Tottenham football club started in the year of the double in 1961 managed under Bill Nicholson. What can I say about this era? Bill Nicholson survived all the way into the twenty-first century, but had by the twenty-first century, become quite impoverished, so Tottenham Hotspur football club held various fundraisers for him, to see him through to his final days.
It is arguably the case that between 1961 and 1981 Tottenham did little to light up the world of football, although they did win a UEFA Cup in the 1970s, the detail of which I know little about. Arguably the 1980s were Tottenham’s best decade since the 1960s, and in particular because it the team managed to successfully romance the FA Cup, a far more prestigious tournament in those days than it is now. They first won the Cup in 1981, then again in 1983 and 1991, missing out on a possibly fourth win in ten years to Coventry City in 1987. Further to the FA Cup wins, Tottenham added a UEFA Cup title to their honours in the 1980s when they beat Anderlecht on penalties in 1983, reserve goalkeeper Tony Parks proving to be the hero of the night.
During the 1980s Tottenham fielded a number of flare players, were often a delight to watch for that reason, but never had a great deal of consistency, and were too often beaten down by teams with an iron will to win. Arguably the best of Tottenham came in 1986-87, David Pleat at the helm, with a five-man H Bomb midfield consisting of Glenn Hoddle, Osvaldo Ardiles, Paul Allen, Tony Galvin and some other guy, together with the unstoppable goalpoacher Clive Allen, who scored over 50 goals in that season, and who had never achieved anything as good before or since. The side performed well in all three major English competitions in that season, finishing third in the league, a feat not repeated since, the semi-finals of the League Cup, which they lost over three games to Arsenal, and a FA Cup final appearance. In the second leg of the semi-final of the League Cup against Arsenal, Tottenham had gone ahead mid-way through the second half, at which point the stadium announcer started to give details to Spurs fans about how they could purchase tickets for Wembley. It was a little too hasty, and added to the pleasure of Arsenal fans that they were able to get an equalizer in the last minute, and take the game to a replay, which they duly won. Sad for Spurs but those three League Cup semi-final games were an epic battle of nip and tuck and a fitting testimony to Tottenham’s best ever season since 1961. The FA Cup final was a real epic too, ending in defeat to Coventry 3-2, thanks to an inspired Coventry performance and outstanding headed goal by Keith Houchen to settle the match. It’s a funny thing, the history books will not say anything about Tottenham that season really, but the fact is, for the experience, for the drama, the hope and the heartache, 1986-87 was probably the best ever season to be a Tottenham fan. I don’t think anything that the club have gone through since has come anywhere close.
It was a little known fact that in one European campaign of Spurs when they met Real Madrid in one of the early rounds, that a Steve Perryman own goal was to cause much mirth amongst the assembled Madrid masses. The own goal of Perryman had come about in the same year, that Spain had seen the arrival of its first commercial condom, El Perriman. Spain, which had not long been out of the socially conservative dictatorship of Franco, was still a little nervous about sexual matters, and the introduction of the first ever condom had caused some tension, the fact that the man of the same name as the enterprise daring to push against Spain’s sexual tension, should help Real in their European campaign, produced an orgasm of laughter throughout the nation, and was probably a fillip too for Spain’s first commercial manufacturer of prophylactic. Whether Steve, to this day, ever knew about any of this is not known.
Spurs chemistry with the FA Cup came to an end with their 1991 victory, Manchester United and Arsenal came to the fore, adding to their FA Cup tally and surpassing a proudly held record of Tottenham at the time, as the club with the most FA Cup wins.
Arguably, since the 1986-87 season, despite the FA Cup win of 1991 and the League Cup win of 1999, Tottenham were in the doldrums for the next twenty years, fielding sides, which were defensively sloppy, with little consistency, with one or two flair players like David Ginola bringing some comfort to the otherwise mundane world at White Hart Lane. The League Cup victory of Leicester City in 1999, was, frankly, a blip, a bumbling around in the dark, which led rather fortuitously to a finding of the doorknob, but not a very attractive one, the final between Leicester and Tottenham was like watching an end of the season mid-table game. The whole final was so depressing, winning it was worse than not being in it at all.
