Philip Barker

Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester United 2-1 in the final match at their historic White Hart Lane ground in North London yesterday.

They will spend next season at Wembley while a greatly enlarged stadium is built on the site which has been their home since 1899. Their ground has also been the stage for international football and one match held more than 81-years ago remains the most controversial of all.

In the 1930s, the British nations had withdrawn from FIFA. In fact, they had even refused to enter the first three World Cups. Prestige international friendlies created much greater interest and in 1935 a fixture between England and Germany was arranged for White Hart Lane.

By this time, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Government had already introduced the Nuremberg Laws which stripped the Jewish community of citizenship and paved the way for violent victimisation. The prospect of a German team playing at Tottenham was loaded with political significance because the host club, then as now, enjoyed a large fan base among the Jewish community.

When the match was announced, a boycott was threatened. Tottenham club secretary Arthur Turner revealed that "the club has received letters from all parts of Britain written by Jews". 

Frank Rodgers of the British Anti-Nazi Council warned that "the Nazi Government was extraordinarily eager to trap from a foreign country, particularly this foreign country, some action which may be construed as approval of a Nazi Government". 

In 1934, England had beaten reigning world champions Italy in a match so violent it had been dubbed the "Battle of Highbury". 

Despite the 3-2 defeat at the then home of Tottenham's fierce rivals Arsenal, the visitors had given a strong performance which their coach Vittorio Pozzo described as "the miracle of the Italians, due to the spiritual atmosphere in which we live in Italy today". This was a clear reference to the regime of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Many feared that there might be similar political overtones against Germany, and a parade of swastika-waving German supporters.

The German team give the Nazi salute at White Hart Lane in 1935  ©Getty Images
The German team give the Nazi salute at White Hart Lane in 1935 ©Getty Images

Tension was heightened even more when it was reported that a Jewish spectator at a match in Germany had been killed. The official German news agency insisted, however, that no-one had died at the match and "certain foreign newspapers distorted a tragic incident". They accused their detractors of "a sensational slander campaign".

The Jewish Chronicle later reported that the agency had stated the literal truth. The youth had in fact been set upon away from the ground after the game.

The German team arrived by air to be greeted by the country's ambassador.

Team coach Otto Nerz insisted his side had "no connection with the German Government, nor have we had any message from Herr Hitler".

With less than nine months to go until the start of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and amid calls in both Britain and America for a boycott, the Germans were determined and on a charm offensive. Nazi sports boss Hans Von Tschammer und Osten and Olympic organisers Theodore Lewald and Carl Diem were part of the official party.

"’We have come over for the game and for the game alone," it was claimed by German FA (DFB) secretary Georg Xandry. "There will be no politics and no demonstration of any sort by any of the team or any of the thousands of supporters who will arrive here by sea and air.

"All will behave as guests in this country."

As the team arrived, a delegation from the trade unions led by Sir Walter Citrine visited British home secretary Sir John Simon.

"In view of the political character of sport in Germany, it was clear that the fixture was being made use of by the German Government for political purposes," said Citrine.

The home secretary's response seems naive now, but at the time it was in keeping with the opinion of many.

The match at White Hart Lane was extremely controversial ©Getty Images
The match at White Hart Lane was extremely controversial ©Getty Images

"Wednesday’s match has no political significance whatsoever and does not imply any view of either Government as to the policy or institutions of the other," said Simon. "It is a game of football which nobody need attend unless he wishes."

A few years later, a political pamphlet dubbed Sir John as one of the "guilty men" who advocated appeasement.

On the day of the match, some 10,000 German spectators arrived. One day excursions had been arranged through the Nazi tourist agency "Strength through Joy". They came in nine special boats with the crew of one of the steamers even challenging local seamen in Southampton to a match of their own.

London newspapers described it as "the largest one day invasion by foreign visitors that London has ever experienced". With the benefit of hindsight, the use of "invasion" seems a particularly poor choice of word.

The German tourists had been under strict orders not to carry swastikas with DFB President Felix Linnemann saying: "I urge you, I entreat you, not to sing patriotic songs. Many countries regard community singing of such songs as provocative".

As it turned out, the worst problem of the day was traffic chaos caused by the vast influx of visitors into the centre of London.

General admission to the match cost two shillings and for those who stayed at home, the match was broadcast on radio in both Great Britain and Germany. On a murky day, the newsreel cameras did not manage to record the three England goals in their 3-0 win, but they did capture the moments before the game when the German team greeted their blue shirted English opponents with the Nazi salute.

There had briefly been a threat of clashes between British fascist "Blackshirts" and communist protesters but these were headed off and when all was done there were only 14 arrests. Two protesters were fined the sum of £2 for scrawling "Fascism Means War" on the walls of a detention room at Tottenham police station.  

Thirty-four-year old Ernest Wooley was arrested for trying to haul down the German flag at the ground and Barnet Becow, a cabinet maker from the East End of London, was arrested for obstructing the police. It was said he had thrown his political leaflets in the air and then became "very violent".

White Hart Lane bowed out yesterday as Tottenham beat Manchester United 2-1 in the Premier League ©Getty Images
White Hart Lane bowed out yesterday as Tottenham beat Manchester United 2-1 in the Premier League ©Getty Images

Even so, the Daily Telegraph suggested that "perfect order and decorum prevailed" and that the German visitors "will be heartily welcome when they come again".

In fact, that night the Football Association (FA) held a banquet for their German guests at which their President Sir Charles Clegg told his visitors: "We as English sportsmen desire to express our regret at the annoyance to which our visitors have been subjected".

Citrine insisted that Clegg, like many other people, "does not bother to inform himself about the nature of the sport in Germany".

"If he did so, he would realise that football is nothing more or less than part of the Nazi regime," he added.

Sir William Edge, a member of Parliament and an official at Bolton Wanderers, was furious and accused the trade unions of "impertinent meddling".

Another FA official, William Pickford, even proposed a toast to Hitler which was greeted with the Nazi salute by the German team. It would be little surprise when the England team were ordered to perform the same salute at a match in Berlin in 1938.

White Hart Lane itself staged further international matches including an Olympic contest in 1948. There was no German team at those Olympics, but the Austrian team was allowed to participate. They were beaten convincingly by eventual gold medallists Sweden.

There have been many memorable days and nights at White Hart Lane since, but whatever lies ahead when the new stadium opens, no match will stir up as much controversy as the "German invasion" of 81 years ago. 

Nick Butler will return tomorrow.