The Twohundredpercent Pre-Season Previews: Tottenham Hotspur
In a bid to establish dominance, a cockerel performs a waltz of sorts about the hen house yard, strutting in a semi-circle with its wing down and glaring menacingly at his fellow poultry, spoiling for a fight. Should this not suffice, the cockerel puffs out his chest, extends his wings, and runs around the yard as if he were a rampaging bull. Perhaps it is fitting then, that Tottenham Hotspur employ the cockerel in their club badge given their fortunes over the past few seasons. Attempting to break into that exclusive set of English Premier League sides that regularly challenge in the UEFA Champions League, Spurs unceremoniously sacked Dutch manager Martin Jol in 2007, whose best sides at White Hart Lane could only manage qualification for the less glamorous UEFA Cup competition. Jol, in effect, was unable to bring Tottenham’s aspirations full circle and take advantage of the players signed during his tenure such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.
On came Juande Ramos, the soft-spoken Spaniard who promptly justified his reputation as a cup winning manager while at Sevilla, guiding Tottenham to the League Cup for their first piece of silverware since they had last one the very same competition in 1999. Along the way to that 2008 League Cup victory over Chelsea, Tottenham dispatched their old rivals Arsenal in a rather authoritative fashion, overwhelming Arsene Wenger’s side 5-1 and recording their first victory over the North London derby foe in nearly a decade. Lillywhites still crow about this a bit and will point out that, despite Arsenal being the more successful of the two clubs in this money-soaked Premiership era, Spurs were the most recent to have won a trophy and they did so by thumping their historical adversary in the process. Puffing out their chests and strutting about the Lodge, Tottenham finally appeared worthy of pre-season prognostications tabbing them as the most likely of the clubs to finally loosen the stranglehold Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool had on Champions League qualifying positions as the 2008/2009 Premiership campaign kicked off.
Then, two points from eight matches happened.
This oft-repeated phrase justified yet another change of direction in Tottenham’s waltz about the fringes of top club status, with Chairman Daniel Levy ousting not only Ramos but also his assistant Gus Poyet and Director of Football Damien Comolli. Tearing up their blueprint of a more continental model of football management was a necessity to accommodate the style of that most English of managers, Harry Redknapp. Certainly, most Spurs supporters were relieved to see the back of Ramos–a manager who had spoken fewer English words to his players than Fabio Capello and whose squad could not be bothered after that League Cup win– but Redknapp came with a reputation for leaving his clubs skint by his spend-happy transfer activities and with a good bit of baggage regarding his spend-thrifty ways with HMRC.
Also, the decision to employ Redknapp signaled another false dawn had been witnessed and yet another rebuilding project was set to begin. Naturally, the new manager would seek to bring aboard his players and rework his squad, which is what Redknapp did, purchasing most of the players Tottenham had previously sold to his former employers Portsmouth. Those lads for whom he was unable to find a buyer or a loan partner were left to rot on the bench, relegated to idle times while languishing in ‘Arry’s rear view mirror that was cracked. Redknapp’s wife Sandra entered the football lexicon during this time after ‘Arry ridiculed out-of-favour striker Darren Bent’s stunning miss in a Premiership match in early 2009 by remarking, “My missus could have scored that.”
Since then, Bent’s been moved to Sunderland and now Aston Villa, and all he does is score goals.
The gamble on ‘Arry paid dividends, however, as under Redknapp’s direction Spurs at last achieved qualification to the Champions League for the 2010/11 competition off the wobbly knee of captain Ledley King, the tortured groins of Jonathan Woodgate, the midfield magic of Luka Modric, and the dancing feet of Lennon. White Hart Lane was treated to those kinds of European nights that involved top clubs from Germany, Spain, and Italy rather than relative unknowns from Greece or some Balkan enclave. This treat for the senses might have made supporters feel the club had come full circle, living up to legendary manager Bill Nicholson’s words, “if we’re not in Europe…we’re nothing.”
Highlights from last season’s European adventure are numerous, but likely the one most heavily touted was Gareth Bale’s hat trick in the San Siro against Internazionale. While Redknapp has never been considered a masterful football tactician, simply directing players like Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko to just run about, shifting Bale from a LB position already manned comfortably by Cameroonian international Benoît Assou-Ekotto to the wing was inspired. The Welshman waltzed all over Inter’s Maicon, and–much like his surprising league form late in the previous campaign spurred Tottenham on to 4th spot over Manchester City–that individual performance pushed the club further in Champions League play. Tottenham completed their mastery of the Italians back at the Lane, and even performed their own version of a double by eliminating Milan’s other legendary club in the Round of 16 with the lone goal of that tie coming from Peter Crouch, Redknapp’s preferred “big man” for European affairs.
Peter Crouch scored a goal. Sometimes, it looks odd to see that in black and white.
