Poch’s heroes have Dared and they’ve Done

Picture: Getty Images

This shouldn’t be happening. No way. Pinch me. I may still be dreaming.

Mid-September last year. Spurs have lost 2-1 to Liverpool at Wembley and they should have lost by three or four. 

There are reasons for the defeat — no signings, no return to the Promised Lane, so many players at the World Cup up to the final weekend, with Hugo Lloris’s after-dinner escapades adding to the feel-bad factor — but that is no consolation.

“Can we end the season now?” I say to Ronan Early, a fellow sufferer who’d introduced himself to me with the words, “We are members of the same testing faith!” 

End the season now, get off the roundabout, reset and start all over again in August 2019?

The prospect of Spurs finishing in the Top 4 looks negligible. The prospect of them reaching the Champions – look, it’s not a prospect. Let’s not be silly. 

And all of this was before anyone knew the depths of ineptitude Kieran Trippier, one of the World Cup heroes of Russia, would plumb back in Blighty in 2018-19.

Is this real life? Is this just fantasy? Pinch me.

Right, let’s get the inevitable Where It All Began bit out of the way.

March 3rd 1973. The League Cup final at Wembley. Norwich City 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1.

Spurs’ Ralph Coates runs at Norwich’s Geoff Butler during the 1973 League Cup Final. Coates scored the winner. Picture: Don Morley
Spurs’ Ralph Coates runs at Norwich’s Geoff Butler during the 1973 League Cup Final. Coates scored the winner. Picture: Don Morley

Up to then I’d been a promiscuous little boy. I’d flirted on a grand scale. Manchesters United and City, Liverpool, Arsenal, above all Leeds United. 

It was very nearly Leeds United. Then RTÉ went and televised the League Cup final and my world was turned upside down.

Spurs wore all white that Saturday afternoon and they seemed to shimmer out of the murk of our black and white TV. 

Ralph Coates scored the winner in a match that I later discovered did anything but shimmer. So what. 

At long last I’d found my true love. I fell and I fell hard. I was seven years old.

With the grim diligence of small boys enraptured by a new pastime I learned as much as could be learned about the players in the pre-internet age. 

In Pat Jennings I acquired a new sporting hero who soared, arms aloft plucking a cross out of the air, onto the pedestal hitherto exclusively occupied by Eddie Keher. 

I embraced the mail order world and procured match programmes, a silk scarf with the players’ faces that lurks somewhere in a press here, a pennant commemorating the 1973 League Cup victory that’s on the back of my office door still.

Like Tony Soprano ruing he wasn’t in that thing of theirs from the ground floor, it took a while to realise that I’d come in as the glory days were ending. 

In 1974-75 there was a relegation battle and a narrow escape, two goals from Alfie Conn helping beat Leeds 4-2 in the climactic game. 

In 1976-77 there was another relegation battle and this time no narrow escape. I was the only Tottenham fan in my class and it wasn’t easy.

The sun came out again in the early 1980s (oh, the excitement of the 1981 FA Cup run! Oh, Ricky Villa’s winner in the final!) and in later days I made it to Wembley for the League Cup victories of 1999 and 2008. 

But by and large over the past 30 years, and in contradiction of the club motto Audere Est Facere, Spurs didn’t Dare very much and they certainly didn’t Do very much.

The endless mediocrity. The occasional flirtation with relegation, as in 1994 and ’98. Darren Anderton and the way he might injure himself. 

Jamie Redknapp as captain. Christian Gross and his Tube ticket. Sol Campbell. Ossie and Glenn: great players, failures as managers. “Lads, it’s Tottenham.”

Ireland’s Terry Dixon, the lost boy. 

The removal of any remaining fig leaf of moral superiority when Arsenal, boring and dirty when winning things under George Graham, became merely scintillating when winning things under Arsene Wenger, the man who rewrote the club’s DNA sequencing in rhyming couplets.

I went to a fair number of Tottenham away games in the nineties and noughties. 

In 1997 I contrived to fall down the last four steps of a stairs in Nottingham the evening of a 2-1 defeat at the City Ground, sprained my left knee — I still feel the effects — and had to be lifted onto the plane at East Midlands airport next day.

In 2003, following a 2-0 defeat to a relegation-bound West Ham on a day the visitors fielded a moribund front two of the Ginger Pele himself, Gary Doherty, and a past-it Teddy Sheringham, I left Upton Park concluding sadly that Spurs would never be great again.

A third memory: the 5-1 trimming by an already relegated Newcastle United at St James’ Park on the last day of 2015-16. 

Even though it was second place Spurs had blown rather than — a la Hearts in 1986 — the title itself, the experience was so deflating I could barely speak for two days afterwards. 

You’d think I’d have known better by that stage. A testing faith indeed.

Yet this much I do know. Had I opted for Manchester United at the age of seven I’d have long since become a sated, semi-detached supporter. We have tested and tasted too much, etc. 

So I hung in there and was grateful for the small mercies. The lift of the spirits on seeing the occasional person in a Spurs top or hat. 

The mordant text exchanges with fellow sufferer Anthony Daly (“it’s a feckin’ life sentence,” as he observed after one particularly painful defeat). 

The banter with Peter McNamara and the other Cork lads in my Spurs WhatsApp group.

In contradiction of Nick Hornby’s observation that the natural state of the football fan “is bitter disappointment” — with Tottenham my default setting was one of frustration. 

We had been big. Logic said we had the potential to be big again. But time was slipping by and I was getting older.

