With the new season upon us already (thanks FIFA for a severely curtailed close season with the Kuwait World Cup having to be scheduled for December), MEHSTG takes a look back 34 years to the start of the 1988-1989 season … or rather the delayed start to that season.

There was great anticipation as fans looked forward to the start of the league season.  With Paul Gascoigne and Paul Stewart being signed in the summer, they gave Terry Venables’ side a look of talent and promise.  It would have been Gascoigne’s debut (Stewart had a suspension hanging over from his time at Manchester City) and the sunshine that day would have brought supporters out in their numbers.  The pre-season hadn’t been great, with two early wins in Scandinavia, a lot of draws, a couple of Testimonial defeats, along with two losses in the  Makita Tournament at Wembley.  It was hoped that Venables would get the team ready for the opening fixture that pitched us against Coventry City on Saturday 27th August 1988.

Shortly after the last game of the previous season, the wrecking balls and diggers had moved in to start the demolition of the old East Stand.  Much debate and fan opposition had preceded this, as it would mean the introduction of a row of “Executive boxes”, which they club hoped would bring in extra revenue, but it was at the cost of losing the world famous Shelf – one of the few areas where supporters made a lot of noise that wasn’t situated behind a goal – and the trademark Archibald Leitch design.   With two tiers of terracing on the East side of the stadium, the Shelf became the home of hardcore fans, who produced such a noise that it swept down across the pitch to the West Stand – the domain of the wealthy and mainly silent Tottenham supporters.  Running the length of the pitch, the upper terrace – The Shelf – was overhung by the seating in the East Upper and produced an acoustic boost to the songs and chanting coming from the fans.  It had been there since the East Stand was first built in 1936 (left).  There was nowhere like it elsewhere and after the changes, there was never likely to be anywhere like it again.

Renovation was reported by the directors to be desperately necessary to meet the safety requirements that had taken the game’s attention after a series of disasters at grounds in the preceding few years after the disastrous fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade and the loss of life of Juventus fans who were attacked by Liverpool fans at Heysel, a totally unsuitable stadium for such a big match.  Unfortunately, it didn’t come soon enough for the 97 Liverpool fans who failed to come home after visiting Hillsborough later the following year for the FA Cup Semi-final against Nottingham Forest.  That would bring the Taylor Report that recommended all seater stadia in the top flight and that required a new raft of alterations to the ground. 

The mainly wooden East Stand was regarded as having a high fire risk, so the need to replace it with concrete became paramount in the eyes of the club’s owners.  In the eyes of the fans, it was a new design that would change not only the look of the stadium, but also affect the atmosphere, with the Shelf – the main area where the noise came from in the ground – being a victim of the changes, as it would disappear under the proposals the club put forward.  Despite reassurances from the Club via the programme that “The Shelf Lives On” in a programme article entitled “Standing Room On The Shelf”.  After meetings between Scholar and the fans, 3,000 standing season ticket holders would be accommodated in the Upper East Terracing as the Club felt that they had met their commitment that “NO FINAL DECISION WILL BE TAKEN BY THE CLUB UNTIL ALL RELEVANT VIEWS HAVE BEEN CONSIDERED.”  Interestingly, in Irving Scholar’s “Behind Closed Doors” book he bemoans the fact that the club could have connected better with fans and consulted more widely, which may have avoided the biggest peaceful sit-in at a football ground at the time, with 4,000 fans staying well after the final whistle of the final match of the previous season orchestrated by the “”Left On The Shelf” (LOTS) action group.  Scholar’s biggest battle, according to passages in his book, was with his fellow Director Paul Bobroff, who he had to convince that that would be able it would be possible for fans to stand on The Shelf below the row of executive boxes and the numbers would realise as much income as having seats installed there.  As it was, the standing area was all done away with a couple of years later anyway with seats being installed on the terraces to meet the needs brought in by the Taylor Report.

