Against Modern Football? Book Review: State of Play by Michael Calvin

“The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people.” …the way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.”

So begins the Football Man, Arthur Hopcraft’s exploration of the character of football and its effects on people’s lives. Written in 1968, fifty years later the philosophy of football is a genre in itself but the original remains unsurpassed as a study of why football means so much to so many.

Football matters. It brings pain and joy, friendship and enmity, despair and elation. And we keep coming back for more. Sport, says Hopcraft, can be cruel. “Football can make a man more ridiculous even than drink can.” That I can identify with. Then, over the next two hundred or so pages, he reflects on the experiences of people transfixed by the game. He does so with grace and style. Here’s his description of player adulation, as a fan dashes towards the adolescent Georgie Best in the Old Trafford car park:

“the wind blew an old man teetering across the tarmac, wet and flapping in his overcoat like an escaped poster, and draped him across the windows of my car.”

Times have changed. The game is more popular than ever. Its reach extends to all parts of our culture. Football stars are celebrities. Football shirts are fashion accessories. Almost half the nation watched England lose in the World Cup semi-final. The Premier League is a global phenomenon.

Yet precisely at the height of its popularity, football is subject to a withering critique from many quarters that ‘the game’s gone’, increasingly distant from the supporters who have made it what it is and from the values that sustain it. In Hopcraft’s day, football remained accessible to working people, who found in it not merely an escape from a tough working week but also a form of expression, where emotions came alive and the dense, swaying terrace was the source of community, pride and personal identity.

Now it’s the global game. Spurs like their top six rivals are focussed on ‘growing the brand’ with annual summer American tours and an Asian sponsor. To keep pace, fans debate income streams and amortisation alongside 4-3-3 and a striker’s dodgy left foot, as again Spurs fans know only too well at the moment.

It’s complicated, but one word sums up the difference – money, or to use Calvin’s phrase, “the cult of monetisation.” Clubs generate more income than ever before through television rights and merchandising in order to compete in bidding wars. Transfer fees and player salaries soar to stratospheric levels, where the air is thin and fans choke on ticket prices that are similarly out of this world. In 1968, seven years after the lifting of the maximum wage, top players earned decent money but not to the extent that it separated them from the people who came to watch. Fans could still urge them to pull their finger out because ‘we pay your wages!’ No longer.

Even the term ‘a football man’ itself has come to have a different meaning. Hopcraft infuses the phrase with a dignity that comes from a deep commitment and passion for the game. Now, it’s become a term of derision, a shorthand for an incestuous boys club where experience, talent and qualifications are frowned upon and all that matters is that you are perceived by other football men to ‘know the game.’

In State of Play, Michael Calvin revisits Hopcraft. Like many of us who have spent a lifetime enthralled by the game, his faith and hope have been shaken by recent developments, especially the “rapacious Premier League”.

State of Play is his search for a reason to believe. What emerges is the most vivid, revealing insight into contemporary British football that you are ever likely to read. There’s no better place to seek the heart and soul of the game.

Calvin broadly follows Hopcraft’s structure, with sections on the player, the manager, the club and football people, including supporters. As with his recent works on scouts, managers and young talent, the strength of the book is the quality of the interviews. Calvin’s method is dialogue rather than interrogation. Underlying all the interviews is a single basic question: help me understand. Large sections of the interviews are presented without comment. Everyone gets a fair hearing. As someone who talks to people for a living, I know how hard it is to get people reluctant or unaccustomed to speaking up to be open and honest.  In a world notorious for its unwillingness to be candid, Calvin establishes an unparalleled degree of trust with his interviewees. They talk to him because they are confident he will represent them accurately.

Therefore, the reader can be confident of the integrity of what we are reading. The book rings true. This is authentic. This is what the game is like. Equally, Calvin respects his audience. He doesn’t preach or hector, instead allowing us space to read the evidence and make up our own minds. State of Play lays bare the modern game and encourages comparisons with the past. You decide what’s better.

One section where this theme is most evident is a lengthy chapter based around Watford FC. Calvin began his career in journalism on the Watford Observer. The then manager, Graham Taylor, provided the young reporter with insight into the doings at the club and life lessons about morality and carrying yourself in the right way that Calvin has never forgotten. Football does this to us all.

