It was Sunday, May 11th 2014, a routine 3-0 home win over Aston Villa had secured a 6th place finish and ensured qualification for the Europa League again.
But I had never felt so empty or detached from my football club than I did that day…
I’ve had worse days, I’ve been to every home game since 1990 and in those 28 years, I’ve seen my fair share of shite.
In the aforementioned season (2013/14) I’d seen us concede five at home to Liverpool and Man City and suffered a 3-0 defeat to West Ham. (West Ham!) They beat us on our patch in the quarters of the League Cup too. We played Arsenal three times and failed to score, losing each time and also got walloped 4-0 at Stamford Bridge, 4-0 at Anfield and 6-0 at the Etihad.
And yet we finished 6th! Above Manchester United.
We had started the season on the back of a decent opening campaign under Andre Villas-Boas with our highest Premier League points total (72) and opened with four wins from the opening five in the league, keeping clean sheets in wins over Crystal Palace, Swansea, Norwich and Cardiff. But it was boring (five goals scored in those four) and we lost the one that mattered at Arsenal.
The quality of football on show was so mundane, yes we were winning games but this wasn’t the Tottenham I had fallen in love with all those years earlier. Some clubs can bore their way to success, but we ain’t one of them. When the results turned we knew what had concerned us all along, that in the previous season we had been carried on the shoulders of the most frightening talent I had ever seen in a Spurs shirt, Gareth Bale.
Bale was gone, replaced by ‘the magnificent seven’ (squirms) of whom only two remain, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela. We thought we had sold a superstar and bought a team but what we were left with was a patched-up bloated squad of underperforming individuals. Only Eriksen and Hugo Lloris came out of a season that ended with the farcical tenure of Tim Sherwood with any credit.
Don’t get me started on Sherwood…
When I think back to that final game of the season against Villa I remember how I’d questioned not just my faith in my club but also if I had lived through a bubble of self-entitlement. As I said, I can only describe the feeling as empty, looking at players like Vlad Chiriches, Paulinho and Emmanuel Adebayor and feeling nothing. They didn’t represent me, the club or our beliefs. Even through the dire years, we had heroes, Gascoigne’s, Klinsmann’s and Ginola’s. The 2013/14 Tottenham team had nothing that inspired anything. It was soulless and spineless, even players we knew had quality like Jan Vertonghen looked like they would rather be anywhere but at White Hart Lane.
As I left The Lane for the final time that season I didn’t have far to go in my memory to remember the highs. Thoughts returned to 2010, beating Arsenal and Chelsea at The Lane inside four days, then winning at City to qualify for the Champions League. I got to see my team in the San Siro, the Santiago Bernabeu and when we beat the reigning European Champions Inter Milan I had my own Glory, Glory night to match those told to me from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
It struck me after the Villa game that the thrill of that team between 2009-2012 had completely gone. I had been blessed to see Luka Modric, Rafael Van Der Vaart and Bale in the same team with a genuine local boy come hero in Ledley King. I realised that I had to cherish what we had because we were miles off the top four and I couldn’t foresee a way we could get back into it with the costs of a new stadium on the way.
Following a 2-2 Sunday, lunchtime draw with United in AVB’s final weeks back in the pub chatter and reflection on the game ceased as we sat transfixed watching a vibrant young team suffocate Chelsea at Stamford Bridge; it was Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton.
Chelsea won 3-1 that afternoon, recovering after Jay Rodriguez had given the Saints the lead with one of the fastest ever Premier League goals. Southampton were inventive, harassing their superior opponents, at times pressing Chelsea into submission and crucially they were brave. There was a clear plan in Pochettino’s team and they went for Chelsea, yes they tired after the break and lost but there was an alluring vibrancy in the side and Premier League teams simply didn’t press back then in the manner that Southampton did. All I could think was, ‘I wish my team had the balls to play like that.’
And now we do.
Pochettino’s impact was not immediate and there were mistakes to start with. There was the bizarre decision to allow the players to vote on the captaincy which saw Younes Kaboul appointed and Adebayor named vice-captain. Can you imagine that now? Pochettino gave everyone a chance, but by the time the Winter had arrived the Argentinian knew who he could trust and the ‘bad eggs’ were one by one banished, either sold or told to stay away from the team.
People remember Harry Kane’s late winner at Villa Park in a game Pochettino says saved his job – it wasn’t under threat. Daniel Levy couldn’t sack him, trust me, Levy would have had to go. Pochettino was the chairman’s last roll of the dice and now Levy has the manager who understands the vision of the club and is capable of developing players and working within the financial constraints we are under.
