Spurs: We Had It, and in a Moment, Gone

I had to finish off the small section of fencing that needed repair, apparently, although to me it still fulfilled the basic requirement of a fence, namely a barrier between next door’s garden and ours. So I missed the first ten minutes.

I don’t like gardening. It’s a chore rather than a pleasure. Many extol the virtues of being outdoors, surrounded by the relaxing sights and sounds of nature, toiling the soil, turning the sod, but it’s not for me. No, I prefer a Sunday afternoon skewering my heart with twin barbs of hope and crushed ambition and corkscrewing my guts into a tormented helix of anger and frustration. Lead me to the cliff edge, tease me with an ebullient comeback, then for good measure chuck me off the precipice onto the rocks below.

This one hurts not just because Spurs came so close but because defeat was utterly avoidable. Moments. Football memories are a collection of moments upon which matches, and seasons, turn. In this case, we must begin at the end. Spurs were bad, Spurs were good, in the end there was a moment.

Lloris, captain, mainstay, World Cup winner, moves to his right with ease towards a soft Salah header, minute left, maybe two at the most. Two hands. Spurs are defending against Liverpool’s late onslaught that was more desperate than cogent. This to mop up the remnants of a set-piece. Steady, delay, keep the ball, whistle.

Instead of catching it, or pushing it forcefully away, he – he doesn’t do much, except bobble it feebly in front of him, where Alderweireld is covering. Hits Toby’s knee, and in. Caught in two minds, he didn’t seem to know whether to catch it or push it out, as is the fashion these days for keepers. Catch was the right option but Hugo’s indecision caused a calamitous, sickening error, which could cost us more than 3 points.

It leaves us on a run of 1 point from the last 15. We had regained our momentum after an excellent second half, under pressure amid a febrile Anfield atmosphere. This was the boost we needed, matching title contenders. Instead, it sucked the life out of us. It jeopardised our top four spot. It reminded us of a telling weakness in the side – if your skipper and keeper caves in under pressure, it’s no example for the rest of the team. I like Hugo, he’s made mistakes before but they have been exaggerated at times and his balance sheet for me is in the black, but this was a shocking error, at that point in the game, at this point in the season.

In the first half, Liverpool ruthlessly, gleefully exposed our problems in central midfield. Width plus running into channels laid a minefield of indecision for our 5-man defence. Stay back, come out – either way we were exposed. Liverpool are so good when they play like that, mind, let’s not forget that. Relieved it was only one at the break, partly because Poch belatedly dropped Moura back to elasticize our narrow midfield into a four to limit the danger out wide.

To their credit, Spurs lifted themselves after torrid periods in the first half and could have won, let alone take a point. We looked comfortable attacking, happy to be on the front foot and taking advantage of the space Liverpool conceded. Some of our football was a delight to see, especially after Son came on. Kane, getting little out of Van Dijk, became provider, dropping deeper to allow Son and Moura to push on. His quick free kick was a game changing pass wide to Trippier. Eriksen half-hit a pass across the box but it came to Moura who banged it in. The Brazilian had a good game, energetic and willing in a number of positions between midfield and attack. His pace and control comes into its own when he has space in front of him.

And there are other moments. Two against one, and one of them is Sissoko. He’d had a better second half, able to drive forward with power rather than be pinned back in an unfamiliar role. Clean through thanks to Son’s impeccable pass, settled on the ball, left foot and, well you knew where it would end up. What a waste.

There’s another reason this one hurt (more pain, I have it right here for you. One benefit of working from home is that on days like these, I don’t have to talk to anyone). To get where they are, Spurs have over-achieved but there is no denying the chronic shortcomings in the squad, laid bare in matches like this, flat out, toe to toe against the top teams, a fraction from victory. We’re taking on the best with no defensive midfield. A couple of injuries, in this case to Dier (who never should have started for England) and Winks, leaves Sissoko, bless him, on his own, trying his darnedest in unfamiliar territory. Wanyama is finished, I’m so sad to say, Skipp’s not ready, otherwise nothing.

To their credit, Eriksen, Dele (ran 13.2k apparently) and Moura worked hard but it’s not their game. Any manager has a limit if the players aren’t good enough or he doesn’t have the right players for his needs. How many windows? We’re trying to be contenders, for goodness sake. The team’s getting old, we need upgrades anyway, others like Eriksen may leave. Perhaps now we need a new keeper too. To repeat something I said at the time, Hugo’s drink driving offence must have affected him. Getting behind the wheel was a fundamental error of judgement. Perhaps there’s something else that led him to be in that state in the first place, we’ll never know, but a keeper with flawed judgement is lost.