Scott Duxbury, the Watford CEO, takes us through their approach. Managers come and go not at the owner’s whim but because that’s the modern model. They have a two-year life cycle – they either succeed and then move on to a bigger job, or they fail and are disposed of. Long-term loyalty is passé.

Assiduous world-wide scouting identifies talented young players, especially in South America, able to improve not under the Watford coaches but at lower division clubs in Europe. If they end up being good enough, they return, if not, they retain sell-on value. Players come to Europe to better themselves and earn money for their family. You can’t blame them: Calvin certainly doesn’t, but wonders if the club gives sufficient priority to their welfare, a long way from home and liable to move around Europe while they wait for a work permit, or a ticket home.

Also, this sense of transience is in stark contrast to the loyalty of fans, who turn up year after year, decade after decade, who pass the baton down to long-suffering children because Watford is their club, their local club, and they support them for life. There’s little emotion in Duxbury’s vision, yet it’s emotion and passion that keeps the fans in the stands.

At MK Dons, Pete Winkelman talks at length – you can almost hear Calvin stifling a yawn – about global strategy and “the synergy with multi-national companies.”  Best get out of League 2 first. Both talk of being close to the community and to supporters, yet this language and the way of thinking that it represents serves to merely alienate.

Alternatively, are the Watford and MK Dons models a realistic response to contemporary conditions, designed to ensure success in a highly competitive market, which ultimately benefits the fans? You decide.

Calvin quotes one executive: “The Pozzos love football and they want to make money. If you had a shitload of money anyway, what better way would there be to spend your time, working they way they do.” Football is a sexy way of turning a profit. Long gone are the days when Calvin played darts in the clubroom against Elton John who was resplendent in pink and a feather boa.

If State of Play has a message, it’s that the biggest downfall of the modern game is a lack of compassion. Football is about people. Fans, players and managers aren’t commodities to be shifted and traded. It creates and maintains a culture where weakness is a sin. Players and managers all experience tension, anxiety and uncertainty, natural because of the pressures of the game yet largely denied throughout football as long as on the surface, everyone stays chipper. The existence of mental health problems is denied. Calvin is fearless in revealing the truth.

In the same way, discrimination is rife. Emma Hayes, head coach at Chelsea Ladies, has been hugely successful yet stands no chance (her assessment) of being appointed to the most lowly coaching post in the men’s game. Racism and homophobia persist.

But modern football is more than this. It’s contradictory by nature. It incubates hope and aspiration, it’s uplifting, and above all, it still reaches out when all other avenues have been closed. The book is full of examples. Tajean Hutton brings north London estate gangs together, not to preach but to play football and bring out long-buried positives. He refuses to allow these boys to be written off.

Everton and Liverpool fans jointly running food banks. Local businesspeople like Andy Holt rescuing Accrington Stanley, not as a vanity project but because he wants to restore a sense of identity and community he believes football has lost. For him Stanley is a community asset, providing social inclusion programmes, health and drug education. Nothing else in the town can reach out like a football club, least of all the politicians. The Stanley striker admitted he was depressed. Holt gave him time off. The groundsman is a recovering alcoholic. They both know that at Stanley, “they’ll put an arm round you and they’ll give you a cuddle. You don’t get that in football.”

Or how about Watford, where the hut where the darts match took place is now a sensory room for autistic children. Able to express themselves, some now sit in the crowd, proud father and son together, passing the baton, being together, communicating through football.

Football mirrors society, however much we pretend the game is an escape from reality. One difference fifty years on, Calvin says, is that we are now part of angry Britain. In Angry Britain, demand is instant, there’s a thirst for blame and negativity, and for those making the most noise, there are no consequences. Individualism is rife, community and solidarity minimised. Calvin is scathing about certain types of fan discourse on social media.

Typically, most of the comments in the preceding paragraph come from an interview, in this case with Sean Dyche. Calvin’s books reveal that time and again, people in the game are motivated by the right values. Dyche embraces sophisticated coaching and technology yet comes over as a man driven by upholding “truth and core values”, about treating players and fans with respect, about understanding the game’s responsibilities to the community.