Into the twenty-first century and Spurs seemed to get a bit more stability and raised their consistency under Dutch manager Martin Jol. Jol put together a decent side with key players including Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbetov, both later leaving the club to play for Manchester United. However despite coming close to Champions League football Jol never achieved anything of note, and was after several seasons sacked. The person replacing Jol, Juande Ramos oversaw one of Tottenham’s worst starts to a season in living memory, and was quickly replaced replaced by Harry Redknapp, who at the time was not considered a top manager, but was considered the kind of guy who had experience with relegation dog fights and promotions from the Championship. Redknapp was an inspired choice. His management style was said to be at odds with current convention, in that he was said to have done little coaching with the team, had little to offer in the way of tactics, whose working methods centred around cajoling and inspiring confidence and creativity, and giving players a good kick up the backside if they were misbehaving, David Bentley you know what I mean. At Tottenham Redknapp’s skill was in putting together a blend of players who were technically accomplished. His reign at the club also coincided and arguably facilitated the rise to world class form of Gareth Bale, a young tall left back, who had arriving at Spurs from Southampton at a young age, struggled to impress, and whom Tottenham had considered pawning off to Birmingham City at a knock-down price at some point. However under Redknapp Bale’s confidence grew. Bale had many strengths, chief of them being his pace, and his ability to find the goal from all manner of angles. His real skill, as is the skill of most world-class footballers, is to see an opportunity more quickly than other players, and to strike the perfect body position quickly to take advantage of that opportunity. Towards the end of his time at Tottenham Bale was scoring from everywhere, seemingly at will, making goals out of nothing, he was that quick.
The crowning moment of Redknapp’s achievement was his taking Tottenham into the Champions League in the 2009-10 season, which meant that in the 2010-11 season Spurs went on a Champions League adventure, beating both Inter Milan and AC Milan on the way, only to come up short against Real Madrid in the last eight. Beating AC Milan in the last sixteen marked Spurs zenith. It was also a sign of the rise to supremacy of Gareth Bale, who scored a hatric of goals in a match against Inter Milan, all of which had started on the half-way line, and had involved him skinning Brazilian left back Maicon on each occasion, storming into the area from the left hand side and whizzing a shot past Brazilian international goalkeeper, Julio Cesar.
The season that Tottenham reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League, they finished 5th in the League. However Redknapp then repeated his achievement of two seasons before, by guiding Spurs to 4th. Spurs had by this season managed to get hold of a set of hugely gifted footballers, including Emmanuel Adebayor, Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric, Scott Parker and Benoit Assou-Ekotu, to complement the dazzling pace and shooting of Gareth Bale. I remember watching Tottenham at White Hart Lane one evening keep the ball for what seemed like the entire ninety minutes against Aston Villa. Their ability to do quick passing, overlapping runs and their alacrity, understanding and creativity in the angle of pass was a joy to watch. Watching them play Aston Villa, it seemed as if one was watching a game of ice hockey, in which Tottenham had skates on the opposition was simply wearing shoes. Villa never got near the ball, and Spurs ran out 2-0 winners. With England allowed to enter four clubs into the Champions League each season, Redknapp’s fourth would have been enough but that same season Chelsea, who had finished 6th, went on to win the Champions League, and took precedent over Spurs. Although the quality of Spurs football had sometimes reached a technical level, which was unsurpassed that season by any club, they could not maintain that consistent level of performance throughout the season. Furthermore that same season the England job was in the offing and Harry Redknapp was keen to take it on. The process for selecting the next England manager was extraordinarily drawn out, and Redknapp seemed bewitched by the process, commenting on his desire for the job and speculating on what the FA might be considering, on a regular basis. At the same time, given that he was coming to the end of his contract, he was prone to dropping a hint in the press that his achievements and the fact that he was being eyed up for the England job suggested that he should be rewarded financially for his achievements. During this time Spurs form faulted, and although Redknapp scoffs at such a suggestion, it was felt that his distractions and personal agendas may have been a contributory factor, one which saw Spurs loose out to third place to Arsenal by the finest of margins, and which meant that, given Chelsea’s Champions League victory they ended up in the Europa League. All of this was felt to have riled the club chairman, who was sufficiently angry to dispose of Redknapp. It was a bit of a shock, Redknapp had delivered the best football and the biggest achievements at Spurs since David Pleat’s halcyon season of 86-87. But Redknapp’s weakness was that his public posturing with regards to the England job and his new contract arguably introduced a degree of uncertainty into the mind of the chairman with regards to Redknapp’s commitment to the club.
