Twenty minutes before Spurs took on Manchester City, Sky Sports aired an interview with Dele Alli, in which the young midfielder talked honestly about the ups and downs of the past year for club and country. Asked what his plan was for the next 12 months, Dele had no equivocation: “To win the league.”
Cutting back to the studio, the anchor invited Jamie Redknapp to offer his opinion on the player.
“He could become one of the best midfielders in the world,” Redknapp Jr said, pausing ever so slightly in that way he does, the flicker of calculation betraying his affected Proper Football Man brogue. “He could play for a big, big club. I know Tottenham fans won’t like to hear that, but a big, big club.”
Funnily enough, I didn’t like to hear that, especially not the tone in which it was said. The Redknapp family vendetta against Spurs has grown tiresome, and everyone bar the Redknapps themselves have moved on from it in the years since ‘Arry’s departure from White Hart Lane.
But the comments were an example of the awkward position the lazier sections of the footballing media find themselves in with regard to Spurs.
Last season, the prevailing narrative was to lump Spurs in as a fluke candidate alongside Leicester City, and when it needed spicing up, build Spurs up as the least convincing bad guy since Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies.
Before the 2016/17 campaign, just one of the BBC’s 33 (!) pundits tipped Spurs for the title — ex-Spurs player Chris Waddle. Jermaine Jenas was alone in tipping his former club for second, although in a bold and timely column before Sunday’s match, he threw his support behind Spurs to win it all.
Awkwardly, Spurs are confounding the expectation that’ll we’ll return to our rightful sixth place. Spurs are the only unbeaten team in the league after turning over Pep’s City comprehensively, and sit in second, a point behind City and a point ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal.
“If Liverpool are being touted as potential title winners after their fourth successive Premier League win at Swansea City on Saturday, then it is positively insulting to Tottenham not to elevate them to the same bracket after this pulsating performance,” wrote the BBC’s Phil McNulty, in the awkward manner of someone having his own quotes read back to him.
The king of football narrative, Henry Winter, summed up the dilemma even more acutely.
“The title race may be more open than anticipated,” he declared, as though the idea of Spurs winning the league this season was utterly unfathomable up until this point. “Tottenham are definitely in the race.”
Thanks, Henry. Do you need me to sign anything to make that legally binding?
If Jamie Redknapp wants to take shots at Spurs, fine. You expect it at this point. But in his post-match podcast, Gary Neville, a pundit at the complete opposite end of the spectrum in terms of quality of analysis and balance, made an almost identical point.
After heaping praise on Spurs, in particular the strides made by the two fullbacks, he turned his attention to the magnificent job that Mauricio Pochettino has done since taking over in 2014.
“This isn’t being disrespectful to Spurs,” Neville said. “He deserves one of the biggest jobs in the world. He’s giving the best dress rehearsal possible.”
It’s like pundits run out of superlatives with Spurs, and the only thing left to say is that everyone should leave.
For Neville, you know he means Barcelona and Real Madrid when he is talking about “the biggest jobs”, but deep down, you know he’s also thinking Manchester United when Jose Mourinho flames out. I can understand how, from his perspective as a pivotal figure in the Sir Alex Ferguson era of dominance, United will always be a step up from Spurs.
Sure, United have more money, a bigger stadium, a larger global fanbase and dozens more sponsors. But what Neville doesn’t understand, yet, is that this will forever be intertwined with Fergie himself and in all likelihood peaked with him. Whoever follows in his footsteps will, at best, extend United’s dominance a little longer, or come close to matching what Fergie achieved.
The opportunity at Spurs, with the world-class academy, the new stadium and a young, hungry team with a strong homegrown identity, is bigger than that offered by United for Pochettino and players like Dele Alli.
It’s not about continuing a dynasty, but instead building a whole new one. Neville only needed to turn his head to the right and look through the gap in the northeast corner of White Hart Lane to see the potential of Spurs.
There are no guarantees, of course. In the past five years, Manchester United have a net transfer spend of £393 million, compared to £5.5 million for Spurs (Manchester City have a net spend of £403 million). Yet Spurs have finished above United two of the last three seasons, we’re in the Champions League while United slog around in the Europa League periphery. We’ll finish above them again this year, you watch.
I was going to ask what it will take for Spurs to shake the footballing media out of its mental cul-de-sac, but I think the answer is obvious. It’s just to keep winning, first match after match, then title after title. Just like the only way to shake the “selling club” tag is to not sell pivotal players over a prolonged period (three years, evidently, is not enough).
Neville is getting closer to understanding what Spurs can be, as his brilliant Telegraph column from last year demonstrated (some of which he repeated in his podcast). The fact that, in the heat of the moment, he still finds himself reaching for his old preconceptions shows that old habits die hard.
But we’ll know Spurs have really made it when we see Jamie Redknapp, legs splayed, hair immaculately natural, tight suit shimmering under the Sky studio lights, declaring us a “big, big club”. Either that or hell will have frozen over.
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