It’s hard to get past that moment, round and round, an endless loop tape in my head. Looking down from behind the goal, the scene populated by characters who hit their marks, a denouement scripted by fate and played out in slow motion. Dawson slips and the net is open. In reality it passed in less than a second but time enough elapsed, from the losing of grip to opponent’s roar, for the entire story to play out in my mind. Plucky underdogs had come this far through a combination of disciplined effort and an off-colour Spurs performance, our endeavours blunted by a lack of full fitness and a stodgy surface. Pompey had more of the ball than we would wish but apart from a few scares, nothing that Gomes, Bassong and Dawson couldn’t handle. Then our brave indomitable captain, as ever taking responsibility in the danger area, alert to the danger, moved to snuff it out and secure safety. He took an age to slip, limbs splayed like a steeplechaser falling after Beecher’s, eyes on the ball and still in his determination trying, desperately, hopelessly, trying to stop the ball rolling onwards.
Someone was due a major embarrassment over the weekend because of that pitch, but of all the people I wish it were not Michael Dawson. Destined to be shown endlessly on TV and Road to Wembley DVD’s, maybe even the ultimate indignity of What Happened Next? on a Question of Sport, no one is less deserving of being immortalised so. They all have a place in my hearts, but our captain epitomizes the spirit and commitment that Tottenham need. He’s an example for the whole side, with a single-minded focus on denying the opposition in the box, fierce concentration and above all he makes the most of his talent. Not the most gifted, he nevertheless plays to his strengths and I would rather have all of Daws than most of more naturally gifted footballers.
In my last piece I spoke of the Semi-final Moment, the time when in every semi-final, the tide of optimism turns to be replaced by a realisation that defeat is possible. Not likely necessarily, just an option. For me it came around the usual time, 15 or 20 minutes in, when Gomes easily saved a deflected shot. Remember this is about emotion not sober analysis. It was a reminder that although we had the better side and were on top at the time, all it took was one deflection, slice of good fortune or slight error in an otherwise strong position. But it was another, later incident, that a sent a cold shiver down my spine. It was around 70 minutes or so, we had a spell of superiority that resulted in a few near misses and several corners. Pompey moved up field but Gomes saved, as he did so often and with such authority all match. Swiftly he moved to distribute the ball from hand to launch a counter attack.
Nothing. No one wanted the ball. Trotting slowly upfield with backs turned towards their keeper, the message could not have been more clear. We were knackered. More than that, nobody wished to take on the responsibility of overcoming the dual effects of weary legs and formidably organised opponents, who spread out across the pitch and not only pressed and harried but also tellingly did not allow our wide men to reach the byline. I felt physically sick for the rest to the match.
To be debilitated by injury is a fact, not an excuse, so there will always be the what-ifs of our potential of the fully fit squad. However, although the cloying surface didn’t help, we made it look like quicksand. There was so much more that we could have done. Defoe never looked sharp whereas Pav was much brighter as soon as he came on and should have started. Corluka had gone well before extra time, while the match passed Hud by almost completely. Injuries obviously reduce pace and stamina but they also sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the suffering players. A half yard slower here, a fraction of second’s delay with a decision there, and your man is off form. For example, well before the end, Corluka, whose legs move anyway as if stuck in quick drying cement, hung back a couple of yards in the defensive line so by compensating for his lack of speed he gave Pompey’s forwards more room.
Huddlestone suffered the most. Apart from his near match-winning first half left footer, he was hugely disappointing yesterday. Just as he has reached the point where his value to the side is universally appreciated, he disappears. We want him to be available, to move it on, to sweep the passes and sometimes to lumber forward into the danger areas at the edge of the box. All this was missing. The fact is, whether it is the conditions on the pitch or in the mind, players have to adjust. There was enough time out there. Hud did not have to launch himself into tackles – if you know your footing is bad then stay upright and don’t slide in. More harmful for our hopes was that the surface took all the pace from the pass, yet Hud, master passer, could have taken this into account.
Modric played in fits and starts. His movement was better but finishing poor. He did well enough but only in short spells, then faded as he presumably took a breather. He did OK but we needed better. Moreover, he did not link well with Gareth Bale. This left side is of course our most potent attacking weapon, yet Bale cannot do it all on his own, although goodness he tried hard enough towards the end when his effort and desire could not be faulted. Most of our effective attacking came from him and though not at his best he deserves praise, but he needs some help. He needs options as he goes forward, targets in the box and someone to play one-twos with. Luka didn’t offer that frequently enough. To compound the problem, the same thing happened on the other wing where Bentley and Corluka behaved as if they had never been introduced. No combination play considerably reduced Bentley’s effectiveness because he can’t beat a man.
This was the decisive tactical element of the game. We seldom reached the byline and therefore delivered a series of innocuous crosses from deep, further and further out as the game progressed. Bentley also failed to put over a decent corner. Pompey stayed wide in midfield and made it more difficult. It was decisive because Harry had placed his faith in Peter Crouch. You could see why, towering as he did several inches above their tallest defender, but with lousy service for most of the afternoon, he, and we, got nowhere. Rocha was in his element. Not the greatest, he’s nevertheless a shrewd operator. He does not give ground in the box when challenged, so with his good upper body strength he did just enough to put Crouchie off. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a lot to put him off. Despite all of this, he had the chances to win this game and blew it. I’ve remarked before that what frustrates me most about him is that even when he rises high to win the ball he doesn’t do enough with it, but Wembley was not the time to provide further evidence for my theory. On my predictive text, ‘Crouch’ comes up as ‘crotch’. That says it all for me.
Another word of praise for Gomes – did everything that was asked of him and saved us on the few occasions that Pompey broke through.
At the finish the players sought the sanctuary of the dressing room with indecent haste but I was still there, as were others. They could have, should have come a little closer. We win and lose together, and a moment’s acknowledgement would have been kind. On the tube home, one of their fans, after starting to tease my daughter, derisively asked me how money I had wasted. ‘Nothing’, I replied, ‘Being there is what matters.’ This seemed to satisfy him so he and his mates resumed their verbal fisticuffs with a couple of other Spurs fans that we had inadvertently interrupted. I wish Pompey fans well, genuinely so and despite this brutish, racist quartet, they are pleasant, loyal and have had their club destroyed by the worst kind of owners. Their injury list was far worse than ours, but with admittedly limited ambitions, they performed admirably and their supporters will be justifiably proud of them this morning. Their club will survive because of the passion of their fans, who made so much noise yesterday, and I hope they do.
With a rested Arsenal on Wednesday and Man City rampant, suddenly this momentous week is in danger of turning rapidly into one of doom. Maybe that’s a reflection of my gloomy frame of mind this morning. We were poor but had more than enough chances to win. But nagging away is a word that I threatened readers with on a regular basis earlier in the season,one which has disappeared from TOMM of late: resilience. Injuries, poor tactics, mistaken team selection, all are factors, but ultimately I fear that we were done for by the absence of mental strength in the biggest match this team has so far faced. With Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd and the fight for Europe head, a bad Monday does not not auger well for the next 7 days.