The media will have you believe the exhilarating 5-3 win against Chelsea on New Year’s Day 2015 kick-started the revolution but there was a game in November against Everton when we began to finally see Pochettino’s methods shine through. The Pochettino press truly worked for the first time as shown by the winning goal as Kane chased his man back to the halfway line, won the tackle and within seconds we were ahead. It was no coincidence that two of our young midfielders Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason started together for the first time. They had played together in the academy sides and it meant everything to them to do so for the first team. Neither had the technical abilities or experience of more illustrious names like Etienne Capone or Paulinho but they had heart. At the final whistle the two embraced as if they had won the Cup and a new identity was born.
Pochettino’s Tottenham would press and play with energy, with a high line and be brave. There would be no egos and we would be united as a team. The fans began to believe in the young players like Bentaleb and Mason and saw the merits of what they brought to the team. While at the top end Kane had finally forced his way past Adebayor and Roberto Soldado, transformed I’m convinced by sheer determination and Pochettino’s training methods from cumbersome target man to one of the league’s most feared strikers in a matter of months.
As fans we now had a team who were still some distance from challenging for the top four but one we could believe and invest in. Pochettino had won the fans over and critically the belief of the players he was now selecting. Anyone who didn’t fall into line would be jettisoned, as Bentaleb would find out himself when he got above his station during the opening weeks of the 2015/16 campaign. Andros Townsend had a bust-up with one of the fitness coaches in October after another youngster, Josh Onomah, was used ahead of him late on during a Monday night win against Villa (them again!) Townsend was sold at the first opportunity for showing a lack of respect, whilst Bentaleb was originally loaned to Schalke before making the move permanent.
Respect is massive for Pochettino, the players are allowed to do as they please in the dressing room and that’s their area both on matchdays and at the incredible training complex. Pochettino will only enter to give brief team talks before a game and at half-time. The tactical plan will have been detailed in advance so last minute information is kept to a minimum. But the players are monitored constantly, footage from the gym is reviewed to assess an individual’s mentality as much as output and Pochettino likes to observe players when they arrive for training and even in the canteen to judge a player’s mood. These small anecdotes into the mind of Pochettino are all found in the book Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs by Guillem Balague. A must read for any Tottenham fan
It’s for these reasons why Marcus Edwards, possibly the most talented player at the club (and I mean that) won’t make it. There are rumours of behaviour issues but having gone to watch the development squad at Enfield Town on July 23rd I can tell you that irrespective of what is going on behind the scenes Edwards lacks the desire to become a top player. He is lazy both in attack and defence and his running is limited to what he does on the ball. He doesn’t track his full-back and he has no urgency to get into threatening positions unless he is dribbling. I’m gutted about it, he was still the best player on the pitch at Enfield and is an extraordinary talent but if you don’t have the ability to perform the basics, tactical discipline, commitment and teamwork you will not make it at Spurs under Pochettino no matter if you have a God-given talent like Edwards. He should have been in America with the first team tearing it up with the amount of first-team absentees we currently have but if a player is not willing to work for the opportunity and believes it should be a given right to be in the team then it won’t matter even if said player is our ‘mini Messi’.
In Pochettino’s second season the team became more than the sum of its parts. Eric Dier was moved into a holding midfield position with the addition of Toby Alderweireld. Mousa Dembele became the beast in midfield we all thought he could be and Dele Alli brought stardust at the tender age of 19. We’d blinked and suddenly the partnership of Bentaleb and Mason (cruelly injured scoring the winner in game five at Sunderland) was forgotten. We now looked a stronger team, imposing and with a solid spine through the middle. We had a structured press, often instigated by Lamela from the right that strangled teams and I’d like to think the neutrals enjoyed the freshness and desire we showed that season.
We remain the afterthought of Leicester’s title win but that season changed my whole mentality about Spurs. I was allowed to dream of the ultimate glory of winning the title after we won at Manchester City on Valentine’s Day and although our lack of squad depth came back to bite us towards the end we had thrilled and White Hart Lane became the hostile and feared environment that It was always meant to me. We were never ahead. We haven’t spent a single day top of the league in the last 15 years so the media narrative of us ‘blowing it’ is laughable.
Questions remained however following a freak 2015/16 which is never likely to be repeated. We finished on 71 points, one fewer than AVB’s first season and could Pochettino evolve once the big club’s returned to form? We were told Pochettino only had one formation and in the first two years It was rare to witness anything but 4-2-3-1.
Then we evolved again.