The cockerel’s dance for dominance, though, ended mid-step. In the league, Tottenham lost at Blackpool for the first time since Queen Elizabeth II was considered a youthful monarch. Spurs were thumped out of the Champions League by Real Madrid in the quarterfinal stage during a stretch where they scored only three goals in six matches, with all three having come against Stoke City. Most White Hart Lane faithful would have expected a squad that had beaten the likes of Werder Bremen, Inter, and AC Milan earlier that season to have taken full points from West Ham United, Wigan, Blackpool, and West Bromwich Albion, but the squad failed to do so. Further, Spurs supporters had not been entirely optimistic about overcoming los Merengues at the Bernabeu, but the 3,000 that traveled there likely did not anticipate seeing Crouch sent off within fifteen minutes of the start and their keeper Gomes make brilliant saves yet allow easier shots to fly past him.
Well, perhaps that bit on Gomes was to be expected, as the Brazilian has manned the nets for Spurs a couple seasons in that fashion.
So after all that, Tottenham finished fifth in the league last season, six points behind Arsenal and bound for the Europa League again, which is roughly where Martin Jol left the club in his final 2006/07 campaign. The club has spent a healthy portion of its summer denying its identity as one of the Premiership’s selling clubs regarding Chelsea’s repeated offers for Modric and the Croatian’s statement that he would like to play at Stamford Bridge. The episode continues to test the club and its fans, for while Chairman Levy has strongly reiterated the player will not be leaving this summer for any price, other officials such as Redknapp and assistant Kevin Bond suggest the lad could still be had for the right amount.
Should Modric leave, there are fears of a possible player exodus from the Lane that could include Bale and last summer’s wheeled deal, Rafael van der Vaart. Granted, the Dutchman has already spoken out advising he is comfortable remaining at Tottenham as they embark for more remote European venues, but should the club be flattered with offers too good to refuse on Modric and perhaps Bale, van der Vaart might soon follow by January, particularly if Spurs have exited Europe before the next transfer window. Such a scenario would not be entirely unprecedented given Tottenham’s recent transfer history, as both Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane–at the time considered one of the best striking tandems in the league–were each sold during the same summer prior to Magic Juande’s disastrous 2008 start.
And what might make Spurs supporters a bit nervy as the 2011/12 campaign approaches is that most of the transfer news this summer has been about the quality players that might leave the squad as opposed to those arriving ready to contribute this season both in defense and attack. Fullback Kyle Walker returns from a splendid spell on loan at Aston Villa last year, but thus far he is the only incoming player ready to help along the back line. Woodgate was released, King remains but can only be played when there’s a full moon, and Alan Hutton is rumored to be sold on soon. Redknapp had such little confidence in CB Sébastien Bassong last season he preferred shifting Younes Kaboul from fullback to partner either William Gallas or Michael Dawson in the centre and had attacking winger Danny Rose substitute in for a crocked Assou-Ekotto near the end of the season. Thus despite having the look of a somewhat bloated squad, trusted defensive depth has yet to be addressed while previous signings like South African Bongani Khumalo are loaned out to lower league clubs. Defensive midfielder Sandro came on like he was shot out of a cannon last season, and along with Bale, made his name with brilliant performances in the Champions League, but he cannot play two positions at once as he appeared to do at times toward the end of last year.
As for strikers, Tottenham employ some rather notable names other clubs might welcome in their squads, but collectively they laid a bit of a rotten egg last season. The North London side scored fewer goals in total than West Brom and Newcastle United and only a few more than a Bolton squad that finished nine positions lower. Their leading scorer in the league was MF van der Vaart with thirteen while Crouch, Pavlyuchenko, and Jermain Defoe combined for seventeen. Many fans might throw up their hands should the summer transfer window close without Levy and Redknapp signing at least one quality forward. The club did buy the highly prized young Ivorian striker Souleymane Coulibaly, but the lad is only sixteen and his professional career comprises ten matches played for AC Siena’s U-19 squad. He is certainly a signing for the future and should he demonstrate his talent much as he did in winning this summer’s U-17 World Cup Golden Boot Award, this will be an astute piece of business by Spurs, but the present looks a bit dim should the club’s current triumvirate up top either not be able to be on better form than last year or are upgraded in some fashion.
There exist issues off the field that cloud Tottenham’s new season as well. Redknapp and the club have yet to hear the final verdict on his tax evasion case. At the time of this writing ,the hearing for Peter Storrie’s part was recently concluded following Milan Mandaric’s February hearing at Southwark Crown Court, and Redknapp’s has yet to conclude. Redknapp admitted during last season his mind was not always on the job with court appearances on his calendar, and as a decision gets ever closer chances for distraction will likely bleed more deeply into this season. The club does have a termination clause in his contract they could exercise should he be found guilty. Although Lillywhites have expected ‘Arry to hang about White Hart Lane only as long as it takes for the FA to offer him the job of England’s manager, a guilty verdict with a subsequent termination would reduce the club to rebuilding yet another football management system during the season and after the previous one had been torn down to fit the saggy-jowled one’s preference. This is not to suggest Spurs would be staring into the abyss of relegation this season should it occur, but it certainly dampens optimism over the possibility of a renewed effort to qualify for Europe.