This theme recurs throughout. At Erith where a local businessman saved a club no one watches, at Dunstable where a respected coach risks his reputation because, well, the team needed him and he couldn’t say no. Steven Gerrard sharing what he was taught at Liverpool, or, in the interests of impartiality, Arsene Wenger’s speech to an Arsenal AGM.

And, most movingly, in the opening chapter about Jeff Astle’s early onset Alzheimer’s. His family struggle first to look after him and then to get the game to understand the damage done by repeated heading of the ball. For Gordon Taylor and the player’s union to continue to deny this for so long is shameful.

The right values. Respecting people. Treat people the right way. State of Play ultimately leaves the same impression as The Football Man. The soul of the game is held by the people who are part of it, the heart is still beating strongly.

State of Play is rich, comprehensive and perceptive. It’s overflowing with insight and wisdom. Calvin digs deep into football’s being and spirit. Sometimes he uncovers dirt and muck, sometimes he finds diamonds, and that’s the way it has always been. For instance, pine for the good old days of the terraces but remember that club directors didn’t care about fans, who they took for granted, and ground conditions were primitive and dangerous.

Calvin is currently the best writer on British football and this is the best of his best. If you care at all about the game, read State of Play. You’ll understand why you care, and know yourself a little better too. Recommended unreservedly.

State of Play  – Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin is published by Century

Spurs Back in the Groove Even If the Record’s a Bit Scratched

Arthur sits in front of us. Coming to Spurs all his life. He said it was good to be back. I was surprised. He detests Wembley and the journey is murder. I asked him why, and he paused, then looked around at the familiar faces in the stands. “Well, you’re all here, aren’t you?”

We’ll all go our separate ways at the new Lane. Meanwhile, football’s back and with it the camaraderie, the greeting of old friends, the bright promise of each new season. It was good to get back to the football.

And it was a promising start. Spurs dominated the opening twenty minutes, passing through or round the Fulham defence with ease. When we lost the ball, our opponents, jittery and overawed, obligingly presented it back to us.

We made and missed our chances. Davies plonked the ball on Moura’s head 6 yards out but he put it wide, then the Brazilian’s normally reliable ball control let him down when clean through. Eriksen moved smoothly onto a loose ball at the edge of the box, not easy but we’ve become accustomed to him being on target, so it came as a surprise to see it slide past the right-hand post. A penalty after Kane’s ankles were tapped?

Then, the match required reappraisal. Fulham’s confidence rose, encouraged by Spurs’ failure to press home the advantage and a couple of counter-attacks of their own. Now it was Lloris who was forced into making the sharp saves, including one impeccably timed block on Sessingnon as he crept unnoticed into the penalty area.

Chances wasted against a side we should overcome, tempo dropping, possession conceded – Spurs fans began to replay this familiar negative scenario in our heads. Then Moura, whose confidence seemed sapped after those earlier misses, joyfully curled a loose ball, first time, round the defence and into the net. He pranced and leapt in the air, a celebration that exorcised the uncertainty and restraint of his Tottenham career thus far. It felt as he had arrived and was part of things. He proceeded to have a fine match, playing in an advanced role in support of Kane and furiously chasing down defenders when we needed to stop Fulham building from the back. Lamela took three years to work out that the PL requires hard work allied to skill and intelligence. It looks as if Moura has it sussed.

Spurs emerged for the second half looking as if they had spent the break running up hills carrying backpacks full of rocks. They drifted around, weary and unmotivated. Just when we should have stamped our authority on the game, it looked like we were about to let it slip. Fulham move forward eagerly and with pace. With Mitrovitch in the middle, they come from deep, in numbers. He hit the post – we were right behind the line of the shot and I thought it was in – then he equalised.

Fulham were posing a series of problems we couldn’t deal with. We’d lined up with three at the back, full-backs advanced and wide, Dier in the centre. Kane and Moura up front, so that makes a 3-3-2-2. Fulham pushed into the space out wide. Davies and Trippier were uncertain. Sessingnon drifting wide, right and left. Trippier and Davies didn’t know to go out wide with him or leave to the back three. As a result, Vertonghen on the left was pulled wide, leaving a big gap inside him, and Fulahm piled into those gaps. For ten minutes, outnumbered in midfield, we couldn’t get a touch.