There had been scoops in the local press since the 1970s about Tottenham and Arsenal sharing a mega-stadium to be built in Alexandra Park, but with a massive backlash from fans, it was considered that, although it was a common phenomenon on the continent, it would never work here.  So rather than build a new ground, it was decided to upgrade the existing stadium.  With the West Stand having been re-built in 1981-1982, it was hoped that the work to the East Stand would provide a stand opposite it which would mirror its modern nature and help bring in much needed money through the sale of the boxes.  Unfortunately, the cost of the West Stand had almost put Spurs out of business and Irving Scholar had bought out the previous chairman to become the owner of the club.  A plan to knock down the East Stand was refused by Haringey Council in 1985, but three years later, new plans were accepted and work began on the re-build in the summer of 1988.  What was to come was nothing less than a series of mishaps and mis-management that cost the club a fortune, as well as a great deal of embarrassment.    

Wimpey International Construction had reassured both the Club and the Council that the ground would be ready to stage the opening fixture against Coventry City, but whatever works had been done, or not done, to meet the requirements of the officers from the Council who were responsible for licensing sports stadia and the police, so it was decided that it wasn’t safe for the match to go ahead and no safety certificate was issued on police advice.  Rubble that should have been cleared when Chairman Irving Scholar left the ground at 8.45 p.m. on Friday night was still there in the morning, as the workmen had encountered some problems overnight, although in Scholar’s book he claims that “Wimpey had told him (The Council Safety Officer) that the labourers got tired and they had not been able to complete the works.”  So, when the Safety Officer found lots of debris still left there, he considered that the match could go ahead, but only if the East Stand was closed, although the police did not share his view and allegedly stated they would not provide policing for the match in that instance.

Scholar said in his book, “I couldn’t believe that contractors like Wimpey had let us down.  We were dealing with an international organisation who had given their solemn word that the job would be finished over a period of weeks, and here we were unable to stage our first match of the season.”  People across the country were receiving the news by various methods (being before the widespread ownership of mobile phones) and I remember the shock that a game was being postponed for something other than adverse weather conditions.  TV cameras following the story found fans at the ground milling around with no game to see and relished the opportunity, with their print counterparts, to ridicule the club for not being able to put on a football match.  Piss-ups and breweries came to mind.

In the programme for the home game against Arsenal on 10th September 1988, a page entitled “Coventry City Postponement” gave the club’s view on the goings-on.

The Club offers its sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused to supporters for the regrettable postponement of our planned opening League fixture of the season against Coventry City on 27 August.
There has been considerable Press comment, some of which has been misleading and inaccurate, and we would like to make you aware of the catalogue of events that led to the postponement.
At 4.30 p.m. on Friday, 26 August, the Club were assured by the Building Contractors that the works would be complete by the following morning and that the Stadium would be perfectly safe to stage the match.  At that time, the Club, the Police and Local authority Safety Officer insisted that certain clearance work had to be completed and it was agreed that a final inspection would take place at 10 a.m. the following day.  Once again we were assured by the Contractors that all works would be completed in good time but, unfortunately, when the parties agreed to bring the inspection forward to 8 a.m., it was clear that the assurances that the Club had been given, had not been met, at which point the Club immediately postponed the match and informed the national news agencies of the position, and were advised that this news was broadcast on Radio 2 at just before 9 a.m., having already been directly communicated on local radio in Coventry.  The Club also undertook to advise British Rail and London Transport stations in order that signs be immediately placed to make the public aware of the postponement.
The Local Authority Safety Officer had insisted that safety works had to be completed to a certain stage to enable the Coventry fixture to take place, with the proviso that additional items would be undertaken prior to today’s match.
The Club has been monitoring progress in the East Stand throughout the summer, but at no time did the Contractors, Architects, or the Professional Team give any indication that the works would not be finished in time, or that the match was in doubt.  Furthermore, the Local Authority Safety Officer returned at 10 p.m. on Friday, and was satisfied that the programme was being adhered to and that everything would be in a safe order by the following morning.
Despite all these assurances, and undertakings, the Club were badly let down and the first we were made aware that the game was in danger, came at the final inspection on Saturday morning.  Unfortunately, some supporters who had travelled considerable distances were unaware of these announcements, and we can only apologise to them for the inconvenience they have suffered.
We would like to reiterate that the works undertaken have been of a safety nature, including the doubling of the emergency exits from the Lower East Terrace to ensure safe evacuation in the event of an emergency; all steel beams and columns within this stand being fire-proofed, the enclosure of combustible material within the Stand, and where they remain in the seated area, this has been designated a “No Smoking” area.  The Local Authority has reduced the capacity of the North and East Stands until additional staircases have been installed , which are programmed to be completed in the near future, and hose reels have been installed in the East, North and South Stands, without which all three stands would have been closed this season.  These works have been undertaken to ensure that no member of the public will be unsafe in an emergency.
To illustrate how necessary this refurbishment had become, apart for the rebuilding of the West Stand in 1980, no major works at the Stadium have been undertaken during the course of the last 25 years, the most recent project being the provision of seats behind the North and South Stand goals, in 1962.
The decision to postpone the match was a major disappointment to all supporters, together with the players and staff and, once again, we would like to convey our apologies for any inconvenience.
[Club’s bolding of text]

