We’ve Got Sandro At The Back (And Harry On The Bench)

The Sunderland fan on the train has low expectations but he’s loyal and a long way from home on a cold Sunday afternoon. Spurs have more points, better players and better prospects but he has his devotion to his club, a precious commodity these days for any fan as far as I’m concerned, so he expresses this in the time-honoured fashion: ‘Where were you when you were s**t?’

I guess this is what success means. Regular readers will know that whilst I’m unreservedly extracting every last Higgs boson of pleasure from the current run and this terrific team, I’m still pondering on what being successful feels like. It’s just that it’s been so long. 44 years on from my first match, I’m being accused of being a gloryhunter. The price of fame.

It’s odd. Spurs fans are often told they are fickle. We’ve had a reputation in the past of getting on the team’s back very early if things are not going well. This goes back to when I was a teenager. I don’t think we are any worse than the other Premier league teams who have been in the top division for a while and we’re a lot better than many, but even our detractors would have to acknowledge that we have stuck around. My kids are in their mid twenties now. They’ve been coming since they were little and they’ve not been there for the glory.

A ‘before and after’ victory. The ‘before’ was a first half reminiscent of so many sticky and listless afternoons during the dark days of old. Struggling to get going, no tempo, an absence of pace or inventiveness. Good players passing to shadows.And the surest sign of the old days – dull. Spurs and dull. These days it goes together like Ant and Ball or Cannon and Dec. How far have we come when we’re concerned about 45 minutes where we are superior and make a few chances, yet we know it’s not us because it’s not flowing?

Then ‘after’. A change of emphasis in the formation, add the commitment and determination of every last one of them, the talent’s already there and we are transformed. A shame there was only a single goal to show for our dominance but don’t let those late wobbles fool you: this was a decent victory and there were real and lasting positives in the manner in which we overcame adversity.

In these pages I’ve debated the pros and cons of our midfield set-up ever since TOMM began. Whatever the merits of playing two wide men, that’s what the whole team are used to. In the first half, it took us a while to escape the clutches of Sunderland’s packed and hardworking midfield but when we did knock a few short balls, they looked up to stretch the play and saw only empty grass. When we tried something, the ball was overhit – Modric to Lennon, Lennon to Walker, it looked the same but it wasn’t quite working.

When Lennon departed, we looked forlorn and bedraggled. Luka wasted on the left, Rafa couldn’t get on the ball, Parker deep. Pav on and had a good chance that he didn’t commit to, Manu good touches but nothing in the box. Crosses sailing over the far post. Sunderland had the best chance, a low cross that flashed across the box, but they had no ambition and Gallas had young Wickham in his pocket.  Following the evidence from the Stoke match last week I predicted that the high balls would rain down. Gallas gave away a stone and 4 or 5 inches but showed that a clever old ‘un has the drop on a good young ‘un. Apart from one free-kick conceded, he was the master. This season as last, it takes Gallas five or six matches to become match fit. He’s ready – a fine game.

The 4-4-1-1 with Bale and Lennon as attacking wide men has worked well. In the long run, I’ve discussed and advocated the merits of trying Parker and Sandro as two defensive midfielders with Modric central in front of them, Bale and Rafa and leaving out Lennon, despite his strong performances this year. Harry demonstrated the value of this set-up, at least as an alternative, in the second, tactical changes that brought us the three points and he deserves the credit. Although Parker did plenty of the fetching and carrying from deep, Sandro stayed back, Rafa and Luka could play in a more central position, leaving space out wide for Walker and BAE to provide width. Parker went further forward predominantly while Manu had a more roving commission up front. I understand why Pav came on, 2 up front because Sunderland were so cautious, but paradoxically it made us less incisive because we’re not used to playing that way.

Sandro had a good first half an hour – he saw this as an opportunity and was determined to make the most of it. Like the others, he tailed away as the half concluded. He then produced a storming second half until he went off near the end, exhausted after several lung-busting runs and feeling the effects of Thursday. This rock allowed the others freedom to get forward. When he lost the ball, he had but one thing on his mind, to get it back. He’s top class, born to that position.

Now we were cooking. These changes ignited the tempo. Rafa hit left foot pingers all over the place, Luka and Parker kept the ball moving and the full-backs were more than willing to help. We would have had more if Benny had been a fraction more accurate but Sunderland made it hard to penetrate their massed ranks.

The goal when it came was a sweet effort from Pav. I was in line, such a lovely feeling to turn away in celebration before it hit the net, knowing it was in. Otherwise, he didn’t do a lot, one decent shot. We should have had more – on twitter the match announcer Paul Coyte said Luka was kicking himself for the miss long after the final whistle. Rafa was well set at the edge of the box for a couple of his specials but he didn’t connect cleanly, and Manu was close twice. I’ve not checked the stats but we didn’t really make the keeper work too hard. That said, there was only one team in it.

Sitting on the Shelf means I’m close to our full-backs and wingers. We know how good Walker is but I want to tell you how focussed he is. There’s a look in eyes that would scare me if I played opposite him because of its intensity. Like Sandro, losing it means an opportunity to get stuck in. Nothing but getting it back. Brilliant.

Finally, a word of praise for Friedel. His calm understated excellence spreads to the rest of the team. A couple of good saves but his true value is in his safety. He catches where possible and when it is his, he makes it. His low save from a shot come cross late on was competent and expected but it meant so much, and if we do well this year we owe him a vast debt of gratitude.

