The home game that’s away. The club that goes unbeaten for an entire season then demolishes the ground. This doesn’t feel right.
The Bakerloo line to Wembley Central is easy enough. Too easy. There’s nobody on the train, the dingiest of lines with old-fashioned carriages and 40-watt bulbs. Never mind saving energy, it’s sapping mine. The journey is part of the match for fans. The buzz, the chatter, rubbing shoulders with strangers who are friends because they wear navy blue and white. Smelling the booze, the sweat, the fags, all set the scene, whet the appetite. This is merely another tube, destination suburbia, our companions mostly central London workers with tired eyes going home after the early shift. Thank goodness for the bloke in the t-shirt, a picture of Bob Marley in Spurs gear, just about the sole reminder that Spurs are at home today.
Then burst into daylight and the first sight of the stadium. Both lift the spirits. The Lilywhites are here and so are we. Except it feels like a cup semi-final. 19 semi-finals this year, then. The Trust twitter feed has been fun this week with a stream of reminders to fellow supporters, at first plaintive then increasingly desperate, that this is a Spurs home game and there are no designated pubs for home and away support, so I’m not the only one.
It’s better once we’re in. Seeing the same faces and greeting them like lost long relatives gives a sense of stability and continuity. I’ve seen them every fortnight for the last 16 years, don’t know the names of most of them, but they remain part of my life. Spoke to Karen, I now know her name to be Karen, like old friends we are. Never said a word to her until now.
We have been lucky enough to move with the people we have always sat with, except oddly the seat allocation has been reversed, so the people who were on my left on the Shelf are now on my right. This is surprisingly disorienting. Football support is about familiarity, routines, they’re comfortable, we wear them like a favourite old overcoat to feel snug and protect us against the intrusions of the outside world. That’s why we go to football. Isn’t it?
Kick-off is imminent. A thought shared. There are a touch off 70,000 Spurs fans here, and we can make a hell of a noise if we put our mind to it. Not like a semi-final at all. And one thing above all else. Results, players, managers, none mean as much as being there. When I look around just before kick-off, let the atmosphere wash over me, and think there’s somewhere else in the world I would rather be, then that’s the time to say goodbye. Not yet. Not for a long time. Home is where the Hotspur play.
In the end, it felt more like a home game that I expected. The noise when it came was mighty, deafening when we scored, but this is new to all of us and there were flatspots too. The fans sort things out for ourselves and that takes time. Everyone has been moved around, from my seat on the halfway line the efforts of those at our end were much appreciated and loud and clear. The Park Lane/Shelfside thing, made me feel at home.
So the amplified drum beat – that actually happened, right? Not a figment of the dark recesses of my imagination, a fever-ridden nightmare? The Chels fans chanted WTF was that and they were right. Nobody joined in and mercifully it was substituted at half-time, hopefully never to be heard again.
Football clubs still do not get supporters. The history of fans – any club, from parkland to the Noucamp – is we do want we want. We choose when to sing and what to sing. The decision of someone at Spurs that playing a drumbeat over the tannoy is going to energise the atmosphere is on one level laughable, on another a measure of the disturbing lack of understanding that exists from clubs in respect of their supporters. They did not consult the Supporters Trust – why ask the fans what they want. It’s that simple, yet the club doesn’t get it. Another desperate moment in the undistinguished relationship between club and fans in this crucial season away from home and when we all feel discomfited.
To fulfil their true potential, this season Spurs must accomplish consistently two things that in the past have eluded us, namely impose themselves on teams and cut out the mistakes. Everything else flows from there. Take chances of course, but first make the chances. The way we’re playing, chances will always come. Stay strong in those periods, and there will always be periods, when the other team are on top.
Matches against Ch**sea, the most bitter of our rivals, the nasty game, the bring-them-on game, these games have become the benchmark of how close we are to satisfying that potential. At home, at White Hart Lane that is, we learned the knack. Two seasons ago the mistakes came only after we’d scored five glorious goals. Last season in a skintight match we scored twice from as many chances in the whole match but took it to them from the start and they was no comeback in their hearts.
Last season’s semi-final showed how much we still have to learn. Justified expectation evaporated with a free-kick conceded by Alderweireld’s uncharacteristically poor judgement under pressure and a free-kick sliced into the top corner. Uphill from 6 minutes, our efforts to chase the game were in vain and I’ve drawing a veil round that penalty and Son’s excuse for a tackle.
Yesterday we were imposing for long periods but the mistakes did for us. One out of two is progress but not enough. The result was defeat, and defeat in the worst possible way. It’s one thing being beaten, but losing after being the better team, after hopes raised by a late equaliser then skewered by an even later winner, that’s bad. I still feel the pain.
The game took a while to get going then Spurs were the team who rose above the midfield morass that this match had become. But don’t make mistakes. Another free-kick conceded without undue pressure on the defence, superbly converted by Alonso. And now we’re running uphill.
To their great credit, Spurs lifted themselves and played extremely well either side of half-time. Kane it was who lead the charge, singlehandedly taking on the defence, shooting, lay-offs, dribbles, sometimes delicate, at other times stumbling forward under the weight of the tackles but always forward. He narrowly missed then hit the post. These are trademark moves from him and we expect these cross-shots to go in. Perhaps he’s falling away ever so slightly on contact with the ball.
We needed to put pressure on their reorganised defence. Despite the lack of space – everybody back behind the ball – we managed to find the gaps between their three centre backs to make the opportunities. Dembele charging forward, Eriksen looking to prise open a gap, Dele not part of the action. All the action was at the Blues’ end.
Gradually however our opponents stifled our efforts. A goal up, they could fall back to soak up the pressure. Effectively playing five at the back, those channels dried up. They forced us into the middle, broke up the attacks. We had all the ball but insufficient nouse. The selection of two DMs, Dier and Wanyama, was intended to create a solid platform against the champions. By this point, it left us short of creativity and options, compounded by Wanyama giving the ball away repeatedly.
Frankly we were getting nowhere, then a stroke of luck. Batshuayi on as sub had clearly not got his bearings. His near-post header was firm, decisive and perfectly executed, except into his own net. For all the world he looks as if he genuinely lost his head for a moment and though he was scoring for his team not against them, such was the intent behind the header.
A draw was the least we deserved. Then mistake upon mistake. Wanyama brought the ball out of defence but before we could draw breath after a sigh of relief, he gave it away. Alonso, dashing forward, shot through Lloris at his near post. If he had stood still it would have hit his knee, leg, torso, any part of his body would do. Instead, Hugo attempted to plunge his right hand downwards to push it away and obligingly moved his leg out of the way.
Positives and problems. Those spells either side of half-time showed how we can dominate matches and, without being at our most fluent, create chances against an 11-man defence intent on re-introducing the tackle from behind, without being at our most fluent. Kane was an outstanding leader.
Wanyama’s lack of a full pre-season became glaringly obvious as the game went on. Dier had little influence alongside him. And how we missed Walker and Rose. The merits of Trippier and Davies are immaterial – they’re not as good as Walker and Rose. The former should not have been sold, the latter needs to be brought back into the team as soon as he is fit, regardless of his rubbish interviews. Kyle and Danny offered stamina and pace as well as width, and how we need all three of those qualities when we were chasing the game in the second half. Without them, Spurs are far less potent an attacking force, and I worry about this in games to come. Dembele and Dele spent periods going out wide when like paperclips to magnets they are drawn to central areas, unbalancing the side and wasting their prodigious talents.
Hoodoo? No such thing. Play better is all. It will be hard. Home advantage has not disappeared but has been diminished and teams will lift their game because it’s Wembley.