In his sweeping account of football in Britain, The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt describes ‘a thick web of values, rituals, histories and identities’. The book attempts to make sense of how deeply rooted the game is in our cultural history, why it is valued so much in a way the incessant talk of money that dominates the modern game invariably fails to recognise. When Alan Fisher and I wrote A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, we did it because we wanted to draw out that value, to show a little of what football clubs really mean to people, and to inspire supporters of all clubs to tell their stories.
The stories we particularly wanted to draw out were the small but detailed accounts of moments, often brief, that made lasting impressions and which, when put together revealed the rich tapestry of folk heritage that surrounds our clubs. A short while ago, we got a letter from a man called Frank Delicata. He was born in April 1951 at the North Middlesex Hospital, which sits on the intersection of Tottenham High Road and the North Circular Road. The hospital’s maternity unit was relocated to Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and there’s a long association between the club and its local hospital.
Frank was born just 20 days before Arthur Rowe’s Spurs team clinched the first league title in the club’s history by beating Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 at White Hart Lane and, three months after the streets of the North London district had witnessed the outpouring of joy that victory prompted, Frank’s family took possession of a café at number 808 Seven Sisters Road, almost on the junction with the southern end of the High Road.
The photograph (below) shows the front of the shop in June 1953. The building is decorated with bunting to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, at the front of the shop are Frank’s father, sister and cousin and there, perched on the ledge of the window through which the business served ice cream to passing customers, is young Frank. At the top window, Frank’s mother can be seen leaning out.
This was a family business, with Frank’s dad running the café during the day while his sister waited tables and his mother worked in the kitchen, assisted by a cousin who helped with the washing up. The café could seat 40 people and at the back of the shop was an anteroom with two tables that could seat eight people.
The photograph below shows Frank’s extended family gathered after closing time – there’s Frank again, grinning dead centre of the scene.
Into the café on a regular basis, and imagine the thrill for a young Tottenham boy, came the players of the English League Champions Tottenham Hotspur, a team already lauded by observers as one of the finest ever seen. These men were the superstars of the age, and one of Frank’s earliest memories is of Tommy Harmer – Harmer the Charmer as the crowd dubbed him – chatting in the café’s anteroom, which functioned as a VIP area. Talk to the old-timers and they will tell you Harmer was one of the most skilful players ever to grace the turf, and for little Frank he’d perform the trick of dropping a penny onto the toe of his shoe, flicking it up and catching it on his forehead.
Frank went to school in Stamford Hill, at St Ignatius Primary School. A new Spurs team was being built and in the playground young Frank would imagine he was striker Bobby Smith, a towering physical presence and renowned goalscorer. He would return home for lunch to find Bobby and several other first-team players tucking into steak and chips. Dave Mackay, Terry Dyson, Peter Baker and Bill Brown were all regulars and one day, as he entered the café on his return from school, Frank’s sister whispered to him “that Bill Nicholson was in the VIP area and as I went through to get my lunch, there he was, eating his dessert”.
Opposite the café was a tie manufacturer called Burton’s, run by a man called Jimmy Burton who was friends with Dave Mackay. The two drove the same model of Jaguar and Frank can remember the two men waving to them from the cars as they took their wives out for the night. Mackay would eventually buy into the business and Dave Mackay ties was a fixture in Tottenham for many years.
Mackay and Dyson spent many a lunchtime in the café, and Frank remembers his sister taking umbrage at the way Mackay would help himself to the portable radio and copy of the Daily Herald that were in the back room. But the two players were generous with their time, playing draughts with the young Frank and, as he realises now, invariably letting him win. On another occasion, Peter Baker insisted on taking Frank’s mum in his car to Heathrow Airport to pick up her mother who was returning from Italy.
As Bill Nicholson’s Spurs made history by becoming the first team in modern football to do The Double, Frank’s family still considered him too young to be allowed to go to the football. So he watched enthralled on TV as Spurs secured their prize against Leicester City in the FA Cup Final in May 1961. Frank had to go and see his team and, in October that same year, persuaded an uncle who was a regular on the Shelf – the old ground’s popular terrace – to take him to a game.
The visitors were Burnley and a crowd of over 56,000 turned up to watch what were the two biggest teams in the country. Frank and his uncle made sure they arrived early to take their place at the front of The Shelf, but already in place was a young Burnley fan – no segregation back then – who proceeded to loudly encourage his team when action commenced. This wasn’t received well by the Spurs fans on the terrace just below The Shelf, and there were some heated exchanges before an apple was passed up to the young Burnley fan. He happily accepted and the volume of his support was quelled by his enthusiastic munching of the fruit. Whether this contributed to Spurs overturning the visitors’ early two-goal lead to run out 4-2 winners is for you to decide.
Frank became a regular at the ground, getting the chance to see the great Jimmy Greaves in action. He remembers informal sweepstakes run by the regulars, with players’ numbers drawn out of a hat and those holding the winning tickets at the end of the game splitting a pot that all participants put two bob into. “With 10 participants there would be £1 in the hat, which was a nice sum in those days for the winner to take home,” remembers Frank.
In spring 1963, just a few months before Spurs became the first British side to win a European trophy, Frank’s family sold the café and they all moved back to Italy. Frank was eventually to return and lives now in Surrey. “The old Victorian building that housed the café is no longer there,” he says. “It has been demolished and replaced by a high rise development. Not an improvement to the locality I would add. My mind nostalgically goes back to the 12 years I spent at 808 Seven Sisters Road.”
Twelve years sprinkled with stardust that formed a lifelong bond between a person and a team. Small stories that have a big impact. You will find similar tales at almost every club – although it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t point out that no other club can claim to be the first double winners. The point is that football means so much to all of us because of these experiences, and the folk histories of the people’s game are too important to be left unrecorded for posterity.