Sunday 20 September ~
“Spurs are the aristocrats of present-day football. They are the aesthetes for whom football is an end in itself, for whom, with sometimes fatal results, artistry has always meant more than the brute score.” Those were the words of poet and journalist Alan Ross, in a piece entitled The Road To Tottenham that was published in 1950. As Spurs fans contemplate the approaching 50th anniversary of their last title, they may want to console themselves with the elegant writer’s lines. Or, as Chas and Dave once sang with gutsy cheer, “Everybody knows that we’re the football connoisseurs”.
Good old Tottenham. Like a fashion model, they’re not always much use, but they usually look nice. They were already this season’s early runners, the annual surprise package at the top of the Premier League provoking a fragile optimism by winning their first four games. Last season their pre-season hope was to challenge for a Champions League position, but they bombed from the first whistle and never came close. This time around, a win at home to Liverpool was followed by a mauling of Hull City, and narrow victories over West Ham and Birmingham. Just the sort of games you need to win if you’re going to be a contender.
This was followed last weekend by the home fans’ looks of delighted disbelief as they celebrated Jermain Defoe’s opening-minute overhead kick against Manchester United. If you were to translate those looks into words, they would read something like: “I can’t believe this is happening to us. Unbeaten, at the top of the league, and we’ve just scored one of the goals of the season against the reigning champions.” Manchester United, meanwhile, fished the ball out of the net with a lack of concern suggesting they knew exactly what was coming next – that they would patiently take the game over, outplay Tottenham on their own ground, and win with ease.
What stops a potentially high-achieving team like Tottenham from pressing home the advantage of an early lead and a home crowd? Sure, they were missing a key defender in Jonathan Woodgate, and the loss of magical midfielder Luka Modric to a broken leg against Birmingham, in a game he had almost single handedly dominated, is hard to take for a club lacking the depth of its better placed opponents. "Luka is a big loss to us,” admitted Harry Redknapp on the club’s website this week. “He is such a busy little fantastic player. You always feel you have a chance when he is around. He is different to anyone else." Which implies that when he’s not around, you don’t always feel like you have a chance. Especially against Manchester United, or today’s opponents Chelsea, whom Tottenham haven’t beaten at Stamford Bridge since 1990 (2-1, scorers: Lineker, Howells).
Yet with Tottenham you can’t help but feel it’s an attitude problem as much as it’s an issue of talent. Burnley, who were in the lower reaches of the Fourth Division when Spurs last won at Chelsea, have already managed to hold on to a 1-0 lead against Manchester United this season. They used a combination of luck, grit and high pressure to do it. It’s commendable if the Tottenham philosophy does not stoop to such common measures when trying to win games. You wonder, though, if some of their fans wouldn’t mind a more pugnacious approach if it meant picking up three points against top-four teams, while reserving traditional displays of exquisite artistry for trips north of the Humber estuary.
If Tottenham win today through either method, it would not just mean that Spurs would return to level-pegging on points with Chelsea. And it would not just mean that neutrals perk up at the possibility of a more balanced race for the title. It would be a huge psychological obstacle for Spurs to scale in terms of their self-belief. They are a team that most lovers of football want to see do well, because they are one of a small handful of clubs with the genuine potential to disturb the Champions League lock-in. But the longer they go without defeating the teams that matter, the more distant that prospect becomes. Ian Plenderleith