All in all, not a bad week for Tottenham Hotspur. Sunday’s win, squeaky and muddled though it was, left Spurs fourth in the league, only 3 points behind an Arsenal side playing the best football of the Premier League season. The following Wednesday we staggered through into the League Cup quarter finals, on penalties but we’re there. Players on the edge of the side, either through injury such as Kaboul, or because like Kane and Lamela they are not quite ready, are getting game time.
Despite this, the debate around the club this week has been about what’s gone on in the stands, not on the pitch. Read the papers or spend any time at all on social media and you would discover a different narrative. The manager has been critical of the crowd, blaming our anxiety and negativity for below par home performances. On social media, there has been a level not merely of frustration at the quality of some of our football but a disproportionate outpouring of anger.
For some time now, the atmosphere at White Hart Lane for an average game has lacked intensity. For periods in some games, it’s been more like Lord’s or the Oval rather than a football ground, the players going about their business to a background of a thousand murmured conversations. This isn’t unique to Spurs. Old-time Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United fans ruefully say the same things. This week Arshavin endeared himself still further to the gunners by ripping into the supporters: the “atmosphere at the Emirates were [sic] mostly weird. It felt like the crowd was there to see at the theatre.”
There are many reasons for this unwelcome phenomenon. No single explanation predominates but all are linked to the distorted priorities of the Premier League and the Champions League. High prices exclude large sections of a population hard pressed to justify the vast expense of watching Premier League football as living standards continue to fall. Those who do attend are treated poorly by the clubs who genuflect before the twin false idols of profit and Sky TV.
These and other factors have created a sense of alienation amongst fans who experience a growing distance between themselves and the team they support. This is more than just whinging or not turning up at matches. Under demands for entertainment and success lie deep emotional attachments that last a lifetime. Caring about this bloody club is by far the most prolonged relationship I have ever had and forms the only consistent thread from boyhood to man. I am an only child, my parents died many years ago, I have divorced and have no connection with the area where I was born and brought up. Yet since I was five years old, I am Spurs. Since I was 10, I go to Spurs. It’s not about football, it’s about identity.
Alienation is something to feel. It affects our attitudes and behaviour but it’s not tangible. We can’t touch it, often we can’t even identify it. It goes by other names, like anger, frustration, despondency, resignation, but it is very real. Mostly it co-exists alongside the joys of being a supporter – the unsurpassable highs of winning the big matches, the friendship, being part of something. It’s a sort of cognitive dissonance, holding two apparently contradictory ideas at the same time. I know the problems, feel the change in the Tottenham air but remain endlessly fascinated by the game and this club. When I sing Tottenham til I die, I mean it, and so do most of you reading this.
Yet alienation lingers. Once established, it’s hard, impossible probably, for it to disappear completely. Some socialist theorists would say it is an intrinsic element of social relations under capitalism. That’s how difficult it is to shake. Most of the time it stays dormant, occasionally bursting through the thin core that keeps it under control. Like a volcano, when it erupts, it causes damage that makes permanent changes to the landscape.
That’s our week at Tottenham. Muddling through twice against Hull would have in any other week generated moans and groans. Villas-Boas’s comments caused the red-hot magma of frustration to force its way to the surface and become something more solid. In themselves they were reasonably mild, as I said in my last blog. My problem was that it indicated his mind was on the crowd when it should have been completely focussed on his team and getting them to play better.
In context, they were a tremor rather than a quake but enough to crack the surface. Sitting in the car on the way home, stuck in a jam and going the wrong way because of the changes to the road layout in Tottenham, they did not go down at all well with the Fisher family. Elsewhere, people let loose volleys of sour, bilious bitterness that have reverberated all week.
I understand where it comes from. The club have brought much of it on themselves and I have little empathy with the PLC. However, it was all a bit much. All week I have been reading about how AVB should go because of results and because of the way we are playing. I’ve seen how this is the most boring Spurs team for many years, how it used to be different under Harry Redknapp, how money has been wasted.
And this is what I don’t get. Frustrated at poor performances, yes. Knowing we could do better, I’m with you. Concerns about the way the manager has set up the team with the inverted wingers, it’s all here on Tottenham On My Mind. But it is crazy and wrong to describe this team as boring or as one fan said, ‘the worst Spurs team in memory.” Presumably this was written by a goldfish, because so help me Billy Nick I’ve seen some trash in my time, and I’m talking about sides that stayed comfortably in the top division.
Redknapp indulged us in some glorious attacking football. I lapped it up, but tucked away in my memory are some awful efforts where, guess what, we did not perform to the best of our ability, were not set up properly and made worse sides than us look good. Norwich, Blackpool twice, Stoke, Wigan. It’s not even factually correct. Regular readers know I’m not one for stats but I also read this week that Spurs have the highest number of shots, average possession and percentage touches in the opponent’s third than any other Premier League team this season. We have also conceded very few goals but this is hardly the description of a defensive team.
At the risk of repeating myself, I am not saying everything in the garden is as sweet as a Hoddle chip or a Chivers piledriver. We have an undoubted problem with where those final third passes are going – not to a Spurs player – and the midfield blend is a work in progress. Check my consistency if you like. That’s the thing about writing a blog, it’s all here. I’ve not changed my story after this week. It’s a new squad. Even the players who have been around for a while are surprising us with new form that can’t be ignored. Townsend, Holtby, Siggy and on Thursday Kane have all forced themselves into the reckoning. Lamela is just 21 and a long way from home. Eriksen – 21. There are others. The season has barely begun. We are fourth.
Patience is a virtue but is in short supply in a climate of alienation. This creates the underlying tension and impatience. It skews time and space more effectively than an episode of Dr Who. Perspectives are twisted out of shape, rationality distorted, although that’s never been the core of being a football fan. There’s a danger of losing our bearings.
It worries me that we are in danger of becoming like many (but not all) of the supporters of Chelsea, Arsenal and United. Their Old-timers get it but a generation has grown up used to success. In turn, this creates a sense of entitlement where the team performs for them, success is the norm and anything less than perfection is not acceptable. My end of season blog last time mentioned three Chelsea fans who called 606 as I drove home from Spurs. One slated Benitez because they were ‘only’ third and won the Europa League, a second said this was down to the players who organised themselves in spite of the manager and a third proudly declared he refused to go to Chelsea until Benitez left because a man of his stature wasn’t good enough for his team.
Spurs fans aren’t like that, or so I thought. However, reading the social media this week made me question that. Underlying a substantial section of the criticism of the team and the manager is that same sense of entitlement and inflated expectation. I know we expect something back from the side because we spend a small fortune watching them, but I don’t want us to become like them.
In this month’s When Saturday Comes, I’ve written a short article about the Y word. In it is a moment’s conjecture about what it means to be a Spurs fan. I reckon the use of the Y word has increased because Spurs supporters want to mark our distinct identity in a way that partly is a nod to our history and partly as a response to the taunts from our more successful neighbours. We’ve stayed in N17. We are loyal, not gloryhunters. Being Spurs is something profound, its not fly by night affection. The Y word began as unwarranted abuse from rival fans. We are still being abused and also ridiculed by fans of other clubs with more recent triumphs.
We are different. We recognise our heritage and what happened before the Premier League. I don’t want that to change and we should be very careful, because alienation does not mean we have to be like all the rest.
Next week, a companion piece to this and a review of Martin Cloake’s e-book about the recent history of Spurs supporters, The Sound of the Crowd.