There’s nothing like Spurs being rubbish to focus the mind. Football right now is distant, out there rather than within me. I’ve been an active participant all my life, now we’re all viewers, peering in from the outside. It’s a huge relief to know Spurs can make me angry, because it means I can still feel it.
The covid mindset is changing. No longer can we delude ourselves that things will return to normal, illusory though that always was. We won’t have big crowds in football grounds until next spring at the earliest, not safely at any rate. My wife is highly vulnerable because she has an autoimmune condition. It heightens the sense of anxiety and danger, let me tell you. I won’t be back for a long time. Meantime, I’ll polish my pitch to the doctor that I’m a priority case for a vaccine because I need to get to the Tottenham Stadium.
Spurs are more than just a part of my life, they are central to it. Being a Spurs fan is integral to my identity and to my well-being. I am husband, father, Spurs fan. I am many other things, male, overweight, bald, Jewish, white, British, part-time student, old-soul fan, but character-shaping though these are, I know what I value most.
I’m conscious this sounds trivial and shallow to the non-believers, but I’m being honest with myself, and with you. I’m no emotional eunuch, it’s just that football is core to my mental wellbeing. I know what’s truly significant in life, but as someone once said, of all the things in this world that aren’t important, football is the most important.
I’m part of a community, something real. I can find companionship or, if I choose, disappear into the crowd, and that is denied me precisely at the moment when we all need to feel other people are around us to get through these troubled times. Spurs winning is important, being a fan even more so. Not being part of the crowd creates a sensation of loss and separation. It leaves a gaping hole.
Football is how I express my emotions. I go to the game. Shout and cheer to let off steam. Be with my family. Meet my friends, meet people who I don’t necessarily know that well but we have something deep in common because they feel the same way too. How can I be myself if I can’t go to the game?
Football beats the rhythm of the years. Results aren’t predictable but the season is, and the feelings that accompany it. Close season to relax and refresh, something to look forward to. Tickets renewed, fixture lists come out. Weekend midweek weekend, and so it goes. Enjoy the game, process the result, don’t look back, look forward to the next one. Spurs will be there, like they’ve always been, one true certainty as life flows this way and that. It’s been pulled out from under my feet.
There’s nothing like the soaring elation of a good win. Lose and it affects my mood for days, until the next time. But I’ve discovered something worse, not being able to express those emotions at all. It’s out of reach, fading into nothing. I am diminished if I can’t feel it. I turn in on myself.
And the game itself, we win, we lose, but it doesn’t feel the same. Games are devalued because there is no atmosphere. How I miss the gasps of joy and astonishment as Harry curls another one in, or that collective intake of breath as he advances on goal, that moment of delicious anticipation as he pulls back his foot to shoot. Without us, the game has no soul.
More than that, fans have no stories to tell ourselves about the game. Who we were with, where we watched it, how we celebrated or commiserated together. This is what we do. Nobody will tell a story about how Spurs’ determined football defeated Arsenal last season, the disappearing north London derby. How it looked from your sofa is not something you are going to hand down to the next generation. However much Martin Tyler shouts down the line that the Premier League is back and it’s live, it’s not the same.
So perhaps I should be grateful in some warped, distorted way that Spurs were so awful yesterday, devoid of motivation, creativity and energy. It’s got me back to the keyboard at least, although that may not please you as you read it.
The sole reason for Mourinho’s appointment is to win something. Passing through, he’s not part of the Spurs Way, nor will he build the foundations of a new dynasty. He’ll take the credit for any success that comes our way, blame the players, fans and board when it sours, as it eventually always does, then move on. That’s what he does. Levy knew this when he was appointed, and so did we. Lots of people were happy about it. He’s our manager, so we’re all sucked in. It won’t change.
Everything is short-term and we’re already into his second season. Post-match, he blamed the absence of a full pre-season, but this is the same for every other side. Also, his tactics, unchanged from last season, are familiar to the players. It’s the new Spurs Way. Whining about the free-kick being taken from the wrong place is pathetic even by his post-match standards.