Pochettino took over a bunch of largely unmotivated misfits when he arrived and found a team he could trust from it, coaching and developing a core of largely British talent and installing his beliefs upon them. The next evolution was to expand their minds in 2016/17 and show the players it was possible to play in different systems. See, the 4-1-4-1 that blew Pep Guardiola’s City away in October or the 3-4-2-1 that dominated a Chelsea team that would go on and win the league and had won 14 on the spin in January. Both games ended 2-0, as did the win against Arsenal in April when we had reverted back to 4-2-3-1. We took 50 points from the final 60 available, won 17 of 19 home games in our final season at The Lane (every game from October) and finished with 6-1 and 7-1 away wins to finish 2nd on a scarcely believable 86 points and a goal difference of +60.
With what City have now achieved as Centurions it is inaccurate to suggest we would have won the league had we stayed at The Lane for another season but we certainly could have done without the upheaval of Wembley. I truly believe it was a remarkable achievement to come out of it in third and qualify for the Champions League again.
Perhaps, the chance has gone. Perhaps, like four years ago I am left looking back thinking that what I have seen is as good as it will ever be. Maybe that will prove to be correct. It just might be that we will never get to 86 points again, a total that in many years would have won the league.
‘Spurs have to win a trophy.’
Doesn’t everyone? What are we all playing for then if it’s not glory? It’s a tiresome comment you will hear repeated every single time we fail to win a game this season. I realise that for the 95% of people that are uneducated about football that’s what the media driven narrative has to be about us. Every club has their own narrative and I in no way think we are mistreated by the press, just that’s the boring rehashed story about us that does the rounds. At least one team from the ‘Big 6’ is not going to win a trophy this season and that is a guarantee. City could win 4 trophies, it’s unlikely but not inconceivable, but would it mean Liverpool should sack Jurgen Klopp if they finish 2nd in everything?
No one wants to win a trophy more than I do. I would snap your hand off right now if you said 4th and win the League Cup. The true story is how remarkable it is that we continue to compete at all and it is all because of Pochettino. He is unsackable. That we have competed as we have with three consecutive top three finishes and shown such consistency is astonishing considering what we are up against.
We are fighting in the most competitive league on the planet against five other teams who can blow us out of the water financially. If we want to buy a player and one of the other five are interested we don’t even bother. What is the point? That’s a major factor in why so often any transfer business we do is done late. Hopefully in 10 years once we have begun to pay off the monstrous costs of the new stadium we’ll be able to pay a player a million pounds a week. We don’t buy stars, we make them. That’s how we have got to where we are, by unearthing gems like Vertonghen, Modric, and promoting from within. 15 years ago the club made a conscious decision to buy young and British to try and progress. Think Paul Robinson, Michael Dawson, Michael Carrick, Jermaine Jenas, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe. Where do people think Bale came from? Our recent upturn has seen a move back to that. Dier and Alli would both command fees of around twenty times what we paid for them. We buy young and develop and for now, there will be the odd big name sale to balance the books. It’s how it is going to be, I accept it and am proud that we still compete in the way that we do.
Again though, Pochettino makes the growth possible. Look at the development of the full-backs under him, ask a Spurs fan 18 months ago if they thought we could cope without Kyle Walker and Danny Rose and now look at Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies. I’m not in any way suggesting Tripps and Ben are better but I almost feel like a proud father watching how they have grown under Pochettino’s guidance. Would we be better off if Walker had stayed? Of course, but he wanted to go and if anyone doesn’t want to be a part of this team they can go. I believe as long as we have the current manager we will find younger replacements, recycle and compete. Kyle Walker-Peters will eventually take the shirt from Trippier for example and that day may come sooner than you think.
Heading Into Saturday’s opener at Newcastle the squad is decimated and we are handicapped, victims of the success of our own players with nine of them involved in the final four of the World Cup. Add to that an injury list that includes Wanyama, Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko and Lamela and we could be without as many as 13 players.
Pochettino will have a plan and we may come up short with a very under strength side. However, I know that come Saturday whatever eleven start, whatever the formation, they will go out there and fight for the right to play and give their all for us. This season with another stadium move is going to prove just as challenging as the last but everyone who plays us knows they will be in for a game and Pochettino will have this team evolve again. One day I’m sure he will move on himself but hopefully by then, the foundations will have been put in place for my club to remain established at the very top level of football not just in this country but globally. The first steps have been taken, the majority of our supporters see the bigger picture that he is having to work within constraints and has given us a team we can believe in and be proud of.
Our identity is to play to win in every game, in a style befitting of our history and our present but to balance this with discipline within a tactical set-up. We invest in youth and will continue to do so because at Tottenham you have to earn the right to play, the collective is stronger than any individual and we have to show courage, desire, bravery and believe that anything is possible.
Pochettino has given it back to us.
To Dare Is To Do.