Playing Manchester United at home is one of the benchmark matches of the season. It’s a guide to how we rate at the top end of the market, more accurate than playing Ars**al or Ch**sea because it’s intensely competitive without the frantic mayhem of a derby. Spurs came out of it rather well. Not a classic by any means – our flowing passing game was totally absent in the first half, but this is Man U, nobody gets going against them. Instead, we found a few workarounds to problems that in the past would have seemed unfathomable. We’ve played better but the point is, we kept playing and eventually were rewarded. Keep that up and we’ll be rewarded at the end of the season too.
We deserved this point, but then again when was football ever fair? It’s not about a points victory. Fate turns on those few precious moments when opportunities appear. United took full advantage, as they do. One down to a superb header, a reminder if any were needed of the value of a top quality striker as focal point and finisher. YES I KNOW he used to play for Them, and that we could have marked better. However, the accuracy of the cross, two stabbing steps backwards and the power of a header, falling backwards, just inside the post. There must be one like that out there, somewhere. Soon come, or else this promise could go to waste.
In the past we would have genuflected to the dominance of our superiors. Instead, we gradually cranked it up and put United on the back foot. We created two golden chances and missed them, two fatal self-inflicted blows or so it seemed. On the Shelf, it was obvious – we were never going to score. Then Lennon pounced on a loose ball. His quick cross sped across the box and Dempsey popped up on the end of it. He’d had a mare of a match and if I had had my way would have been substituted long before his moment of glory, but like the determined pro he is, he somehow put behind him his ghastly miss at the start of the half to keep his head when this second chance presented itself.
USA! USA!s story summed up our afternoon. We put the stuttering first half behind us, 45 minutes that put our limitations on public display. Plenty of possession but little punch when it mattered, our efforts petering out as we neared the United box. Bale, two men on him, wriggled and writhed but could not break free. Wandering inside, no one could give him the ball and like the rest of them he was swallowed up by United’s massed ranks. Parker toiled in vain, driving on from the midfield, utterly focused on lifting spirits and leading by example. such a fierce glint in his eye when he goes in for a tackle. He ran and ran but he needs someone to pass to when he gets upfield and too often we stood and watched him toil. Parker as the most advanced man is wrong – if only Dembele had taken up those positions instead. I missed Sandro, but then I always do. Out for the season, anyone but him.
United play as if they have something in reserve. Even when they defend, it appears as if this is how they want it to be, before they break free. It took me a while to realise how much of the play was in their half. Searching for a way round, we realised, or our manager realised, that if there are two men on Bale then there must be space elsewhere. As the match wore on, Lennon came into it more and more. In this his best season for Spurs, he’s getting better and better. His turn to leave Evra tackling thin air then find Defoe in the heart of the box was dazzling. But Defoe took a touch and the moment was gone.
No matter. Azza kept buzzing away at the United defence like a wasp around a jampot. He’s finally realised that the ball can be his friend. He nurtures it now, caressing and persuading it to do his bidding rather than letting it tame him. The way he holds out both arms when he passes always looks like an involuntary movement caused by a medium-voltage electric charge running through his body. However he does it, he’s mastered a way to stand the ball up at the far post or pass the ball low into the box. His greatest strength undermined all his efforts in the past. How is it physically possible to cross or pass accurately when you run at the speed of sound? He has to slow the legs down to normal speed before doing anything else. Now, he understands his body. Once that is under control, so is the ball.
There was a lot of AVB love around in the papers this past week with both the Independent and Guardian offering positive pieces that covered what the fans already know, that in Villas-Boas we have a shrewd, hard-working leader who has won over the players and is able to get the very best from them. He’s totally dedicated to the club. I suggested before the season began that he is not only desperate to prove himself, the only way he can do so is through his team. He is not interested in personal glory or in pi**ing contests with other managers. Rather, his vindication comes by his team playing good football and being successful. Our team.
The previous incumbent of the post has a reputation for looking after players but just ask Bent, Pav, Gomes or Bentley, literally frozen out in the middle of Russia, what happened if he thought you did not fit in. Now, I can’t recall a time when so many good news stories are emerging from the club. When AVB was appointed, the media were determined that he was the story. Now, it’s his team.
Dawson says he was given a chance even though he could have left, and the boss has realised what he can do. Dempsey has had an inconsistent start, to put it politely, yet is burning to play. This manager lavishes time, care and attention on his charges and they are responding. That’s proper man-management. Being this open is not easy. He could hide away in his office, instead he’s highly visible on the training pitch and in the dressing room. Many leaders retain their authority by remaining aloof. There’s no debate, their word is gospel. Villas-Boas chooses the more difficult option, but by staying open and accessible he places faith in his methods and in the players’ abilities to put them into practice. In return, he inspires loyalty and comittment. This leadership is one that sets targets and a vision that is for the good of everyone, that empowers players who discover in themselves their true ability and retain it, as opposed to relying on someone else to motivate. It’s a feeling that lasts and it can do nothing but good for the club. Not AVB as an individual, but to the club.
In contrast, the media coverage yesterday has all been about one individual as Fergie exerts his customary influence on the football news agenda. It was all about him, telling tales on a linesman who denied a penalty appeal. It obscured the suggestion that he may have been at fault. United frequently use the ploy of bringing on attacking players later in the match to defend by taking the game to their opponents. By the end, Welbeck, Rooney, Valencia and Van Persie were all on display. If he had done his homework, he would know Spurs don’t like being restricted. These substitutions opened up the space just at the moment we were upping our pressure. It was a mistake.
It was suggested by someone close to me who I’m sure only had my welfare at heart, that the advice from the police not to travel
unless absolutely necessary was less of a public service announcement and more a direct and personal instruction for me. But I had decided so was compelled to go, albeit with a workaround of my own to drive 50 miles on main roads only. Hearing that the game could be called off reminded me of the futility of it all. All that way, for nothing. These days there is no way of taking an educated guess as to the state of the ground. In the old days it was about frozen pitches, shovelling snow and orange balls but now it’s all technology, undersoil heating and part grass part plastic pitches. So on we drove, without frankly a second thought.
I969 or 1970, my mum had promised to take me to Spurs versus Leeds. It snowed. I rang the Supporters Club. At 1pm it was on, the only match in London to take place. I suspect my dear old mum was hoping it would be called off, but she had promised and I was determined, so eventually by bus, tube and bus again, in the freezing cold, we made it. 40 plus years on, I’m still the same, the boy’s heart still beats faster when it comes to being there, with this as with nothing else I am determined. It would have been enough just to see the game, but Clint, my man, a special thanks for being there too.