Tell me every detail of what you were doing a year ago today. Give me a minute by minute breakdown, because you can remember every one of them. Every second of preparation, leave nothing to chance. Pub, sofa or being there, the sole aim to get everything out of the way before kick-off.
We all need to relax. It’s a busy, breathless world, a frightening one at the moment. Meditation or mindfulness never cuts it because it just gives me the time and space to think about all my anxieties. It might work, though, if I could take myself back to those few weeks between Ajax and the final, a transcendental state of bliss and harmony where the world was a better place.
Being a Spurs fan never felt so good. Football was an adventure again. We recaptured the joy and wonder that made us fall in love with the game as children, told ourselves that the sacrifices and pain were all worth it. More than reaffirming our support, it’s about having faith in ourselves, our judgment, decisions, commitment. Because being Spurs is intrinsically something within us, about who we are. God have mercy on the woman or man who doubts what we are sure of.
And the way we did it. Coming from behind, epics in the quarters and semis, joyous attacking football. Fans and team never closer. A manager who understood and respected our heritage and who built a team to write another chapter in our history. They gave everything and so did we. When I went to the club to collect our tickets, I chatted with the head steward. He told me that everybody was just so happy. He’d never seen anything like it.
I wasn’t sure if we would all get tickets. I can’t get to away games but in the end we had more than enough loyalty points. Ironically, the nadir of the recent supporter experience, Wembley, sealed it because, who knew, you got points just for turning up.
The family spent 36 hours glued to every travel site on the net. At one point, the only option looked like one of the ten flights from Liverpool that suddenly appeared. I was so desperate, I nearly clicked ‘buy’. In the end, no problems except for the credit card balance.
Madrid was fun. Liverpool fans were top class, no edge, no side. At the airport on the way home, a bored Liverpool fan commandeered the tannoy to sing a few songs. Everyone clapped. It’s telling that these days, rival fans getting along is worthy of comment.
Madrid was hot. Meet friends at the fan park, the message is not bring beer but bring water. These are the best of times. My son took my granddaughter into the tent, which was like a south American sweat lodge ritual with Darren Anderton. The tube to the ground was so packed and hot, sweat condensed on the walls and washed over the floors. The Spurs designated station was 25 minutes from the ground, most of which was along a closed motorway. Hot concrete in the open sun. We got into the ground as soon as possible just to get something to drink and cool off.
When writers reach for similes for ‘utterly, utterly pointless’, use, ‘CL Final pre-match show.’ People from home texting me, asking if I was there and wishing me good luck. Not Spurs, me because these were friends who know nothing about football and care even less but they know me.
Last week, someone on the radio was talking about their biggest sporting disappointments. They said, reasonably, that the impact of disappointment eases as you get older. For me, though, it’s far worse now in my mid-sixties. Oh to be a kid again, when losing a big game doesn’t enter your head, so when it happens, you dissolve uncontrollably into a blubbering mess. There’s shame in that at the time but in fact, it’s entirely healthy. Let it all go and move on in the knowledge that there could be another chance.
Now, it festers. Being older, it means far more as part of who I am and what I have become. I never lost my childlike hopes of miracles and wonder in what football brings to me. This was our moment, my moment, and we blew it. My final whistle expletive-ridden rant was not so much about defeat, I’m Spurs, I’m used to that, but that Spurs will never get a better chance, not in my lifetime at least. We didn’t play anywhere near our potential, that’s what grates for me. Liverpool were beatable on the night. They did not play well either, and dropping into a cautious shape after their early goal potentially played into our hands because Pochettino’s Spurs were more vulnerable if put under sustained pressure.
I can’t get over the penalty. I need to move on but can’t. If it had been clear-cut, I could deal with it. Remember in the cup semi-final against Chelsea a few years back when Spurs were on the rise and hopes were high of a long-awaited breakthrough. Six minutes in, Toby, at the peak of his form, panicked and conceded a needless free-kick. They scored and it all went out the window. It would have been easier to handle if we’d cocked it up like that in the final but this way, the what-might-have-beens will forever haunt me. Anger would be healthy but thinking about it as I write this, I feel as numb and emptied out as I did then.
