Spurs: New Season, New Challenges

So yeah. It’s July, Spurs are back and Tottenham On My Mind emerges from the darkened, soundless room where it has been recovering from last season, blinking into the light then striding purposefully towards the sun.

Pre-seasons are all about my rituals. Shiny pics of shiny players at the training ground, mucking about around like puppies. Paying little attention to the new kit, less to ITK. Fixtures in the calendar and already I’ve offended someone by declining an invitation because it clashes with a home game. It’s tradition after all. A whinge about ticket prices and lack of action in the transfer market and my pre-season preparation is complete.

But dangnabit Muskie, they’ve only gone and kept the Wembley prices affordable AND got the use of the whole stadium. What in the world is going on? The announcement was clearly too much for several people on social media yesterday, who blasted away at the cost of £70 for the cheapest seat only to be gently reminded that this includes three matches, not one. Frankly I had to re-read it a couple of times too.

Ticket prices are the single biggest problem in modern football, preventing a generation of young fans from coming to matches regularly, ending football as a family entertainment as anything other than an annual treat and excluding older generations who can no longer afford it in these straitened times. They have fundamentally changed the nature of being a supporter. At a time when gold, frankincense and myrrh is easier to get hold of than a ticket for a league match, Spurs have made the elite competition accessible. More than that, it’s going to fun. Fill the Western end, reach up into the top tiers, make some noise and give our grandchildren stories to tell about glory glory nights at Wembley.

Unreserved congratulations to the club. Notorious for being aloof and unresponsive to fans, I fervently hope this move is part of a wider culture change. The constant badgering by supporters and the Trust in particular, not just in the last few months but over the past couple of years, appears to be sinking in. Respecting supporters is in their interests. It makes them money, fine by me if they look after us in the process. Big crowds make Spurs a big club. Bring in the fans, at Wembley and in the new ground, that will secure support for generations to come.

Plus, new players. Wanyama and Janssen, welcome. A DM and striker a year later than should have been the case but they look just right for us now. Motivated, ambitious, keen to play for Spurs and Pochettino.

In symbiosis with the team, Tottenham On My Mind ground to a halt at the end of last season. I was all spursed out. Without dwelling on the past, couple of things to get off my chest. I wrote about my hopes for the run-in. One, give it everything we had, right to the end. I was disappointed because we couldn’t. Finishing third is a magnificent achievement. I had more fun last season than for many a year. Forming a bond with this team who were as committed to the shirt as the supporters, will live in the memory as one of the highlights of 50 years of coming to White Hart Lane. Shame we faded away just a bit.

Remember though that this was only to be expected. It was the rest that was the surprise. Until then, Spurs over-achieved, gloriously. This was a relatively inexperienced side new to the pressures of the title run-in. They had been stretched physically, emotionally and creatively over a log season. The self-destructive actions of two key men, Alli and Dembele, was a body blow. Other sides lifted themselves to play against us, whereas teams playing Leicester and Arsenal rolled over and had their tummies tickled.

Two, I wanted our story to be heard. Sadly, it was drowned out by Leicester’s underdog derring-do. Sincerely, well played to them. I study part-time at Leicester University so know at first-hand how success in football takes over a whole town. I envy that.

However, every good plot needs a villain. Never mind the pure white of our shirts, in the eyes of football we took to the field shrouded in black, hissing and spitting, kicking sticks from under old ladies’ feet and snatching sweets from the mouths of children for good measure. Spurs fell away and the nation rejoiced.

Yet this wasn’t the story of my season. I saw a young team sprinkled with young players getting a chance denied their peers at other top clubs, English players who carried themselves well on and off the pitch, who wanted not celebrity but to play. My story was one of surprise at this unexpected progress, one of attacking fluent football, of taking the game to opponents, all from a club living within its means.

I’m disappointed this story was not the best-seller it deserved to be. Spurs represented the best of the current game. I thought this was what people wanted, apparently not. There are other narratives. How about two teams fighting against the odds for the league, different styles but with both having much to admire. Those players deserved more respect in the end.

It was all a bit too much at the end. I burnt up all my energies thinking about Spurs, the fans, the delight, the hatred from fans of other sides and perhaps worst of all, Spurs fans slaughtering the team for finishing third. This is the way I am. Gets worse as I get older. Tottenham always on my mind, no point in fighting back so I just roll with it.

