Spurs Wave The White Flag For Bill

The day began basking in the warm glow of the celebration of the life of Bill Nicholson, the greatest figure in the long and distinguished history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. It ended in ignominy as Spurs folded the moment the slightest pressure was applied to their fragile egos.

I’m still struggling to wash away the stench of complacency that lingers like the odour of smoke and stale beer from a night out in a 70s pub. This shower are happy to strut and showboat against inferior opposition in midweek but disappear as soon as they are required to step out of their comfort zone. The intelligence and effort required to hold onto a lead or fight back is apparently beneath them. When they said ‘wear white for Bill’, I didn’t think waving the white flag was what the club had in mind.

Spurs eased into control early on and maintained it throughout an undistinguished first half without playing especially well. They didn’t have to. An injury-hit Newcastle side low on morale and points offered little resistance. We made fewer chances than we should have – Chadli missed the best of them – but had the comfort of Adebayor’s far post header from a carefully considered cross by Ryan Mason.

Oblivious to the big bloke on the left who came on for the second half, Spurs were undone by the cunning ploy of him getting the ball and running towards our goal. Unchallenged, unnoticed by some defenders, Ameobi scored, the only dispute being whether it was after 7 or 8 seconds. Utterly inexcusable. The whistle had gone but really, the cheek of starting a game before we were ready. At least for their second we tried to get in the way, another run down the left, Sissoko bulldozed  through puny challenges before a cross found the smallest guy on the pitch, far too good in the air for our international centre halves.

From then on, Spurs had no idea of how to score. Eriksen briefly flattered to deceive then faded into the morass with the rest of this sorry bunch. We shuttled the ball back and forth across the edge of the box, with each man holding on to the ball just long enough for them to be tackled. Could not keep the ball. I’ll excuse Rose, always available on the left even if not every cross was accurate, and Mason, who seems to be the only one who’s read the memo about playing the ball quickly and forward. Lennon came on to add pace and width, and resolutely kept as far away from the touchline as possible. This was beyond tactics, it was just stupid.

Last weekend I tried to pick the bones from a performance of contradictions. There was good and bad, progress since Pochettino took and regression. Now I think we have a clearer idea of where we stand.

The striker problem has been done to death. Levy has left us ludicrously short of options. Thursday night was part of Kane’s development not a sign that he’s a matchwinning Premier League striker, although I’m delighted with his progress. Other things that in the recent past I have noted but left as asides or footnotes have come centre stage. Kaboul’s heroic performance at the Emirates could, should have been a sign of much needed resilience. Instead that good game is the blip amidst a mediocre run. I read about his inability to motivate as captain – that’s not the problem. He needs to play better, especially alongside Vertonghen who’s just coasting. And if the mananger’s key job is to judge players, I question the wisdom of putting so much store in a man who has lost the spring and suppleness that made him stand out, or for that matter selling Dawson when there’s no effective back-up.

After the QPR game I characterised Lamela as our hero in waiting, and supporters have waited so long for such a figure. He doesn’t seem to want it. Rabonas are for the hipsters and the showreel. Easily crowded out by defenders when he has the ball, off it he doesn’t cover. No coincidence Newcastle put that big bloke on our right. Dier was exposed: suddenly he looked so young, the aura of strength and promise slipping away. Mason screamed at Lamela, “F**king get back”. He didn’t.

Eriksen unable to control a midfield. Chadli happy when he can play the game at his own pace but unwilling to graft when that’s required. He was not alone. Our hopes for goals largely rest on that midfield three but all they gave us was indifference.

Most worrying of all, we do not have the players to suit Pochettino’s style. A pressing game, early forward passes, high tempo – if these are his trademarks this group of players are not responding. It’s noticeable that Mason, the player who does, is young, new and so presumably willing to listen and learn. Lamela, Chadli and Eriksen remain resistant. Yesterday Poch was unable to influence matters on the pitch. This unresponsiveness from the players does not auger well for the future and is of grievous concern, given that by and large this squad will take us through to the end of the season.