Mourinho will park the bus, then throw his players under it if they don’t deliver. Strong words were essential but best confined to the dressing room. One of the countless qualities football managers must exhibit is the ability to hide in public their bitterness at football’s vicissitudes. Save them for the memoirs. The only thing that matters is what helps the team play better. He has to be wholly certain such public pronouncements are the right motivation for the variety of characters he looks after. Key players like Dele and N’Dombele are not improving their games under him so far.
Mourinho’s chosen approach at Spurs is dull. That won’t change. I’m frequently told he’s always been a defensive manager. I haven’t studied his previous teams in depth but from watching them and being beaten by them, I’ve never come away with that impression. Hard to beat is not the same as being defensive, and his sides attacked effectively. At the moment, Spurs can’t make the transition to a side that dominates the game in their opponents’ final third or, as yesterday, stop them from playing.
He’s also been criticised for being a footballing dinosaur, all back behind the ball and an attacking right back in an era of gegenpressing, inverted full-backs and tactical sophistication. While that suspicion lingers, he’s too bright for that and anyway, it’s not the main issue. You can’t win consistently with submissive, reactive football, however well it is implemented. It might be effective during a cup run, not in the league.
It’s predictable. Yesterday, Everton denied Spurs the opportunity to play on the counter by keeping the ball. On the few occasions we were able to break, we made and missed the rare chances that came our way, or their mobile midfielders recovered. We had nothing else.
I can’t escape the feeling that this formation and approach is Mourinho’s pragmatic response to the lack of quality and depth in the squad. Maybe he reckons this is the most they are capable of, and that a more open approach leaves us unduly vulnerable.
He’s discovered what we already knew, that his chairman will not invest heavily to change that, and it will get worse because an empty stadium rips up Levy’s meticulously crafted balance sheets. On the pitch, it leaves us short. Docherty and Hojbjerg are good signings and will improve from yesterday’s poor performances once they are match fit.
Early days yet it is impossible, however, to avoid comparing the performances of two sides who are rebuilding under shrewd, veteran managers. Ancelotti outwitted Mourinho with a dynamic, mobile midfield that kept possession and minimised our available space. Rodriguez on the right operated in the space Spurs leave because Davies stays back, mostly, and Son is not the best at covering him. Allan looked a level above any of ours.
Meanwhile, Spurs trapped themselves in their devotion to the shape, unable to use a solid platform as a basis to take the game to our opponents. Substitutions were strange, moving Moura and Son more centrally where it is easier to nullify their pace and threat and where Everton were strongest. N’Dombele should have been on earlier.
Plus, money really isn’t everything, but Everton invested, wisely so on this showing. Meanwhile, Kane still has no cover or alternative, Mourinho is now saying Aurier is a valuable squad member, i.e. we can’t sell him because Levy seeks an unrealistic fee and we won’t fund a decent replacement. And I’ve not even mentioned Spurs’ ludicrous fixture list or the money shelled out by those we see as rivals.
Yesterday, despite their superiority, Everton won by a single goal, not from open play. Mourinho’s Spurs will perennially live on fine margins. Holding on to a narrow lead is an art, something we need and there’s much post-match back-slapping when it works, as it did towards the end of last season. Another inescapable truth to live with, however, is that it leaves us vulnerable, to that one chance the opposition takes, a deflection or as in this case a free-kick. If we ever get back to the Lane, and there is the real possibility that we will never again see a Mourinho side in person, crowd anxiety will transmit to the players, exerting even greater pressure on them.
So we move on. Enough of our failings. I wish I could be crushed on a sweaty tube. Become uncontrollably over-anxious because the train is 5 minutes late. Leave the house absurdly early. Eat an overpriced burger too quickly and get indigestion. Pop into the Antwerp. Bump into Rob on the concourse. Get a hug from Chris. Wish I was back on the Shelf. Ignore pre-match build-up as I marvel at this wonderful stadium. The adrenaline rush as the whistle goes. Feel like a kid again. Feel sick even though we’re two up with five minutes to go. Straggle breathlessly behind my son and granddaughter as we dash back to Tottenham Hale. Fall asleep on the sofa. Be me.