What happened next started off looking like a wise move, but has since been followed up with a number of decisions, which look like Tottenham are on the verge of crumbling back into the mediocrity from where they came. Daniel Levy, chairman of Spurs decided to hire Andre Villas-Boas, young manager from Portugal, who had been understudy to Jose Morinho at Chelsea, had managed Porto to League and Europa Cup success, and who had then had a failed stint at Chelsea. Despite his failure at Chelsea Villas-Boas came across as an intelligent manager, who seemed interested in building for the long-term and a technically accomplished coach. However his style was quite different from Redknapp, his teams played an edgy defensive game, they tended not to have a great deal of fluency going forward, but it all added up to a side that would grind out a lot of 1-0, 2-0 wins. Villas Boas’ first season at Spurs was good, replicating the type of form that Redknapp had achieved, Spurs again just missed out on a Champions League qualifying spot, again to Arsenal, finishing fifth. It had been noted however, that most of Tottenham’s goals had come from Gareth Bale, who had had the season of his life. Villas Boas had gotten rid of most of the other creative players in the team, Van der Vaart and Modric had been sold without replacement. Emanuel Adebayor had been banished from the first team. In came bulwarks like Dembele and workmen like Dempsey, OK, but easy to defend against. When Villas-Boas took over from Harry Redknapp Spurs gradually evolved from a free flowing style of football, that could pass back and forth, in triangles, and from side to side, into a side which seemed to know only one direction, go forward. This approach is no better manifest than in the style of Moussa Dembele who tends to take the ball forward, and fight his way through several challenges. In the summer break following the first season, Gareth Bale determined to play for a better club, went to Madrid for a massive eighty million pounds, and then Spurs, almost in a blind panic went out and spent all the money, plus more on a series of unproven although potentially great footballers from across Europe.
The whole episode seemed a bit of a mess. No-one was sure if Villas Boas really wanted the players who had arrived. The challenge facing Villas Boas was immense, how to build a team out of seven to eight guys from different backgrounds, with different languages, none of whom had played in the Premiere League before, and none of whom had proven outstanding form. The point to bear in mind in all this is that the strength of a team lies not in the sum total of the talent of the individual players, but in the synergies developed between players. The synergies that develop between players are a function of the coach’s mastery of the game and his ability to teach it, the intelligence and the abilities of the players, and the time spent playing with each other, developing understanding and working relationships on the pitch. When Spurs sold Gareth Bale and got rid of several other players, whilst at the same time adding eight new players to their squad, they effectively smashed all the synergies that had been developed in the team over the last three to four years.
It should have been acknowledged by the Spurs board and by Daniel Levy that 2013-14 was going to be a tricky season for Spurs, and that they might not gain a Champions League place. It should have been recognised that it could well take AVB a season and a half to establish a side, that would gel and could challenge for the top 4 places. The first four months of AVB’s time at Spurs wasn’t bad. Given the synergies that were destroyed in the pre-season revamp, Spurs current progress under AVB was not to be sniffed at. Through to the second round of the Europa League, a quarter-final place in the League Cup and 7th in the Premier League, 5 points off a Champions League slot, and above Manchester United. However following a few bad games, and a 6-0 thrashing by Manchester City, who were thrashing almost everyone by that amount, Daniel Levy seemed to panic and sack Villas Boas.
In the sacking of Villas Boas we see that Levy is not sure about what he is doing. There is no point hiring a coach like Villas Boas, without giving him time and commitment to work through his ideas. Villas Boas is not a footballing mercenary, he is a serious coach, who likes to plan and control every aspect of the team. It seemed to be the case that Spurs would not allow Villas Boas to choose the footballers he wanted, so there seemed to be some ambivalence as to whether Levy really believed in Villas-Boas. Part of what played into the unpopularity of Villas-Boas is that he doesn’t fit with Spurs history and culture of flair football, which often comes at the expense of lack of consistency. During interviews on TV Andre Villas Boas comes across as rather dour, verging on the schizoid and you do wonder how he relates to players, and whether they really want to play for him. Furthermore Villas Boas doesn’t play attractive free flowing football. Like I said he plays edgy defensive football, relying on grinding out 1-0, 2-0 wins. Maybe Spurs just don’t want to play football like that, its not a price worth paying, the fact is though, is that Spurs win rate under Villas Boas was better than it was under Pleat and Redknapp, and the Portuguese manager looked the best organized manager and the best man to take Spurs into the higher echelons of football, than any manager since Nicholson. The sacking of AVB will further destroy the synergies at the club, weakening all the bonds and relationships that were formed under AVB’s rule. My prediction is that Spurs will not finish above the 7th place that they currently find themselves in the Premier League, and may find themselves lower in the league come the end of the season.
Now what we find is the equally suprising decision of Levy to hire Tim Sherwood, a completely unproven in football management, to the job, reinforcing the notion that Levy has lost the plot, or that his plot involves poaching some other coach, who will not be available to Spurs until the end of season, at which point he will dispose of Sherwood. The last few results have raised questions over whether the sacking of Villas Boas was a good idea Spurs were beaten at home 5-1 by Manchester City, and then fought hard to scrape a point at Hull City. It seems Tottenham are on a slide back down to where they came from.