No doubt you’ll read invocations of the spirit of Billy Nick in stark contrast to the lack of commitment and application of yesterday’s team. There’s a great deal of truth in that. Nicholson would indeed have been furious at the sight of such a sorry spectacle but it’s not as if he would have been unduly surprised. On plenty of occasions during his reign, Spurs’ soft centre was laid bare and the slow handclap echoed round the Lane. He may have set the standards but many times the players failed to achieve them and not in the ‘defeat has echoes of glory’ sense either. I’m talking about inconsistency and defensive openness.

There are differences though that the players, manager and board would do well to reflect upon this week as they try to turn things around. In the current climate, Nicholson would have faced persistent calls for his dismissal in the media and from supporters on social media. Spurs finished 7th, 6th and 11th in the 3 seasons following the ’67 Cup win. After the glorious Cup Winners Cup victory in 1963, league form was patchy – 6th and 8th in the next two seasons. The League Cup wins in 71 and 73 would have been adversely compared with the Double and Europe – ‘only’ the League Cup.

In fact, these seasons demonstrate Nicholson’s great strength as a manager – he rebuilt teams, twice, going on to success each time. He wasn’t dismissed. He was allowed to choose his own players, albeit within a constrained budget. He was given time.

The other difference is Nicholson’s personal committment. This was no golden age of unbroken glory. He watched many poor performances and it hurt him, deep inside. I doubt very much if anyone at the club felt that pain this morning.

To celebrate his life, I did exactly what I normally do at every home game. I think that’s what he would have wanted. ‘Wearing white for Bill’ is OK as it goes. I’m not sure signing the wall in the club shop is quite the appropriate tribute but if people want to sign, why not.

Yet on the same day, there are more stories in the papers about a possible move to Milton Keynes while the new ground is built, something that supporters in the recent Trust survey overwhelmingly opposed. I don’t know anyone who understands why the club would consider this even for a millisecond, let alone be in favour of a move.

Once again it was left to supporters to say the one thing that truly matters right now. A flag in the north west corner displayed another quote from the great man: “We must always consider our supporters for without them there would be no professional football.”

Signing a wall or buying a shirt with Nicholson’s name inside the collar is marketing, not involvement or a tribute. To me, it’s an insult. Yesterday the stands, the trains home, the burger queues, all were filled not with anger but with apathy. The distance between club and supporter inches ever wider. It’s no way to run a football team.

Reflections On City: Different Manager, Same Spurs – Have We Moved On?

The memories of last season’s 6-0 defeat at Manchester City are hard to erase. The goals themselves, one conceded after 13 seconds, were bad enough but it was the manner of the capitulation that can still bring out a cold sweat in the middle of the night. In particular an image revealed by the TV of four or five Spurs players otherwise engaged as the whistle blew. Thinking more about the first train home than the game. Kaboul tying his shoelaces.

A section of the media, Neil Ashton and Martin Samuels in the vanguard, saw that their victim was vulnerable and pounced on Villas-Boas, unleashing a torrent of criticism stored up from days at Chelsea, not Spurs’ fault but we suffered most. ‘We’ meant ‘them’ but soon enough AVB had to refer to Tottenham as ‘them’ not ‘us’ because he was gone.  Two managers later, it feels like several seasons have passed but in fact it’s under a year. Time flies when you’re not having fun.

The match ebbed and flowed in timelapse, half a season’s worth of incidents speeded up and packed into 90 minutes. 4 penalties, sublime skill, pathetic defending (form both teams), end-to-end football in an open, exciting match that for neutrals could have been the best game of the season so far. How dare they enjoy that?

39 goal attempts and almost as many turning points but Soldado’s missed penalty after an hour did for us. The time for ifs and buts, could-haves and should-haves was past. In the middle of a spell in the second half where we took the game to City and found their defence was almost as porous as ours, Bobby stepped up, waited for the keeper to move and as usual put the ball low towards the corner, tried a tested routine, reliable….except this time something in the wiring of a brain that has seen him score goals for a lifetime fused. It compelled him to put the ball in the direction Hart was diving. It sucked all the strength from his leg muscles.