Pochettino moved decisively to change formation and personnel. It won the game for Spurs. We went to four at the back with Dembele in midfield. We now had the numbers, plus the Belgian picking up the ball from defence to move it forward, his strength and purpose shifting the equilibrium. Lamela on next, lithe and active, just the energy boost that was required.

One moment of sublime skill put Spurs ahead. A free-kick 25 yards out. Post World Cup we have a new gunslinger in town. Lamela pushed and shoved in the wall, but it was a mere distraction as Tripper curled an unsaveable shot into the far corner. The perfect free kick.

As Fulham came forward, Spurs took advantage of the gaps that appeared for the first time. Lamela’s surging run took him the best part of forty yards through any number of opponents. The timing of his release was perfect, drawing the defenders to him as Kane waited in space. One touch from left to right, a jabbed early shot low past the keeper. Classic Harry, a real gem of a goal. Let’s hope it becomes classic Lamela. Could this be his year? I have the uneasy feeling I’ve said that for each of the past three seasons. he could play in Eriksen’s role when Christian needs the rest.

So in the end, a deserved win but only after moments when Fulham thought they would get something from this game. Their supporters have every right to feel encouraged for the future.

As for Spurs, Pochettino’s reintegration of Dembele and Alderweireld into the line-up is a shot in the arm. It’s one thing demonstrating authority by making an example of a player who does not want to play for the club, but the reality is, in any club, or in any workplace for that matter, not everyone is entirely motivated and focussed to the same degree. Managers have to bring recalcitrant players on board, or remind them that they are highly paid professionals, and professionals play. Poch seems to have developed that new skill. So refreshing to see Toby back, keep him there for as long as possible.

Kane looked sharper, helped by the support he received from Moura.  he hit the bar and could easily have notched another hat-trick. Again, Pochettino’s tactics moved to deal with a problem in the side. Dele did well, Hugo was full of confidence that spread through the side. Lamela looked right on it, more please.

Trippier was constantly available on the right, fulfilling instructions to cross early, although not enough were accurate. He and Davies are perfectly suited for a back three. However, at times we looked short in midfield. Eriksen and Dier looked like the World Cup still weighs heavy on their legs. With sterner tests to come in the next month against United and Liverpool, Pochettino has to find the right balance.

My first game of the season, an annual rediscovery of the joy of the goals and the angst of missed opportunities, the elation when those second and third goals went in. Lamela to Kane, his calm in the box, the finish, a fabulous piece of football.

On the way back, we bumped into friend of the blog Adam Powley. Plenty of time to chat as Chiltern Railways appeared oblivious to their timetable obligations. Wise man that he is, he remarked that it felt as if nobody, fans and players, really wanted to be there. It looks as if we may have to get used to it for a while longer as the electrical problem, buried deep inside layers of concrete, will take some time to dig out.

Conspiracy or cock-up? Instinctively I plump for the latter. Human fragility is always with us. Without regurgitating the details, on balance delays are not in Levy’s interests. A cautious man, he stepped out of character to announce an opening without giving any leeway for a cock-up. He should know better – the timescale was always tight, better to hang on and get it right.

The real problems come not from the bricks and mortar but the way the club see fit to explain this, or not. Their communication is poor. Fans deserve to be kept fully informed about progress, even if it is bad news. We’re grown ups, we can handle bad news. “We’re really sorry but because of safety concerns we can’t open the ground yet. We’ll keep you posted.” Easy, isn’t it. But beyond the club, apparently.

Communication should be improved, but communication is a means to an end, not an end in itself. On the Fighting Cock podcast this week, Kat Law, the joint Trust chair, made the point that the club firmly believe that their PR is spot on and that they know just what supporters want. This is the real problem, an absurd misjudgement born of arrogance that reveals the growing distance between fan and club created by their actions since the perfect WHL finale. That rainbow, that did happen, didn’t it? Seems a long time ago now.