There is another reason why I was all spursed out. Martin Cloake and I have completed A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, the first book-length history of Spurs support and supporters. This story has the fans at its heart, from the marshes to Europe, how N17 is the focus for loyalty and passion that extends across Britain and the world. It’s published by Pitch Publishing, due out (we think) in the next few months. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Tottenham On My Mind will carry on as per. Same simple format, once or twice a week, just me. And you, in the superb comment section. Apologies for not getting back to you but as you can see, I have been busy. Sincere thanks for your contributions, I’ve read them all.

 

Sorting Helps If Success Changes Us

Sorting helps. Properly therapeutic if you put things in order, in their right place. I use this sometimes with work, sit down with a child or young person, put the cars in order, or bricks. Lego’s good. It’s calming, regains a sense of control in the midst of a complicated, disorienting world.

Walking up to the turnstile on Sunday, my son nudged me, over by the burger bar, bloke wearing a Spurs shirt of a certain vintage, on the back Booth 19. It tells a story. Impressed with our new signing, a big strapping centre forward, your man had to be the first to get his shirt. Ahead of the game, a fashion leader. Guy at the front of the upper Paxton when we used to sit there invested in Piercy 32, confident that he could spot rising talent at the club.

Or maybe it was knowing and self-depreciating. Spurs don’t attract many football hipsters, although we’re cooler than the bear on a Fox’s glacier mint, but this could be ironic. It strikes me that some of you reading this have never heard of Andy Booth. David Pleat signed him on loan during one of his caretaker spells. After 4 appearances, no goals, we didn’t take up the option to sign him permanently. Booth is the archetypal honest pro. I won’t say journeymen because he played successfully at a decent level for several years but his touch wasn’t quite up to the highest standard. Or mobility. Or pace, or ball control, or chance-taking…But everyone was injured, Rebrov couldn’t hit the Kremlin with a banjo, so Andy trundled willingly up front. He scored a improbably good goal at West Ham which was ruled offside, wrongly so as the replays showed. It would have been the winner. The Hammers had signed someone we wanted, so in the away end we sang, ‘We’ve got Andy Booth, we’ve got Andy Booth…’ over and over. A cult hero for 10 minutes. Not even 15.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, things have changed for the better. Doesn’t seem that way over the last few matches but don’t be tempted by the reaction to the CFC game or laid low by Sunday’s disappointment. The reality is, 3rd place is an outstanding achievement, 2nd would be just fine and dandy. Think of Andy Booth and the desperation behind that signing to find out how far we have come.

By exposing old failings, Southampton fully deserved to win on Sunday. They were always dangerous coming forward. Toby and Jan found it hard to deal with those angled long passes into space. They did pretty well but were stretched and we could never settle. They stretched us too far for the first, pulling our cover out of place, then the second came after Spurs had failed to up the tempo after half-time, leaving the Saints firmly in charge. A lingering feeling that Lloris could have done more with both goals…harsh though.

It began well enough, Spurs pinging the ball around for the first twenty minutes, the glorious football matching an intoxicating ebullience in the stands. Supporters were out to enjoy themselves. This was to be a celebration together, players and fans. Noisy and happy in the sun, the atmosphere was not just loud, it was inclusive, with every stand joining in, and that’s the been the touchstone for the season, fans and players closer than ever, really feeling it.

Just as we lost a bit of momentum, Son intelligently kept running onto a pass probably not intended for him. Others were offside, he was on. Everyone stopped, he kept going, his reward a goal banged in from close range after he had danced along the goal line. Then we lost tempo and had no plan B in response to Saints’ domination. Second half the visitors kept it narrow, packing the centre midfield and leaving the wings to us. By way of riposte we sent in a stream of innocuous crosses and otherwise tried flicky tricky dicky one-twos in non-existent space.

We kept playing the same way when change was needed. Kane should have come deeper to mix it up and shift the centrebacks around. Push Lamela wide so we have two v one wide, so they have to break cover and come out. Runners deeper from midfield. None of which happened.

So they showed they are still learning as a team. No surprise there, yet such has been he gradient of their learning curve this season, you could be forgiven for expecting them to conjure a solution. Being hard last week, without losing your temper. Trying something different to unsettle a fine team, without giving in. We know this: Spurs have a fine team if 10 particular players start. Miss one and we can cope. Miss two and we suffer. Dembele the heart and power, Alli making precisely those runs past Kane that we so sorely missed on Sunday, both making other good players better. If learning by our mistakes is a sign of progress, this could have been a valuable 7 days.