Hart saved the feeble effort. Shortly afterwards the keeper blocked Soldado’s fine effort from Rose’s cross. The game was gone and with it what remained of the Spaniard’s fragile confidence. Until then it had been his best game for Spurs for a long while. The link-up play with Eriksen in particular was delightful at times and one first-half pass sliced apart the City defence only for Mason to hit Hart’s legs with an outside-of-the-foot prod when something more substantial was required to put Spurs one up.

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So: goals and penalties, let’s go. Preface: in my view Aguero is the best in the world in the box and this was an outstanding day even for him.

First goal: Lamela gave the ball away and had a lousy match. City overloaded on our left in the first half, seeing Dier and Lamela as our weak spot and how right they were. Aguero does this thing: in the box most strikers take a touch forward before shooting. He shifts the ball a yard diagonally away from the goal and therefore from the defender in front of him then shoots. It’s impossible for the defender to tackle because he’s now two yards from the ball with Aguero in between. This also opens up the angle for the far post. The real problem here for Spurs was not so much Kaboul even though he gave him too much room but that Aguero needs two men to block and cut down that angle and space. We never did that.

And Lampard was in an offside position in the keeper’s line of sight. Questionable to say the least. not according to Alan Shearer on MOTD. Lampard couldn’t be offside ‘because Lloris wouldn’t have saved it anyway.” Rewrite the laws if it suits why don’t you. Or use your brain, which is why you get paid a 7 figure sum for a torrent of smug drivel.

Penalty: down goes Lampard who as all English football knows is a fine upstanding top hole pip pip decent chap. Except he wasn’t upstanding this time. he never dives so it must have been a penalty. He did and it wasn’t.

Second penalty: Kaboul ploughs in on the trickiest player in the league David Silva. Blatant pen, Kaboul reckless in the extreme and as captain no example to the rest of his side. Lloris saves with his legs. Lloris always dives to his left, you know.

Third pen: ours, Soldado was tripped outside the box. You know the rest. The ref’s having a mare, you may have gathered by now.

Fourth pen: Fazio who had until watched the penalty box mayhem without contributing much, pulled Aguero down as he ran in the box towards a cross. Might have got away with that in Spain. Sent off: was the ref certain Aguero would get on the end of that ball? I don’t think he could be. No red.

Fourth City goal: long ball, Aguero did that thing again. The free kick was taken quickly, three yards in front of where it should have been. Should therefore have been brought back. Did I mention the ref wasn’t having a good game?

Returning to the problems posed at the top of this piece, what’s important to me is whether or not we have moved on since then. That match was an example, albeit stark and extreme, of our problems in recent years against the top four. I used to say, ‘our rivals for the top four’ but there’s no chance of that, long gone. Spurs have a long-standing fatal problem of team deficiencies in attitude and togetherness coupled with failures of individuals at key moments. It’s a toxic combination.

Leave the ref out of it, yesterday showed familiar flaws. There were signs of better team play, especially coming forward. In the week Eriksen’s international manager criticised him for not dominating games. It’s something I’ve pointed out here too. Without putting undue pressure on a player who is still quite young, he has the talent to do much more. Goodness knows we need it. Yesterday he scored our equaliser with a fine right-footer, could have had another in the fist half when he passed unaccountably instead of shooting with his left and for the first hour was always a threat. Maybe he responded. It may be more to do with the extra room we have when we go away. City are the most attacking and therefore open of the top four and give others room.

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Without the ball we didn’t press so much as fall back, staying narrow, compressing the space and forcing City down the flanks, which worked well versus Arsenal and defending a lead against Southampton. Mason was delightfully energetic and combative, robbing the City midfielder to set up the first and generally being a right old nuisance. He moves the ball on quickly and his determined to take his chance. He’s waited a long time. Perhaps in the modern game 23 is the new 19. Players have to learn their trade elsewhere before coming into first team contention, more fully formed as footballers than in past generations.

On the bad days we’ve tended to fade. Fade – say what you mean man: give up. The late goals plus Milner hitting the post is a sign that problem hasn’t gone away but some mitigating circumstances, I reckon. 2-1 down, we had to push up and had a real chance until missed chances and the sending-off. Pochettino’s substitutions hindered rather than helped. The arrival of Townsend and Dembele disrupted the team’s balance. It would have been better to tweak, keeping the central midfield solidity as an attacking base.

