In the coffee bar of St Paul’s Church in the Park Lane, the benign Martin Luther King gazes down at the queue for tea and bacon rolls. The children have been remarkably inventive with their colouring project, considering that all they had to work with is the outline of a black man in a suit.
The ladies in the kitchen bustle at their task. Each treats the cramped servery as their own. At home the kitchen is their domain yet here they must share, so the fussing and unwanted advice means the service is slow. Even the vicar tuts with impatience as he takes the money. It’s value at £1.50.
Looking around, there’s spiritual inspiration to be had from a few religious images, or perhaps the giant stuffed Speedy Gonzales, lying in the corner with a fixed grin.
This peaceful setting, with its attentive service (‘how would you like your egg cooked?’), youth club chairs and shiny toilets is tranquil yet vaguely unsettling. Football’s not about this. It’s about the grease of burgers, watered down sauce trickling down the wrist and hurried gulps of indigestion before the expectant rush to get into the ground. Too nice, it’s just not right.
The contrast with what was to follow could not have been more marked. Twenty minutes later, we were plunged into the midst of a physical battle that became increasingly intense as the match wore on, a seething froth of steaming tackles, gross duplicity and red cards. Newcastle’s defensive tactics gradually descended into systematic intimidation, encouraged by lenient refereeing.
That Spurs did not buckle under such pressure is a measure of our resilience, both mental to overcome the threats and our ingenuity in playing our way out of trouble. Yesterday, Bale and Lennon made and took two superb goals with a precious combination of breathtaking pace and slide rule finishing, but we were led all the way by a virtuoso performance from Luka Modric.
From first whistle to last, he scurried and scampered through the markers and tackles, untouched by the mayhem all around. When we had the ball he dictated the pace of the entire game, pass and move, a touch on or 50 yards cross field all the same to a player at the peak of his powers. He ran and ran and ran, constantly available to ease the pain of teammates under pressure. As the infidels thundered down upon him, he swayed and swivelled, a drop of the shoulder and he’s gone, no discernable change of pace but look, there he is, he’s away. No space in the crowded midfield throbbing with opponents intent on destruction, but there, look, in daylight, crouched over the ball then head up, a seemingly idle flick of the outside of the boot or a firm instep. Frail legs hide a frame of tensile steel, clip his ankles but he’s still upright, protecting the ball as if it were precious treasure, shielding and caressing it to safety. One moment, under pressure in our left full back position, the pass down the line to Rafa defied the laws of geometry and physics. A masterpiece from a truly wonderful footballer: one of the most complete individual performances I’ve seen for years.
From such rarefied heights, back to the blood and thunder. Early on, the air of expectation was palpable as Carroll took on our centre halves, for the game would surely turn on how we coped with their dangerman. Very well as it turned out. Daws was not prepared to give an inch. He’d spent days focussed solely on winning that first high ball and he was on top from the start. Such is our confidence that we let Kaboul take him on when the ball was on the left – whoever was closest. The Frenchman bolstered his growing reputation by not flinching either.
Defensively our task was made easier by Newcastle’s reluctance to support their centre forward. Later in the half Carroll won a few balls, headed perfectly into space but the nearest teammate. Barton usually, was 15 yards away. A total waste of their greatest asset.
However, the Geordies’ defensive outlook stifled our attacking efforts. Rafa struggled to find room, Pav’s control let him down at crucial moments and the wide outlets were blocked. Newcastle’s high line begged for a ball to be slipped in behind them but we didn’t make those runs, then they dropped back behind the midfield shield and that route to goal was blocked.
We found it hard to make any chances but could have scored just before half time when first Rafa missed a good headed chance then Pav’s downward header tantalisingly hit both posts before rolling clear. A fine save from Krul. We needed to up the tempo in the second half, We play better at the level of quick bordering on frantic.
Alongside Luka, Palacios was back to his bouncy best, covering diligently and snapping in with the tackles. He was a yard faster around the pitch, add something for his sharpened sense of anticipation and for 45 minutes it was as effective a piece of defensive midfield play as you could wish to see. Well, for almost 45 minutes. Twice he gave the ball away, leading to chances that Newcastle would not have otherwise made. The second time, the lunge and booking on Carroll was as predictable as England’s Ashes win.
