Kyle Walker: Victim of a Culture of Unrealistic Expectations

After the game on Saturday, Kyle Walker received several abusive tweets and deleted his Twitter account. This sorry episode followed what is fast becoming a depressingly familiar pattern: player joins twitter. Fans welcome this and follow. We can interact with our heroes. This temporarily bucks the trend of increasing separation between Premier League clubs and their supporters. Fan insults player. Player says why do I bother. Player deletes account. Player more reluctant than ever to communicate.

The textspeak insults were pathetic and small-minded, like the people cowering behind the anonymity of cyberspace who posted them. Twitter is in a froth about it all, predictably. The good guys are trying to get Kyle to come back, although if he’s not on twitter, he won’t see it….

So what’s to be made of this? Reading some of the coverage, it feels like there’s been a cataclysmic rending of the Spurs firmament. Fans at each others’ throats. Players alienated from fans. Let’s have a go at the team while we’re about it. High up the league, fast improving, fine players but lose to a team racing clear at the top who spent more on three midfielders than the value of our team plus the bench and it’s AVB out, Walker out, Levy out. 606 is as unreliable a guide to opinion as Twitter, but a Spurs fan rang on Saturday to say precisely that, describing our performance as the worst he’d seen in 30 years. Couldn’t have been a real Spurs fan, then.

Twitter is a lot of fun but sometimes it suffers from delusions of grandeur. Designed as a method of conversation, it becomes reified into a self-contained universe. Not one conversation but the only conversation. The delusion is fed by a media hungry for opinions. It’s referenced with increasing frequency. Who needs a contact book compiled painstakingly over many years of scoop-seeking when you have a ready-made source of quotes at your fingertips, conveniently packaged into 140 character soundbites.

I trust those weasel misbegotten nogoodniks will crawl back under the stone from whence they came. It should be easy, they have no backbone. Back in the real world, after his dire error, the Shelf groaned then gave Kyle Walker a warm round of sympathetic applause from the Shelf. A few stood to emphasise the point that there’s a difference between a bad player and a player having a bad game. Loyal fans who put that mistake into context. The young full-back heard that and will remember long after Twitter becomes the MySpace of the next decade.

That context recognised instinctively by the Shelf is sadly lacking from the appreciation of many football fans these days, not just Spurs supporters. Devouring the game through television provides valuable insights but fundamentally distorts the nature and equilibrium of this finest of all sports. It’s safe to sit back and judge from the armchair gantry where everything is spread out before you. Slow it all down, watch a key incident 37 times from 6 different angles, only then decide a player’s ability. It fosters a culture of blame where perfection is the sole acceptable option and condemnation follows swiftly for anyone who dares to fall short.

This culture of unrealistic expectations distorts our entire perception of the game, of what clubs, players and referees for that matter are capable of. Nothing exists but the here and now. Spurs have a new manager and new players so why aren’t we top of the table? We’ve had several matches already. Just buy lots of players. It’s what other teams do. Refs are rubbish, even though we’ve seen an incident repeatedly and still can’t decide whether it’s a surefire penalty. Players are not all they are cracked up to be. Look, they make mistakes. Let’s get some stats to back it up.

Back in the real world, players’ form goes up and down. Hardly a staggering insight but in the universe of the unreal, it is forgotten far too frequently. The two finest midfielders I’ve seen at the Lane, Hoddle and Gascoigne, had more games when they were largely ineffective than glory games. It doesn’t diminish their stellar achievements one jot because that’s merely the nature of football. The way Ginola was lauded at half-time, you’d think he was Hod and Gazza rolled into one. I enjoyed watching him play, but just so you know, they show those goals against Barnsley and Leeds over and over partly because they are superb but mainly because there aren’t many others to choose from. For every moment where he turned a game there were twenty others where he slowed everything down intolerably or ran, however elegantly, into a blind alley.

In the real world, I’m fortunate enough to sit in row 14 of the Shelf, almost opposite the benches. The players are close, real-life flesh and blood, stained and steaming. When they hug the touchline, I can count the beads of sweat on their brow.

It’s a perspective that means I’m particularly close to wingers and full-backs. For that reason, I’m particularly fond of them. They can’t hide. I’m not seeing them through a prism of slowmos or tactics graphics. Right there. I see their faces and under pressure, I can see into their minds. I see elation, indifference and fear. Lots of fear, you’d be surprised. They cover it up but not from me.

So I see Kyle Walker as the most focussed and committed of Tottenham players. I am convinced of it. Towards the end of last season, he was knackered. Sure, I know they play once or twice a week, should be fit enough blah blah. But pounding up and down that wing, forward and back, being nudged and pulled and kicked, he was tired. His legs were plastered with support tape as if stuck together with sellotape. In a quiet moment, he would bend double to catch his breath.

And he did not stop. Over and over, his determination to overcome the pain in his legs and his guts kept him going. His determination to be a good professional. His dedication to the shirt. Our shirt.

Walker is not playing so well this season. His poor positional play is being found out. Late on Saturday I looked for his runs to support Lennon as we sought an equaliser but there was nothing. I don’t know what caused it but he was shot through. The England trip, a virus maybe but he was off-colour. During a lull, he went to the bench, ostensibly for a drink but taking on liquid that late will have no effect whatsoever on his body. He needed a boost, words of soothing reassurance to quell his anxiety.

Exhaustion seeps from muscle to mind and when called into action next he made two horrendous mistakes in as many seconds and they scored their fourth. He made one final dash upfield in desperate atonement, stiff-legged and too late. Instinct propelled him forward.

Kyle Walker is not a bad player, he’s a fine footballer who is not playing well. He’s young and will learn. His pace gets him out of trouble most of the time but not always. Defenders need games to add positional nouse to their talents. He will succeed and but he has nothing to prove to me. I know he plays for the shirt.

Thanks to my cyberpal the @Lustdoctor. Blog in the blogroll to your right. Essential. Our conversation on twitter generated some ideas for this piece. Oh the irony.

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.