It seems that hosting football matches in N17 is not solely a modern problem for Tottenham Hotspur. Back in August 1988 the club failed to fulfil a home fixture on the opening day of the season; it would be an appropriately messy start to Terry Venables' first full campaign in charge.
On the pitch it was soon evident that throwing money around would not provide an instant fix. A 4-0 hammering at the hands of rivals Arsenal in the pre-season Makita tournament at Wembley was alarming, and although results in friendlies are generally not an accurate assessment of the state of a team, Tottenham carried on this form as the season commenced.
The uncertainty surrounding Venables’ squad was reflected in events off the pitch. Work had started in June on ground improvements at White Hart Lane, Chairman Irving Scholar indicating later that this was to carry out essential maintenance rather than the installation of new executive boxes in the East Stand. One thing was sure: the safety work needed to be completed before with the scheduled start of the season on Saturday August 27.
As the weeks passed and the work continued, it soon became a race against time to get the ground ready for the opening match against Coventry. With Gascoigne expected to make his home debut, a bumper crowd was predicted, increasing the urgency for the completion of the work.
Scholar left White Hart Lane at 8.30pm on the Friday night, apparently given an assurance that the ground would be ready. But come the following morning, it became apparent that things were far from fine. With debris still to be cleared, the police and a local authority officer refused to issue the club with a safety certificate.
At 9am, just six hours before kick-off, Tottenham had no option but to postpone the match. On the plus side, the call came before Coventry’s staff had started their coach journey. But from a PR perspective, Tottenham’s decision was damaging.
Coventry Chairman John Poynton did not hold back. “How a club can go through the whole of the close season and right up to 9am on the day of the match before informing us they had no safety certificate is incredible,” Poynton angrily declared. “They disappointed not only their fans but ours as well. Spurs were one of the so-called super five clubs but it seems they can’t keep their house in order.”
Football League spokesman Andy Williamson was just as scathing. “This does nothing for the credibility of football. We were given the clear impression that work would be carried out overnight so the match could go ahead. This is not the right way to start a season.”
Attention quickly turned to the possible sanctions that Tottenham might face. League Regulation 24 was quoted regularly: “Any club failing to fulfil fixture obligations without just cause shall be liable to the deduction of two points.” A fine was also mentioned as a possible punishment. Either way, the Committee looking into the matter on October 17 was expected to come down hard on the club.
Tottenham’s fate rested in the hands of Football League President Phil Carter, Ian Stott (Oldham Chairman), and Bill Fox (Blackburn Chairman). The season before, Tranmere had been deducted two points after failing to host their match against Bolton, due to a disagreement over police numbers. Many were predicting the same outcome for Tottenham.
It therefore came as no surprise when the verdict was announced; despite protests lodged by Tottenham officials, the club had been hit with a two point penalty. “Under Regulation 24 we had no alternative but to deduct two points,” Carter revealed. “I have nothing against Spurs but rules are rules and they broke them,” Poynton added.
Scholar immediately announced that the club would appeal the penalty, and one look at the league table suggested that they could do with the points back. Dropping into the relegation zone after the hearing, Tottenham had only won one league match all season, and would go on to lose the next four after the points deduction.
Perhaps it was bravado, or Terry Fenwick was definitely a half-pint full kind of guy, but the Tottenham defender was less than happy at the punishment. “It would be an absolute shame if we miss the championship by two points at the end of the season.” File that one under “Blind optimism”.
An under pressure Venables also voiced his anger. “No other country in the world would have come up with a decision like this. It’s a disgrace. What has the failure of our club’s officials to get the stand ready in time for our game against Coventry got to do with the team? It is terribly unfair when players are punished for something totally beyond their control.”
The appeal was set for November 30, and after a meeting that lasted over four hours, the Football League Committee adjusted the punishment. Tottenham would be handed back their two points, but receive a £15,000 fine instead. “We felt there was some doubt about the relevance of the original punishment,” a League spokesman said.
“At that price we would like to buy two points every week,” a relieved Scholar admitted. “We felt strongly from the beginning that the original sentence was totally wrong. It has cost us considerably more than the £15,000 fine, but you can’t put a price on clearing your name.”
Venables could not hide his delight at the U-turn. “I believe we have got back what was rightfully ours in the first place. We needed a break like this and perhaps it will be the turning point of our season. It could be the spur we need.”
Tottenham did manage to turn their season around, although the FA Cup third round defeat at Second Division Bradford was a blemish on an otherwise encouraging second half of the campaign. Finishing in sixth-place, Tottenham ended up two points clear of the team involved in that opening day postponement.
In the end, there was no harm done to Tottenham, bar a £15,000 slap on the wrist. And at least the club could use the experience as a valuable lesson, and make sure that nothing like this happened again in the future. Oh.