A morning like any other, in fact a pleasant one. Warming sunshine, brewed the coffee just right, little traffic on the M25. A gentle welcome to a momentous day, for come nightfall, in a splash of searing incandescence in north London, thunder from the throats of thousands will roll out into the dark and tumble around this famous old ground, inspiring the righteous and striking fear into the hearts of the weak.
This is the most important match Tottenham Hotspur have played for many a long season. And haven’t some of those seasons seemed so long, individual moments of brightness snuffed out by the pervading hopelessness of mid-table mediocrity. But this one is different. This is the real thing, the game that can launch us into another world, of glory and untold riches.
Cluches abound but tonight is the genuine article. Fortunate enough to remember the real glory-glory nights of European football at the Lane, I treasure the experience. The passion and tension concentrated by the lights, the world and universe is for 90 minutes that florescent green. Nothing exists in the murk beyond the glare, there’s only Spurs and us. Anderlecht, Barcelona, Milan, Feyenoord, and I’m too young to have seen the Double and their great feats in the early and mid 60s.
With all due respect, Young Boys are hardly the opponents I would have had in mind for the return of the glory days, but this is the modern era of the Champions League, and the Champions League equals money, and money equals success. Not the way I like it, but there’s no avoiding this stark truth. The CL is a passport to other objects of desire. It safeguards the finances, enables us to pay higher salaries and transfer fees and attract better players. Better players keep us up there, and so it goes. Whatever the ITK on individual players, decisions will be made on Thursday morning that could shape the club’s future for years to come. Get it right and the success is self-perpetuating, get it wrong and the trap door to mediocrity clatters open.
Assuming Ledley is fit, the team picks itself for all but two positions. Lennon and Bale will offer the width and pace, and in Bale’s case the power, that will be crucial factors as YB settle back into their efficient, well-organised formation. Defoe should start but there’s a question over who partners him up front (and we will begin with
4-4-2). Crouch will get the nod despite Pav’s superb goal in the first leg.
The other question is centre midfield. As I envisage the game unfolding, looming out of the darkness is the vast bulk of Tom Huddlestone. I see him directing our play and controlling the tempo. Who would have thought it, not so long ago, but this team now plays with and around him. They feel comfortable with his presence, he enables them to play. Alongside him in Luka’s absence, Wilson would normally be the one to step in without a second thought. However, he’s not started the season well and I wonder if JJ’s good second half against Stoke, plus his extra mobility and willingness to get into the box, given that we can’t sit back, could see him given the chance to rescue his Spurs career.
Europe in knock-out games brings tension like no other match. However, two legs do offer a second chance. We so nearly blew it in 30 minutes in Switzerland but there’s another 105 to make up for it. We must dominate from the beginning and dictate the tempo, without taking risks at the back. Led will give us more pace there and we have enough attacking options to afford the luxury of not stretching ourselves too far. I’m nervous, but confident that we will win.
The significance of this match cannot be over-exaggerated. I’ve described it myself as a passport into riches. However, this sort of approach is an aggravating element of modern football. Notice how the importance of most matches is described in terms of something else, of what it might bring rather than what it is. Finishing in the top four is a triumph in itself, yet all the talk is of qualification into the CL. The CL qualifiers provide admission to the prestige and income associated with the group stages, but then the significance of the group stages is relegated to it merely becoming a path into the knock-outs. The play-offs are another example. It’s the way to get the Premier League cash, not an achievement in itself.
Modern football is as thrilling and exciting a spectacle as can be. Enjoy it for what it is. Win this game because we can, and take glory from that. Sure, the money is important, I can’t ignore that, but in all this talk of what might be, of what’s around the corner, there’s a danger that we might lose sight of what we have right in front of our eyes. We have a fine team playing a vital match. The triumphs and the glory are here and now, in winning that. Stop and savour the moment. Enjoy it – these moments don’t come around that often.