So we’ve learned to overcome setbacks and we have a plan B. No wingers but we won, and won well. 606 on the way home, an Ar****l fan bristles at an earlier call from a triumphant Spur. He was wrong to write them off but she really got the hump. Showing that they don’t know the game, she wrongly said we haven’t won anything since their last trophy. She sounded as though she was a lot younger than me so she knows nothing but success. She needs some perspective. She was really edgy – I reckon that’s a sure sign of what success feels like.

The Ups and Downs of Benny The Ball

With the season barely a week old, Spurs full-back Benoit Assou Ekotto has already touched the stars and plumbed the depths. I trust the motion sickness will have worn off by kick-off tomorrow.

It all began with so much promise. A fine performance against Manchester City on Saturday not only kept us tight and cosy at the back, a number of long-range curling passes turned defence into attack. His tackle on SWP saved the game, and if Hart had not been wearing those new jet-pack boots, his first half shot, bound for the top corner, could have won it for us. He would have been pleased to see his name on the team sheet in the first place, given Bale’s rip-roaring form. That was quite a compliment, but not quite matching the ultimate accolade – the Tottenham On My Mind MOM…

But there’s more. In town on Monday, you know those people who read your paper over your shoulder or out of the corner of their eye, the ones that if you make eye contact, they pretend to be looking just past you, engaged in an intense study of ceiling rivet techniques or the patterning and durability of the seat covers, comparing modern fabric with the classic London Transport check of 40 years ago, well, I am that voyeur. It’s a compulsion – I do it even if the paper is free and I have said paper in my hand at the time.

On the Northern Line I spotted on the top left of the Evening Standard page, ‘Spurs star who takes the..’ and the rest was obscured. I later picked up a copy with a sinking heart: bound to be either two metre Peter’s latest drunken philandering or, worse, it’s a Spurs man who has the super-injunction. In fact, footballer in good news story shock horror drama probe. The Standard, always on the look out for any passing bandwagon, has leapt aboard the Big Society as it careers through state and local authority provision. Benny is a major contributor to ‘the Dispossessed Fund’ which has gathered £1m to help support London’s poor.

It’s a genuine good news story. Benny loves London and travels everywhere from his Canary Wharf flat (thought they all had to live close to Chigwell and the training ground?) by public transport.

Benny's Famous Roger Moore Impression

“I love London and consider myself to be a Londoner. I take the Tube. It allows me to feel like a normal person,” he said. “I’ve always got my Oyster card with me. I live an anti-football life. I want to live like a normal person.

“It’s strange to walk around the city and see people sleeping in the streets. You shouldn’t be able to see something like that and then just go home and carry on with your life as normal. You have to do something about it.”

He owes this refreshing humility, rare amongst professional footballers, to his upbringing:

“My mother didn’t teach me to live like a star. I know how difficult it is to make money….I’m a footballer and I earn a lot of money, but when I go back to Cameroon I see the real problems that people are facing. It made me re-evaluate my life.”

In contrast, on the back pages of the same edition, Ashley Cole is being given a PR makeover to improve his image. The clue is in that sentence, Ash – it’s about what you do and how you behave, especially towards your fellow human beings, not about image is. He’ll never learn, bless him.

Spurs have joined in the campaign too, the first Premier League team to do so.

Benny is different, we know that. Last season he pulled off the staggering feat of saying that all footballers are in it for the money, but in a nice way. He’s a professional and will give his all, but in the end it’s a job and he’ll walk away. He plays football because he can but would much rather do something in music. Badge-kissing and fist-pumping is so much nonsense – see players for what they are and enjoy it, he seems to be saying, but don’t make them something they are not.

He greets all this with the same expression, slightly bemused and disconnected but not unhappy. My son has seen the team board the coach post-match at a few away games. Benny will stroll towards the bus, headphones on, in a world of his own, whereas the others will mostly sign a few books and pose for photos. Somehow he does it in a manner that does not offend. It’s just the way he is. The only clue to his feelings is the merest twitch of the face, the most expressive raised eyebrow since Roger Moore’s puppet on Spitting Image.

I swear he’s the same in games. Whether striding forward, hammering back or hurling himself bodily into the tackle, maybe just the slightest furrowed brow is the only change you can discern.

Benny Relaxes Between Bouts of Fundraising

On Wednesday, he was fairly blank, albeit with eyes downcast, as he suffered the ignominy of being hauled off after 36 minutes. It could be that he was sacrificed for tactical reasons as Hud came on, but Harry did not look at all happy. Benny had been drifting wide and out of position, stranded when he saw the Young Boys forward move up for the third goal. From hero to villain in 4 short days.

I’ve grown fond of our full-backs over the years. I sit on the lower Shelf in the centre and see a lot of them as they toil up and down, the fear in their eyes as they face a quick winger or Bale’s astonishing physicality as he steams up the field.

I like Benny. He’s a good player, quick, alert and neat, good on the ball and sharp in the tackle. If he didn’t care, he would not have improved so much in the last two years, he’d just hang around and pick up his cheque. Sometimes he has off days but you can’t tell until it’s too late, until he wanders or he has those mad days. He reminds me of my dog – even and consistent the vast majority of the time but occasionally for no reason, she flies in and out of the house at top speed for five minutes or so, then stops, again for no apparent reason. Benny goes mad too, usually going walkabout and fouling desperately before being substituted.

Let’s hope he picks himself up for Saturday. Certainly a week of ups and downs, but still, knowing him, he’s probably not noticed and even if he has, you wouldn’t notice the difference.

Public information announcement: our game is live on Absolute Radio Extra tomorrow: DAB Digital Radio, 1215AM and online in the UK. For more go to http://bit.ly/StokeSpursAbsoluteRadio

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine