Funny how these things turn out. I’m bashing out my post-match piece after the Liverpool game, usual routine except I was hitting the keys so much harder than normally, castigating Villas-Boas, blaming Levy for a decade or more of lousy decisions and predicting our manager’s sacking, at the very moment AVB was indeed being dismissed.
It’s happened before, many, many times before, but still comes as something of a shock. This follow-up should be a proper review, a look back at his time at Spurs. But it’s not about analysis, it’s about emotion. At least it is for Spurs fans. For others, it is much more straightforward – Tottenham are a laughing stock. Eight managers in twelve years, close to £100m spent in the summer and four months later the guy who spent it was gone.
It’s provoked different reactions amongst the fans, as you would expect. Many are delighted, some ghoulishly gleeful that their negative assessment of his ability has been proved right. My blogging pal Greg is angry and tearful in this fine Dispatches while Martin Cloake and Adam Powley separately (they are not joined at the hip after all) glory in the absurdity of it all. You have to laugh or else you’d cry.
I should be worked up about it. Long ago having sold my soul to the devil, I’ll be watching Spurs ’til the day I die regardless of who is in charge and who is playing, so rejection, the rational response to the mess the club is in, is out of the question. Rationality and supporting Spurs – really? What am I thinking?
But I invested in what I thought was happening at the club. I wanted Villas-Boas to succeed because I like the idea of a young, progressive and driven manager taking the club forward with a squad of similarly able and upwardly mobile players under his protection. I felt protective because of the way sections of the media and those within his club rubbished him at Che***a. He was ours now and White Hart Lane would be a safe home for him. We Is Us 18 months before it was said out loud.
He’s gone and I wish him well. I’m left feeling not angry, sad or happy, but numb. Hollow and distracted that once again my club, should be left in such disarray as supporters look on powerless. However difficult any life event is, human beings develop strategies for dealing with any repeat. Life goes on. Time and again our hopes have been raised only to be dashed once more. One step up and two steps back. We’re always regrouping, starting again. A endless loop of transitional seasons. It has to stop. Some clichés deserve repeating because they are perfect encapsulations of reality. We can cope with the despair, it truly is the hope that gets you.
I guess I don’t ever want the hope to be extinguished. Life isn’t measured by the passing of the years, it’s how enthusiastic you feel about the things that matter. Once that enthusiasm withers, so does body and mind. That’s why football supporters are such lovely, wonderful people to know. I mean real supporters, measured not by how many games they go to or their knowledge of the inside-out passing stats of Latvian second division false-nines, but supporters who feel rather than spectate. They hold these two diametrically opposed emotions in happy, blissful equilibrium, the cognitive dissonance of despair and hope that protects us from collapse. We moan, wring our hands and kvetsch in our frustration but we know what’s important. And we will turn up next week because good times are just around the corner. It’s a fundamentally decent, buoyant outlook on life that I love and would never be without.
It’s a good way to be but damn hard to maintain with a club that takes every opportunity to trample those positives into the mud beneath layers of cowpats. Uncomfortably numb, in fact, although the thought of a Pink Floyd song is the surest way of driving me completely over the edge.
I’m a keen student of Spurs’ history. If you asked me right now to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say something like: ‘none of the people who have run this club in my lifetime knew what they were doing.’
Daniel Levy has presided over a period of financial stability, and rightly deserves praise for that achievement. Yet he is totally unable to put into practice those same principles of sustainability and continuity on the field. A CEO in any business is not responsible for the detail. That is a waste of her or his time. Rather, they should establish a framework to implement clear goals that everyone signs up to. They set the parameters and the plan, the way the organisation will go about its business. Above all, their job is to pick the right people at senior level to put the plan into action.
This is how Levy has been successful in business. When it comes to football, that flies out of the window. This is what I can’t understand. I would rather a bad plan than no plan at all. To my mind, the club has had a consistent strategy over the last few years, to buy young(ish) players who will develop at Spurs. They come with more potential than experience. Develop together, we have a future in the long-term. the risk that they will leave is balanced to some extent by their increased value in the transfer market.
This long-term strategy is the best option for a club like ours, without a big stadium or recent success to generate income or a rich investor prepared to buy success. (we have a rich investor not prepared to buy success). It’s worthless without a coherent, stable senior management because this development takes time. Time is the most precious resource at the chairman’s disposal. No successful enterprise would dream of making so many changes. yet Levy cannot find the right man and does not know where to look.
Never mind all this speculation, we all know that Levy has no idea who to appoint. None at all. I wish Sherwood well. People I respect rate his coaching abilities and knowledge but if he succeeds it will be by accident not design. Levy has a record of appointing men at odds with the English game – Santini, Ramos – then folding to give anyone who happened to be around a chance – Martin Jol. He allows infighting within his management team – Jol actively undermining Santini with the players, Poyet the same with Ramos. Redknapp came as a panic measure to fight some raging fires, the success was unexpected. He invests millions in giving Villas-Boas the job, a huge risk given his recent CV, then refuses to back him in the market, the Moutinho deal going down the pan and playing an entire season with only two strikers.
I’m numb in the face of this because I have heard it all before. Much sighing and head-shaking annoying everyone around me this week. It’s real but the anger has gone. Not totally – it erupts to the surface as it did when I wrote my last piece. Sugar – Graham, Gross, Francis. Scholar – brought the club to the edge of bankruptcy. Burkinshaw’s parting shot: “there used to be a football club there.” Sidney Wale dynasty: Terry Neill, failed at one club and Ars***l to the core. It has to stop.
Monday was my birthday. It was nice to get wish-you-well messages. My good friend Adrianna, who tolerates but doesn’t get it, asked me if I had a good day. ‘Lost 5-0, lost a manager’ I replied. She hasn’t got back to me. My son knows me well: ‘Spurs in disarray, there’s a birthday present’ was all he said.
It is a shameful catalogue of wasted opportunities stretching back for over forty years. However, I am a supporter, a stupid sucker maybe but a committed sucker undoubtedly, so I find grounds for optimism always, and it is this: the players. This is a decent squad of footballers. Some obvious gaps but the potential is real. Healthy organisations need a goal: ours should be, whoever is in charge, to start next season with this same group of players. Without direction or some sniff of Europe, they will leave. It’s imperative that we keep them. Add to them, sure, but build on what we have.
Levy should look for someone with evidence of enabling talented, skillful players to create the right patterns of attack. In other words, to do what AVB couldn’t do. And whatever happens, I’ll be there to see it.
Even my wife noticed. “See your lot are doing what the manager wanted then.” I watched Thursday’s Europa League victory against Sheriff from the comfort of my sofa but the sound of the crowd came through loud and clear. The noise was generated primarily by supporters sitting behind the Park Lane goal, the traditional Spurs ‘end’, who had bought tickets in a section allocated by the club for the 1882 movement, a loose grouping of mainly younger fans who want to bring back the atmosphere to White Hart Lane.
This time last week I wrote about the unease with which an increasing number of Spurs fans express their support for the club. The loyalty remains but the ground can be deadly quiet at times, there’s anxiety in the air and despite our league position and highly promising squad, there is a puzzling but tangible undercurrent of dissatisfaction about the direction the team is taking under Villas-Boas.
I suggested that while there’s no single reason for this (high prices, changing demographics, Sky TV and unrealistic, barely achievable expectations caused by the dominance of the Premier League and Champions League are all factors), many supporters have developed a growing sense of alienation in terms of their relationship with the club. They feel distant, cut off and undervalued. The feeling is by no means unique to Tottenham, indeed it is a worrying trend that is spreading throughout the Premier League. It’s not something that you can grasp easily or put a name to, but it’s around and therefore all too real.
This feeling hasn’t stopped life-long Spurs fan, season-ticket holder and author Martin Cloake from regularly attending games. He was curious about what he calls the “new ultras”, groups of fans at clubs in Britain, Europe and the States who encouraged fellow supporters to gather and sing. Unlike traditional supporters’ organisations they prefer to remain anonymous and keep officialdom at arms’ length.
These groups manifest their allegiance in different ways. For many european Ultras, violence and protest is never far from their vocal support, others like St Pauli have political elements while others focus on the team. The Spurs response is the 1882 initiative. My son and I were present at a tiny bit of Tottenham history, the first gathering at a Youth Cup match at Charlton. I was probably the oldest one there. It was organised by Spooky from Dear Mr Levy and, well, I wasn’t sure at the time. Find Flav Bateman and co-conspirators at Love The Shirt but at the time, I heard the call because it was just a great idea. Come and sing for the shirt. No other reason, get behind the team and where better than at a youth game where we don’t know the players but they are Tottenham so they are ours.
