White Hart Lane: Theatre of Dreams or Theatre of the Absurd?

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.

31 thoughts on “White Hart Lane: Theatre of Dreams or Theatre of the Absurd?

  1. The fact of the mater is we should have stuck with AVB and allowed him to develop his talent as a coach and developed the squad that he had some part in assembling. When AVB was there there was hope, there was a plan And a project. Now all we have is what we had before, hopeless, directionless mediocrity.

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    • completely agree. the sacking of AVB is still the low point of the season, and I still believe a real mistake by the club. The only thing that has changed for Tim (or had, since he has now adopted the same tactics) is adding Adebayor back into the side, but since he was critical of AVB in team meetings of course he was going to be sidelined.

      The worst is knowing that it all needs to start again – a new manager in the summer, a new plan, a new set of players who again will need time to blend and new tactical ideas that will take time for the players to adapt to…and if no instant results then another manager sacked and the sorry cycle of Tottenham continues.

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    • That’s exactly it – never breaking the cycle. Supporters have been very tolerant, now this seemingly endless cycle is clear to everyone. Thing is, as I’ve written before, it’s a good plan for a club like ours. We don’t have good leadership to see it through, however, and have missed moments where committing a comparitively small amount of extra cash in the market to get the right man could have made a huge difference.

      Regards, Alan

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  2. Well said. We are indeed in a footballing hall of mirrors, with what seems like little escape. I don’t expect we’ll get out until they’ve all crashed down, Hugo and Jan have left, and we have some ashes to rise from again.

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    • …which will take a few years more, and we will get further behind, and we will be further down the transfer peckin gorder because we don’t pay high salaries and aren’t in Europe…and so on and so on and so it goes…

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  3. Been saying exactly the same thing, Alan, in this and other blogs ..albeit a bit more piecemeal, and not as succinctly as you have argued it here.
    Although I stated that most Spurs fans were being over-optimistic as the start of the season (because we had gone nowhere near to replacing Modric, let alone VDV and Bale, and with Eriksen being almost an afterthought) I still shudder at the poor tactics, the awful team set-ups, and the subsequent reluctance/procrastination of our prior manager to change things mid-game ..particularly at home ..all of which prevented us from being in the top four right now. We gave up so many points to lesser teams, rather than simply getting beaten by teams with better players (apart, obviously, from the City and Liverpool debacles). And now, Tim (shockingly) is copying the AVB set-up ‘method’ and, like his predecessor, also failing to act quickly or appropriately within games themselves, when we are dragged all over the park by teams with simply greater desire and hunger. Our Tim, who has ostensibly pinned all his hopes on Ade and Bentaleb, has no plan B, but can’t even tweak plan A!
    The ‘getting on well with the players’ bit can only last so long when you have a large expensive squad of various nationalities and high profiles all competing to play in their ‘rightful’ positions, and in a set-up that suits them all, but can be altered to address the opposition.
    Talk about being taken in too by the ‘Newcastle on it’s knees’ 4-0 result! Although the history was different, and down to other factors, our zenith (of attractive football) occurred two seasons back in the same month, after good old Harry got cleared in his court case, and was then immediately touted for England when Capello resigned on the same day. Within a couple of days we hammered the Geordies 5-0 ..but from then on, it was all downhill as uncertainty surrounded Harry’s tenure at a club on the genuine ‘up’ that had been loyal to him through the trial, or his joining England at the end of the season (because yer can’t turn yer country down, can yer ..when it comes calling!). As it was, it was merely the song of The Sirens dashing both Harry and his good ship Tottenham onto the rocks ..and frankly, we’ve never recovered from it.
    But the recent Newcastle comparison is valid, 1. because of the uncertainty, like Harry, surrounding Tim at the end of this season, and 2. the fact that, again like Harry, he thought he’d cracked it with the Newcastle performance, and that the team would just happily operate on a cruise control/auto pilot basis for the rest of the season. ‘Good bunch of lads ..and they don’t need me to tell em how to play anymore’. I may be well off the mark on all that, but I really can’t help adding it to all the other ‘reasons’ why our very good and envied, but often never quite complete, squads have failed to fulfill their potential, and given us the good times we’ve all been led (top players and fans alike) to expect. .

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    • As ever Chris, well said, and thanks for such thoughtful comments on the blog. The pity is, I’ve written a good few articles on the same topic, you’ve have replied with a good few well-judged comments , and nothing changes. We see it, surely they do too.

      Cheers, Al

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  4. Sherwood is totally wrong by insisting that he gets on with all the players and wants to give them all game time.With only 1/3 of the season remaining he should be picking the best team to maximise the points available.
    Eriksen should start every game with a settled system and stick with it.Whilst a promising prospect,Benteleb,is not yet good enough to keep out seasoned internationals at our disposal.Townsend and Lennon must be told to get in crosses and get to the byline and cut the ball back,maybe then Soldado and or Adebayor will have something to work with.
    Whilst I don’t see us getting 4th.spot,we cannot allow Utd.or Everton to push us further down the table.Let’s hope Sandro can play for the remaining matches.A new manager (van Gaal?)in the summer would hopefully persuade Lloris and Vertongen to stay at least for another season.

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    • Agree totally. I have nothing against Sherwood – he’s our manager and I want him succeed. However, and you guessed there was a but coming up, your comment hihglights my problem with him, which to be fair is not enitrely of his own making. He won’t be around for too long so does he have an incentive to plan for next season? That said, I would do exactly as you say – have a system where Sandro and Eriksen are key in midfield and stick to it.

      Regards, Alan

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  5. Yes, we’ve been morphing back into the stagnant AVB side of this season for some weeks now.

    Until Levy learns to sit on his hands once a presumed crisis hits and trust not only the judgement of the manager/head coach, but also his own, since he’s the one who hired him, we will have to rely on him lucking out as with Jol and Harry.