Meanwhile, Spurs change the earth for Wembley. Last year, 1/19th of my season ticket at Wembley was about £52. This year, I must pay £70 for the category A Liverpool game. Clubs and fans have a bargain, a Faustian pact perhaps. We’ll turn up, you play your best. We’ll put up with a lot, give us something back.

I get it, I play along, I know what I’m doing. I don’t expect much, but some money off,  information about what’s going on, a proper acknowledgement of the impact on fans rather than detailed comments from the NFL: all beyond the club. You are left feeling as if they don’t need you, not as an individual anyway. They need consumers, hoovering up the merchandise, but anyone will do as far as they’re concerned. If you’ve been Spurs for fifty minues or fifty years, it’s all the same to them. They grow the brand – so abhorrant a phrase I can barely type it – but marginalise the loyalty of fans who need no further convincing. Stick the grid reference of the White Hart Lane centre spot inside a shirt collar and charge extra.

We should be grateful that our manager gets it even if the board don’t. Win for the fans, do our best with what we have and not dwell on the problems of the window. That’s something we can all get behind.

Aretha has left us this week. She made my heart sing and spirits soar. How I shall miss her. Here she’s recorded live, singing gospel. That rumbling in the background – that’s the sound as the walls come tumbling down

Spurs Transfer Window Inaction Shows Fatal Lack of Ambition

“The Premier League is like the London house market. It’s not about true value and worth, you pay or you don’t. It’s as simple as that.”

Sean Dyche

Tottenham are in a good place right now. An excellent team now established as genuine contenders, an outstanding manager and, come September, a home to call our own. The team still has room to grow, with key players like Kane, Eriksen and Vertonghen at the peak of their powers, Dele and Sanchez both internationals yet still on the up, Son, Trippier, Dier and Davies finding out how good they can be. And the World Cup winning captain in goal.

Now is the time to sustain this progress, yet Spurs have failed to invest in order to maintain momentum and safeguard the future. Bereft of energy and drive, the window represents not only a lost opportunity in a highly competitive top half of the league, it also raises fundamental questions about Spurs’ ambitions and the sort of club we want to be.

Throwing money at the team won’t cut it. Buying the right players when we’re making progress will. Consolidate when things are going well rather than act in a rush when we’re on the way down.

Any player coming to Spurs will have to fight for his place.  Our first team, first, say, 15, is a match for anyone, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We need greater squad depth, with real alternatives off the bench. Also, there’s no such thing as a team that cannot be improved. It’s a long season – I’m not fussed on squad rotation but we have a back-breaking, ligament-stretching schedule ahead. All around me I hear the clamour to win something. That means going in hard on four competitions.

To gauge squad depth, I think about what happens if we have two injuries in similar positions. Assuming Toby is out of the equation (if we don’t sell him, Poch won’t back down), one out and Dier drops back. Foyth to me isn’t ready for ten or twenty matches. Carter Vickers may step up, and I hope in time they can both come through into the team, but if we want to stay contenders, we should not be two injuries away from them starting regularly. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. I see potential in both of them, and Poch is the man to bring that out, but the pressure at the top of the league is intense.

This has knock-on effects in defensive midfield. If Wanyama’s hurt, as he is at the moment, gaps start to appear. Winks is the future, a top-class prospect, but he’s taken a long time to come back from falling over a bucket. Can’t rush him. Dembele is a warrior whose powers are slowly diminishing, although it pains me to say it. Rumours suggest he will be sold. I’m tripping over the ifs and buts, but this is reality rather than pessimism. If Winks is not quite right yet, and Dembele goes, our ability to shift from defence to attack is diminished.

And Dier needs a rest as much as any of them. A fine player, I’d like to see him rejuvenated as someone who dominates that area in front of the back four, rather than a guy who loses concentration towards the end of games because he’s mentally weary.

Kane is a hero but he’s not superman. His World Cup ended with him totally knackered, physically and mentally. He selflessly carried the burden of a nation’s expectations, and for his pains was kicked to pieces in a manner that took me back to football in the 1970s. And we know he wasn’t the same after his mid-season injury. That he kept on scoring without being at his peak showed the talent and character of this remarkable footballer. Now Levy needs to look after him a bit better. He deserves it. We all do. Llorente – does what exactly? Instead of repeating an ultimately doomed search for a Kane Clone, try a different set-up up front, with a quick, mobile forward. Son to support, Eriksen and Dele with the service.