Martin makes 1882 his starting point for a riveting history of Spurs’ fan culture in the last thirty years. I’ve called 1882 a movement but it’s not really. It has organisers but no leaders. It has no manifesto or political ambition, other than to increase support for the team and enable fans to enjoy themselves in the process. It’s inclusive – you don’t have to be a member of anything, you just turn up. It isn’t po-faced – I didn’t take my shoes off to support the lads and I didn’t sit down if I loved Tottenham because it would play havoc with my knees, but that doesn’t matter. Sing your heart out for your lads.
Love the Shirt is clear about one thing: their starting point is the long and proud heritage of fan culture at Spurs. They see themselves as carrying on that tradition, spontaneous and anarchic in the past, it’s just that now because of the alienation, it needs a bit of work. One particular aspect of fan culture that is unique to Spurs is how this heritage has persisted despite fundamental attacks by the club. Sound of the Crowd takes you through the scurrilous, sordid tale of how Spurs tried to emasculate loyal and loud support.
When I began supporting Spurs in the mid-sixities, the vocal and mostly younger fans gathered behind the Park Lane goal with away fans at the Paxton and other home support in the Shelf. Spurs must be the only ground where home fans share an end with away support. That’s bad enough but imagine turning up one season to find you’ve been turfed out of your end, your place without any warning. Yet this has happened not once but twice at Spurs. First, away fans were moved exclusively into the Park Lane, then in the mid eighties, the ultimate indignity or in my view betrayal when one close season executive boxes replaced the Shelf, the home of the most loyal and most vocal.
In Martin’s hands, this sorry saga becomes the tautest of thrillers, heroic resistance in the face of mendacity, intrigue and conspiracy. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in our history and the relationship between the business of football and supporters. The revurberations of that period rumble on. The atmosphere has never been the same but more than that, it opened wide that distance between club and fans that has never been closed. Football is about a sense of belonging and place: our fans have nowhere to go.
The supporters are happy, there’s an atmosphere at the Lane and the manager has a response to something he identified as a major impediment to the team’s continued success. Spurs reach the League Cup quarter finals and the knock-out stages of the Europa League. You would think there’s a message there somewhere.
So this is what the club do next. The West Ham game is category C and there’s no 1882 block. Big game, intense rivalry, the manager wants the fans to get behind the team, yet no discounts, no singing section, both dropped because THFC can make a sweet profit from a full house derby.
Stoke was due to take place on the Saturday after Christmas, 3 pm kick-off. Yesterday the club announced that it had been moved to Sunday, 4pm. No reason has been given and it’s not on Sky. Many fans make their Christmas arrangements around the fixtures. Even I for once, a bah-humbug bloody Christmas man if ever there was one, have organised things in advance. If I am to attend this match, and for the first time in a long time it has become an ‘if’, 12 people close to me will have to shift their diaries around too.
A twitter pal of mine, big Spurs fan, used to blog, goes mostly to aways as he lives in the West Country, young family so short of cash, planned a real treat for himself to be at this game. Now he can’t make it. He can get a refund on his match ticket but not his advance rail fare. He can’t be the only one. He’s disgusted and so am I.
Clubs should make a profit. These days with vast television and commercial revenue they can do so without it being at the expense of the supporters. If you’re puzzled as to what alienation is, it’s probably the feeling you get when you read the three paragraphs above. Things must change, not for my sake – I’ll be there til I die then scatter my ashes under the feet of the crowd after the match – but for future generations.
It’s not all bad. There is a once in a lifetime opportunity with the new ground to create an end and keep some prices reasonable. 1882 and the Trust are doing some fine work. The club must welcome not reject them. 1882 isn’t a separate movement, it’s us, you and me. It is inspired by our past and we are the future.
You think the game has had enough of you when you get to my age. The personnel changes, so does the kit, but they play out the same old dramas of lust, envy and disappointment, the search for trophies, bitterness towards those rivals who succeed where we have failed, the crushing burden of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And then the next season begins.
Looks like the beautiful game is fluttering its eyelids and flashing come hither glances in our direction once again. This transfer window has been astonishing. The sound of jaws dropping and hitting the floor has been deafening. Our own Good Friday brought three high class footballers to the club, Chiriches, Lamela and Eriksen to join Paulinho, Capoue, Soldado and Chadli. It’s likely there’s still time for a left-back. In writing that list, I had to stop and remember them all. Chadli seems so long ago now, there’s been so much change, I had to work a bit to get his name.
The Guardian tots that up as an eye-watering £110.5m but remarkably we remain in credit, or at least we will be after Bale is sold. No fairy godfathers, disgraced ex-dictators or russian/arab oligarchs, just Levy the businessman. Ten years of frustration in the market gone in the blink of an eye. Or perhaps they just repaired the fax machine and this is the backlog.