These shortcomings are a snug fit to the ‘Spurs as bottlers’ narrative, which will be thrown at us if we don’t end up in the top four. It’s not the whole truth. Closing games out is a necessary attribute of all top sides but lately we’ve lost that hard-won resilience. Where we used to score late winners, now we’re conceding, avoidable goals at that. Burnley, Southampton, now this.

Before the break, the players looked physically and mentally jaded, wedded to familiar patterns of play that opponents have become wise to, devoid of creative inspiration to produce something new, prone to late errors. The team seem at full-stretch for many recent games, even the victories. The strain of plugging gaps, especially in centre midfield, key players like Eriksen who are not quite there, exposed full-backs (Souness when asked why Trippier didn’t come out to prevent Robertson’s cross for their first: “because he’s not a very good defender”) and the injuries have all taken their toll.

They appeared weary, the exception being Dortmund, where we raised our defensive game to produce a classic European away performance. Perhaps we’ll go back to the 70s and 80s when we lifted ourselves for cup games but were inconsistent in the league. We must look to the new ground to provide the incentive to find our momentum again.

Excitement about the opening of the new White Hart Lane (because that’s what it’s called) is building to a crescendo. The test events were tempting but I’ve waited this long so Wednesday will be my first time inside. There will be noise. Let us disregard the fact that the pitch, sightlines etc are totally unfamiliar to the players and anticipate a new stadium bounce, the team inspired by the roars from the stands.

To end on an optimistic note, Spurs didn’t look tired and played really well in the second half. Plus, we have five games at home out of the last seven, against teams we should do well against. The whole club must rise up after yesterday and take the opportunity. There are no medals for top four but I need it this season, to help us plan for the next and, above all, just to say we did it. Finish above a couple of our dear rivals. Because we can, because we are good enough. Pride matters.

Pochettino’s Impact On Spurs: Remarkable Barely Covers It

 

History will have the last word, as it always does, but if Mauricio Pochettino’s managerial career gets any better than this, he’ll have one hell of a life. Whatever he may win in the future, sustaining Spurs in the title race is nothing short of remarkable.

 

I avoid sweeping statements or premature judgements. By nature I am cautious. In life as in football my dash towards a conclusion is slowed by the friction of nuance and doubt. With Poch, he’s currently receiving a great deal of credit from Spurs fans and the media, but that’s still not enough.

 

He’s a steadfast, reassuring presence, an anchor keeping us steady during a time of change and uncertainty. The ground’s still not ready, transfer policy lacks purpose or direction and all around us at Wembley familiar faces are replaced by tourists or empty seats. The chairman is content to fade into the shadows, Pochettino steps up and into the spotlight.

 

He has instilled courage and resilience into players who have come to believe they are capable of scoring at any time up to the very final kick. I had given up hope against Watford and Newcastle but the players hadn’t. We’ve run out of defensive midfielders, so let’s concentrate on players who can get the ball and get it forward quickly. Poch turns adversity into strength.

 

And the players. Sissoko, for over two years a waif and stray, who not so long ago approached a football with the suspicion and disdain of a toddler presented with a plate of vegetables, who could eat it but just as easily it could end up all over the place, now a dynamic, muscular deep midfielder. Vertonghen, who at the age of 31 produces against Dortmund the performance of a lifetime in a position he’s actively avoided. Son, who has played for about 18 months straight, often carrying the burden of a country’s expectations on his shoulders, and has become a better player for it instead of asking for a rest, better because he believes he has a duty to be the best he can be for his club and his country. And they say the modern professional doesn’t care. At Pochettino’s Spurs, they do.

 

It’s interesting how a few pundits and managers have said our top four rivals have had a bad run with injuries, unlike Spurs. It’s foolish but in reality, a compliment to players and managers that they haven’t noticed our absences.

 

Injuries. An absence of squad depth and player investment, the latter in stark contrast to our competitors. Playing every match away, when in the last season at the Lane we were unbeaten. Often a lack of atmosphere. These things are being said so often, they are in danger of becoming clichés, but their significance cannot be discounted. These are the disadvantages Poch deals with before he begins each day.

 

Pochettino and his team fashioned one of the great European nights against Dortmund with a second half performance that’s up there with anything I’ve seen Spurs produce in Europe since the late sixties, save the first half versus Feyenoord in 83. The first 45 minutes set the scene – tight, tactical and full of tension. Half-time was spent muttering about how we couldn’t see a way out of this impasse.