    Van Gaal is brilliant, close to a tactical genius of his time, but he’s approaching his mid-60s I believe. He could start to implement a longer-term project with a coach understudying him, I suppose, but Levy’s head is as likely to be turned by a younger coach doing well in the World Cup this summer. Like many players who have had a super World Cup or Euros in the past, this won’t necessarily translate into the premier league.

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    • Interesting to hear views on Van Gaal, I know his reputation but not the detil of how he works. We’ll see. However good he is, he may not like the players we have, or have left i should say when he gets here. Unless he is working with the club now, which some suggest he is but that’s just rumour, we won’t have an acquisition plan for the summer window.

      Etc etc.

      Cheers, Alan

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  6. I share the hope that Our Tim might yet prove successful, but can’t shake the feeling that he is out of his depth. He may be like Harry in some ways but lacks the experience of dealing with some top-level names and keeping them motivated. It feels like the team are no longer playing for him as they did a few weeks back and he doesn’t know what to do about it. I think there are parallels with the current Manchester United team performances. My two penny worth – echoing many here – is that Sherwood is massively over-rating Bentaleb, and that a midfielder with vision is desperately needed to access the front players. Why Dembele can no longer do this baffles me, but that’s another question. I also feel that as long as we keep passing to feet instead of space we make ourselves easy to beat. The return to AVB’s formation and style is the most baffling development of all, and surely evidences that Tim’s own vision is not as clear-cut as he would have us believe. It will take a lot to rescue our season now.

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    • Well said – nothing much to add there! TS is a good judge of a young player. Bentaleb for me is a hihgly impressive prospect whose style fits the team but like most young men he has to be nurtured. While in many games he has not looked out of place and he has great confidence, Sherwood has not noticed when he needs a rest. Versus Norwich he just wasn’t there and should not have playe din the Ukraine. If Sandro is fit, he should step down and TS play a different formation.

      Regards, Alan

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  7. Hi Alan,

    Great article again, keep up the good work.

    I think I’ve written this before, but we are the good ship Tottenham, N17 class, floundering upon a sea of uncertainty, with Levy and ENIC the Admirals standing at the back of the bridge replacing the Captain each time it sales into a storm.

    It used to be the hope that I couldn’t live with, but now it is the uncertainty.

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  8. Alan: only today at lunch I was discussing the doldrums/maelstrom into which we appear bound with a colleague, Phil, who knows far more about football (and far less about Spurs) than I do. Strangely, although Phil’s not a Tottenham follower, some of his insights were broadly similar to your’s – but he also mentioned another influencing factor I’ve not seen
    discussed above,

    There’s a lot of chin-wagging about the ability to go off the boil of Sherwood, AVB, ‘Arry,… all the way back to Hoddle/Ardiles/Platt and further. What Phil propounded is that maybe the nogger in the widpile is a certain Italian gent, rejoicing in the fancy managerial, la-la-land panjundrumate previously haunted (however briefly) by Meneer “Mephostoles” Arnesen and Signore “Slimbag” Comolli… none than “General” Franco Baldini? Who else in the exalted hierarchy could wield over the nominal boss the influence (both upwards and downwards along the food chain) to initiate the tactical and stylistic retardation that has happened twice now since ‘Arry slinged ‘is ‘ook?

    Outside perspective? Well it’s a thought – and it might just transfigure the heretofore inexplicable…

    Just sayin’

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    • Maybe it’s Levy who is calling the shots on how we play.
      Tim all of a sudden reverts back to AVB style, maybe this is the reason. But one thing is for sure, we are all second guessing as to why our style has panned out again.

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    • I touched on the DoF situation in the article. There has to be a clear acountability structure in any organisation, including a football club. At Spurs this has been a huge problem for all the time Levy has been in charge. He doesn’t know the game so is always vulnerable to the voices in his ear. We ahve a plan. The DoF recruits players, then Levy pulls the pulg because the manager is not doing what he should. That said, you like to think Baldini knows what he is about with his experience, but we fans never really know.

      Regards, Alan

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  9. I think Tim has lost the dressing room.. Why else the sudden dip in form? Or maybe this touting of other managers as you say Alan, probably says to himself, why should I bother if other managers are being touted for the job.
    Hope I’m wrong and Tim turns it round, and at least wins this Europa for all the heartache it has caused us.
    Good read as always Alan.

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    • Thanks my friend. Key men in the dressing room have lost the hope in their eyes. Maybe Tim himself, or as I suspect maybe it’s about the club not meeting hopes rather than the man himself.

      Cheers, Alan

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      • OK. So it was not the most beautiful football ever. But at least it ended urgent and exciting. Talk about helter-skelter (or actually big dipper) as one goes round and round and the other up and down. Yes: big dipper. The first 45 were a shallow descent towards the quagmire. The next 10 – a near vertical plummet into the local sewage farm. And then Eriksen decided, took a few deep breaths to measure the angles, let rip and the altimeter started moving skyward again.

        It was by no means the most cultured Tottenham display I’ve ever seen, but it did vaguely remind me of Ronnie Rosenthal’s performance at Southampton a couple of centuries ago!

        With reservations (I contend Dawson is not just too slow, but his passing and distribution stink; my persisting reservations about Bentaleb…; And Soldado. oh dear???), I would take this roller coaster footy every week as long as we always get one more than them. And with the enthusiasm, commitment, strength; blatant esprit de corps and a couple Oscar worthy performances (“Take a bow, Jan!”) the final 35 minutes is why I have always followed Spurs and could never submit to the torpor induced by teams that take three points every game without breaking sweat.

        Is it possible we could simply generate this momentum in a few of the remaining league fixtures too?

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