With discontent growing at White Hart Lane, I wrote that Tottenham fans should take a step back from glorifying the club’s recent past…
January 22, 2012: Harry Redknapp’s third-placed Tottenham Hotspur are level with table-topping Manchester City at the Etihad. It’s 2-2; five points separate the two sides as the second half enters five minutes of season-shaping stoppage time.
Stefan Savic miscontrols the ball on the half-way line in the 91st minute, and Spurs are ready to counter; it’s two against one. Gareth Bale sprints past Joleon Lescott and into the penalty area with Jermain Defoe square. The Welshman passes ahead of Defoe, who was expecting a cutback, and the ball rolls along the six-yard box and beyond Hart. Defoe sprawls. He reaches out with his right leg out and arrows it inches wide.
Bale is on his hunches, hands on his head. Defoe clatters into the post in disbelief.
Minutes later, Ledley King clumsily brings down Mario Balotelli who was angling to take a shot on goal; Howard Webb points to the spot. The Italian is lucky to still be on the pitch after stamping on Scott Parker but calmly slides the ball into the bottom corner past Brad Friedel; arms outstretched, the match-winner receives the adulation of his teammates and the roar of the home fans.
Tottenham, so close to a such an unlikely comeback victory, fall eight points behind the champions-elect. Their title challenge turns to ashes. A month later they let a two-goal lead at Arsenal slip. The capitulation continues; their North London neighbours beat them into third by a single point. Spurs’ Champions League plans are cast asunder by a Didier Drogba inspired Chelsea in Munich. Having stuttered to fourth, Spurs’ right to enter Europe’s premier competition next year is revoked by Roberto Di Matteo’s new, sixth-placed European champions.
Harry Redknapp is sacked, Luka Modric is sold and Tottenham go back to square one.
The figure above, a piece of paper scrawled with a sort of footballing arithmetic and shared by hundreds if not thousands over social media, paint a neat picture of the storm clouds that have recently engulfed Tottenham Hotspur. Discontent within the Spurs fan base seems to have reached a crescendo amongst the falling leaves and encroaching darkness of weeks gone by; a painfully predictable but no less pathetic home defeat to Stoke City has prompted a sharpening of knives and a reaching for the pitch forks.
Some point the finger at new manager Mauricio Pochettino, who has presided over four defeats in his first six Premier League games at White Hart Lane. Others at Franco Baldini, the Director of Football, whose botched recruitment drive in the summer of 2013 led to Andre Villas-Boas losing his job before Christmas, and the club’s stagnation since.
The failure to make the most of the windfall gained by selling Gareth Bale remains painful. Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, a stellar signing of that summer, is reportedly coveted by a number of major clubs across Europe yet is without a single league appearance this season. His squad-player purgatory status is a damning manifestation that sums up the lack of joined-up-thinking at the club.
Others are pointing fingers more vehemently at Daniel Levy, the man who has helped bankroll Spurs’ rise to become a consistent top-six club, but whose frugality and ruthlessness has underpinned the club’s failure to kick through the glass ceiling. In a healthy and reasoned environment Pochettino’s growing pains would be dismissed as thus, but in the world of Levy nothing is ever so easy.
His working relationship with Villas-Boas may have gone past the point of no return, but sacking a manager five points off the Champions League places after 16 games while integrating seven new signings sets a dangerous precedent. Replacing him with Tim Sherwood, and the veil of an 18-month contract, was a metaphorical waving of the white flag before starting over again the next summer.
However, the current malaise should be viewed within the context of an overall struggling league, where Spurs may lie 12th and with a negative goal difference, but only four points adrift of the top four. Nonetheless, at a club with as rich a tapestry of dubious luck and misfortune as Tottenham, that caveat has found itself washed away by the boos that have bought a season ticket at White Hart Lane.
Emmanuel Adebayor’s condemnation of the atmosphere at Spurs’ home games was given a wide berth by a section of the support. Though he has since distanced himself from the comments there is more than a smattering of truth in them:
“Instead of booing people, which will make it even worse, I think it is sometimes better to support them and give them what they need to perform on the pitch. Right now, to tell you the truth, I think a lot of players, when they put on the shirt and go out on to the pitch, are finding it hard in the head.
“It’s kind of hard when you know the first bad ball you make the fans are going to boo you,” he said. “When you are playing in front of your own crowd you want them to support you. But now it is like going through a sad moment and your family not welcoming you home. That’s the worst thing ever because you have nowhere to go. At the moment I don’t know whether we should play at home or whether we should play away.”
It echoed the sentiments of ex-manager Villas-Boas, who after a 1-0 home win over Hull City in October 2013 said, “We looked like the away team. We played in a difficult atmosphere with almost no support. We have a wonderful set of fans but they can do better. We don’t need the negativity of today.”
All this hostility and negativity at a time when the eulogisation of Spurs’ recent past is reaching levels of absolute absurdity and bordering on fetishisation. The obsession over “what might have been” weighs heavy amongst sports fans, and the sensation has grown a vice like grip over the minds of Spurs fans.
They talk in wistful tones of the halcyon, sepia toned days of Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart, Gareth Bale and Ledley King; a squad as synonymous with swashbuckling attacking football as choking from winning positions. There remains a sense that this core could have taken Spurs onto the next level, but it’s a feeling that should not overplay their actual achievements in North London.
Spurs fans can rightfully be proud of their run to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2011, but it was not the glorious tour-de-force some paint it out to be. Bale’s hat-trick in the San Siro came with Tottenham 4-0 down and the contest settled and almost uncontested. Victory over European champions Inter Milan at home sounds impressive, but they were a shadow of the side that Jose Mourinho had harnessed, stripped of their spunk by age, exhaustion and perhaps some intuition over their likely, downward trajectory.
A two-legged win over a weak AC Milan was a solid achievement, but not a heroic against-all-odds triumph, before they were out-classed and butchered 4-0 at the Bernabeu. That it was this side’s only appearance in the Champions League is no-one’s fault but their own. The failure to nail home qualification in 2012 when 10 points clear of Arsenal, and seven points clear of them a year later, lies at their own doorstep.
The home troubles for Spurs fans now are a result of failing to adjust to the new reality, that this mini “golden age” is over, that it didn’t go anywhere or achieve anything besides a short-term rush of soon-to-be sentimental highs.
At least when fans of supposed rivals are accused of living in the past, they have a few stories to tell that don’t peter out before their ending and trophy cabinets to point at, not a string of top-six finishes, cup exits and near-misses, and former players who went on to win trophies elsewhere. Tottenham do have a brilliant past to point to – eight-time FA Cup winners, two-time UEFA Cup winners – and great names to remember – Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa, Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker – that shouldn’t be dismissed.
How ridiculous it appears, from an outside perspective at least, that the recent past of near-glory is viewed on a similar or even greater level as the Bill Nicholson double-winners of 1961. Not only is this a disservice to the true great times of their past, but it sums up the attitude and mentality that Adebayor’s criticisms touched on, which may ultimately be holding them back, beyond their other obvious problems.
Bale and Modric can bask in the glory of Real Madrid’s long-awaited La Decima triumph. After all, it was a success story that they helped to forge. Spurs shouldn’t, can’t and didn’t.