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.”

FSF 7

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.

Kaboul On Fire As Spurs Pass Test Of Character

It’s said that sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Whoever coined that expression could have had the North London Derby in mind. For Spurs fans, it demonstrated the application and sheer bloody-mindedness that many of us believed our team crucially lacked. It was a point won, hard won indeed as Arsenal pressed for a winner for what felt like hours but was only the final fifteen minutes. With a level of composure to match our effort, Tottenham could have won all three.

Hat-tip to two Spurs defenders, Younes Kaboul and Danny Rose, both of whom I have wondered about recently. Kaboul in particular appeared to have gradually succumbed to a series of injuries that left him stiff and wooden where once he was supple, creaking where once he was the quickest in the side. When he was recently made Spurs captain, many doubted his place in the starting line-up never mind as skipper but yesterday he proved manager Pochettino is a shrewd judge of character. He scored the winner when we last won at the Spacedome but the man of that match was William Gallas, and Kaboul followed his compatriot’s example with a similarly ferocious, driven performance.

As the crosses came in, Kaboul was solid and brave. One time, facing his goal and deep inside the area, he hooked a shoulder high ball away with his foot. His commitment quickly spread to the rest of the back four. Vertonghen was excellent in the second half, intercepting, blocking and tackling. A late improbable break could have pinched us a winner. We’d been pushed back so far, you felt as if the Belgian was just grateful to get out of our area,  but after a great run his choice of final ball was poor, something that described many of our attacks throughout the afternoon. Suddenly his absence at the back put us in danger but we scrambled it away.

Naughton also did well, his place in this side a reward for a good display in the week against Forest. On the other flank, his full back partner Danny Rose did us and himself proud with his finest game for the club so far. Character, you want character? This is the man with fear in his eyes, or at least he was last season after a series of blunders including an horrendous error in the Cup NLD last season. Written off by many, replaced by new signing Ben Davies – not so. His determination to keep his place has improved his game no end and he was excellent throughout, especially in the first half when many of the Arsenal attacks came down our left and despite the pace and power of Oxlade Chamberlain.

Arsenal had the better of the early exchanges in an opening that was brisk rather than derby-style helter skelter. We started with a 4-2-3-1 with Mason in alongside Capoue for his debut. If Pochettino was preaching high tempo and pressing, his pleas went unheard. We were sluggish so the manager switched to four across the middle with Adebayor working the line up front and Chadli wandering around aimlessly. It looked as if we were conceding ground around the halfway, drawing up a defensive line 40 yards out in a departure from our usual approach.

It worked for the most part. Arsenal were less able to initiate their passing and movement in centrefield. In the second half particularly they were forced out wide, still dangerous but those crosses are easier to handle than the bewildering passing patterns they are capable of. In the second half Sanchez and Welbeck did not have a chance. Also, the back four dropped deeper, making it hard for the Gunners to get round the back.

Arsenal had most of the ball but we had some of the best opportunities in the game. On several occasions we were on the break but the man on the ball chose the wrong option. Lamela and Eriksen were both guilty. However we made three good chances, Manu just failing with two and Chadli totally fluffing the third, the best of the lot.

Lamela was fully involved but his vain appeals for fouls that never were became tiresome, especially as he himself was in danger of totting up two bookings as the referee’s patience became thin. Mason’s character was tested but never in doubt. A fine, brave effort, I’m not interested in passing percentage or over-enthusiastic tackles, I’m looking long term and he showed he has the talent and attitude to match.

In the second half we relieved the early Arsenal pressure by scoring. Eriksen’s challenge fell at Lamela’s feet and for the second time in three days his instant left-foot pass opened up the opposition. To Chadli, one touch and perfectly slotted in across the keeper. The Belgian may be our answer to our lack of strikers. In midfield he allows the game to pass him by but further forward that’s four he’s scored now.

Arsenal cranked it up and despite our best efforts equilised when Oxlade Chamberlain banged in a loose ball after some loose defending. In the past we might have caved in but Kaboul drove us on.