The stupidity of a Spurs fan part 498579579437. Belongings are symbols of character and emotion. A method actor might take a possession of someone they are studying for a role and wear it on set when they become that person, or in my line of work, a person chucks away a symbol of bad times to banish those feelings and move on. A few months back, I gave the rucksack I took to Madrid to the charity shop. 36 hours of schlepping it around, keeping a close eye on it, constantly fiddling about in and out of the pockets for tickets, money, passport. Seeing it around the house, it aggravated me. My bag, my CL symbol. I’ll let you know if it works.
The whole game was like wading through quicksand, one long anxiety dream when you try to run but get nowhere. Waiting in vain for the clouds to clear and one spell where we would get going. Long after I told the devil that I was prepared to give him my soul in exchange for one decent cross, we were still ploughing on.
If the build-up shows how little football authorities understand or care about fans, for the losers, the end is brutally sadistic. Back in the day, you knew where you were. Final whistle, losers get their medals, come over to the fans and depart while the victors’ celebrations continue. At Wembley, the winners used to come to the opponents’ end to be applauded and pay mutual respect. Times have changed.
Now, players and officials drift around for ten or fifteen minutes while a dais is constructed. Fans and players don’t know whether to go or stay. A few of the players came over, like Trippier, others hung back. Many fans left anyway. Saying farewell properly is important and this was denied us.
At least we could kick on from this, or so I believed. With hindsight, it was a crushing reminder of where we are in the scheme of things. Liverpool fans ached for their destiny of a sixth European Cup, whereas we brought 8 FA Cup semi-final defeats in a row. History places a heavy burden.
In reality, Pochettino’s Spurs had already passed their peak. The damage had been done in previous summers where Levy refused to invest in the squad, thereby failing to capitalise on the opportunities given to him by his manager and throwing away the best opportunity for glory in two generations. In a recent series of interviews, aka Pochettino sending his CV out to anyone who was interested, the Argentinian was all smiles but he must have been mightily hacked off with his chairman. The players were tired, physically and of his voice, he had run out of ideas and anyway, Mourinho was available. Levy always coveted a big-name winner, only appointing Poch after Louis van Gaal turned him down in favour of United. They had had enough of each other. The love affair was over.
In Mourinho, Levy saw a winner, but the new manager soon predictably created a club in his own image, sour, whinging and complaining. Fans were alienated again as we watched growing disorder, passing football replaced by what at times looked like kick and rush. Levy followed this up by increasing the some of the most expensive season ticket prices in Europe, trousering a £3m bonus for not delivering the stadium on time, then furloughing hundreds of low-paid staff. In a mere few months, Levy dismantled the goodwill and positive feeling surrounding the club that he and Pochettino had worked so hard for five years to create.
Pochettino’s departure was greeted by much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth but not everyone sat shiva. It revealed a split in the fanbase, where many criticised Pochettino as the epitome of the lack of killer instinct that winners possess and that has been absent at Spurs for so long. For them, the CL final was the ultimate symbol of that defect and a low point in our history. Not my view, as I wrote this time last year, but it serves as a reminder that fans are united only in their support for the club, not the way they show that support or what they want their club to be.
Fans’ distance from the club is now literal as the season will be completed behind closed doors. It’s noticeable on my twitter timeline how few people have said anything about missing football. Contrast with the international break or over the summer where fans are desperate for the next game.
My initial reaction to the announcement was, ‘at least that will get it over with quickly.’ Partly that apathy is down to Spurs’ poor performances but looking ahead to next season, whenever that is, I’m determinedly optimistic. Mourinho now has a true sense of what he must do. I don’t think he realised how far the squad he inherited had faded and was unprepared for the nature and extent of the job he had taken on.
The enforced break presented him with a fresh start. He has the chance to develop the talent at his disposal in what is still a relatively young squad. Everyone is fit. During the break, he appears to have been working hard on building trusting relationships with his players, so they know he has their support and that he wants them in his squad. Every player who thrived under his leadership in the past says this is his great strength. That Dembele-sized hole in midfield will have to be filled in the transfer market, and there are gaps at centreback and right-back, but above all he has the opportunity to build his own team.
In the end, the final reminded me, if I needed reminding, of what football means to me. Being there, being with my son and granddaughter. Plus, on the way out, unplanned, at three different points on the journey back to the city centre we by chance bumped into most of the Spurs people I feel closest to. Hugs, commiserations, gallows humour. It helped and will not be forgotten. Being together is what it’s all about.