“Theatre of the Absurd: work that expresses the belief that human existence has no meaning or purpose, therefore all communication breaks down”
On Sunday we lost 1-0 to Norwich. Spurs were dreadful but if we’re honest, we’ve seen some incomprehensibly abysmal football from Tottenham Hotspur in recent times. Hardly unusual – if only. However, this one has really got to people in a way that the performance itself does not fully explain. All the readers who commented on my piece on the match, I could feel them either shaking their heads sorrowfully as they wrote or else slamming their fingers into the keyboard to get rid of the frustration. On social media, there’s been the usual ranting – get rid of everyone and everything, everything’s bad, abandon hope all ye who enter here etc. From the more considered respondents, though, long-time supporters, there’s been anger and despondency too. We are fifth, still in Europe, Sherwood’s record on paper stands up, the ground is full but people know in the marrow of their bones that the good ship Tottenham Hotspur is heading for an iceberg. Norwich brought it all to a head.
There’s a surreal quality to watching the club right now as supporters struggle to pick up the fast-fading echoes of our hopes and plans, once so strident, now a barely discernable background murmur. I alternate between periods of despair and moments where all I can see is the absurdity of it all. You have to laugh or else you’d cry. Nah, just crying for me, if you don’t mind.
What’s happened at Spurs is a bizarre and distorted version of reality, a footballing hall of mirrors from which there’s no escape. Consider:
Spurs sack a manager who has taken us the Champions League.
We choose a young manager even though the job must have attracted many potential candidates.
We take a risk but then the chairman does not back his decision and decides to limit the transfer budget available to the new man.
The new man does better than expected.
We invest the cash from the sale of our best player in new talent.
The new manager can’t deal with this.
We pay over £25m for a striker but the manager has no idea what to do with him.
We pay a club record fee for a player not ready for the Premier League.
We play a much criticised formation.
The manager is sacked even though we are reasonably well-placed in the league.
The new guy takes over. He has no experience whatsoever as a manager. Anywhere.
He plays a different formation. We do well.
New manager now plays exactly the same formation that was vehemently criticised when the old manager was in charge and led to his dismissal.
It’s this last one that has done for me. Sherwood has gone from Harry to AVB in a few short weeks. He started by playing the right players in the right positions, attacking football, letting them play. Now, he’s playing a high defensive line, hence the centrebacks being stranded on the halfway line, inverted wingers with Dembele a left footed played on the right and Lennon a right footed player on the left, and an isolated centre forward. Sherwood’s implied criticism of Villas-Boas was apparent in his tactics. Now he’s doing exactly the same, with identical results.
This is has got nothing to do with the relative merits of any of the names I have mentioned. I’m not using it as evidence to support any agenda. It’s so bad, it’s gone beyond picking over the bones of the rights and wrongs of each individual decision – there’s enough of that on Tottenham On My Mind over the past five years. Neither am I demanding silverware and a place in the CL. I didn’t expect either at the start of the season so this is not about unrealistic expectations. I am just saying that it’s crazy. Totally stupid. Absurd. That it’s no way to run a football club.
This is very much a private hell for Spurs fans. Supporters of other clubs think we are doing fine, just a little wobble. One reason is that it is not top of the news agenda, partly because we are actually fifth (excuse me if I repeat that too often but I have to remind myself sometimes) and partly because Manchester United are so bad.
One dimension of this surreal world is the fact that Sherwood is not a real manager at all. Levy is planning to replace Tim the Temp in the summer. He knows that, we know that, no one knows it better that Sherwood himself. So we twiddle our thumbs, mark time, wait for the World Cup to end and see who is available. Another version is of course that the contracts have already been signed. Whatever, we go through the motions until then. Pointless. More plans out the window. Again.
This has all happened before. Talk about the nightmare coming back to haunt. The 2003-4 season when David Pleat took over after Glenn Hoddle was sacked mid-season was the worst in my 45 plus years of watching Spurs for the same reasons that have caused the angst now – the lack of direction, the absence of plan or purpose, the hopelessness of it all. Whether by design or circumstances (Levy may have limited transfer funds), Hoddle decided that a midfield of Anderton, Poyet and Redknapp, a combined age of over 90, could cope with the demands of a full Premier League season. With no money to play with, Pleat had to keep us going and we should be eternally grateful for unsung hero Michael Brown for doing their running for them.
There’s one huge difference between then and now. In 2003, the squad was falling apart through neglect, almost literally in some cases as Anderton and Redknapp dragged their weary muscles from treatment table to pitch and back again, while Gardner, Bunjy, Docherty and Ricketts played frequently. Fourth from bottom was the only target and there were dark times when that looked over-ambitious, especially in March and early April after a run of one point in six matches.
In contrast we began this season full of expectation, the task being to mould the ambitious, expectant squad into a coherent unit. Goals were expressed in the medium and long term. I was certainly looking for progress this season but with the promise of greater things to come as the players were bought in the knowledge that they had still to fully mature. Their best years were ahead of them.
This caretaker regime could destroy the squad. It’s not Sherwood’s fault. The last thing the club is doing is taking care of these players. The two players of arguably the highest quality in the side, Lloris and Vertonghen, have given us two years and will become impatient that promises have not been kept. They arrived being told that Tottenham was a club going somewhere, with ambition to match its rich heritage. They are in demand, reaching their prime and won’t hang around. Soldado and Paulinho are strangers in a strange land, hollowed-eyed and uncomfortable. The Brazilian could be a World Cup winner, a enviable reputation to banish the memories of an indifferent season. Dembele is another who will be in demand, Walker perhaps in a Premier League that could value his qualities and cover for his defensive deficiencies.
Of the others, Sandro’s injuries make him a less attractive buy. We have no idea of what Lamela is thinking. Eriksen must be fuming.
Now more than ever before, the decisions of the board on and off the pitch are seeping through the redoubtable barricades most football supporters create over time between our escapist enjoyment of the game and the reality of the time, effort and cost of watching Premier League football. Promises made to us have been broken too. We don’t need statements from Levy himself to know that the anticipated success on the field has not transpired, that ticket prices continue to soar, there’s no sign of the new stadium and a bottle of water costs £2. The atmosphere is poor. The police are taking action against fans who use the Y word. Sometimes at the Lane when the crowd starts to sing, it feels like an expression not so much of support but of relief and release, to get the frustration out through our lungs into the air, to remind ourselves that this is what watching football is all about.
Len Shackleton famously included a chapter in his autobiography on the football knowledge of directors. It was blank. Levy’s lack of football acumen leaves him vulnerable because he can’t make up his own mind. This is not just about the rumours of Sherwood influencing the chairman’s decision to dismiss Villas-Boas. In his autobiography Ledley King, the most inoffensive of writers, says that Jol briefed against Santini, Poyet told players to ignore Ramos. This means the club are always vulnerable and everyone who has anything to do with us knows it, including the various Directors of Football. That’s the problem with them. Not their post or them as individuals but we are never clear who takes decisions or what the accountability structure is.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow night’s game against Dnipro. £20 in, 1882 will ensure a good atmosphere, I’ll get behind them and we have to go for it. A proper European tie at last, one down but everything to play for. Sincerely I wish Sherwood all the best with the team but forgive me if it all still feels a bit odd.