It could work out fine. Pochettino brings the young men through, our first team raise their game for a fourth season running. If anyone can, he can. We have to steer clear of injuries, mind. He also has the tantalising option of rehabilitating Toby. Good managers find a way of building bridges if they believe it benefits the team. Not Pochettino’s style, but he may be left with no choice. Spurs are doing their utmost to shift Rose by all accounts, but he could still be around too.

That said, I simply do not understand why Levy leaves Spurs so vulnerable. He hasn’t done so when it comes to stadium finance, so why risk the progress of the best Tottenham team since the mid-80s.

Plus, and this is a plus as big as a house, why risk alienating his manager, the man who has made this all possible. All this tosh about a £150m war chest isn’t sustained by any quotes from the club, as far as I can tell. However, Levy has reinvigorated the salary structure and stated that transfer funds are available. The feeling is, this was a major influence on Pochettino’s decision to stay because the club’s ambitions matched his.

In public, Pochettino plays the game. He’s today repeated comments in his book that he would rather make do with what we have than buy players who don’t fit the bill. These qualities make me admire him all the more. However, this is not the same as telling his chairman there’s no need to sign anyone, because the right players will make a difference. He must feel let down – the only remaining question is, to what extent, and does he feel sufficiently disaffected to reconsider his position at the end of the season? Pochettino has been fundamental to our progress, so I repeat, why leave Spurs so vulnerable?

This raises two other, related questions about the way the club is organised. One, Levy’s transfer policy. He’s right to be careful about how he spends the club’s cash and to repeat, Spurs are never going to chuck cash at a problem and I’m fine with that. What I would query is Levy’s notion of ‘value’ and whether that has kept pace with market developments.

In the recent past, he’s spent money on players who can get better, don’t expect top-level salaries and have a sell-on value. When it works, as with Dele or Sanchez, it is a masterful strategy. When it doesn’t, as with N’Jie and N’Koudou for instance, to me it’s still worth the punt because he’s (presumably) backing his scouts and manager, and although we lose money, we’ve not bet the house on them making it.

These days, there are other factors at play. PL clubs have so much TV money, there’s less pressure to sell. Other PL clubs will pay higher salaries, not just those in the top 6. Restrictions on the number of non-homegrown players in the squad, plus the stadium costs of course, create pressure on Spurs to sell, which in turn is more difficult because potential buyers see the chance to exploit that pressure, a tactic Levy is familiar with. Clubs abroad can sit back and wait because their window is yet to close.

Price is what the market determines, not what Levy wants it to be. In short, if you want someone, pay the money. At Spurs we’re talking about two or three players, not an entire team. The value is therefore expressed in how they will improve the team and, if we’re talking money here, on the extra income from TV coverage, league position and CL achievement that improvement generates. This team is at a stage of its evolution where we need experience and ability, and that costs. To me, the right player is worth it whatever your perspective.

All of which assumes we can find the right players. I question how well the scouting process is working. These days, clubs identify a list of targets and work their way down. If Spurs can’t find any player who fits the bill, whether as a starter or squad member, that suggests we have a very short list.

Pochettino seems to prefer to work without a Director of Football. I get that – he wants to be in charge. The problems Spurs have had with DoFs since Levy took over have been ones of organisation and management. The holy trinity of manager, chairman and DoF have not worked together effectively. Indeed, allegedly Arnesen and Commolli were distrusted as they worked behind the scenes to undermine the manager. Allegedly.

It’s reasonable therefore for Levy to have misgivings about this post, although management issues are his ultimate responsibility and suggest weakness on his part if they were not dealt with. Whatever we call him – DoF, Head of Talent Identification, chief scout – the system must work better than it is now. Poch must know and trust someone for the role.