This may be our Good Friday but we may have to wait longer than three days for resurrection (apologies if I have the timescale wrong there but I’m jewish so the details never sunk in). Amidst all the changes there remains a thread of distinct continuity. Soldado aside, all the incoming players are on the make, young men who see coming to Spurs as a step up where they can prove themselves. This has been the template at Tottenham for some time now. The difference is, their baseline, their starting position, is several steps up the graph compared with the past.
They join a manager on the up too, a man who is calm on the outside but is fuelled by a inner furnace of ambition, to prove doubters wrong, to show that his methods work, to achieve through his team the success in football that a man of his meagre playing talent could never fulfil.
The manager’s most important signing is unquestionably Franco Baldini. Going about his business in an admirably low-key manner, his arrival and the influx of young talent cannot be a coincidence. Lamela especially - you wonder if the young Argentinian had ever heard of Tottenham Hotspur let alone believed he could up here, but damn right he knows Baldini.
Spurs fans are suspicious of the role of Director of Football after our experience with Damian Comolli. however, as I have said in previous posts, the main fault lay not so much with individuals but with an unclear management and accountability structure. The Levy-Jol-Comolli triumvirate failed because Levy as head of the company did not set clear demarcation lines about who took transfer decisions, so Jol was coaching with players he either didn’t want or had to fit into his tactics and Comolli took advanatge to go beyond his remit. Villas-Boas on the other hand has players who will fit his system. He coaches, Baldini gets the players. If we have any success in the coming years, that’s the foundation.
By the way, as a rule I don’t say much about players I don’t know well so I don’t pretend I have the encyclopedic knowledge of european football that everyone else in the social media has, apparently. But that you tube highlights video of Lamela…and he’s going to play in a white shirt with the cockerel badge…
Also as in previous years, this team is one for the future. It will take time for everyone to bed in, and just to repeat a simple fact that no doubt will be easily forgotten in the months to come, this is still a pretty young squad. Eriksen and Lamela are inexperienced despite their promise.
With the spending comes the pitfalls of increased expectations. Our Andre won over a media baying for his blood in August but any failings and they will scent weakness once again. The fans have to be patient.
Also, the team spirit at Spurs has been extremely good lately. Changes threaten that, as does the disappointment of not playing regularly, so we have to watch out for what could be a huge change there, especially with so many nationalities now. It may not seem much but these things matter. Villas-Boas is good at this.
However, the signs are positive so far. Thursday night’s victory over Tiblisi was a statement of intent. 8-0 on aggregate is usually described as a stroll but our attitude and performance was anything but. From first to last, we kept playing. The movement was excellent, Holtby and Carroll impressive. It showed players want to play for Villas-Boas and that our manager has his system. We don’t look like a side that is full of new players getting to know each other.
I’ve already mentioned one reason for this, that Villas-Boas has players who fit his way of playing. Another is that he is playing the new guys in roles that are familiar to them. Capoue, Paulinho, Sandro on Thursday (how good to see him back), that defensive midfield position is comfortable like an old wooly jumper. Not just sticking a foot in but starting attacks from deep and sniping in the middle of the field.
That is a key area for any side but especially for us where we have left our back four unprotected in the past, to our cost. It may be ‘one-nil to the Tottenham’ but that’s what the big boys do. United and Chelsea were lambasted for a dull midweek game but both knew the danger of giving ground at this stage in the season.
Spurs fans are long-suffering and accustomed to disappointment. What that means is that we have greeted these signings not with the triumphalism and sense of entitlement that supporters of our London rivals tend to exhibit but with grateful astonishment. No predictions from me, except that this will be one season to look forward to. The game may have given up on me but I’ve never given up on the game as so many fans seem to do these days. I might finally get some reward.
This, Tottenham On My Mind’s fifth season, begins as did all the others, with Daniel Levy as the defining character in the drama to come. The seasons ended that way too. But this one is different, whatever the ultimate outcome. Levy has responded to his manager like never before. Over to you, Andre.
First signing – Franco Baldini. A highly respected and knowledgeable figure in European football, the significance of this move could easily be forgotten because he has opted, rightly, for a low profile. That a man of his experience should come to Spurs in the first place shows that he believes in the club’s potential. It also gives Villas-Boas his clearest indication yet that he has proved himself in the eyes of the board.