 

But Poch could. Vertonghen’s run and cross emerged from the dark depths of inertia, Son’s volley shimmered under the lights and Wembley shook. An unforgettable moment. I hope the latecomers who missed it enjoyed the popcorn and doughnuts they proudly clutched as they straggled to their seats.

 

We pushed up, just a little but enough to make a difference. Poch went for it, going for the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom. I followed Aurier’s cross, didn’t see that Vertonghen was there where he had no right to be, to get on the end of it. Out wide, he saw the game ahead of him, went for the space and moulded it to his wishes like a sculptor creates beauty from a lump of clay.  And for goal celebrations, less is more.

 

Pochettino inspires his players to believe they can be better than they ever thought they would be. They don’t stop and are resilient enough to battle back when games seem lost. More than that, under pressure, knackered, running on fumes in front of our eyes, they keep thinking, keep being creative. Anyone who has done any work, of any type, when tired knows that is the most difficult feat of all.

 

However, Spurs’ recent success is more than that. Pochettino has upped his game too this season. Developing his in-game intelligence, he makes better use of substitutions and changes tactics mid-game, often several times a match. Given the limits of his bench, that has made a huge difference.

 

But no silverware. It’s a genuine shame, and at times I feel like celebrating the heady days of finishing top of the London Combination. It’s tough. Our points total might have won the league on several occasions in the last decade, but competition is fierce.

 

Here’s the thing though. I spend time talking with fellow fans about what it means for them to be a Spurs fan. A lot of this made its way into A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, some is for some research I’m doing. Ask people what being a Spurs fan means for them, and they talk first about how it is part of them, their identity, who they are. Being Spurs runs deep. They talk about their pride in being Spurs, even if they aren’t happy with the way the club is run, and the experience of being with fellow fans to get behind the team, whether this be in the ground or as with, say, US based supporters, in the pubs they’ve made their own. In the place they’ve made home.

 

It’s the experience they talk about, who they go with, the faces (seldom names) they met along the way, their pre- and post-match routine. They speak fondly of the memories, the moments that lifted them from their seats, 30 or 40 years ago sometimes yet they feel it as if it were yesterday.

It’s only then that that fans mention trophies. I’ve talked with perhaps 30 or 40 supporters, for extended periods. Nobody says, I’m a Spurs fan because I want to win something and all my memories are worthless because in the 21st century we’ve only won one League Cup.

What Spurs fans want first and foremost is pride and dignity in their team. This why so much twitter fan dialogue is instantly disposable. Being a supporter is not primarily about winning things. It’s about loyalty, about caring whether you win or lose. Success is a bonus. Anyway, playing the Pochettino way is the way to win something in the current era. It’s not one or the other.

Managers are football tourists. They come and go, although sometimes they don’t stay as long as they might like. Pochettino understands the club’s heritage. He is not in it for as long as we are, but he’s not using Spurs as a career stepping stone. He’s stayed when others would have moved on, taking their reputation to somewhere with a more generous chairman. His paternal pride in his players is deeply touching in an era where money and greed justify any expediency. In return, they exude the loyalty and the passion we fans take pride in, which is why this team are closer to the fans than ever before.

The atmosphere against Dortmund was fabulous. The singing lacked variety, though. There’s come on you Spurs and marching in. The third big chant on the night was Mauricio Pochettino’s name. That’s how much he means to Tottenham fans. He cares as much as we do.

 

 

 

Back on the Tottenham On My Mind Beat

I’ve nothing against Joe Hart. He cops a lot of stick but he’s a decent player, albeit one whose declining standards have been unfailingly exposed. But his time-wasting was high comical art. His thirst whenever he had to take a goal-kick, the slow draft from his water bottle, the meticulous positioning of the ball…positively Fosteresque.

I was livid. But here’s the thing – it’s not important. Not really. A minor irritant in the scheme of things. A projection of my frustration at Spurs’ inability to get past Burnley’s stout defending. Spurs dawdle to run the clock down, of course they do and so they should. It’s not as absurd as a grown man of temperate mood bawling at him to get on with it.

I know why. It reveals a truth about my life. This is football, this is Spurs and that matters. More than it should but it runs right through me, indelible and everlasting. It’s because Joe Hart made me feel alive.

So where were we? It’s been a while. Ups and downs, peaks and troughs. Life. But I’m back on the beat because through it all, there’s Tottenham Hotspur.

I’m missing home. Home is the most emotive and profound word in any language. It’s where I am comfortable, nurtured, sustained. Where I feel the foundations beneath my feet. Where I can open my heart and soul. The new ground will be magnificent when we get there but the waiting hurts.