Writing this, a calendar notification popped up on the screen. It’s easy to forget we have a game on Saturday.  At the end of last season, Pochettino was keen to do business early, to get players embedded in his Spurs Way, in contrast to previous seasons. He may feel aggrieved about this, but I doubt this is too great a problem, because once the World Cup squads were announced, any proper pre-season went out the window then and there.

Pochettino must turn the absence of new players to our advantage. We may be rusty but these men know how to play together. Hitting the ground running may be too much of a stretch, but a decent canter will keep us going. I fear though, that the mental strains of the World Cup as much as the physical effort will catch up with them at some point. That said, maybe the strength, the will to win, that resilience is something they’ve all learned in Russia.

A high stakes season – push on or risk being overtaken. The fans are watching developments too.

Fans come to an understanding about their relationship with the club. We are prepared to give up time, money, energy, patience, relationships even, prepared above all to get behind the team, but we want something back. Not much, and we are prepared to put up with a lot, but something. We want to be recognised and we want to feel that the club and players feel the same way about Spurs as we do. Doesn’t sound too onerous a demand. Trophies would be good, but first and foremost, we want the club to respond.

Watching Spurs is never going to be cheap but the extent of the ticket price increases plus the realignment of long-standing friendship groups in the stands and the Park Lane, the fans’ end, pockmarked with the 1882 scars, caused dismay. Season ticket sales have predictably gone well, although as I understand it, around 2000 fans who enjoyed or endured Wembley did not renew. Stories that 6-month-old babies, registered as Spurs members by proud parents even before they popped down to the registry office – get your priorities right – have been offered season tickets because they’ve reached the top of the waiting list, show that while the offer is popular, demand isn’t infinite.

It may be good business to ascertain the limits of demand for your product. However, I sense there’s a ceiling here, where supporters are saying, look, I love the club but that’s too much money. I’ll come every now and again, and renew that Sky subscription (or find a good stream). The joy of being there may not have a price but watching Spurs regularly does. People have to prioritise in this era of austerity.

Supporters have a bond with these players – not even the wide-open spaces of Wembley could separate us. Not to be taken for granted, this. A few years ago, the distance between club and fans created disaffection and disquiet. But this lot, they play with passion and integrity. They give their best. They don’t hide. The new ground, officially called “The Tottenham Stadium Until We Flog the Naming Rights”, offers the dual security of home and a vastly increased income stream. We’re modern football fans. I’ll work up a chant in praise of prudent amortisation just as soon as I think of a word it rhymes with.

Football carries an element of escapism – take me away from reality for 90 minutes. But the prices and the lack of transfer activity pose a question that no one can ignore – what do we get for that? I’ll be there – being a fan is as much about the friendships, the thrill of being there that for me has intensified rather than dissipated over the past fifty years. Prices and a transfer window that implies the chairman lacks ambition create a breeding ground for resentment, once the new stadium bounce wears off. Again, I hope I’m wrong, but whether I am or not, the club is left vulnerable at the point where we should be celebrating. Why undermine progress in this area too? Does Levy expect fans not to complain? The Fulham game offers an example – judging by the ticket availability today in virtually all parts of the ground, people will not make the effort. As a goodwill gesture, the club could have reduced prices, but they’ve rejected that option in favour of short-term income gain.

So that’s off my chest. Let the season begin. Some football will do us all good. I’ll be writing Tottenham On My Mind regularly this season, probably not in line with every fixture though. I deeply appreciate all the messages I’ve had saying that people would like me to keep writing, means a lot to me, thank you.

The quote from Sean Dyche comes from Michael Calvin’s new book State of Play – under the skin of the modern game, due out on August 23rd. Full review later this month. If you read this blog, it’s right up your street. Packed with insight and meaning.

Spurs Last Two Games a Watershed: the Most Important of Levy’s Era

Spurs final two games, at home to Newcastle tomorrow and Leicester on Sunday, are arguably as significant as any since Daniel Levy became chairman. Two wins and a top four place is guaranteed. Anything less and it’s Thursday nights on the BT channel that nobody subscribes to, but the ramifications could reverberate long into the future.