However, we’ll get nowhere if we give the ball away with such profligacy. Kaboul and Lamela were the worst culprits in the first half, losing the ball close to our box. These errors led directly to at least two goals. Also, our progress was hampered by individual errors. Kaboul’s tackle for the penalty was inexcusable and even allowing for Aguero’s brilliance in the box there were other unnecessary, totally avoidable mistakes. The faults of key players are there too often, especially when we don’t have the ball.  Never mind the ref, we simply can’t play like this. It’s our fault, no one else to blame.

Lloris was great, I love him. End on a positive.

Taking Our Ball Back: Spurs Writer Martin Cloake On Football’s Culture Wars

In a down-at-heel corner of southeast London the Holmesdale Fanatics are not just getting behind their team, they’re taking giant steps towards reclaiming football for the fans. These Crystal Palace supporters stand, sing, wave banners and flags and generally have a good time. Known in the past for restrained loyalty, the atmosphere in this old fashioned ground lifts the team and intimidates opponents, bringing Liverpool’s seemingly irresistible sprint for the League Championship to a grinding halt at the end of last season. The ground was rocking and so were the Reds’ title hopes. The result was a draw but the experience unforgettable.

The Fanatics are amongst the most active and vocal participants in a movement loosely known as against modern football. High ticket Taking-Our-Ball-Back-coverprices, regimented stewarding inside and outside grounds, the fixture list the plaything of Sky TV, the dominance of the Premier League and the Champions League, all these and more have alienated large swathes of football’s core support and kept an entire generation of young fans firmly in their armchairs in front of the tele. Yesterday the results of the BBC Price of Football survey shows the stratospheric PL seat prices – Spurs have the third most expensive seat after Arsenal and Chelsea – and rises substantially outstripping inflation.

There’s a distance between us and the game we love. We call it the People’s Game – perhaps it never really was but for 90 minutes every fortnight, at least it felt that way. It’s been a recurring topic on Tottenham on My Mind, for example here and here because it’s changing the way we relate to our club. Spurs fans are amongst the most loyal there can be yet this resentment at being exploited by the club is at the root of the poor atmosphere at many home games. Average performances are a factor but we’re used to those by now. It’s the underlying alienation that makes it worse.

But hang on a minute. You’d think the groundswell of opinion would become a tidal wave of change, but you’d be mistaken because not every fan sees it the same way. Many are quite happy in front of their 42″ plasma screens – expensive but affordable, watch every match in the comfort of your own home.

Or how about this from the Manchester City Supporters Club. In a statement regarding Financial Fair Play they have joined a legal action against FFP because it discriminates against clubs, or more precisely against the rule that is “a prohibition to invest that prevents ambitious owners to develop their clubs, that therefore shields the established European elite from being challenged.”

In other words they’re complaining that their owners can’t spend even more money than the squillions already invested. Breaking even is bad. I get the established elite bit but surely FFP, however flawed the current rules may be, aims to encourage clubs to operate within their means and broaden the opportunities for clubs to reach the elite in ways other than finding a sugardaddy.

Their language is as interesting as their logic. They demand a hearing as “consumers of the football product”, not as supporters even though the club was established in 1949. They conclude by saying they are doing this in the interests of all supporters of non-elite clubs, apparently oblivious of the fact that to the rest of us, they are the elite. Seems a far cry from the Holmesdale End.

In this mixed-up mumbled-up shook-up world, reading Martin Cloake’s new book Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars is an essential route map out of this quicksand. Part compilation of existing essays from the New Statesman, In Bed With Maradona and elsewhere, part new material, it’s the best single-volume coverage of football culture and support in the modern era. Long-time (and long-suffering) Spurs fan, Martin understands terrace culture and was actively protesting against the closure of the Shelf and other iniquitous developments at the club long before anybody coined the term ‘against modern football’. Combine that with his journalist’s eye for a story and the acumen of someone who has been writing about finance as well as football for many years and you have a sense of the depth and breadth of the book.

