96 Minutes Gone: Calm in the Eye of the Hurricane

Proper derby. Two words, that’s all you need. Two sides flying at each other for 97 minutes, total commitment, rough-housing, no backing down, and some top class football. It’s a shame that our opponents played most of it. It’s been a privilege to see some great football at Spurs over the years so why does nothing quite compare with an undeserved 96th minute equaliser, massive shithousery and a fight between the managers.

Lads, it’s Tottenham. One of the funniest and most perceptive team talks of all time. We had to take it, but not any more. We are Conte’s Spurs now and in his image, we do not take a backward step. Other Spurs teams would have wilted as the blues piled on the pressure but now if you want to beat us, you’re going to have to be good. In his analysis for the Athletic, Liam Tharme quotes research undertaken over a decade across several European leagues, which showed a correlation in the PL between the number of fouls committed and number of points won. This is no time for faint hearts – every successful side was hard and hard to beat.

Amidst all the bluster and hot air around Tuchel’s emergence as one of Germany’s leading conspiracy theorists and worst shaker of hands, in a much discussed game one thing isn’t getting enough attention. 96th minute, chaos all around, two men stayed calm. Perisic delivers the perfect ball, Kane has the presence of mind to find space in the box and deftly guide his header into the far corner. There’s no rush or panic, the memory of missing a classic Harry through-on-the-keeper chance earlier consigned to the recycle bin of his mind. Two men, two winners.

Peering through the social media fog (take my advice and stay away from the twitter button), as the dust settles, the positives are our resilience and tenacious blocking, as was the way we took the game to them after Richarlison came on. But our opponents were by far the better side and comprehensively outmanoeuvred us for large chunks of the match, as they did in the League Cup last year, when we were outplayed. Tuchel’s taking it out on the ref but this is just projection of his anger about how he got it so right, again, yet failed to win, and of his anger at the way his top midfielder chooses to do a drag-back in the box or that his defence allowed Kane to jump unopposed. The ref had nothing to do with that.

It worries me that we were under so much pressure for so long without being able to do much about it. We were outnumbered in midfield, our wing-backs penned in and the press meant we were unable to play out of defence. With few available passing outlets leading to misplaced passes under pressure, we lost the ball repeatedly and seemed inflexible and incapable of responding, the worst example being our marking for their first goal. They dutifully stationed themselves as per training ground practice, and our opponents had the brass neck to stand somewhere else! It was that ridiculous.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Conte’s a pragmatist. Looking at the end product, I suspect he saw it as Spurs not conceding, and in fact the blues made comparatively few chances until later on, hence no need for a major change before the hour mark. Perisic and Bissouma on earlier would have been welcome, though.

Decisions decisions. I was surprised a foul wasn’t given for Bentacur’s tackle. He got the ball first but came in from behind and to the side, and for several years that’s been deemed unfair. The days are long gone when judging a foul rested simply on whether the tackler got the ball or not. The ref’s angle may be crucial here – he saw the touch clearly. It might be a right cock-up. Equally, it might be be part of the the changing referees’ guidance around allowing more physical contact in challenges, i.e. there was physical contact but he got the ball, so now, the decision is play on. Fact is, it was a great game because of the thunder of physicality, from both sides. You want a proper derby where the players and managers care as much as the fans? This is what comes with it. Maybe we fans have to get used to the changes too, but refs need to talk to us more.

Romero on Cucurella also a foul. I’ve joined in the joking about Romero’s shithousery, and we need that. He’s a fine player and it’s integral to the way he defends. However, he has to use in a controlled manner. It’s one thing going nose to nose with Havertz, quite another seeking retribution for an earlier wrongdoing as he prepares for a 96th minute corner, right in front of the ref, with Spurs a goal down. This is actually a sign of weakness that other teams will seek to exploit by winding him up.