The guy in the Newcastle midfield looked vaguely familiar. It took me a moment to realise this was Alan Smith. Once a highly gifted and mobile young striker at Leeds, Fergie paid a fortune to convert him into a decidedly average, albeit committed, midfielder. Injuries haven’t helped. I know he’s been away a long time because of injury but someone should have let him know that in the meantime they’ve changed the way you can tackle from behind these days. Trouble is, the ref seemed to be back in the nineties too.
Now I have some sympathy for refs these days. No really – the game is so fast in reality and so damn easy with the benefit of 37 slow motion replays that they have a nigh on impossible task. However, here was an instance where by not setting the standard early on, the referee allowed players to take too much freedom. Time and again Smith, Barton and Tiote chomped in. They should have been punished more severely, if not for individual fouls then for repetition.
If the eye was drawn throughout the game to Carroll, it was also impossible to avoid paying attention to Joey Barton, however hard I tried, and believe me I did try, so hard. I admit prejudice: surely no professional deserves the 50k a week less, given his history. But I am a warm and generous man, willing to embrace efforts at rehabilitation. Newcastle fans have been saying it’s ‘Joey for England, and certainly his effort can’t be faulted, trying to hold down a midfield berth whilst pushing forward to support Carroll and, later, dropping deep to try and start something, in the face of utter indifference from the anonymous Routledge and Gutierrez
But of course he started. On Rafa first, who is becoming a target now that the league has spotted his short fuse. Leaving his foot in on Kaboul, then twice digging Modric in the ribs as the ball was dead, actively looking for trouble. Luka just looked at him. Barton sees a frail victim, we see a battle hardened child of a war zone.
Then the free kick. We have the ball, about to launch from deep. Carroll goes down holding his head, ref stops the game. Carroll gets up, he’s hurt his leg. Barton takes the free drop, looks at Gutierrez, they point, Barton drops it the corner as Gutierrez follows up. If they had scored from that free kick… Naked opportunism, carefully thought through, that no one else would do. This loathsome objectionable individual is the Newcastle captain.
Still it got the game going. The atmosphere was boiling over once Kaboul stupidly fell for the provocation and saw red. This foolishness could have lost us the game – as it is, he’s out for three games just when we need him. Need him because this adolescent indiscretion aside he’s fast maturing into a high quality centre half. I believe he’ll become a top class player.
By this time, we were a goal up. Speedy Gonzales came to life with a lightening dash and rifled finish. Earlier we had struggled to raise our game and raise the tempo – we did everything too slowly but gradually cranked it up, inspiring this terrific little goal from an impossibly wide angle. Anderle anderle indeed.
A man down and we took over until the final whistle. Quality shone through the whole team. Luka shrugged, picked up the pace and the ball, dominated. Jenas had another good match, excepting his loss of the ball in front of goal. Harry could have withdrawn Wilson because the booking rendered him impotent but it was perhaps more positive than that. JJ can take the game to opponents who are retreating and he did so effectively, but perhaps his best moment was the great last man tackle at the edge of the box. Too many false dawns in the past to signal a JJ comeback but in this form he’s a cracking player.
Lennon and Bale pinned back the defenders, while Bassong showed the same fearless attitude towards Carroll as he did to Drogba recently. Against a bigger man he refused to give ground. Daws was there to sort him out too.
Another day, another ten men, another 80 yard move. Bale was off before you realise how much room he has, then it’s the familiar hold your breath surely he can’t get through no shooting from there never, it’s in, it’s in in, it’s in… you beauty.
A moment of breathtaking skill that was as incongruous in this match as the pre-match tranquillity of St Pauls Church. There’s a lesson there somewhere, that stick to your principles, play it right and you shall be rewarded. Vicar, there’s your sermon for next Sunday, Harry and the Parable of the Two Wingers. And if you could get some mustard in next time, that will be perfect.