As someone once said, of all the things in the world that aren’t important, football is the most important of all. Since I was a kid, Tottenham Hotspur have been a significant part of my life. Unlike my relationships, I’ve had the chance to leave but never wanted to. For me, a Spurs win lifts my mood and makes me a better person, until the next game comes around and the butterflies in my stomach return as kick-off is near. Shouldn’t be that way, but there it is.
My goodness me how I have missed it. I like to make up my own mind about things but having consumed Spurs through the media this past month, it’s interesting to see what they think of us. I don’t want an obsequious media, drooling over Pochettino’s views in the same way they fawn over Mourinho’s contemptuous invective, but while we get a good press, we don’t get the credit we deserve. Because Spurs are “a big club” (whatever that means exactly) there is an expectation that we will do well not shared by supporters to anywhere near the same extent. This is the youngest team in the PL punching way above their weight, full of young British players several of whom are home-grown. You’d think that would be more of a story. Leicester’s heroics have overshadowed that to a large extent, and good luck to them by the way.
However, the radio has conveyed a sense that Spurs will keep going. Listening to both the Palace and Everton games on 5 Live, we went a goal down but just kept on playing, undeterred. It’s a good feeling to have.
In the words of soul legend Solomon Burke, she’s mean to me, she’s so bad for me, but when she touches me, nothing else matters. As others tire of the game, exhausted by the shabby, dismissive way supporters are treated, by the money, the greed, the hypocrisy, the incompetence of those who run it in England and across the world, so I grow to love my club more. Being there is what matters to me and I was glad to be at the Lane yesterday. Joy and relief in the stands when the goal went in. I joined in the singing, then stopped to listen, look around and take it all in. The whole ground full of song, the noise echoing in the roof and in my ears, rhythmic clapping rippling around the stands.
The goal when it came was worth waiting for, not only a thing of considerable beauty but also an illustration of how far this team has come. Spurs clean out an untidy ball in the corner not by whacking it upfield, perfectly acceptable though that option is, but by a spot of head tennis to keep possession at all costs. Kane comes deep to help out. Still in our half, a cushioned lay-off, his trademark touch, to a stampeding Dembele who surges 20 yards onwards. Not so long ago, he would have waited and taken it sideways.
Dembele pauses, here’s Alli just on as sub, to take it further. Outside of the foot cross, confident, precise, bisects keeper and defenders. This effort takes several Spurs attackers deep and should leave us short, but here’s a full-back, Trippier, at the far post to gleefully tuck it in. He’s run 80 yards from the edge of his own box to get there. The whole thing took, what, 15 seconds.
Trippier was marked by Capoue, one of the old guard who by all accounts did not buy into Pochettino’s regime, aka wouldn’t put the hard work in. The Frenchman half-heartedly goes with his man but could not be arsed to run the extra yard or so that would have prevented this goal. That’s why he no longer plays for us.
Even allowing for their self-imposed lack of ambition, Watford were pressed back into their half for extended periods. Never mind the shot and corner stats, the number crunchers could have added ‘times in the opposition half’, such was our dominance. They kept it very narrow and tight, denying space with 10 or 11 men behind the ball. It’s something we’ll have to get accustomed to.
Spurs combated this by attacking at a high tempo from the start and sustaining this until we went ahead. Despite the blanket defence, we made more chances in this match than in any I can remember for ages, 5 or 6 good opportunities in the first half. Pochettino’s system asks a lot of the full-backs, probably why he’s sought quality cover on both flanks as a priority. Trippier and Davies, nominally the second choice pairing, did not disappoint. Three times in the first half, Davies closed in on the goal with menace and intent. Three times Gomes saved low down to his left. He kept Watford in the game and was their star man by a street. Kane and Chadli missed good chances too.
Tottenham came out after half-time and upped the pace, if that were possible. Now it was Trippier’s turn to feature. Time and again he burst down the right and his crosses posed a danger every time. Spurs launched a determined assault on the Watford goal, 15 minutes of relentless brilliance that produced several chances and a definite penalty when Gomes, reverting to behaviour so familiar to Spurs fans, clumsily fell into the back of Kane’s legs. Eriksen and Trippier excelled, Lamela, who had a reasonable game, missed a great chance and helped create others. Then the goal, significantly one of the few times Spurs shifted the defence right out of shape. It was more like an away goal, hitting on the break, which is why we have such a good away record – it’s a style that suits.
Not so long ago you would have had more chance of convincing me that the earth is flat, people can walk up the side of buildings and next year we’ll all get around by using jetpacks than persuading me that Spurs have the best defensive record in the Premier League. Yesterday, for all the sustained attacking, Alderweireld showed once again that he is the main reason why. Alert and strong, he snuffed out most of Watford’s efforts before they got anywhere near Lloris, who did not have to make a save all afternoon. He’s in charge, of the opposition and his own defence, organising and pointing. Wimmer looks promising, in the same mould. He accomplished the best single piece of defence, stretching to intercept a curling cross and heading it back to Hugo.
Dembele was outstanding in the first half. In terms of the extent to which he lifts the team’s performance, he remains the most influential midfielder in the league. Trippier wins man of the match. Eriksen as I said was excellent too. Dier was not only strong as usual but kept the attacks moving with a series of firm, straight first-time passes from the back. I prefer Son to Chadli and Lamela because of his greater impact in the box, and I would have started him/brought him on sooner.
Talented though these individuals are, the team’s the thing. I’ve not seen a Spurs manager have such an impact on the team since Billy Nick. Burkinshaw deserves great credit for his achievements, more so than he receives. His is a lasting legacy, Pochettino’s short-term (so far) but more transformative. His ability to organise and motivate has transformed Tottenham Hotspur from a bunch of underachievers plus youngsters into a dynamic, purposeful aggregation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
As I write we are second in the league. Think I will type that again. Tottenham Hotspur are second in the league. We deserve it, but whatever happens from now on in, it is a heart-warming experience that lifts the spirits and restores the faith of jaded supporters in the beauty and glory of the game. The soul-sapping spectre of the Europa League looms in the background. Tiredness could be our worst enemy. For now, enjoy every moment. I wonder if this is how it felt in 1959, when supporters starved of success watched a largely untested manager assemble the pieces of the greatest side of modern times. This lot won’t be as good as the Double team, of course not, but we are watching something special come together nonetheless.
Fortunes on the field are subject to the vagaries of the game – loss of form, tiredness, poor decisions, bad luck. However the season turns out, Pochettino’s side have achieved something that seemed impossible in the contemporary history of Tottenham Hotspur, bringing the club and supporters closer together. The problems and potential problems have not disappeared. Lest we forget, prices deter many and exclude many more. The club is more responsive to fans than they were 18 months ago and the Supporters Trust have had a lot to do with that but let’s not kid ourselves. In many respects at senior level they do not understand what fans want and even less about how to give it to us.
But this team have transcended that. They give everything they have. They care – about each other, about winning, about the supporters. They understand what the club means to supporters, what it stands for. After the Norwich game, instead of dashing off after a perfunctory wave to the Park Lane, spontaneously they stayed on the pitch as if they did not want to leave it after playing so well. They shuffled round in a semi-circle of honour, all of them, applauding the crowd who sang ‘happy birthday’ to Hugo. Instead of rushing home to the warmth of families who wanted us to be with them on Boxing Day, many stayed and clapped back. It was the same yesterday. It’s different, it’s wonderful.
I am deeply touched that so many people have missed the blog over the past month and have said that reading it is part of their Spurs routine. Sincere thanks to everyone who has wished me and my wife well. She doesn’t understand why so many total strangers have hoped she gets better but she is grateful. She also doesn’t understand why I sat at her hospital bedside and watched a vine of Alli’s goal at Palace for 10 solid minutes, but you do.