My younger daughter was married a couple of weeks ago. For her dance with me, the DJ played Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons December 63, which perplexed her no end as she has no connection to this song. As a result she spent these tender, never to be repeated moments on the dancefloor desperately asking guests about this choice. My teenage granddaughter, who sits with me at the Lane, triumphantly announced that it must be my choice because the alternative lyrics celebrate Tottenham playing on Wednesday night while Arsenal play on a Thursday because last season they weren’t quite as good as we were. This is completely untrue but I’m so proud of her. And my daughter, of course.

Conte’s Spurs Off to a Flyer

Football’s back, and Spurs are back with a bang after Saturday’s comprehensive victory, 4-1 and dominating without undue effort. Understandable signs of early season rustiness soon disappeared, then we fell into our now familiar pattern of a tight defence and solid midfield as the base to push forward, using space on the flanks. Although Spurs must lift the tempo against better opponents, we now have the capacity to elevate our levels at key moments, and that was enough to control the game. In Kulusevski, we have a star in the making, and he provided the skill and finesse as the standout man.

An unusual summer for Spurs fans, full of justified, legitimate optimism. It’s tough to cope with but somehow I managed. Substantial transfer business completed early, players the manager wants, players with experience who can fit right in, the chairman paying market rates, above perhaps, in order the seal the deal. I can get used to this.

The NLD was a game for the ages. Our rivals wilted in the face of ferocious and sustained support, ‘brutalized’ to use Gary Neville’s accurate description, the force of the home crowd driving the navy blue and white to victory in a manner seldom seen in contemporary English football. However, the true significance may only become clear in the future as a turning point, the moment Spurs discovered a hard-nosed winning mentality.

Conte’s Spurs are writing the opening chapters of their own story, and this is a side we can learn to love. He has become ours, that he belongs here. Conte is a transformative coach and leader. The shape, the tactics, the conversations in the bars, the whole spirit of the place, he’s there. He’s certainly there in our redoubtable back three, in Romero’s cold, emotionless focus and unflinching tackles, while Dier revels in the responsibility of defensive leader. And I’m a big fan of Ben’s Big Toe, because how often does Davies just get in there first, thinking a fraction quicker than his opponent, or indeed his fellow defenders sometimes, to be in the right place, right time. Take each individual event, it looks like desperation last ditch stuff, but the number of times he does it shows he’s much more than that.

The players have seen several managers (relative newcomers have worked under four, not counting Pochettino) but as a unit, this is new. I like our midfield. Bissouma is a fine player who defends with strength, works hard and has an eye for a forward pass. This applies to the others who prefer that central role, including Hojbjerg, whose passing is better than he is often given credit for, and the excellent Skipp, while Bentacur has the air of man who’s got everything under control. I don’t see any pressing need for another so-called creative midfielder, although handy if someone becomes available, because we have players who make the runs and players who see the openings, whether that’s Kane from deep or Perisic, another canny acquisition, another winner, who after five minutes on Saturday was reminding teammates that, yes, that ball inside the full-back is ON, because I WILL get on the end of it, so please oblige. Or words to that effect.

We also have in Kulusevski one of the most creative players in the division. Central midfield and advanced areas are congested, so coming from out wide as he does has real advantages if, like him, your touch and eye for space is top quality. From that starting position, he has an overview of what’s available and a precious fraction more time, better perhaps than if he were immediately pressured in the middle. We have a real player here, who is bursting with ambition to play for us.

Only last February, Spurs lost at home to Saints, conceding two goals in as many minutes after being 2-1 up with 10 minutes to go. That day, we were unable to break free from their intense high pressing. Later in the same month, Conte chucked his toys out the pram after losing away to Burnley. It feels like a world away. Now, Conte has enough faith in his squad to start the season without the new signings on the field, a massive vote of confidence in players who might otherwise have feared for their place in the side, a shrewd move from a wily motivator.

Regular readers will be bored with one of my favourite refrains of the last decade, or most desperate pleas if you choose to look at it that way, namely Levy’s failure to make the holy trinity of any football club, chairman, coach and director of recruitment, work effectively together. On so many occasions throughout Levy’s tenure, it appears as if they found it impossible even to talk to each other, let alone buy the players we need, and just as importantly sell the ones we don’t.