Playing in the Champions League is enticing, exciting and a source of pride. It’s not the Holy Grail, as many would have us believe. I’m an old-fashioned soul. I think we should push for third, because third is better than fourth. Finishing second is good, because we’re better than all but one of the other teams, and because it’s better than third. I want Spurs to be contenders, not also-rans.

No trophies for finishing third or fourth but there will be lots of money. In the past, the sense is that Levy does not budget for CL qualification and presumably he took this approach into negotiations with the banks offering the loans that pay for the stadium. I suspect the banks looked harder at season ticket sales than the league table, and those have gone very well despite the insufferable price rises.  So the club finances won’t fall apart if we fail to qualify – Levy would not let his vision hang by a thread as flimsy as a place or two in the table.

However, although with Levy there’s no apparent causal link between CL qualification and the transfer and salary budget, the CL money gives him more room for manoeuvre in a summer where Spurs must invest heavily in the squad in order to stand still, let alone make progress. As I said last time, Pochettino faces a new challenge – having built a side, he now has to rebuild one. Rose and Alderweireld seem certain to go. Dembele too – he will never be the same force again – Wanyama possibly. The squad needs to build muscle. Kane has no reliable cover, four years of this now. Sissoko and Lamela are given responsibilities by their manager who seems to see things in their overall play that have escaped many of us, including dependability and creativity, not to mention goals. And so many goals have escaped Sissoko this season.

Money will come from sales but we still have to buy. A perfectly reasonable scenario is that we have to replace four high quality players in the summer. That’s digging deep into the team’s flesh. And deepen the squad on top of that. And can we wait for players to mature to fill the boots of the class players that went before them- we need to pay extra for experience.  These feel like big changes, on a scale greater than Pochettino has had to face before.

In a cut-throat market where everyone is climbing over themselves to buy success, Spurs choose to operate at a disadvantage. As a counter-balance, we have Pochettino and his reputation for playing the young men and making them better players. We also have the CL. Poch plus playing regularly plus the CL equals, what, 20k less a week on the salary? 30k? Some won’t even think about it, others will listen.

Levy relies on this and the patience of his manager, in order to keep down the budget, but for how much longer? Walker, Toby and Rose grew tired of the disparity. For now, Spurs are less of a draw if we’re out of the CL, and perhaps the ties to their manager, genuine though they clearly are, might begin to loosen if the big offers come in this summer for Eriksen, Dele and – I dare not speak his name out loud.

Next season, with the league the way it is, with other sides in what is effectively a top six getting their act together, competition will be intense. CL qualification means more than I can ever remember. It feels like a watershed. On one side, continued improvement, Levy willing (big if). On the other, half a squad leave, are not replaced adequately, we fall backwards, even slightly, and players and fans alike become unsettled. And manager?

Enough of the balance sheet. We need to finish in the top four for the fans’ sake. We want this. Not a trophy, but it means something. Means we finish above London rivals. Means we’re not bottlers. Means we have achieved something without playing any home matches.

Means the pride we have expressed in our team is justified. To me, fans have shown faith in the team. Spurs are good and we want to be able to tell people that. No league or cups but look where we finished. Above you. May not be much but that’s what we’ve got. We can tell people this is what good football gets you. That feeling is always around but again it feels more important that ever before. We’ve endured Wembley, no trophies, considerable expense – two wins mean something. This matters. Wish we had something more tangible to cheer, but right now, this matters.

Like a blunt knife, just ain’t cutting. Spurs are off the boil. Simmering or has the gas been turned off completely? Son has gone back to kicking the ball straight at defenders. Kane’s back on his heels. Dele drifting. Marking at corners helps too. And not giving stupid fouls away.

I was going to identify Eric Dier as the key man, the Dier who cleans up the midfield, not the Dier who loses concentration and gives the ball away. Like the others, he looks weary. But he’s sick, so Wanyama has to step up. Take charge, take our chances, take the top four.

Pochettino seems worried that he’s not getting through. He relies on players taking responsibility for their performances, as opposed to a ranting captain or manager berating them into action. Too late to change that – they must find motivation within. And maybe, ultimately, they need to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to win under pressure. Whatever they say to the media, the niggles must be there.

Glory, stagger over the line, I don’t mind which. Two games, two wins.