 

FSF 4There’s plenty of fascinating detail but Martin is not afraid to confront the big questions about the future of football. This is about a battle over the definition of what football is and what it means to be a supporter, timely given many are questioning their . Many of the examples are familiar to Spurs fans and readers of this blog. He piles into Stubhub and the ‘Y word’ debate is a perfect example of how the law has been used unfairly to target football fans. His incisive approach to the football authorities slices through the hypocrisy and flannel.  Throughout explicit links to history and culture provide perspective and solidity that’s absent from most debate around these fundamental issues. For example, the discussion on the ‘new ultras’, including our own 1882 movement, is situated in a broader context of oppositional culture and protest. The very different topics of business and football and the law in football, vital but often overlooked, are placed in context too.

Where Taking Our Ball Back really scores over other writing on the topic is that it manages a nuanced approach without losing any of the power of its argument. Many may be against modern football but It’s just not that simple. A variety of currents are attempting to preserve the game’s meaning, as I’ve indicated above, and this is one of the few books able to disentangle the various strands. The problem fans may have to deal with in the future is less about conflict with the clubs and more about conflict between groups of supporters, all claiming righteous salvation through their approach but in fact representing very different interests.

Taking Our Ball Back adroitly handles these topics in a readable, accessible manner. Times are changing. The sense of place  and belonging that surrounds clubs, the link between club and community, is less important as each year goes by because of the national and global consumption of the PL. There’s a real danger of these foundations shaking and with it our identity as supporters and therefore, because this bloody club means so much to so many, the foundations of how we see ourselves as individuals becoming shaky too. As Martin says, “modern football seeks to replace community with commodity.”

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Unreservedly recommended, and continue the discussion on Tottenham On My Mind because these issues are coming to a head at Spurs. Prices remain high, morale low, the prospect of the lowest WHL crowd for years next week and waiting in the wings the new ground and a possible move to Milton Keynes. For £3.04 on Kindle and only £6.97 in paperback, you can’t go wrong.

Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars by Martin Cloake  available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback

Pics from the FSF demo against the PL and ticket prices in August this year.

Coming soon on Tottenham On My Mind on this topic: an interview with the founders of the Spurs Small Shareholders Association

 

 

Pochettino Can’t Take A Break This Fortnight

On Friday my granddaughter asked me who my favourite Spurs player was. I had to think for a moment, then told her it was Hugo Lloris. She persisted. “Not a goalkeeper granddad.” I guess keepers aren’t the men to spark the imagination of a 9 year old these days, whereas when I was her age Pat Jennings was a superhero to me, with gravity-defying leaps and brave deeds, saving the team when all else had failed, week after week. She’ll learn.

I paused. To be honest, I could not think of an answer. It’s telling that while I see the positives in almost all of our players, no one stands out. Eriksen has the potential but has not kicked on this season and is not yet able to make a midfield sing to his own tune and has not kicked on so far this season. Lamela is the hero we crave but has not found a way past the posse of opponents who descend on him the instant he gets the ball at his feet. The rest are much of a muchness, although I have the utmost respect for Kaboul’s Kaptain Kourageous efforts recently. No point in looking to any of our strikers for inspiration.

Yesterday’s narrow win against Southampton was well-crafted and decidedly unspectacular. Right now, seems we can’t have both and yesterday the full spectrum of positives and negatives were on display. Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham will be organised and hard-working rather than relying on inspiration and we did well enough against a team who are themselves disciplined and solid. Yet it’s the star men, the favourites, who will provide those moments of inspiration that turn solid into solid gold. Eriksen played in fits and starts again, good touches without taking over for periods. Yet he has the ability to win the game, seizing on one of our few chances and finding the bottom corner of the net from just outside the box. Well set up by Adebayor and Chadli, this was a rare example of quick passing matched by good positional sense running movement off the ball.

Pochettino knows this. He’s known for press and run rather than push and run but he’s consistently picked attack-minded players like Lamela, Eriksen and Chadli. Many are grumbling that Spurs are not exciting to watch. That’s less about tactics or philosophy and more about the growing pains of yet another new side under yet another new manager.