I feel it in my legs as I stroll up the incline from the station to Wembley. I feel it in what’s missing. The skip in the step as I turn the corner, knowing that the Lane is in sight. The sense of anticipation in the turnstile queue. Popping into the Antwerp pre-game if there’s time. Come back to me soon.

I sat down to watch England Croatia, then turned it off. Couldn’t bear to look at Wembley. A low point. That’s stupid, up there with cursing Joe Hart’s drinking habits, but I had had enough. Saw Harry’s goal though. True love.

My son and I discussed whether to go to those open days. Not the cost or timing, but two adults earnestly debating the meaning of spending a Sunday afternoon in an empty football ground. You can see why I long ago gave up trying to explain football support to nonbelievers.

We decided against it. Football grounds are about the fans, about being full and raucous and vulgar and fun. About the noise. I’ve never been to a pristine football ground. Doesn’t seem right. So if you don’t mind, I’ve leave the videos of the lightshow or the installation of the latest bit of cladding for the time being. Hope the test events go well without me. I’ve waited this long, so let’s hang on for the first game. Whenever that is.

Because when that first game kicks off, the ground beneath your feet will be shaking with the noise, concrete and steel breathing with energy and life, trembling with joy and the release of the pent-up frustration. Waves of noise rolling out across the pitch and washing the wait away. That’s the only opening ceremony that matters.

Tell you what I have done though. I bought my son a badge for Christmas. You think I’ve been standing still all this time, but no. What the hell, pushed the boat out and got one for my lapel too. East Stand, it says, and I always will be. This is why I’ve paid 25% more for a seat on the corner of the Shelf compared with getting a view from behind the goal. Because it’s stupid, because it’s home, because it’s right.

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A couple of weeks ago, I chaired a meeting in Bruce Grove with people I hadn’t met before. They were anxious that I would not be able to find my way to their home but I reassured them. Might have done the journey once, twice or a thousand times in the last fifty years. I took the opportunity of apologising to them for the disruption that descends on them two or three times a month. Unsurprisingly, they like Wembley more than me.

The man of the house was reserved and quiet. That’s OK, talking about the things I talk about is not a regular topic of conversation. But football breaks down barriers. Through a shared love of the club, we communicated, first about football then about other things. He trusted me, we were on common ground. Afterwards, another professional complimented me on being able to get through when others had not. I gave Spurs the credit. That’s what being a fan can do like nothing else.

Had a look round the outside of the ground. Had to. Couldn’t resist that. By the way, there’s a reason why they only show you pictures from the High Road side. But then it quickly became a reminder of what we should have but don’t, and there was a long queue of kids in Chick-King so I slipped away.

There’s been some great stuff this season that I’m never going to take for granted, and anyway I want to savour it all. Those Champions League games, fighting to get out of the group against the odds and succeeding, great nights. Marveling at Harry Kane, no matter how often I watch him play, no superlative matches his contribution. Living through the Age of Sissoko, where the groans come because Moussa has gone off injured and not because he’s coming on: truly these are strange times. Fury at losing to United that lasted well into the week, a properly big game that we should have won and would have banished many doubts about the team’s ability to succeed in crunch games.

This is how I felt as a teenager. No different. The joy and pain, I want to feel both because it means that it still matters. That I am still me. Ups and downs, peaks and troughs. Tottenham Hotspur are still there, the only constant in my life. I’ve moved away from my childhood home, losing all my friends in the process. Relationships begun and ended, opportunities missed more than taken, but with the navy blue and white there’s no regrets. That furious fire in the belly still burns.

I’ll talk a bit more about football next time. Promise.

 

No Stadium, No News. Spurs Play the Waiting Game

International breaks drain the enthusiasm of supporters and sap the mental and physical energy of overworked footballers. Those entrusted with the game’s well-being instead pummel elite players into the ground with wanton determination.

Tottenham Hotspur internationals: a case study. Vertonghen, Eriksen, Dembele and Dele out with muscle and sinew wear and tear. Dier, Rose and Lloris lack focus at times in a game that requires 100% concentration. I swear Kane’s legs are getting shorter, worn down by the hard yards he unstintingly puts in.

Maybe this time England have done Spurs a favour. Kane was absolutely terrific in last night’s exhilarating victory over Spain, Winks got another 90 minutes, while Dier had his best game for some time. In the process, overnight his calculated cleaning out of Ramos has evidently surpassed World Cup penalty shoot-out heroics and overcome brainless fan tribalism to win over the hearts and minds of a grateful nation.

