We came to celebrate, and despite the result we were not downhearted.
We battled through the hold-ups on the M25 and the Blackwall Tunnel, blanched at the accident on the North Circular and arrived in our seats panting from effort as well as excitement. Same old jokes, we make them, we’re told them and still we laugh as if we’ve never heard them before. ‘5-0 by halftime? Or a bit longer? No probs.’ The teams are just coming out and the sudden arrival heightens the shock. From a dowdy north London street, plunged into the glare of white light and blaring fanfare I am transformed, grinning manically. On TV this is precisely the clichéd manufactured atmosphere I abhor. Being there, I can’t quite believe this is the Champions League at White Hart Lane, a worldwide audience welcomed to our little home. Should be used to it but I’m not, and in a way hope I never am, because this thrill should never be taken for granted. A corny soundtrack and twenty kids flapping a giant fireman’s blanket festooned with logos: somebody catch me, I’m falling.
We came to acclaim our heroes, despite the forlorn hope of victory, and my goodness how we roared them on. Those watching on TV knew what an atmosphere sounds like, real support from proper supporters, hardened over years of disappointment to the point where we know when the team needs us. The noise rolled around the old ground, tightly packed stands close to the pitch, a raucous cacophony from all sides in a proper football ground.
We got behind them and they knew. You could see it in every sprint and stride, every tackle, the grimace of challenges or the deftest of passes. It was meant for them and they knew. As with the performance against Stoke, they channelled their disappointment at the first leg result into sustained endeavour, maybe to win, there was always a chance, but mainly just to prove they could play against one of the finest European club sides, to match themselves against the best.
The first half hour flew by, almost as quickly as Bale flew past Ramos. With Modric prompting and Pav active up front, Bale took on a steady supply of long cross field passes and rose to his task. He fearlessly took them on and delivered several searching crosses under the most intense pressure that on another day with perhaps some shrewder positioning by colleagues in the box could have been converted. His touch to bring down a shoulder high pass destined for the stands and then instantly charge at them once more was nothing short of miraculous. Taking deep regenerating breaths on his way back to the halfway line, he was tired. His back ached, so he adjusted his strapping and head down, charged again.
We needed goals and came close on a few occasions, Pav missing the best chance as Lennon laid bare the defence then laid the ball back. It bounced at the crucial instant of contact, way over. Lennon attempted to make up for whatever happened in Madrid, coming into the match more as the half progressed, always dangerous. He could have crossed it more often rather than touch it back but he did so well. The other great opportunity was when a long Bale throw fell at Huddlestone’s feet, much to his and everyone else’s surprise. Back to goal a few yards out, there was no movement for him in the box and the chance of a simple lay-off was gone.
The imperative to attack left us stretched at the back, very much so at times but there was no alternative. We scraped by on more than a couple of occasions. Our captain had his own solution: Michael Dawson decided to take them on alone. He wanted to be first to every ball. Seemingly right across the back line, he appeared whenever danger threatened. Left, right, upfield or in the box, time and again he won the ball. Not everything worked – he overreached himself once or twice, a reminder of the player of two or three years ago – but now he has the experience to cover his lack of pace. One moment of classic defending, when Ronaldo’s shimmy left BAE face down in the grass, Daws came smoothly across, stood tall, waited, then made the tackle. It wasn’t a night for defenders, supposedly, but his performance shone with pride and total commitment.
You may tire of reading in the blog of the wonders of Luka Modric but I’ll never tire of writing about him. Another top class performance of midfield artistry, stubby strides over the turf in search of scarps at the back and deadly passes going forward. Given some freedom by Hud’s presence and then Rafa dropping deep, he went further forward as the half progressed and almost scored or made an assist. Almost. When he came off towards the end, he looked shattered by the pain of defeat, as if it were then and only then that the possibility had crossed his mind that somehow his talent was not about to create a miracle. Arm round his manager, he went to slump on the bench.
A fine first half but no goals. Pav did well on his own up front, effort, movement and even a bit of muscle, but he lacked support. I would have liked a bold decision from Harry for this one, have the balls to leave Rafa out and go two up front but Defoe is woefully out of sorts. I’m sure I would been grumbling if he had played. Now if Crouch were eligible and hadn’t…enough of that one already, I think. As it was, Rafa should have stayed further forward, sliding across the edge of the box and in contact with Pav and the midfield. That’s where he does his best work, as in the second half when he looked fit to me.
We didn’t quite do enough to get the ball into the crucial area in front of their back four but behind the midfield. Madrid press well upfield which makes it hard for us to play out of defence. However, this leaves space behind them. It’s difficult to put the ball there, especially as the superb Alonso was patrolling, but nevertheless there were opportunities missed. To have beaten Madrid we all had to be on top of our games, and Hud had a reasonable rather than good time, wayward with some of his passing. No real criticism but he could have been key, his passing the reason why he was preferred to Sandro.
Ronaldo is a card, eh? Before kick-off he had a pleasant chat with Bale on the halfway line, all smiles. 90 seconds later he’s clutching his backside and rolling around after an innocuous challenge. A precious moment with the strutting peacock in the second half, he goes over to the bench for, apparently, the sole purpose of having a minion fall at his feet and tie his laces. Fabulous player, mind.
And so the second half is ushered in with the same gags. ‘Don’t be late back from the bogs, you’ll miss the first of the 5″, still the same gallows humour in response. No laughs as the ball spins from Gomes’ grasp. Not only this, it taunts him by seeming to remain within reach before agonisingly creeping over the line. The balloon’s been pricked and the hissing of escaping hopes and dreams is heard from miles away. Another one makes little difference, logically, but the whole place sags. Just something, a goal, pride, a win on the night, by now that would have been sufficient but it was gone. There were 35 minutes left but effectively that was that. Individuals tried to make up for it on their own with series of increasingly desperate runs from JD and Sandro, Modric too, but you have to pass it to get round this lot.
Harry and Jose loiter on the touchline, two blokes with long coats, hands thrust deep into pockets and idly kicking up traces of dirt with the tips of their shoes. ‘What me, nah, just hanging around waiting for a mate.”. They cared, profoundly, and there’s no point in hiding it.
There’s a celebration of the presence of another Tottenham great, Paul Gascoigne, who doesn’t often do the rounds of the lounges and boxes (although sadly lounge bars, maybe) but you trust his mental well-being is boosted by the warmth from people who love him. The singing is still going but quieter. Then, for no obvious reason, the doldrums are lifted by a chant for Luka Modric. Then another, and another, and the Park Lane goes through as many men as they can, a touching recognition that despite defeat we are with them, for they have done us proud.
The end was sad. This is gone now. Pride in the fact that we the fans were able to participate in the Champions League quarter final, pride in the players who got us there. Chelsea are advertising on the radio for their upcoming home games, presumably because their gloryhunting fans are sick to death of a decade of unbroken success. At Spurs, we stayed behind to give them a standing ovation, long and hard. An ovation for a team that had lost 5-0. That’s what Europe meant to us, that’s how much we believe in our team. We know what has been achieved. True fans, lifelong supporters.
To ease the pain, there’s a good interview with Ricky Villa here, from Duncan Tucker: http://duncantucker.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/candela-live-interview-with-ricky-villa/
Plus more about the paperback edition of one of the best Spurs’ books ‘The Boys from White Hart Lane‘ by Adam Powley and Martin Cloake http://martincloake.wordpress.com/