A salutary reminder, then, that Spurs have a way to go and not to reach so far with expectation next season that we tip over and fall face-first into the mud. Don’t worry, there will be good times too because our promise is rich and fertile. It’s been a fabulous season regardless of the outcome on the final day, because most notably supporters have been royally entertained by a Spurs team bursting with commitment.

Reflecting on the behaviour of the home fans at the Bridge, they don’t get the bemusement of Spurs fans. Fact is, the chase for the title was fun. It represented over-achievement and came upon us suddenly, rather than being an expectation at the start of the season. It was always unlikely – the fact we got that close was a joy, and that’s what fans of other London clubs still rejoicing in Spurs’ not being defeated are struggling to grasp. We’re enjoying ourselves, something that some find the hardest thing of all to understand. Shame modern football’s like that.

The end of season lap of appreciation was, for once, justifiably named. More fans stayed behind than I can recall in the last decade. If anything it was over too quickly. Led by one of the senior stewards, whose name I can’t remember but who I have met and is Tottenham to the core, set too fast a pace. The players should have dwelt to take it all in. I hope that doesn’t change. Manchester City fans have had to take decades of heartache – it’s not been a bed of roses being a Spurs fan but think what being a blue in Manchester has been like. Their lap took place in front of empty stands. Pelligrini made a nice speech to the cleaners and 200 hi-vis jackets. I get the fans’ frustration at their side’s under-achievement and undermining the manager’s efforts by effectively replacing him with half a season to go. I just hope that raised expectations are not behind a change in attitudes because City fans are among the most loyal around. They say success changes you – I hope nothing changes at the Lane.

 

Rejoice Fair England! Spurs Have Drawn!

As Spurs’ title tilt finally ended in mayhem at the Bridge last night, what stays in the memory is not the inability to catch the champions but the fact that Tottenham were there in the first place. Nothing can detract from this season of remarkable achievement. All this guff about Spurs reverting to type and choking is so much hot air. Spurs fans know what’s right, that the very opposite is true. Against what we have sadly come to expect over the years, the youngest side in the Premier League has vastly exceeded expectations and we of all the challengers are the only ones to fulfil potential and punch above our weight.

This was supposed to be a season of consolidation, progress and potential, where the manager schooled the squad into the ways of a winning team. That’s what happened, only four times faster than anyone expected. Remember August, promise shown but losing to United and dropping a two-goal lead home to Stoke? Or an autumn with a few too many draws then hitting the buffers at home to Newcastle? It feels a world away – that’s how far Spurs have come.

Tottenham Hotspur – the team the nation wants to see defeated. A point and the entire country rejoiced. Phenomenal pressure to carry as players take the field, a burden made heavier by the behaviour of our opponents. I’m struggling to think of anything that compares in my time. Everybody, but everybody, wanted us to lose and you can’t protect the players from that entirely. By the end, it showed.

Sincere congratulations to Leicester. The fairytale narrative grates but that is not their fault. It detracts from their genuine triumph, accomplished by hard work, insightful scouting and a manager able to make the very best of the talent available to him. The football landscape is supposedly changing as it becomes oh so contemporary but these are the values behind every successful team in the last 150 years and they are no different from what Pochettino is doing. Only the style of play differs. Reassuring for an old guy like me.

There’s still a way to go in a league that can be as brutal and unforgiving as it is at times uplifting. So let’s put last night down as a learning experience, bearing in mind that we all learn best from our mistakes. From the kick-off Spurs’ determination to impose themselves was evident, not only in the familiar team press but also with a series of tackles, some fierce, others niggly. The real issue in the run-in was not the result of this match but the two points dropped against West Brom, where we allowed them to dominate in the second half. That wasn’t going to happen twice in succession. Before the match our opponents declared their lofty ambition to lay down against Leicester and on their behalf beat Spurs. Players and manager weren’t having any of that and quite right too.

After early skirmishes Spurs went into half-time two goals to the good. Both were well-worked products of our pass and move style, both were impeccably finished. Kane rounded the keeper for the first after Lamela’s through-ball sliced the defence open. This was the Argentinian at his best. It’s not about his workrate, welcome though that has become, it’s about his touch 25 yards out, another perfect angled ball to Kane’s feet. Son, who was peripheral, got himself together for the second, slotting home Eriksen’s pass. Both goals came from trademark Tottenham tactics that enable the forward three to come inside to outnumber their markers.

