The phrase “European competition” had a somewhat redundant feel to it this evening, after Tottenham Hotpur cruised to a comfortable win against Heart of Midlothian at Tynecastle in a match that felt at times like a training match for the visitors from the Premier League. It was a match that might, under a certain light, have had the feel of a possible surprise on the cards. Hearts, after all, have had three weeks’ worth of competitive football to get themselves into the rhythm of the new season, even accounting for the madness of Vladimir Romanov which led to the sacking of manager Jim Jefferies, while even Spurs’ opening match of the Premier League season against Everton last weekend fell victim to the recent troubles in London. On top of this, Spurs went into the match with a reasonably lengthy injury list and with the sneaking suspicion that this particular tournament might not necessarily be at the top of Harry Redknapp’s list of priorities for this season.
Moreover, there is something fundamentally romantic about Hearts. The name Heart of Midlothian has a Shakespearian ring to it and Tynecastle, the club’s home ground, sounds as if it could easily be the home of an laird of the House of Stuart. Tonight’s match, though, was very much a product of the twenty-first century. Matches described in the press as “Battle Of Britain” matches used to be celebrated for their irregularity. The epic European Cup battles between Leeds United and Celtic in 1970, Aberdeen and Liverpool in 1980, and Leeds United and Rangers in 1992 live long in the memory, perhaps partly because of the rarity of such fixtures and perhaps partly because they were genuinely competitive fixtures. Celtic and Rangers both beat Leeds United, and Aberdeen knocked Ipswich Town, then the holders of the competition, out of the 1981/82 UEFA Cup. Today, though, the financial gap between the likes of Hearts and the likes of Spurs is a gaping, yawning chasm and money tends to trump all other considerations when it comes to on the pitch matters in this day and age.
It took Spurs five minutes to carve a hole through the middle of the Hearts defence, with Rafael Van der Vaart taking the fullest advantage of some defending that tottered inelegantly on the dividing line between comedic and farcical in order to stroke the ball past the goalkeeper Marian Kello. If such self-destruction wasn’t repeated by the home side over the next twenty minutes or so, this was probably was because they weren’t seeing enough of the ball to do themselves any damage. After thirteen minutes, though, Spurs did double their advantage when, with the Hearts defence this time static, with Aaron Lennon and Rafael Van der Vaart combining to provide Jermain Defoe with a clear chance that he didn’t waste. Just before the half-hour mark, it was three. Van Der Vaart, who, one can only assume, was wearing some sort of coat which rendered him invisible to the Hearts defence, rolled the ball to Jake Livermore, and Livermore, after a brief exhange of passes, scored with elegant simplicity to kill the last remaining slivers of hope that there might be some chance of these two matches being anything like a contest.
At half-time, the crowd was treated to a guest of honour whose presence, considering what had happened during the first forty-five minutes, carried an air of poignancy about it. Dave Mackay served both and Hearts and Spurs with such outstanding distinction – how the home supporters must have been wishing that their club could produce just one player of his calibre now. At least, however, whatever manager Paulo Sergio said to his team at half-time had some effect upon his players, and Hearts were a team transformed for the opening fifteen minutes of the second half. With more purpose, greater energy, they pressurised the Spurs goal effectively and were unfortunate not to pull a goal back for their efforts. After sixty-three minutes, though, Younes Kaboul flicked the ball through to Gareth Bale, and Bale rounded Kello before scoring from a narrow angle. Spurs wrapped up the evening with another goal of simplicity borne from the absence without leave that the Hearts defence had again taken, this time ending in Defoe crossing from the left for Lennon to score.
This, of course, is not a matter of the issue of the development of young Scottish players – at least, it isn’t completely. This evening’s match was a demonstration of the power of economics. At club level, it is a matter of the players that a club can attract and the players that a club can afford to attract. In this respect, Spurs exist on a different plane to Hearts, and there seems to be little chance of Scottish clubs other than Celtic and Rangers (who themselves have had their share of financial difficulties over the years) being able to bridge the sort of gap that now exists between Spurs and Hearts any time soon. This is all very good for Spurs – who were, let us briefly recall, very professional in their performance this evening – but in no way can tonight be regarded as a sign of health in Scottish football and matches like this evening’s leave the lingering feeling of being bad for competition in European football as well. This, for better or for worse, is the new reality of club football in Europe.
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