The Cognitive Dissonance of Being Top of the League
Those early years condition you. I don’t remember having a “Eureka!” moment with football, but the first season that I fully consciously remember voraciously consuming the game was the 1980/81 season. I’d started going to non-league matches at Enfield a couple of years earlier with my dad, and they had a run to the Fourth Round of the FA Cup that season, and to top it all off Spurs won the FA Cup. The following year, Spurs did it again, and Enfield. who won the FA Trophy at Wembley the previous week. By this time, I was starting to consider Spurs winning the FA Cup and Enfield winning trophies to be naturally occurring substances, much as I also considered concrete to be at the time. It turned out I was wrong on both counts.
Those days are a long time ago, now. We ended up in Hertfordshire, in a school where Spurs were probably still the most popular team, but where I had to also mingle, for the first time, with Arsenal supporters. There were also, of course, Manchester United and Liverpool supporters, a surprisingly high number of West Ham supporters and quite a few who supported Watford or Luton Town. We co-existed reasonably peacefully. Then, as now, I was something of a football nomad. I went to Spurs, to Enfield, to watch St Albans City, the nearest team of any standing to where I lived. As the 1980s wore on, my grandparents – the reason my family continued to go to North London every Saturday – died off. The world of my upbringing started to slowly fade from view, as though in a rear-view mirror.
But in terms of Big Top Super Six football, that’s where my bias continues to rest, and after forty years I enjoy Spurs’ successes – I know, I know – from a distance, I shake my head and laugh when they mess up (which they very frequently do), and I’m disengaged enough to not get particularly angry when they lose. I’m just not that type of person. I enjoy football, in all of its weird and wonderful ways. If I have a real love, it’s non-league football, but I live a long distance from Enfield or St Albans these days, and I’ve moved around sufficiently as an adult not have formed any new bonds, either.
I’ve got two boys now, aged five and three, and herding those two particular cats anywhere is an operation requiring forward planning and precise execution, neither of which are particularly strong qualities of mine. Holding their attention to an entire football match is a job worthy of Taskmaster, involving a mixture of bribery (food and drinks), wandering round the ground in circles and, if possible, sitting down for the second half. They’re a lot of work. For all of that, though, we’ve been to see Worthing play, as well as Southwick and Lewes. But hasn’t been more than ten times a season.
So I’ve become an armchair viewer. I work from Monday to Friday, and on many Saturdays and Sundays I am sole child-caring. I have no issue with this but good intentions don’t make it any less work, and consequently the idea of going out in the cold and rain with my boys doesn’t often appeal to me. I can, however, watch any televised matches I want, and this has led to a revival of my interest in the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspur. I can see all of their matches – though no, I was not going to pay £15 to PPV them – and I still hold that attachment. It’s been semi-detached attachment over the years, but the flicker of a flame still resides within me.
But I hate everything about North London Derbies. They bring out the shittiest in people, whether online or if you’re at or around the match. The most poisonous atmosphere I ever encountered inside a football stadium was a match between Spurs and West Ham in 2008. Spurs won the match 4-0, but what sticks in the mind was the hissing sound coming from the away supporters, through a fence before the match. There were mounted police and dogs everywhere. I felt too old for it thirteen years ago, so I can guess how it would make me feel now.
Last week, however, I was pretty sanguine. In an age when conspiracy theories are flourishing, in the best interests of my mental health I have been doing my utmost to take things at face value, and Spurs have been broadly excellent. They’ve completed the transition from the team of 2016, which had to lose a couple of pieces, to the team of 2020. The football definitely isn’t particularly pretty, but the players are still good enough to make it look occasionally brilliant, whether wonderful individual moment or sweeping team-play.
In addition to this, Arsenal have been… bad, this season. They’d started okay, three wins from their first four games and the only defeat coming at Liverpool, but since then things have taken a turn for the worse for them. At the time of writing, they have taken just four points from their last seven matches. Goals have completely dried up – they’ve scored two in those seven games and the manager’s solution to this seems to be, “chuck in a floater!” (or, more accurately, “chuck in as many floaters as you can!”) Arsenal have scored ten goals all season in the Premier League – the lowest outside the bottom three.