Spurs had other chances too. However, this classy football became increasingly at odds with a match that descended into a bitter, nasty affair. Both sides were culpable but our inexperience showed itself in another way. Over-compensating, Spurs were putting too much into it and in their determination to avoid being intimidated went over the top. In the long-run, it is a good thing. All successful teams can hold their own physically and refuse to give ground. Like I say, all part of the learning process. It’s just that the experienced, hard teams learn the dark arts of controlled aggression. By the end of this one, frankly Spurs had lost it.

By half-time three of the Spurs back four had been booked, Rose, Walker and Vertonghen. Rose and Walker in particular were playing well but the fouls were needless, ploughing in or in Walker’s case slyly kicking out. The ref missed the worst – Dembele’s attempt to gouge Costa’s eye was disgraceful and I don’t care that I’m saying this about one of my favourite Spurs players.

Hazard’s arrival after half-time changed the game. Spurs were always threatened by his skill at running at defenders who had to be careful because they had already been booked. Standing off gave him a half a yard, although to Walker’s credit he judged his challenges very well. Old failings – the two wide forwards did not come back often enough to offer more protection.

Toby Alderweireld has been outstanding and sewn up my player of the year vote by Christmas. Last night, he made errors for both goals conceded. His weakness is marking tightly and with strength at corners. All game he allowed Cahill too much room and from one corner the ball ran loose for the England man to slam it in. Spurs weathered the storm and indeed made further chances to extend the lead with Kane peerless yet again. However, we could not keep possession long enough and it kept on coming back at us. The blues equalised when Toby came forward to challenge as we have seen him do so often this season. This time he misjudged it and was easily turned by Costa who put Hazard in. A point at the Bridge was all part of the plan a few weeks ago. To repeat, the two dropped against WBA were the problem.

I say all this in the cold light of day. Last night, watching the second half was a deeply unpleasant experience. Spurs ended up with 9 bookings and could easily have had three sendings off in a frenzied finale. Think of it as a history lesson. Kids, this was what big games were like in 1986, as Dier scythed down anything in his path and Lamela launched himself into shins from distance. Dembele will be banned retrospectively, Lamela and Dier somehow escaped dismissals for two bookable offences.

So the winding-up worked. Lamela in particular fell for it – one unnecessary foul then treading on Fabregas’s hand. If Hazard and Fabregas had taunted opposition fans as blatantly on the pitch they would have been disciplined. Off the pitch pre-match – nothing.  Their actions inflamed fans both home and away. Add a bitterly fought derby being played at 8pm on a bank holiday at Sky’s insistence and you have an incendiary situation that puts supporters at undue risk. Yet there are no consequences.

Above all, Spurs wasted ten minutes when they could have pushed for a winner by kicking their opponents. I feel sad but not angry – this is a step towards developing the focussed aggression that if added to our game will serve us well next season as our rich promise unfolds. On the night, it stopped us playing more effectively than anything our opponents could offer. Dembele was well up for the fight – and was largely ineffectual.

As for the blues fans, taking the time and trouble to write banners praising another team and the manager they got rid of because he wasn’t good enough for their lofty ambitions shows a small-mindedness unbefitting a side that have won the CL. I’ve never seen anything like it and betrays a deep anxiety that pays Spurs the ultimate compliment. They fear us because we are the coming force in the English game. Let’s focus totally on Sunday and beating Saints – make second place ours, we deserve it. Stay proud, we are forever Tottenham and go again.

Fine Margins As The Title Slips Away

Fine margins at the top of the table. Spurs hit the woodwork three times but the chances bounced away and with them all realistic hopes of the title. After a bright start, Tottenham could not find a solution to the problems posed by a rejuvenated West Brom. With twenty minutes to find a winner, the pressure that Spurs have swatted away so frequently in this wonderful run-in finally exacted its revenge.

No signs of later problems when the game began. Right away we stroked the ball around as if there were no opposition on the field. Drop the needle, into the groove and stay on the beat. Keeper Myhill was stretched on several occasions. To be more accurate, he’s stocky for a goalie so stretched isn’t quite right, more a roll at times but effective, most notably when he pushed Kane’s early chance onto the inside of the post. It bounced away, a good chance missed, classic Kane, right foot across the keeper. Sure it would go in but he did not hit it with sufficient power, symptomatic of Kane’s least effective performance for a while now.

