Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Penultimate Word on Association Football


With it comes a weight that newcomers struggle to comprehend. In the world of football we've seen heaps of expectation. Newcastle to remain a major force in English football; the same with Leeds (now struggling to hold onto a play off place in the Championship after 5 years of aimless wilderness wandering); the agonies Liverpool fans go through year after year because they believe their club has a greater history than any other team in the world and because they're all quite delusional. In the year I was born, Spurs won the first modern day League and Cup Double and for 49 years the fans have been waiting for the return of that glory glory team.

Last year, Spurs fans were treated to something totally bewildering - a 4th place finish that appeared to mean more financially and praiseworthy than winning a cup. In fact, Spurs won nothing last year and were treated like Double winners by their fans. Such is the fickle nature of football now that finishing 4th is better than winning the FA Cup.

The arse end of the season is upon us and remarkably the Premier League has five more rounds of fixtures left and 90% of them could still have serious ramifications for most of the 20 teams. There are still 13 teams that can be relegated; but realistically that will probably be contested by just 7 and as each week passes some new team becomes the focus of relegation realism. A few weeks ago Aston Villa were being talked about as realistic relegation candidates, four matches later and they're on the heals of 7th place - such is the bizarre nature of the world's most difficult league; which is certainly living up to its label this year. Sunderland were in there until they won yesterday and now League Cup winners Birmingham look like becoming the latest team to flirt with relegation.

At the other, business end, we're seeing pedigree shine and pretenders wilt. Man Utd will wrap up the title in the next 2 weeks; the valiant last minute dash by the Chelski Pensioners will amount to nothing, but the boys in blue will pinch runner's up spot from the profligate Arse; arguably the 2nd prettiest football in the league and with as much cutting edge as a wooden spoon - which is what Wenger will end up with again after flattering to deceive all season. The new boo boys - Man Citeh - will now take, what they believe, is their rightful place in next season's Champions League. The Eastlands Billionaires will achieve this not because they were better than 16 other teams, but because the serious challengers at the start of the season became embroiled in a game of musical chairs and overestimation.

It's not sour grapes that makes me say the Citeh don't deserve 4th; obviously at the end of the season they will have accrued more than enough points to have earned it; but with a line up that rivals the best Chelsea teams of the early Abramovich era, the manager should be castigated for not making a serious fist of winning the EPL. For all of Citeh's money it took Spurs' inability to beat teams beginning with W and Liverpool's transitional woes for them to get 4th. If this season had been like previous ones, Citeh would probably have struggled to finish 7th.


In October, I went ballistic over Spurs' failure to beat a resurgent Sunderland team at White Hart Lane. After holding a 1-0 lead for most of the match, we let the Wearsiders walk away with a point and I voiced my disdain to whoever would listen. It was a terrible result for a side that had top 4 aspirations. Yet, when we went to Blackpool last month and got stuffed 3-1 by a side that hadn't won in 7 and have gone a further 6 without victory, it barely registered on my contemptometer! Spurs let themselves down like a set of blinds in a south facing room; if they went through a season without disappointing me then they would win the league by 10 points. Yet, this season, with 5 matches to go, Spurs have lost less games than any previous Premiership campaign. Even if they lose 3 of those 5 games, they will still have gone a whole season with one less defeat than when they finished 4th. Surely this is a something to be proud of?

Actually, if you'd told me in September 2008 that Spurs would finish 4th, get through to the QFs of the Champions League and be guaranteed top 6 the following season, I would have not just bitten your hand off, I would have marinated it and drunk a bottle of vodka with it. Yet, here we are on a day when an on-line poll suggests that a third of Spurs supporters think that Harry Redknapp has taken the club as far as he can and should be sacked. Admittedly it follows a host of mediocre results that have all but ruined our chances of finishing 4th; but I remember beating Bristol Rovers 9-0 when we were trying to bounce out of the old second division after a humiliating relegation the previous year! I remember Christian Gross, Ossie Ardilles, Glenn Hoddle, George Graham (although he did win a cup for us), some bloke called Santini, Juande Ramos (his cup win doesn't count, it was BMJ's team) and a host of others who have failed miserably to return Spurs to former glories. Harry is the best thing to happen to Spurs since Bill Nicholson; we should hang on to him for a bit longer; we don't want another BMJ debacle, do we?

(Big) Martin Jol gave the Spurs fans something to believe in. Harry has reinforced that and given us something to reach for and, of course, he has given us expectations and while it is great to expect your team to be better than they are, unless you're Man U or Chelsea or Real Madrid or Barcelona, then there is an element of wishful thinking in those expectations.

I received a series of texts yesterday from my mate Jon, a zealously bonkers Red Shite fan. His team had just beaten a crap Birmingham side 5-0, while my Spurs drew 2-2 with WBA. This left Liverpool 3 points Spurs and the tone of his messages were that if Liverpool finish higher than Spurs, especially after the horrendous season they have had, then he was never going to let me live it down. At first, I studied the league tables and the BBC predictor and worried about letting the hated Red Shite finish higher than us; but as the evening wore on, I actually thought it would be a good thing. If Citeh are guaranteed 4th, then Stoke would get the final Europa League spot; Liverpool would get the only other one available through finishing position and Spurs would have no European football nights next year. That made me happy.

Here's why. I do not think Spurs will sell Modric or Bale this summer. I think that Van Der Vaart might stay as well. With defensive players like Kyle Walker dropping into right back, Steven Caulker getting a first team squad promotion and a few good quality signings up front and on the left hand side, Spurs without European distractions could seriously challenge for 1st place - a suggestion I would have laughed hysterically at 5 years ago. The biggest single thing that has affected Spurs this season has been injuries; this has been followed by poor striking and an inability to turn winning positions into winning results. Two of the above can be rectified and a season free of serious injuries would be a real bonus.

I believe that Man Utd will struggle next season; Chelski need £100million worth of investment and probably a new manager (and if that manager is, as some papers are suggesting, the Fat Spanish Waiter, then...); Arse might need the same and Citeh have Roberto Mancini, who looks good but isn't. Liverpool could have Europa League distractions, which will ultimately bugger up their long term campaign (but could do what I think Spurs could do if they don't finish 5th). Next season could be the start of a real shake up, with the unexpected leading the way.

But enough waffle about what ifs. The weight of expectation has made this seem like a failure of a year for Spurs. I sit here trying desperately to be positive about the season and it's difficult and that is because of the expectation. The reality is that whatever happens, we've done ourselves proud considering the hurdles we've had to jump. Beating AC Milan with half a team injured; beating the Arse 3-2 at the Emirates after being 2-0 down; Gareth Bale; Modric and Van Der Vaart; the emergence of Sandro; BAE's haircuts; having a laugh at Gomez's expense (even if he cost us too much to be allowed to stay); the matches against Inter; the debacle that was almost suffered at the hands of Young Boys - it has been a season of incredible highs; the lows have only felt bad because of ... expectation - in a normal year we'd shrug our shoulders and say, 'that's my Spurs!'.

I'm proud to be a Spurs fan. They play breathtaking football at times; and competed on the highest stage and made it to the last 8. Whatever happens between now and the end of May, I will remain Tottenham Till I Die! COYS!

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