Five years ago last Monday the club appointed yet another manager.

“Yeah, but what trophies has he won..?” To which the only sensible answer is, What shaggin’ trophies should he have won?

Tottenham are punching two divisions about their weight in a system that is gamed against them. 

Manchester City are no longer a football club but an artificial construct, the soft-power arm of a squillionaire nation state. 

Manchester United are no longer a football club but a business franchise. Chelsea are owned by a Russian plutocrat. 

Liverpool remedied last season’s personnel issues with a surgeon’s precision by spending a total of £228m plus add-ons on Van Dijk, Alisson, Fabinho, and Keita.

Manchester City, the perennial likeable class loser who had the freakish good fortune to meet a genie who transformed him into Hollywood’s leading man, have made it extremely difficult for Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United to win a domestic trophy.

They’ve made it almost impossible for Spurs to do so.

On every financial metric, which these days are the only metrics that matter, Spurs ought to finish sixth every season. 

Under Pochettino, recognisably a great guy as well as a brilliant manager (he even has a dog called Sansa, for heaven’s sake), they’ve finished fifth, third, second, third, fourth, and now reached a Champions League final.

The big eejit. He should have finished sixth or seventh each season and won a poxy Carabao Cup along the way. 

Then he’d be a real winner… Success is not always measurable in trophies. 

Pochettino is attempting, a la Wenger, to change the DNA of a club, to write new history, and he’s attempting to do so on a balanced budget. 

He has already made Tottenham a natural party of government, or at any rate a natural club of Champions League qualification, and he’s done so with a team that cost an average of £12.8m per player. Incredible.

As for that silly “bottlers” tag, spare me. Spurs were in fourth place at the halfway stage of Leicester City’s title-winning season and never led the league at any point. 

There was nothing for them to bottle. They had a far better team the following season when finishing second on 86 points, seven behind Chelsea. But someone has to finish second.

When Manchester City inevitably lift the Champions League trophy they’ll have done so by buying a team that won it — and yes, I accept that were I a City fan I’d make a decent stab at rationalising the exercise, as fans do, although in this instance I hope I’d have the honesty to recognise the hollowness of the crown. 

If Spurs lift it tomorrow night they’ll have done so by building a team that won it. There is an ocean of difference therein.

I have a draft tweet waiting for close of business tomorrow night. It reads: “Yeah, but what silverware has Pochettino won IN ENGLAND..?” Just in case, like.

Pepsi Sister texted from New York two minutes after the final whistle in Amsterdam a few weeks ago. 

“Have you dropped dead?” I hadn’t, just about, but it was a close run thing, as it had been in the second leg against Manchester City.

Yet even if Raheem Sterling’s VAR goal had stood I’d still have been proud of Spurs that night, inasmuch as one can be proud of a group of absurdly well remunerated individuals you don’t get to meet down the pub.

They’ve Dared and they’ve Done. 

Lloris and Alderweireld and Vertonghen, the grown ups. The spikiness of Danny Rose and his honesty about his mental health issues. 

The reinvention of Sissoko. The patent decency and manliness of Kane. Son Heung Min, perhaps the most endearing human being on the planet. 

I even have a soft spot for Dele Alli, a snide piece of work when he chooses and as such exactly what Spurs have been crying out for decades.

Given that Alli’s mother had four children, all by different fathers, and as a teenager he had to be fostered out to keep him on the straight and narrow, I’m more inclined to praise the chap for what he’s made of himself.

Oh yeah. I also have 20 quid on at 16/1 since the Dortmund tie. Rest assured that that’s the last thing I’ll be thinking about tomorrow night, however.

The outcome? It should be Liverpool, who for the first time in five years are better than Spurs. They finished the Premier League on 97 points and were still flying at the end. 

Spurs ran out of petrol at the top of the hill and staggered over the line with 71 points.

They were here last season and have tradition. Spurs weren’t and don’t.

They have two brilliant, assist-machine full-backs. Spurs have Kieran Trippier.

They’re an improving team. The current Spurs iteration reached the end of its natural lifespan 12 months ago.

Nor can Spurs keep getting the injury-time breaks. Nor can they keep being blessed by rebounds from Lloris’s left-hand post. And Kane may be match-fit but he cannot be match-sharp. And if Salah scares me, Mané terrifies me. 

That said, there are five men in white I can envisage scoring the winner (Kane, Son, Eriksen, Moura and Alli), so that’s something.

In any case tomorrow is an afterthought when set alongside the real news point of this transformative season for the club. The new stadium.

It is, or ought to be, the game-changer, providing the opportunity for Spurs to hurtle into financial hyperspace and ensure they remain Top 4 regulars, and occasional title contenders, for the next decade.

But invasive surgery on the team is required this summer. 

The task of both getting that right — particularly with Guardiola bound to raid the sweetshop again, Manchester United poised to spend big and Leicester City, Wolves and Everton within hailing distance of the top six — and keeping Pochettino happy is more important than getting it right tomorrow night.

Whatever the outcome, the cause will endure. I have an eight-year-old nephew in New York who evinces no interest in sawker and even less in Spurs, despite the Harry Kane shirt I sent him for Christmas. 

My labours in this vineyard must continue. 

Of late I have a new American correspondent in my friend Kieran’s college-going nephew, Neil, who has fallen for Spurs as hard as I did all those years ago but is sensible enough to fear the worst on a daily basis.

He will continue to require my spiritual guidance.

A testing faith. I will continue to answer the call.

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