at least that remains the plan. The club will confirm before Sunday whether they are to take up the option of using Wembley as a temporary home next season while work is completed on their new stadium, which is being built on the current White Hart Lane site.
There has not been a grand countdown to the closure of the Lane, where Tottenham have played since 1899 – certainly nothing, for example, to rival the long kiss goodnight that West Ham United gave to Upton Park last season. This has been partly down to the fact that at no point have the club said that they will for sure leave their old home at the end of the season. Moreover, they will not leave the area on the permanent basis. They will not even leave the existing footprint.
But the emotions are swirling among the supporters and, right on cue, it is Arsenal who will visit on Sunday for what should be the stadium’s final north London derby and second-last fixture. Tottenham entertain Manchester United on Sunday 14 May.
Pochettino’s mind will go back to the final derby at Sarrià, when a Barcelona team under the charge of Sir Bobby Robson had looked to inflict more misery on their neighbours. Barcelona had not lost against Espanyol in 10 years.
Robson’s lineup featured Ronaldo (the Brazilian one), Luís Figo, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique and, alongside Robson in the dugout, was the assistant manager José Mourinho. But, riding a wave of emotion, Espanyol would triumph 2-0, with the Romania striker and West Ham flop Florin Raducioiu scoring the goals.
Both were penalties, the first having been awarded early on when the Barcelona defender Fernando Couto leaned into a challenge on Pochettino and levered the ball away from him with an arm. It was a controversial decision and the Barcelona players went crackers, with Figo and Guardiola booked for their role in the mass protest to the referee.
The touchpaper had been lit. Figo was sent off midway through the first half for a shove on Sebastián Herrera, who went down easily, and, towards the end, there was something thrown from the crowd at the Barcelona substitute Giovanni. Luis Enrique would floor a jeering Espanyol fan on his way out of the ground and Pochettino was reminded recently of how he had charged into a tackle on Ronaldo, taking the ball but clearly hoping to clean out his man as well. Ronaldo got himself out of the way.
Espanyol fed off the passion of the crowd at Sarrià throughout the campaign and, although they would finish 12th in La Liga, only five clubs won more home matches. Pochettino has sensed something similar this season. His Tottenham team have been determined to wring every last drop out of White Hart Lane and they go into the Arsenal game on a run of 15 consecutive wins in all competitions at the stadium.
“It’s a special season for us at White Hart Lane – we can all feel it,” Pochettino says. “It’s very special every time we play. The fans are more open to help the team and the team is more focused, trying to repay the support of the fans. It’s a moment in which we feel very comfortable at the stadium and you start to miss it before you leave. Every time you are there, you start to miss it.”
Pochettino has vivid memories of Espanyol’s last match at Sarrià – a 3-2 win against Valencia – and, at full time, many fans invaded the pitch. Some of them took patches of the turf, which they attempted to keep alive at home. They could not bear to say goodbye and there was the feeling that they had been let down by the club’s owners and the local government which, in their eyes, tended to be more helpful to Barça.
Espanyol would move into the vacant Olympic Stadium and they spent 12 seasons there, enjoying great success; twice, they won the Copa del Rey. But it simply was not a football stadium and they could not wait to leave. In 2009 they got a home of their own – the new-build Cornellà-El Prat, which has since been renamed as the RCDE Stadium.
“The last season at Sarrià was very emotional, with a big history,” Pochettino says. “As a player, I felt how emotional it was – the last game against Valencia; the day that the stand came down; how the people cried. It was very, very emotional. And now it’s happening at White Hart Lane. Many, many years later, I am living and feeling the same.”
Whenever Arsenal visit White Hart Lane the atmosphere is frenzied but this time it stands to reach the next level. The expected confirmation of the stadium’s imminent demolition will give the occasion an acute significance.
All of a sudden, Tottenham really do seem set to say farewell. Buckle up. Like Pochettino’s Espanyol, they intend to go with a bang.
The Guardian Sport