A nondescript autumnal evening in a mousy part of north London. Monday night football, a game on the dullest day of a week that’s barely got started. The ground’s not quite full, acres of blue until 5 minutes or so before kick-off. A game we should win, and did, by a couple of goals at home against a mid-table side. In the history of Spurs, less even than a footnote, a dash or a comma maybe.
But when we look back and talk about the best performances, the days or nights when Spurs really turned it on and played with the verve and daring that marks us out from the rest, those who were there or who gaped open-mouthed in wonder at the television will fall quiet and with a far-away look in their eyes softly whisper – Spurs v Villa, November 21st, do you remember?
A performance of style and shimmering beauty not so much took the breath away as sucked it forcibly from your lungs leaving you gasping and swooning with astonishment. In the second half there was no let-up. Wave upon flowing wave of movement and inventiveness dazzled the hapless Villa defenders into submission. Attackers ransacked from all angles. Bale steaming down the left or muscling his way into the middle, scorching swerving missiles impossible to handle. Lennon tricky on the right, Van der Vaart sliding across the edge of the box, no one could have picked him up, let alone a bedraggled Villa side. Modric and Parker driving on from midfield, and again, again, no stopping them.
We’ve seen great players and fine displays many times before but seldom one of this intensity and consistency, an attitude that spread through every player and lasted for almost the whole 90 minutes. At the end of the first half the tempo dropped and we were less effective, although still dominant, but flagged only at the very beginning of the second half where, as with QPR, we seemed distracted. It was however only a momentary lapse. For the rest of the match we played as well as I can ever remember. If you want to know what I want from my Spurs, replay this spell of glorious attacking football, of unstinting effort, of intelligence, power and guile. Brilliant.
Churlish to pick out individuals when the team is the thing. Not just the runs from deep, the understanding of team-mates’ abilities that mean Parker can loop a 60 yard crossfield ball 30 yards ahead of Walker and still he gets it, or Modric can slide a ball through for, well, any of the several men who made runs from deep or came short. Not when Benny nonchalantly sprays passes into Bale’s stride or picks out his man inside, or when Kaboul mightily heads away pretty much everything.
But there’s Luka, under pressure, two men, dips his shoulder and turns in the same movement and is gone, not pausing but head up, eyes bright, searching for the next ball. Luka driving us forward time and time again or dropping deep to sweep up. Luka, having excelled to a level few others can dream of let alone achieve, makes a rare error and holds head in hands in self-admonishment. Because he cares. Chelsea, the transfer, wages – forget it, he cares.
Here’s Scott Parker. At 30, finally, he has the chance to make it at the very top and he will not allow his ambitions to be thwarted this time. Failed transfers, poor choices of club, injuries, he won’t get a better opportunity, so without breaking focus, face etched with the effort of concentration, he runs, he holds it, waits for others to reconfigure into the right place, short passes, long passes, through balls, cover tackles made as if his life depended on it rather than being in just another Monday night league match. He inspires the players and the fans. We watch him and we believe.
Kaboul, learning alongside King the master, they shall not pass. Villa are potentially dangerous in the air and on the break but when you have power and pace like this, there was no way through. Kaboul would not allow it.
Bale, not one but two full backs in Hutton and Cuellar to beat, and beat them he did. Over and over again. I don’t blame the Villa defenders for not dealing with that cross -see it live, in real time, how can anyone handle it? Manu, two goals and a couple of misses, not at his sharpest but once again his movement and ability to hold up the ball transforms our attacking options. Rafa roaming, unleashed. Should have scored, uncharacteristically over-playing a few chances at the edge of the box and passing when normally he would have shot but a fine game all round.
Ask people around my generation about the great games. Sure we have tales of finals, of Europe and Wembley, but many will give a quiet mention to another evening game, in the early European rounds at home to Feyenord with Cruyff and a young gauche Ruud Guillit. We scored four in a scintillating first half attacking unsurpassed in my memory when we got everything right. Last night the only difference was the number of goals. A victory to live long in the memory.