Even qualification for Europe in the 2011/12 season has been made a distraction for the club. Redknapp has already made clear his intention to populate Europa League matches with fringe players and will consider them more as valuable playing experiences for the club’s youth rather than being meaningful affairs. This attitude stretches back to the close of the last campaign, where a debate among supporters was touched off whether it was better for Tottenham to even strive to achieve a qualifying position for Europa League or finish lower in the table to avoid playing Thursday evening games altogether for the sake of league performance. This would appear to be a sharp contrast to the club’s perspective on continental adventures cultivated over the years and cup tournaments in general. Nicholson never specified which European competition Spurs must be in to avoid being nothing and likely considered it more than just an exercise when he managed Tottenham to victory over Wolverhampton in the inaugural Europa League (then UEFA Cup) in 1972. Dismissing a cup competition from the off seems a strange sentiment from the only non-league club to have won an the English FA Cup since the organization of the Football League. This attitude, however, might be a result from having dined at the Champions League table last season and wanting only that, as Edmund did with his bewitched Turkish Delight after he stepped through that wardrobe.
Further, smouldering in the ashes of last season is the issue of whether Spurs fans should be banned from identifying themselves as Yids. The FA’s “Kick it Out” campaign rallied behind the film directed by David Baddiel entitled “The Y Word” and had it shown at Stamford Bridge when Spurs faced Chelsea there this past April. Featuring Premiership players including Frank Lampard and Tottenham’s captain Ledley King, the 90 second spot sought to compel Spurs supporters to cease with chants that included the anti-Semitic term along with referring to themselves as “Yid Army,” pointing out that it was unlawful to say the Y Word outside a football stadium. Tottenham’s historical support rests within Jewish communities of North London, however, and the minority of fans who make use of the word have been said to consider it as taking ownership of the term and utilizing it as a means to deflect anti-Semitism. Considering that Baddiel admitted the impetus for creating the film with his brother was down to bad experiences at Chelsea’s home matches in games that did not involve Spurs, the message came across as slightly misdirected at Tottenham fans. These circumstances allowed the club to avoid having to make an immediate decision to ban the Y word from White Hart Lane. Herein lies the conundrum the club faces this upcoming season should the league endorse a zero tolerance policy as part of the Kick it Out initiative: risk being labeled as a club that promotes anti-Semitism at their grounds should they not comply or possibly alienate a section of supporters who consider the “Yid Army” as part of Tottenham’s heritage.
Finally, there is the matter of where the club will be playing their home matches in the future yet to be sorted out. Once Daniel Levy and his army of attorneys were denied their court appeal regarding West Ham United’s successful bid for the Olympic Stadium at Stratford and told by the judge another appeal would be foolhardy, the issue was for the briefest of moments considered concluded. Levy and ENIC restarted their conversations with Tottenham MP David Lammy and the Haringey Council regarding the Northumberland Development Project (NDP) that had previously been deemed to be not financially viable. Then, of course, the club stunningly proceeded with filing another appeal regarding Stratford as news broke that one of the members of the Olympic Park Legacy Committee had previously been employed by West Ham United and there was perhaps a conflict of interest in the board awarding Stratford to the Hammers. While an independent examination appointed by West Ham have recently announced there was no unfair advantage given the club by this coincidence, Tottenham will be continue to see out their appeal until the end. This has certainly been unwelcome news for residents and supporters from North London, who have steadfastly opposed the club moving from the area and concerned the NDP has not been viewed as a higher priority for the club over continuous challenges in the courts.
What might potentially complicate the matter of the NDP’s viability further regards the recent riots down High Road that set North London ablaze this weekend past. A protest begun over aggressive police action in the neighborhood turned into a riot during which vehicles were set on fire, shop windows were smashed, and possible instances of looting could be seen. Selling the club on the benefits of remaining in the community and investing money into a new supermarket, residential housing, and shops down a High Road that’s just been littered with shattered glass, filled with the smells of burnt rubber, and smoky after the existing grocery was just burned, has just been made more difficult for MP Lammy and others, such as independent supporters groups like Supporting our Future. Occurrences of this sort might have ENIC demanding Levy and the lawyers make NDP an ever lower priority while the club investigates other alternatives that avoid the possibility of the home grounds and its immediate vicinity become realty victims of civil unrest.
In the main, though, these potential snags both on and off the pitch seem trivial to other English clubs just struggling to remain financially viable and relevant themselves. Tottenham Hotspur has been managed well financially despite concerns over Redknapp’s prior history of budget-obliterating transfers, international talents litter the squad that several mid-table Premiership clubs would have starting on a regular basis, and there is still time in this transfer period to satisfy fans desirous of a new impact player. Also, while there would be massive work ahead to revitalize the area which the club has called home for over 125 years, Spurs are not being asked to leave but rather being furiously requested to stay and become a more integral partner in a community that loves the Lane. The cockerel might have stopped puffing out its chest and charging across the yard for now, but it might still find itself crowing and waltzing should the right tune be struck by Chas & Dave on another farewell tour.
Image courtesy of www.awaygrounds.com
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