Poch plays attack-minded men and likes to keep the ball moving, in a forward direction if at all possible. Full-backs are encouraged to get forward too, although we didn’t see so much of this yesterday. It’s just that it’s taking time to get the message across. This was what, 11 or 12 games in. There are signs of stability – strength and understanding in the back four, pressing together early on then falling back later for protection, the key there being the word ‘together’.

Indeed, we seem happier falling back and hitting back on the counter. Our best attacks came on the break with men piling forward.

Some individuals are flourishing too. Capoue is proving to be a fine DM, eating up the ground and using fine positional sense to plug the gaps. He’s a natural defensive midfielder. There’s Kaboul as skipper and Danny Rose the revelation. Another excellent game nearly curtailed because he built up a number of fouls after the referee harshly booked him earlier, that warranted a lengthy ‘one more and you’re off’ lecture. Lloris outstanding, pink must be his colour. Faultless on his line and in the air. You’d think he could a ball after all these years, but no. You’d think somebody at the club wouldn’t need a UEFA ‘A’ license to teach him how to do it. Mason good yesterday too. As I said last week, he’s young so I forgive him his mistakes if he keeps working and trying to get things going, as he did yesterday. On several occasions he and he alone instigated a bit of pass and move. Others take note.

Further forward there are problems turning defence into attack. For Eriksen and Lamela, see above. Townsend and Lennon when deployed on the ‘wrong’ side get swallowed up too easily.

Lots of criticism of Adebayor focusses on his workrate but what’s missing is goals. That’s what strikers do, I thought. Sure, these days they have to do more. Yesterday towards the end of the game he was tired but won applause, rightly so, for single-handedly worrying the Saints back four as they attempted to play the ball out. He began the move that led to the goal, significantly from wide left where he can drift away for markers and open up space in the middle. All good. He failed either to hold up the ball or link with the midfield, poor overall in that respect.

However, he was no danger to anybody in the box and neither for that matter was anyone else, apart from one Chadli effort where he hit the inside of the post. With his current form you expected him to score and certainly he looks much more useful to the team if he’s released from at least some of his covering duties.

This lack of punch in the box is the biggest single issue Pochettino has to ponder over during the international break. Defensively we look stronger. Kaboul and Vertonghen were solid and determined throughout and we defended a series of set-pieces, usually coming from free-kicks unnecessarily conceded, pretty well. Also, as per last week, we drop back to four in midfield as he second half progressed. That worked well too, especially with Mason and Capoue’s hard work and intelligent positional sense.

We’re not making enough chances. We don’t get the ball from midfield to the feet or head of men in the box, whether it’s by through-ball or cross. He has little to work with, another infuriating legacy of the botched transfer policy that leaves us little alternative but to play Manu every week.

Early days. It is, I’m afraid, and we will have to put up with many more tension-filled endings like yesterday’s where despite a decent performance the lack of spark meant we never got away from our opponents. Saints missed a golden chance to equalise near the end.

Without big performances from the few with star quality, we will have to rely on teamwork. Slowly the message is getting over. Not to everyone. Yesterday Jason Burt in the Telegraph reported that ‘senior players’ were unhappy with Pochettino’s regime. Then again ‘senior players’ un-named of course, have supposedly been unhappy at the club under the last four managers.

More likely it’s a sign Pochettino does not have the players he really wants. Younger men respond to him because they are more willing to do his bidding, hence Mason embracing the opportunity presented to him. Otherwise, we have too many widemen in a side that gets width from the full-backs and a number of hard-running but not overly creative midfielders. And too few striking options.

I was too busy to write about the Besiktas match, or perhaps in the end I just couldn’t be bothered. So here it is: Spurs reserves aren’t very good. Who knew?

Pochettino rested his first choice team because before most of us he realised the full significance of the match against Southampton, for him and more importantly for Spurs. To me, another game along the road, to the media the benchmark of Tottenham’s progress. That we became a footnote on the back pages as Wenger and Mourinho slugged it out proves how important that win was. It eases the pressure as he works to develop the squad and the system. Something to build on, plenty to do, but better we do it away from the unflattering bright lights of the full media glare.

Finally, sad for Kyle Naughton. In the team on merit, handling the stick with admirable phlegmatic calm, now out for some time. Get well soon.