It was a major disappointment to the fans who had arrived at the stadium, only to look at what was essentially a bit of a building site.  More disappointed was the Coventry chairman John Poynton, who said, “How a club can go through the whole of the close season and right up to 9 a.m. on the day of the match before informing us they had no safety certificate is incredible.  They disappointed not only their own fans but ours as well.  Spurs are one of the so-called super five clubs but it seems they can’t keep their house in order.” 

The matter was still before the FA, who were to rule on the non-fulfilment of the fixture.  The FA Panel of Ian Stott (Chairman of Oldham Athletic), Phillip Carter (Chairman of Everton), Bill Fox (Chairman of Blackburn Rovers) considering the charge on 17th October 1988 decided to go with the punishment laid down in the League Regulations and imposed a mandatory two point deduction and Poynton was able to stick the knife in when he said, “I have nothing against Spurs, but there are rules and they broke them.”  It couldn’t have come at a worse time for Spurs, as they had only won one match by the time of the hearing and were plunged into the relegation zone.

Scholar announced that the club would appeal the deduction and hired QC Michael Crystal to represent the club – an unusual move, but one that the FA accepted, which was proved to be much to the embarrassment of Fox.  He too umbrage that a member of the legal profession was brought into an arena usually reserved for football people and Scholar even considered making Crystal a Director of the club had the FA dug in their heels, so that he would have been allowed in.  In the end that wasn’t necessary and his insistence that the points deduction was not mandatory got under Fox’s skin, with the four hour hearing developing into a battle between the two over whose interpretation of the League’s regulations was correct.  When the Commission returned to give their verdict, they found that the removal of two points had been harsh in the circumstances and re-instated them, but opted to fine the club £15,000 instead, slamming Fox for his attitude in originally deciding the matter without a full comprehension of the organisation’s own rules.  Scholar joked that the points were good value and wouldn’t mind buying them every week at that cost, which was a flippant remark after what had been a very worrying saga.

When the 1989-1990 season began, work was still continuing on the stand and the only people on The Shelf were the lounging builders who acted as ball boys when a clearance went over the hardboard that hid what was going on behind.  Meanwhile, Shelf season ticket holders were crowded into the south-east corner of the Park Lane (courtesy of the voucher issued to them as seen on the right) with a terrible view and certainly not what they had paid for.

For that Luton game, the club made comment about the issues surrounding the construction …
“The East Stand development is nearing completion just four months after we played our last home match against Everton in May. 
Indeed, we had hoped that we would have been allowed to make use of it today, but the Authorities have insisted that it must be totally complete before it can be occupied.  Safety is of paramount importance and the works being undertaken are bringing it fully in line with the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 and the recent recommendations laid down in the Taylor report.
Bearing in mind that the West Stand took nearly 18 months to build we feel sure that supporters will appreciate that the Club is doing all in its powers to keep any inconvenience to a minimum.”

Well, the queuing and the packed pens that fans suffered in the area they were re-located were not just inconvenient, but worryingly uncomfortable after the crowd problems experienced elsewhere across the continent.

