The moment Tottenham Hotspur reached the League Cup Final,the Sky cameras focussed on the face of Christian Eriksen, whose late goal, a sublimely serene finish amidst the bedlam of an underdog cup-tie comeback, secured a precious victory. Tdhey found no elation, just a blank expression as he gazed into the middle distance, coming to terms with a trip to Wembley rather than the gut-wrenching indignity of extra time in a match Spurs seemed to have thrown away as carelessly as chucking a fag packet out of a car window.
Relief next as the magnitude of what he had acheived sunk in. Only then was there joy. The players joined hands to celebrate in front of the 5500 who had travelled a long way on a bitter winter’s night in search of cup glory. They were led by our own, the young Spurs, proper Spurs, for whom this meant so much. Supporters and players for once as one, experiencing the same emotions. Ripping pain aside, joy unconfined, on our way to Wembley.
Wembley the hard way. The Spurs way. Is there any other way? I don’t mind how we got there as long as we get there.For all I care our centre forward could have repeatedly stamped on our opponents without punishment then go and pinch a late set-piece winner, but you could never get away with that. Semi-finals are never pretty but it felt as if Spurs won this one twice over. Ending the first half a goal to the good, we were unable to fully sustain our first half dominance but come 70 minutes, two up on aggregate with an away goal, we had surely done enough. But Spurs are always vulnerable. A couple of decent balls into the box and it turns out we had built a house of straw. Sheffield not only drew level, they missed a decent chance to win it. With United rampant and baying for blood, time dragged so slowly I truly believed 180 minutes had passed.
Spurs learned their lesson from the first leg and from kick-off took the game to our opponents. We harried and pressed, confining this game, well-organised United team to their own half. Kane demonstrated the folly of starting last week with Adebayor up front by repeatedly finding the channels between their back four time. Sadly his finishing did not match the quality of his movement. He missed several good chances but because we were on top, you were confident another one would be along in a minute.
At the other end, United posed few problems. Those that existed were largely of our own making, giving away possession unnecessarily. To break the spell, Vorm dropped an innocuous cross but we scrambled it clear. Never again doubt Lloris and his choice to frequently punch.
To our credit, we did not allow that to faze us. Dominant again, the goal when it came was deserved but from a free-kick rather than open play. Stambouli drove on towards the defence but was fouled. From the right, 25 yards out, Eriksen’s right-footed shot looked to be curling wide of both the keeper and the woodwork, then it nestled into the top corner as softly as a mother bird settling on her eggs. A beautiful piece of skill, impossible to save. Flat-footed Keeper rooted to the spot, looking up, back to Eriksen, then up again. It was in my friend.
Spurs played particularly well up to half time, smooth possession football, untroubled and untouchable. Most unlike us. Not quite so superior in the second half as United came out with nothing to lose but still effective. Mason and particularly Stambouli swept up everything in midfield, snuffing out any sparks of danger and moving the ball forward as soon as possible. Mason added a couple of lung-busting late bursts into the box but failed to convert. Dembele came into his own too. His strength on the ball meant he was nigh on impossible to tackle and he took the game to our opponents repeatedly, not only easing pressure on our defence but making chances for others too. Far more dangerous further upfield, which has become the sub-title for this blog. Echoes of old failings though in the way he eases up at the edge of the box just when something decisive is required.
Duty bound to slip in at this point the fact that Lamela was excruciatingly awful, wilfully ignoring space and preferring to run with the ball towards the nearest defender. Given that he did nothing defensively, one of those performances when despite watching football for over 50 years, you have no notion what was going through a player’s mind.
Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy yourself….Stambouli and Mason are a good pair when the ball is in front of them. It’s a different matter when our opponents get behind us. How we miss a fit Sandro in these situations, slipping back into the back four to cover any gaps. United hit some good balls into the box and boy did the gaps appear. The lack of midfield cover out wide left the full-backs exposed. Drawn out, our centre backs were isolated. Suddenly United were level, one cross to the far post, one deflected shot impossible to save.
Spurs were as trembly as Ossies’ knees. The sound of crashing dreams was almost audible. It’s not resilience that gets us through. True resilience would mean we wouldn’t need late winners after being ahead but hey, this is the cup so remember only the magic. Desperate times call for cool heads. Up against it, we have a couple as cool as James Bond at the North Pole. Kane perfectly controlled a tricky ball then his pass to Eriksen tore the defence apart. Into the box, left foot, Eriksen calmly stroked the ball across the keeper and wheeled away in triumph. A top class moment irrespective of context. To win a semi-final, it was the touch of a master.
The hard way, the Spurs way. Something more was required. I wouldn’t have played Vorm, not because he’s bad, he isn’t, but because Lloris is by far our best and leaving him out gives the wrong message to the whole side. But Vorm hurled himself at a forward’s feet and 50/50 became 100/0 in our favour.
A day out at Wembley to look forward to, even better in the company of these young players whose exuberance and application have got us there. Kane and Mason chatting afterwards on the pitch, Mason with a Spurs scarf, sure he got it from a grateful fan but you felt as if he could have worn it on the train coming up. One of us. Good times. Fans and players loyal and committed. Better times to come.
I’ve been contacted by Jeff Astle’s family. Read their message from the Justice for Jeff campaign, if you’re at West Brom on Saturday, please support
JUSTICE FOR JEFF ASTLE
Nine minutes into Saturday’s game a large banner will be unveiled in the Birmingham Road End (opposite the Tottenham supporters) reading ‘Justice for Jeff’ which starts a minute’s applause – nine being the famous shirt number our dad wore. The two big screens at The Hawthorns will also display a picture of Jeff with the words ‘If in doubt, sit them out’ which refers to the dangers of concussion in sport.
Spurs fans are more than welcome to join in with the applause if they choose; for which we would be very grateful for; but if not we would like to take this opportunity to make them aware of our campaign if they haven’t already seen it via the national media.
The Justice for Jeff banner has been at every West Bromwich Albion home and away game and will continue to be for the rest of this season. Hopefully by then the promised research into the links between heading footballs and brain damage will be in its early stages and, just as importantly, the research into former players and instances of dementia will have commenced.
We are aware that your great club has also had old heroes who suffered or are sadly still suffering with Alzheimer’s or some other Degenerative Brain Disease. Arthur Rowe, Alf Ramsey, Tommy Harmer, Danny Blanchflower, Peter Baker and the ‘ indestructible Dave Mackay, to name a few.
We would also like to respectfully ask that if you are aware of any other former players who may have died of, or are sadly living with Alzheimer’s or any other Degenerative Brain Disease please contact us by emailing email@example.com – this information is vitally important to forthcoming research.
Our dad was the first British footballer to have been confirmed to die from CTE but he wouldn’t of been the first and certainly won’t be the last.
You can keep up-to-date and learn more about our campaign by visiting our website justiceforjeff.co.uk or through our Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/justiceforjeffastle) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/astle1968 #justiceforjeff) pages.
The Astle Family