During matches Hugo Lloris has the ashen, hollowed-eyed look of a man who has survived a serious accident but remains haunted by the trauma. I guess that’s what playing behind the Spurs defence does to you. Look deeper. It’s the mask of concentration of a player totally focussed on doing his level best for his team and that admirable attitude enveloped his back four in a reassuring certainty. Penned into his 6 yard box – Spurs for the most part defended deep so Arsenal could not get behind us – he was impeccable in the air and just fabulous on the ground. On several occasions he dropped low to smother and block. His second half save to a Mertesaker header was outstanding. The centre half hurled his considerable weight towards the ball and met it smack bang on the middle of his forehead. It was heading low into the corner but Lloris plummeted to his left and kept it out with the strength of a single giant hand. For an agonising moment it looked as if the force of the header was unstoppable and it had crept over but the Frenchman rose triumphant, vindicated by goal line technology. It won us a point.

Pochettino defended from the front as he did against W Ham keeping two up and bringing on Lennon on the left to match Oxlade Chamberlain’s pace. Adebayor kept working. Drifting wide meant he was seldom a threat in the box but it opened up space for others. I had hoped Eriksen would have made more of that than he did, indeed had hoped for more full stop.

After our recent league performances I felt like watching this one from behind the sofa. As it was, I made it onto the cushions and spent the majority of the time writhing in anxious contortions – normal for the NLD in other words so that’s Ok then. Thank goodness that after all these years it still matters. Age is irrelevent – you’re old when you don’t feel it any more.

There is something different about the derby these days, though. It’s something that is hard to admit but it’s this: we are the automatic underdogs. When I was younger, the most significant derby stat was that the win-lose-draw record for both teams was identical, even after all those years and despite periods of Arsenal dominance, most notably in the thirties and their Double. Now, regardless of the figures, they are the dominant force. Hard to stomach and hard to type but that is in the air for every NLD now.

Not saying we should accept it, certainly not drop our heads, as fans I mean, not the players. We are Spurs, we are N17, we are proud and we are so, so devoted and faithful. We the loyal supporters have more to be proud of because we have been tested and not found wanting. This performance and point was some reward.

However, we have much to do to get back to those heady days only two years ago where the 2-1 win at White Hart Lane seemed for a tantalising moment to be the tipping point. We were a young side on the up, Wenger’s methods were failing him at last. Yet we fell back and they retrenched. That story has been told in this blog – Levy failing to capitalise on success on by signing a couple of players at the right time (and there were several opportunities) good players not being replaced, the revolving door for managers. Arsenal had their financial problems. Now they earn £1m per home game more than Spurs in match revenue. Their wage bill is higher than Chelsea’s and they won’t fall foul of FFP because of that income. One manager in 18 years, we’ve had 11 or 12, i forget exactly, under Levy. We could fall further behind.

To play with fearsome effort and commitment yesterday was a fine achievement for Spurs. Let’s use it as a foundation to build another team and aim high. After all, we proved Arsenal aren’t as good as they think they are and we were better than I expected.

Still plenty of time to vote for Tottenham On My Mind in the Football Blogging Awards. Thanks to the many who have already done so, like them just click on the button at the top of the page. Much appreciated – as ever, couldn’t do it without you. Regards, Alan

Always Knew There’d be Days Like These

Testing on the New Model Poch has gone well so far, by and large, but yesterday against West Brom the wheels well and truly fell off. Progress is never straightforward. The best thing a supporter can hope for is that for every one step back there are two forward. When the season began, we always knew there would be days like these but that insight doesn’t make it feel any better.

This was as disjointed and mindless as the worst days of Redknapp and Villas-Boas. Ineffective in attack, scarily poor at the back and unable to shake themselves out of it. By the finish I was wistfully dreaming of an indiscriminate whack forward into the box, that’s what I was reduced to, but we couldn’t even do that, or get a corner past the near post.

Empty spaces in the stands – Stubhub had over 800 tickets available on Saturday night. These 1.30 kick-offs are taking their toll. The scores from Leicester-United generated the only buzz in the second half. I don’t get that myself but it shows attention was elsewhere.