With Conte, things are different. He’s convinced Levy of the need for experience and proven expertise in a high level and the PL. They’re here and ready to go. We’re also buying players who fit Conte’s system. One harmful effect of managers coming and going is that the next man has to deal with players who don’t fit his system. For too long, we’ve hammered square pegs into round holes, persisting even if they won’t go in. He puts his arm round players who need it, like Sess, who he cuddled with fatherly pride after the last home game, and his faith has had a handsome return already. And remember when we thought the much-vaunted Paratici only grabbed last-minute signings from his old club?

Like I said, seems like a world away. It’s decidedly odd, watching from a distance as United dump any pretence of a transfer plan and go for anyone who becomes available. That’s what we used to do.

Levy feels he is on solid ground because at last, his plans for the stadium and finances are literally paying off. The place is full – over 61000 on Saturday, did I read it’s the second highest crowd at the new ground and for the opening game when people are traditionally on holiday. Also, the ground is firmly established as a venue pre- and post-match. It’s convivial. You can have all the fancy design features you desire, the sound system, the burnished quartz fittings, the brewery, but what works best is the simplest – space. There’s room to meet friends and you can walk round the ground. Each home match brings in revenue on a scale unparalleled in England, and then there’s rugby, NFL and gigs, and Levy is going gaga at the balance sheets.

There’s one thing missing, of course, Conte’s Everest. It’s all very well instilling a winning mentality, actually winning something is of a quite different order. He has shown how he can get into players’ minds to give them confidence, now he has to work his way into those dark nooks and crannies of festering, toxic doubt. To make it ours, the stadium needs new memories, stories of daring and doing, tales of triumph and joy. If anyone can, it’s Antonio.

The Noise

Going to games is not meant to be like this any more. The Premier League contrives an ordered, stewarded environment where fans watch rather than participate. But this was different. Streets around the ground closed from late afternoon so the carnival could take place. Wending our way through the glorious chaos of crowds and smoke to the turnstiles to the soundtrack of more songs from those already inside the ground.  

This game belongs to us. The supporters I mean, our energy the context for everything that took place. This was a celebration of being Spurs. It’s the derby, it’s all about beating them. Nothing else. Win this game because it is them. It’s not about the Champions League. Social media static and Sky hype drowned out by fans being fans. This was the purest expression of being Spurs. All as it should be.

Our rivals took what they believed to be an expedient decision to push for a postponement of the original game. However, their short-termism did not take account of supporter reaction, again typical of Premier League clubs as a whole, but this proved to be a grievous mistake. Conte didn’t need a team talk, and no cheerleaders were required. Marginalise fans at your peril.

This match will be remembered for the emphatic nature of a result born from a level of dominance rare in the NLD, certainly from the Spurs side of things. Those of us who were there, and hopefully those at home too, will vividly remember it for the atmosphere. Levels of noise into the red on the dial and beyond into smoking hot, raw emotion and impassioned support billowing out from the stands to envelope the players and inspire them.  Sitting in the east Shelf, at times I couldn’t hear myself think.

It’s also the only game I’ve ever been to where I couldn’t hear the opposition fans. I genuinely mean this as an observation rather than disparagingly. I wouldn’t have been in a joyful mood if my team played as they did, and fair play, I could see the away end bouncing up and down at 3-0, I just couldn’t hear them because they were drowned out.  

The ground is great, the noise was incredible. I spent most of the second half watching the fans because it was better than the game. Not my words but those of two AFC fans ruefully discussing the game afterwards and their prospects for the last two matches as they walked behind us through the park near Tottenham Hale.