My increasingly sedentary football-watching experience has coincided, somewhat fortuitously, with the best Spurs team of my lifetime. They were never going to win the Premier League in 2016, and the mathematical possibility was stretched out as far as it could, but the following season they finished as runners-up, the first time Spurs had managed such a position since 1963. An improbable run to the Champions League final followed. It ended in defeat, of course, but the four matches against Manchester City and Ajax were amongst the most pulsating I’ve seen in a very long time.
But Mauricio Pochettino was fired a little over a year ago, and replaced by Jose Mourinho. Pochettino symbolises a very special time for Spurs supporters, and his replacement with man who has been everywhere, albeit to increasingly diminishing returns, has felt difficult to take, at times. Mourinho took Spurs to sixth place in the Premier League last season, whilst the cups remained elusive for the twelfth year in a row. But Spurs were, after a period of stagnancy, imaginative in the summer transfer market, although an opening day of the season defeat to Everton seemed to hint that all might not be right, just as it wasn’t really, last season.
That particular knee-jerk reaction, however, turned out to be wrong. They’re unbeaten (and have only dropped six points) since that match, a run of results which has taken in running up six goals at Old Trafford, and taking seven points out of nine from matches against Manchester City, Chelsea and, as of Sunday afternoon, Arsenal. They’re top of the table on goal difference from Liverpool, but Liverpool have started to look ominously juggernaut-like since their aberration at Villa Park on the same weekend that Spurs beat Manchester United, and they have yet to play them. So it might not last, but I’m going to enjoy it while it does.
And then, of course, there’s Jose Mourinho. The decision to appoint him to replace Pochettino was far from universally popular and the results from his first season were mixed, to say the best. European football was secured (albeit with the caveat of qualifying matches) and there was also the symbolic satisfaction of finishing above Arsenal for the fourth season in a row. This, however, had to be counter-balanced against a lacklustre but entertaining Champions League – 32 goals were scored in their six group matches, but they were brushed aside with ease by RB Leipzig in the first knockout round – and penalty shootout defeats in both of the domestic cups, at home to Norwich City in the FA Cup Fifth Round and away to Colchester United in the first round of the League Cup. They lost just one of their nine matches after the Premier League resumed under lockdown in June, and their sixth-placed finish depended on this run.
The matter of whether his style of playing is “anti-football” or “the work of a pragmatic genius” is largely semantic. Appointing Mourinho as manager is, some would argue, the nearest thing that elite level football has to doing a deal with the devil. He will (since amended to “may”) get you results and deliver you trophies, but the cost is a heavy one to pay, aesthetically speaking. Like other bigger clubs, Spurs have a “Way”, but this “Way” in the context of Tottenham Hotspur has always been accompanied with an acknowledgement of its fundamental flaws. To a point, it’s been a sacrifice that Spurs supporters have made for decades, but the glint of possible silverware in the distance has made these flaws more difficult to justify. Spurs supporters are still too early in the “regular Champions League qualifiers” for the thirst for trophies to be readily evident, but it feels greater than it was, and this is probably understandable, considering a haul of two League Cups in the last 29 and a half years.
So, where do I stand now? Well, I don’t think I can ever love Jose Mourinho, certainly not in the way that I loved Mauricio Pochettino. But for what does my opinion of it all even count? I’m not paying anything in season tickets, and I’m not one of those people whose heads turn puce when the other team on the pitch – which, let us never forget, wants to win just as much as the one that you support does – wins a match. And when you’ve been here as infrequently as Spurs supporters have been for the last few decades, it’s probably best to savour these moments. After all, it’s Crystal Palace away on Saturday, and while I didn’t have too many qualms about playing Arsenal last weekend, this match feels like a banana skin just waiting to be slipped on. Those first four decades have conditioned me well, after all.