Dembele’s performance summed up Spurs’ day. He has looked eager and positive since he came back into the team. Like others, Rose, Kane and Dier notably, he’s responded to the competition for places. Also, and perhaps more importantly, he seems to have got over the thigh injury that plagued him for most of last season. He starts as one of the two defensive midfielders but can push up when we have the ball, giving us four in midfield plus Capoue staying back to cover and allowing midfielders’ runs into the box. It’s an important position if it works and he has the ability to put it into practice.

In the first half he was busy, making a couple of good interceptions and shifting the ball around more quickly than he did last season. He showed he has another gear. However, as the half wore on, he was twice caught in possession, potentially fatal for a DM with no cover behind him. Also, at one point he preferred to hold onto the ball rather than find the runner ahead of him, Rose I think, can’t be sure.

That this is noteworthy says everything about the game. I can recall this moment because we had runners in space so infrequently. There were a few oohs and ahhs in the first half as some crosses came in, Rose timing his runs well to give us much-needed width, and a double attempt (double-cross?) from Eriksen which two Spurs forwards just failed to get a toe on. Otherwise I don’t remember Foster making a single save until Soldado steered Lamela’s lightening cross straight at him, deep in the second half.

The first half faded away but any anticipation that we would get going after half-time was swiftly dispelled. Rather, we sunk into a quagmire of uncertainty and apathy. Constantly giving the ball away, unable to pass to a white shirt.

This was also Pochettino’s worst game so far. This was the first time the players failed to respond to him. In the second half he was gesturing on the touchline like John McCririck on PCP, a demented tic-tac man vainly trying to change the odds in our favour. At one point he was miming bending runs and movement but I couldn’t spot a single player taking any notice.

WBA played a disciplined 4-4-1-1 but we had no idea how to get round that midfield four. Poch brought on Soldado and Paulinho for Dembele and Chadli, the only time I noticed he was on the pitch. Eriksen went left, Lamela wide right. This took Eriksen out of the game, a fact recognised later when he came back central when Lennon came on to at least take the ball to our opponents. Then, moving the ball from deep, half the players split to shape up for the old formation while five others pushed right up, leaving a 50 yard gap between back and front. Half the players were on one formation, half another. In the end, the forwards stood and waited for the ball to reach them.

Little things – man-marking at corners, Chiriches dutifully followed Sessignon even when the WBA man jogged out of the area for a short corner. Our centre back therefore taken out of the box for a corner.This is not to excuse the players. Eriksen has to get more involved even if that means he comes deeper. Yesterday he played in fits and starts. Lamela has blindingly quick feet but was stifled for the most part. As I’ve said before, Chadli is a talented player who is happy if the game is played at his pace and others do the work for him. In the PL, that’s a luxury we can’t afford. Soldado came on to a big cheer and got everything wrong. Manu furiously berated his team-mates near the end for not getting onto the end of his fine flick-on into the box but I’m sure they were as surprised as I was that he had actually won anything.

At the back, Rose did well but could not advance in the second half. By the time the game ended, the collective sharp intake of breath whenever Chiriches came near the ball was audible. You could almost smell his fear. His attempt to tackle a player at the edge of our box by rolling the ball under his foot for a clever turn was certainly a first for me. Luckily he managed to fumble his way out of it. Awful.

The winning goal was in keeping with our performance, an average-sized bloke jumping unmarked to head in from eight yards out. Credit to the Baggies. They kept to their shape throughout, worked hard from first to last and attacked whenever possible to keep the pressure on us. The better side won.

I do the Spurs preview for a fellow blogger who has a West Brom site. This week he asked a question about hopes for the season. I answered that what’s most important for me is that we show clear signs of longer term progress and have a two or three year plan to move the club forward on and off the pitch. That process will be painful at times but there’s no getting away from it: yesterday we were p*ss poor.

 

Voting has begun for the Football Blogging Awards 2014. Numbers of votes count at this stage so I would be eternally grateful if you could click the logo in the sidebar for Tottenham On My Mind in the Best Club Blog category  How about it for an old-fashioned, one man blog up against the big boys. Bless you.