Derby games are all up and at ‘em frantic, but this is not Conte’s approach at all. On the touchline he’s all about flamboyance whereas to his team he preaches control and order. The early exchanges were cagey therefore, with our opponents keeping it tight, keen to keep their shape and cover Bentancur to block passing routes out from the back, and Spurs resisting the crowd’s urge to go flying in. Then Spurs picked it up again and never let slip our grip on the game. Hojbjerg played a prominent role here. Often maligned, his desire and purpose made him a key influence in this period. With Bentancur marked, he took responsibility to make good use of the relative lack of attention our opponents gave him to drive us on with hard yards and tough tackles. He lifted the whole team.

A push in the box, Harry disdained the organised protests around him to score the penalty. Although he has rehearsed a variety of options, his go-to pen has become low to his left, and he’s used this a bit recently. England teammate Ramsdale knows this, so Harry goes the other way.

And then the noise got to them. Normally Harry is the target, battered calves and ankles evidence of countless what me ref going for the ball ref! fouls. Now Son is the danger, to be dealt with by whatever means necessary. I assume Holding’s series of fouls, including a smart wrestling move, was integral to Arteta’s tactics, so why on earth commit a blatant heavy block on Son so soon after a first yellow? Because the noise got to him. We got in his head. Sonny’s rep and our noise scrambled his brain and changed the course of the game.

We three in block 123 agreed this was the time to ram home our advantage. Harry duly obliged. That never happens. We then agreed on the imperative of not letting them off the hook after half-time. Son duly obliged. That never happens. What looked at first sight to be a straightforward stab at a rebound was in fact a poised, considered placement of the ball to avoid any possible blocking defender.

Then Spurs dominate, controlling the game until the final whistle. That certainly never happens, any danger to our superiority remarkable by its absence. We strolled through to the final whistle, our rivals drained and beaten. Naturally I didn’t relax until the 86th minute.

Conte is getting through with tactics and mindset. The spine of the team is strong. With Dier as the lynchpin (notice near the end, it’s he who Conte shared final instructions with before Rodon came on), the back three works. Davies is adept at covering for others, while credit to Sanchez for a good game. Everyone did well, extra praise for Sess, whose growing confidence is allowing his long-dormant talent to gradually emerge. Maybe this plus the volume of support will convince Conte to stay for a while longer, or more realistically, persuade Levy to give him a budget to work with.

This was my first game since March 2020 because I’ve stayed at home, shielding my immunoknackered wife. So thank you Tottenham Hotspur for honouring my return, decent of you after all these years. I’ve been lost without the game and the fans. Being there has been integral to my life and my identity for over 50 years. This is who I am, who I want to be. By midnight, I was knackered but couldn’t sleep, my mind flooded to overflowing with the game, the scenes, the people. Of being there. Of being truly alive.

Spurs: Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious

The sole advantage of writing this blog infrequently is a sense of perspective. I’m not compelled to respond to the latest piece of gossip, Emerson falling over as he attempts a tackle or analysing Conte’s latest stream of consciousness news conference. Big picture stuff, an overview. A thousand yard stare into the recent past. 

There’s no plan here. There never has been really, come to think of it, not for Tottenham On My Mind. Life gets in the way, you know how it is. Obscures the real plan, if I’m honest, that life should never get in the way of football, of being there. The contorted logic and twisted priorities of a football fan. You’re reading this, you understand.

Perspective provides invaluable insight, but, and this is a warning to all my readers, it can be dull. Here’s one for you: building a team takes time. I know! 

Who knew? We all did, but still we banged on about a lack of progress, one step forward, two steps back. I would have, if I had written more often. Conte’s a football coach, not a magician. The touchline flamboyance, bordering on hysteria sometimes, is only a part of this complex character, the 10% of the iceberg visible, out of sight is the 90% of relentless graft on the training pitch. 

And he’s getting through to the players in a way we’ve not seen since Pochettino left. There’s togetherness to overcome the disunity he inherited, motivation instead of apathy. Above all, there’s teamwork, a shape and pattern that strengthens the team as whole and brings out the best in each individual. 