Myhill was flat-footed with Eriksen’s free-kick, dipping right above him but he still couldn’t get anywhere near it. It too hit the woodwork. Spurs’ artistry was far too much for the Albion, sheer delight to watch the movement and creativity. The flicks and first-time touches weren’t flash, they were simply the best way for Spurs to keep the ball moving. Mighty Dembele breaking up attacks and moving the ball on. Alli, fouled three times early and the subject of Fletcher’s and Gardiner’s incessant attempts to tell the ref how to do his job, found space despite these attempts to knock him out of his stride. As it turns out, he whacked one of their midfielders (not obvious to anyone where I was sitting) – he has to be careful and not get a reputation as a player who can be niggled into doing something silly.

Glorious moments, such a pleasure to watch a Tottenham team playing this well and under pressure too. However, chances were thin on the ground. The goal when it finally came was from a set piece – did I read Spurs have scored more goals from et pieces than any other PL team? Purring we may have been but the gaol was a right mess, the free-kick going in off a defender who, under pressure from Vertonghen, was attempting to head a ball that was approximately 3 mm off the ground.

As the half wore on, Spurs uncharacteristically allowed the tempo to drop. Before Christmas my blogs were festooned with pleas to maintain the tempo. In those days, lost in the mists of the memory, all of 4 or 5 months ago, tempo was something we turned on and off. Now, high tempo is the default setting, so it was surprising to see the drop in intensity, indeed after half-time to feel it, because our performance was palpably flat in the second half.

We waited for it to pick up, overcame a few scares as Albion missed a couple of beauts, Rondon twice I think, but for once the Spurs could not be lifted. I am not the most optimistic of watchers, truly enjoying games only when we are four up in injury time, but I did not expect us to drop any points last night. It’s not so much the quality of our football, it’s the focus with which we go about our business.

Credit to West Brom, who decided to go on the offensive. They pushed up 10 yards, got the ball up to Rondon and began to pick up more than their fair share of loose balls in the midfield. Spurs did not respond quickly enough or adequately enough. Perhaps Dembele and Dier dropping 10 yards too, a defensive outlook for 5 or 10 minutes to take stock.

At the other end, Lamela hit the inside of the post on a rare Spurs raid. A fine move carved out the opportunity and it should have been taken. Fine margins. As it was, West Brom kept up the pressure and scored from one of a series of set pieces. Dier beaten, Lloris lost and the header dropped into unguarded goal.

73 minutes gone – the next 20 to define our fate. Ultimately we capitulated meekly. For the first time quite a while, we did not know what to do. West Brom had knocked us out of our stride and we could not pick it up again. It felt as if the impact of what we have achieved finally hit the players. They became tense and uncertain as the enormity of the season sank in.

The final whistle was supporting Spurs in a nutshell, simultaneously deflating and uplifting. I tried so hard to put the idea of the title to one side. Didn’t do any of the permutations and predictions, or take on board the ifs-buts-and maybe equation that can see us into the Champions League. Like a wine-stain on the carpet that you cover with a rug, you know it’s there but don’t want to think about it. One game at a time, win all of ours and see what the other lot can come up with.

Yeah right. My heart sank in time with Kyle Walker as he fell to the pitch in front of us. My self-delusion unmasked. Of course I had dared to hope, and for once it was not wishful thinking because after Man U and Stoke we looked unstoppable.

Then, straight away, we stood to applaud rather than nip away into the cold dank side streets. (Although some left well before the whistle – beat the traffic or be there as Spurs possibly take a step towards winning the league? It’s not much of a choice, frankly.) We sang, ‘oh Tottenham we love you’ and the players responded. This uplifting moment sums up so much of this wonderful season – fans and players closer than ever before, taking shared moments at the end of games in disappointment as well as victory, of giving thanks for the good football, thanks for trying even if last night they did not quite succeed. Scenes in stark contrast to those at the Emirates as fans either stay at home or protest at finishing in the top four AGAIN. At the Lane, it’s different. My only fear is that if we do qualify for the CL, that will change because it creates a sense of entitlement, but that’s for next season’s Tottenham On My Mind.

Spurs have become the team to beat. Opponents seem to galvanise themselves when they play us, whereas Leicester, champions elect, do not seem to such a scalp. West Ham excelled themselves against us, Liverpool turned it up a notch or three as did the Baggies, who didn’t put heart and soul into last week’s efforts at the Emirates. Meanwhile Swansea at Leicester were in their shorts and flip-flops, sipping cocktails and hiring a pedalo. We’ve also had to chase Leicester by playing after them and while this is no excuse, it has given us a harder task, no question, because they have been able to set the pace. Week after week of chasing takes a toll but Sky are allowed to dictate football so the PL will never say, well, it’s not quite right. But of course the fixtures on the final day kick off at the same time so that no team has an unfair advantage.