Let’s hope this is the boost Spurs need. We’re fifth, two points off the top, without playing consistently well. The familiar flow and balance of Pochettino’s Spurs is missing. Not that we needed convincing, but the value of Eriksen and Dele in creating opportunities and finding space has been underscored in their absence.

The contrast between our opponents in successive games, Barcelona and Cardiff, could not be greater, but we gave both undue time and space. Neither had to work hard to get the ball because we gave it to them time and again. Stocks of mental energy seem depleted.  Against an organised but ordinary Cardiff side, we ran out of ideas early on. No one took control of the game. Three free second half free kicks, we lined up zonally. Their centre half from Land of the Giants moved away, no one picked him up. Late on against Brighton, we were criminally casual and nearly lost three points. Players not thinking for themselves.

Spurs are a match for any side if everyone is on their game. I’ve written that sentence so often over the last few years that it comes up on my autocorrect. Any side would be hamstrung by the absence of so many high quality players but Spurs have not invested in high quality cover. Dembele’s powers are waning. He gets caught on the ball more frequently and opponents have sussed this, descending on him en masse to stifle our attacks and gather possession. while Wanyama struggles to overcome a debilitating, long-term injury that may permanently remove that important element of his game, power.

The balance of the squad and therefore the team isn’t right either. We don’t have players naturally suited to a left and right midfield, able to both attack and drop back and defend. Moura sparkles on the ball and works hard, but while I admire Pochettino’s attacking instincts, playing him in advanced positions leaves gaps behind. Sissoko is not as bad as most would have you believe, but again both Cardiff and Barca sought to exploit a perceived weakness on our right, with Trippier keen to come forward and left exposed and unprotected.

It’s hard to see how Hugo can be the same player after his drink driving abomination. He’s a proud man, focussed, hugely admired in the dressing room. The man is the player, the player is the man, able to deal with pressure, make the right decisions, a respected leader. Such a rank error of judgement cannot be entirely banished from his mind. As he tries, rival fans will remind him for the rest of his career. It must affect his self-image and therefore his self-confidence.

On the bright side, Lamela has been more effective than at any point in his Spurs career, and Toby is showing why his departure should not ever have been considered for a flicker of nano second. And Harry Winks is back. He is a key player because of his ability to get the ball forward from deep accurately and early, and because he always makes himself available, ready, able and willing to take a pass under pressure, part of Dembele’s role in the midfield. If Dier, the worst culprit in terms of needlessly giving the ball away, can regain his mental fortitude, then he and Winks can really get something going.

Spurs are fifth, and I’m grateful. Not on song, more games away than at home, yet our best ever PL start. Then again, this feels like an odd season all round. High expectations of a stadium fit for a marvellous team. Something to enhance the present and secure the future. Disappointment became impatience, now given way to lethargy and weariness. Wembley feels less like a stepping stone, more a deadweight dragging me down.

Maybe why I’ve written so little recently. I’ve nothing much to say, if I’m honest. Spurs are there, and so are my mates in the stand, and watching Spurs is still the best thing in my life after family. And I go with my family, so that’s good. But it’s a long while since I enjoyed a match less than the Cardiff game.  There’s always a day when summer fades and autumn begins, yet it caches us unawares each year. Overcast and wet, one less layer than needed.  A roof, sitting well back, rain visibly slanting away from us, yet the seat’s soaked. My bones ache with the chill and the anxiety of a single goal lead, one goalmouth scramble away from dropping points against a poor team.

Waiting. Waiting for the ground. Waiting to sit in a seat I’ve paid a fortune for. Waiting for news from a club always reluctant to communicate unless it’s about something we can spend our money on, now more afraid than Theresa May to commit to anything. Waiting for trains that exist on a timetable but not apparently in reality. Waiting for a full team. Waiting for new players. Waiting for news about where we are going to play next.  Waiting to go home. Home is a feeling and it feels like a long way away.

In the normal scheme of things, that is since Tottenham Hotspur existed, there’s another game soon enough. To come, four games in an absurd nine days. Two home league games between now and November 24th. The chat in the queue after Cardiff was along the lines of at least that’s over with. That’s not why I go to watch Spurs. This is not like me, but that’s how it is.

We’re two points off the top. In the grand scheme of things, the stadium delay is a tiny blip in our grand heritage. Soon come, and something to look forward to by the looks of it. I’ll cope with the delays but the uncertainty hampers Pochettino’s best efforts. My imagination or are his energy levels depleted too? He seems more tetchy in his press conferences, looks more anxious on the touchline. He said a while back that he had been assured we’d be in by Christmas. He can’t be happy at his chairman’s failure to deliver a new ground or new players for that matter. I hope Levy is properly looking after our biggest asset.