In trying to reduce costs, the club had retained the East Stand facade on Worcester Avenue.  With much speculation about what the club would do with the structure, the aim was to cantilever the East Stand to provide a large number of seats with an unobstructed view, leaving the road behind the stand in a tunnel formed by the underside of the stand.  This was a bit of a non-starter and the Council would not countenance such a build, so the roof had to be supported by pillars based in the East Lower and propping up the roof, thus obstructing the view of those in The Shelf, the executive boxes and the East Stand upper seats.  Having claimed at a LOTS meeting that the intention of the club was to to provide a roof that covered everyone in the East Stand, as a long-time East Lower season ticket holder, I can tell you that did not turn out to be the case, as often I got soaked from the front and the back, as the rain blew into our faces and also under the roof of the stand before hitting us from behind.  It was not quite what the club and most of all the fans were hoping for.

There were three matches that season where fans were displaced.  Visits by Luton, QPR and Chelsea for league matches at the Lane saw the ground open with three sides, thus reducing income in matches that would have been expected to have decent crowds.  There was also a League Cup Second Round First Leg meeting with Southend United, which Spurs won 1-0 thanks to a Terry Fenwick goal, which the player, who was not the favourite of all the Tottenham fans, went to celebrate in front of the totally empty stand.

Finally, all works were completed and in the programme for the home match against Arsenal on 18th October 1989, the club ran a piece with the title “East Stand Opens”.  It ran …


“WE ARE pleased to have our new look East Stand open after the refurbishment work that has been carried out over the last few months.  May we take this opportunity of apologising to our season ticket holders for being displaced while the work has been in progress.
Providing new levels of comfort and safety for our supporters, and complying with recommendations following the Lord Justice Taylor report, our East Stand is now the most up-to-date in the Football League.
The new modern structure can accommodate seated spectators on the upper level as before, standing room on The Shelf, for season ticket holders only, and terracing on the lower level, as well as the new executive suites.
There are additional refreshment areas and new toilet facilities, and a new television gantry, housed in the roof of the stand, being used for the first time tonight.  
An outside PA system has been installed in Worcester Avenue and the latest floodlighting system, providing double the lux of the original pylon lights, has been incorporated on the roofs of the East and West stands.
An access tunnel has been built in the south-east corner of the stadium, providing easy access for vehicles in case of emergency, as well as facilitating the entry of machinery for pitch maintenance.
The Club would like to thank The John Lelliott Construction Group, the sub-contractors and the professional team, as well as the local safety officer, police, ambulance and fire services and many others who have contributed, for all their hard work during the summer to produce a magnificent stand, re-opened after just 19 weeks.”

There were public recriminations about where the blame lay and no doubt there were even more behind closed doors, as Irving Scholar revealed in his book of the same name, but the stand remained closed much longer than envisaged, finally receiving spectators for that home match against Arsenal on 18th October 1989.

The stand’s construction had doubled in price over the duration of the build and ironically the financial impact on club funds caused the board members who were behind the scheme leaving the club, with Alan Sugar and Terry Venables coming in to save the club when it did look like they might be heading out of business.

Because of his major involvement in the project, we will leave almost the last word to Irving Scholar.  “One trouble with football is that people expect miracles to take place.  For instance, after a season that finishes in May they may expect very substantial building projects to be both started and completed in time for the following season beginning in August.  The end-of-season break in not particularly long, and the ideal way of carrying out these projects would be to close the stand for a year or more – an upheaval that we were reluctant to inflict on our supporters.  The super-optimists also expect such work to be done on the cheap, which is a dangerous delusion.  In that sense football supporters are always demanding the circle to be squared.  As our east Stand problems showed, that is just not possible.”

A sorry episode in the club’s history and one that leaves a blot on the White Hart Lane legacy, but surely the club would learn from it to avoid anything like that happening again ?

Marco van Hip

Sources : –
“That 1980s Sports Blog” by Steven Pye – featured in The Guardian 09.01.2019.
“The Lane” by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley.
THFC programmes.
“Behind Closed Doors” by Irving Scholar.