Here’s another dazzling observation for you: the players know what they are doing. They understand what is expected of them in key situations in the play. For instance, the first half against Newcastle was a little dull, especially compared with the deluge of exhilaration that was to follow. And that’s the evidence of true progress. We kept the ball for extended periods, probing to find ways of breaking down a 10 man defence. No panic. Players were seldom caught on the ball because a teammate was always available, and that is a big difference compared with the last few years. Ben Davies’ post-match comments on Sky were interesting. He phrased them not in the usual ‘we got stuck in after half-time Geoff’ mode, referring instead to how they altered their approach from control to overcoming the low block. Like I said, they know what they are doing.

Wingbacks are self-evidently important to Conte’s formation. I had given up on Doherty, so I’m delighted he’s found a way to release himself from the constricting fear that inhibited his play under all four of his managers. Sessegnon has potential but rather than developing his huge teenage talent, it feels starting from scratch, Sess turns 18 again. At least he no longer looks like a kid who has wandered by mistake into an adults’ game. Reguillon flatters to deceive in my view but there’s something there if only he would learn to calm down at key moments. But I forget how young these men are. Time is on their side.

However, the key lies in the Conte’s core. Spurs have a backbone at last. For example, the wingbacks can make better choices about when to go forward because they have confidence in the back three. Dier is by no means the perfect centre half but this back three revolves around him at its hub. Over the last few matches, we’ve given up less space in front of the penalty box. This is not just down to the efforts of Bentancur and Hojbjerg but also because Romero and Davies know when to come out and intervene. That’s made a significant improvement to our defence and in our ability to play our way out from the back. Son’s goal on Sunday is a masterpiece, beginning in our area and ending with Son having time and space to pick his spot.

And then there’s the Paratici perspective. The man with a contact list longer than the Yellow Pages ended up with a couple of castoffs and two players unwanted by his old club. Or so the story went. Yet in a comparatively short period of time, Bentancur is shaping up as a high class midfield stroller, unhurried, exuding a sense of control that has become contagious. Unobtrusive, he makes others around him better players, linking with Kane and releasing Hojbjerg from his self-imposed burden of being two midfielders at once, thus trying to be everywhere and being less effective for it. It will be fascinating to see if Conte pairs Bentancur with Skipp when the latter is fit again, which should be imminent. 

With Romero at the back, everyone is better. We have a proper defender here. He appears calm and unruffled, his expression an inscrutable mask of concentration. He looks the same if we’ve had the ball for 20 minutes or if he’s been under intense pressure. Like Bentancur, he is unhurried, then bursts into action when he sees danger. Dynamite over 5 yards. His tackling of Saint-Maximin was a throwback to football’s bygone age, one on one, the defender coming away with the ball. It was good to see him (mostly) standing up rather than going to ground. He can’t defend corners, so we’ve got to sort something out there. 

Kulusevski solves a problem we’ve had for years. Changes of manager led to changes of tactics and recruitment, leading to square pegs in round holes, leading to forwards playing as midfielders. No matter how much tracking back Moura and Bergwijn offer, they don’t have defensive instincts, yet Kulusevski is comfortable as a multi-faceted midfielder, highly skilful on the ball, physical and with good positioning.

So Paratici is doing ok, as it turns out. Scouts, directors of football, whatever we call talent-spotters, never have a perfect strike-rate. It’s not a numbers game. Quality not quantity. Two or three players who make a real impact is good going. If some fall by the wayside (Emerson has a lot of improving to do), so be it.

And so to the bleedin’ obvious. Let Conte get on with it. No need to pour over the implications of every news conference seeking portents for his future. Put aside the media campaign to sell Harry because we’re not worth it. Instead, relish every touch from a remarkable, single-minded footballer who gives everything, every time. It is a privilege to watch him, even at this stage in his career adapting his game for the team’s sake and just getting better and better.

Conte has got something going here, a vision for the future that his players have clearly bought into. Let’s pause in this age of overbearing expectation and instant gratification to recognise the scale of this achievement, especially as he’s not been as well supported in the transfer market as he would have liked. Spurs looking to the future – now that is something out of the ordinary.