To prosper, Spurs have to buy footballers with potential, not quite at the top of their game but bursting with talent and ambition. If nothing else we can’t compete at the very highest level for salaries and transfer fees but that’s not a bad place to be. These men have something to prove, they want to succeed rather than play the odd game and be more involved with their bank manager than the first team coach. Find a way of harnessing Villas-Boas’ ambition to the national grid and Britain’s energy problems are solved. Even Soldado, our marquee signing, has had to fight his up from rejection at Real Madrid.
So we depend on knowing who’s out there. They used to be called scouts, who knows these days, but it’s no coincidence that Baldini has been followed by a succession of classy players in the Spurs mould, all part of Villas-Boas’ vision. This may be the difficult second season but for the first time this is Andre’s team. He’s hardly starting from scratch but these are his men, the new guys because he wants them, the familiar figures secure in the knowledge that Villas-Boas wants to keep them rather than being here by default.
The vision is sound: our fortunes this season will be dictated by how well the players conform to it. It’s less about 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or some such, more about these key characteristics. Possession, so we need men comfortable on the ball and who know when to be patient and when to move it along. Movement, to support the man on the ball or to regroup when the opponents have possession. Flexibility: the front six in particular will interchange on the field, be able to both attack and defend. Emotional intelligence, which in football is an awareness of their role and duties in respect of the position of other players, a dynamic that shifts a thousand or more times a match, plus a team ethic rather than a selfish approach.
Pace: around the pitch and with the ball. Mobility: ditto. Poor Tom Hud was yesterday bemoaning the lack of opportunities for him and others but the Spurs game has passed him by, bless him. Hud, Dempsey, Caulker, Bentley, Parker perhaps, they’ve been upgraded because they don’t fulfill these last two criteria.
Athleticism: the power, stamina and strength to survive in the Premier League. Last but not least, resilience, a bloody-minded determination to give everything but never give ground, to keep the other lot out at all costs. It’s something we’ve not always had but there were positive signs last season.
In the modern game it’s that movement and flexibility that characterises the best teams. Whatever the formation, we depend on the midfield protecting the back four and getting forward, in and around their box. That said, 4-2-3-1 with Sandro and Paulinho a mouthwatering proposition as the DMs looks a good place to begin. Both can drive forward as well as being comfortable in defence. That’s important in the transition from defence to attack. I’ve not seen Capoue but that is his position by all accounts. Holtby can play there too but I don’t see that as Dembele’s best role. He’s better given freedom to get forward.
Chadli by all accounts is versatile but best out wide. Siggy is better in the middle and found form in the box but I can’t see him starting to begin with. Lennon has dramatically improved his all-round game but is best going forward and may have to begin as an impact sub. Note that I’ve left space for Bale, let’s leave it at that.
Soldado of course leading the line, determined, aggressive and sharp in the box. I would keep Defoe and Adebayor, although both might get moody if they don’t play in a side that seems heavy on midfield options, unless Baldini has some upgrades on the way.
Lloris is a fine keeper, unobtrusively active in his box and sweeping up behind the back four. The full-backs have defensive weaknesses. We don’t need a new right-back, we need Walker to respond to his coach and put that learning into place this season. Assou-Ekotto seems out of favour while Rose had a decent time at Sunderland, so I’ll wait to see if he has improved. Naughton is useful cover but not a regular starter. Whatever, there isn’t a full-back in the league who can handle a two on one and we have to protect them. Last season some teams worked hard to get a 2 v 1 on our full-backs, especially on the left.
That leaves centre-backs and once again Spurs can’t get it right. Last year it was the strikers, or lack of them, this we have three centre-backs, only one of whom, Dawson, is fully fit. Capoue can play there and there are rumours of new arrivals but it is a dangerous place to be at the start of a season where we are playing two games a week from the off, especially as we don’t know how Kaboul will be after his long lay off. He may recover strength but what about speed?
Anyway, never mind all this tactical mumbo-jumbo. If we can’t defend set pieces we stand no chance. And I mean no chance. Inexcusable if it carries on.
This is a fine squad that has the potential to realise the manager’s vision. No inflated ambitions – it will be hard work to settle these newcomers into a team and despite the imperative to do away with our usual slow start we may have to wait awhile before they hit their stride. I would use the Europa League matches to bed the team in rather than play reserves, especially as our pre-season has been so bitty.
I detect a note of optimism. Steady on, this is Spurs, so no more. One thing is for sure, I am looking forward to this season enormously, more so than for a while now. Come on you Spurs.
One more preview piece, have to be next week now, on the relationship between the club and fans.