Category Archives: Opinion

Spurs, Chelsea and two very different stadiums

Chelsea moved closer to joining London’s “60,000” club on Wednesday night after Hammersmith and Fulham councillors approved plans for their extraordinary new stadium.

While the meeting for Tottenham’s new stadium in December 2015 stretched on until 12.29am and culminated in a fingernail-biter of a vote, Chelsea’s stadium breezed through this critical planning hurdle with a unanimous vote of approval at a distinctly civilized 10.22pm. Decisions over new conservatory extensions have taken longer.

Ultimately, the Herzog de Meuron design swept all before it and meant approval was an inevitability. It was simply too spectacular a piece of architecture to be rejected, no matter the deep inconvenience about to be inflicted on local residents during four years of construction, the land grab over public infrastructure, and the loss of housing and hotel rooms.

Chelsea have work to do before construction can begin: Mayoral and other consents are required, agreement is needed with Chelsea Pitch Owners, the fan group that owns the Stamford Bridge freehold, and deals must be reached to buy out any remaining apartment owners in Chelsea Village. Fortunately money isn’t a problem for Chelsea, as that will be an expensive business.

Chelsea acknowledged that the timeframe had “slipped” in the planning documents, and they won’t be ready to leave Stamford Bridge for Wembley until the end of the 2017/18 season. Provided work is completed on time at New White Hart Lane, this means Spurs and Chelsea should avoid the world’s most uncomfortable houseshare.

The two stadiums will inevitably draw comparisons, but these are two very different projects, and each speaks volumes about the club and its situation.

For Spurs, the new stadium has always been about levelling the playing field. Constrained by the size of White Hart Lane, Spurs have slipped further and further behind wealthier clubs in financial strength. Spurs have clung onto the coattails of the big spenders with admirable tenacity and some Mauricio Pochettino magic, but it’s been a gruelling business and you can only defy gravity for so long.

This need to maximise the opportunity a new stadium presents has shaped the project, from the moment the early designs were released with the words “Naming Rights” emblazoned on the roof in giant letters.

The newly released stadium promotion video demonstrated this: it’s a home for Spurs, but also for the NFL and for concerts. The club ensured it can hold up to 16 non-THFC major events per year — it is likely that AEG, operators of the O2 and would-be partners in the failed Olympic site plan, may be involved to ensure every one of those 16 events slots is used. Concerts, rugby (European champions Saracens are based just down the road in tiny Allianz Park), boxing, T20 cricket and UFC — you name it, the stadium will host it and Spurs will take their cut.

Daniel Levy knows that Spurs have to make this stadium count — this is the silver bullet, and it can’t be wasted. No effort is being spared on the interior details, and the fan experience should be unrivalled in European stadia. The design is modern, but not flashy and certainly not “signature” — the real investment is being made inside, not on the exterior. Above all, it is about money — Spurs have been fighting with one hand behind their back for years, and now it’s time to punch back.

For Chelsea, Stamford Bridge isn’t so much a commercial project as a personal one: The stadium is both a monument to Roman Abramovich, and his personal legacy to Chelsea.

If his first decade as owner was about buying Chelsea’s way into the elite — the club technically “owes” him more than £1 billion — the second is about cementing it. The project makes less commercial sense than Spurs with a smaller capacity increase and more recent development of Stamford Bridge, although Chelsea had precious few options for further growth without abandoning west London altogether.

The sheer audacity of the design, with its lattice roof and columns drawing inspiration from Westminster Abbey, takes the breath away. It’s not just a stadium, it’s a symbol — of Abramovich’s extraordinary wealth, of Chelsea’s ambitions, of the sheer magnitude of football now. These aren’t stadiums any more, they are cathedrals.

Perhaps it’s just the name Roman, but rather than visions of London — Westminster Abbey, Battersea Power Station, the Tate Modern — to me the design harks back further, the huge exterior arches and vaunting brick walls bringing to mind the original sporting stadium, the Coliseum. It’s Roman the Emperor, on a Triumph through London, erecting a vast monument to his own glory; all that’s missing is the white horse and vanquished rival Premier League kings in chains.

It won’t be for everyone: there are hints of Albert Speer and Welthauptstadt Germania in its epic scale and Teutonic coldness, and questions will linger about whether Abramovich has really earned the right to redefine London’s skyline in this way.

While Chelsea will surely take on significant financing, the suggestion is that Abramovich will personally fund the bulk of it; it’s unlikely Chelsea will have to engage in something as grubby as naming rights sponsorship. The stadium will host football only. Say this about Abramovich: like him or not, his commitment to Chelsea has been unwavering. He’s the ultimate oligarch, still there week-in week-out nearly 15 years later, still bankrolling his favourite toy.

The law of London football means Spurs fans and Chelsea fans will find ways to undermine, mock and goad each other. The new stadia will be no exception. New White Hart Lane is shaped like an egg, New Stamford Bridge like some sort of novelty vegetable shredder; you get the drift. I hope the ill-feeling continues at boardroom level and on the pitch — it’s surely the best rivalry in the Premier League at the moment, by a distance.

The same one upmanship that made Spurs trump Arsenal in capacity will be in play — stadium development is linear, and Chelsea will learn ruthlessly from Spurs to make sure their’s is “better”. But ultimately, the more you compare these projects, the greater the contrast becomes.

Here’s one thing we can agree on: Spurs and Chelsea are both going to have world-class stadiums within a few years, and thousands more fans are going to be able to see their team live. So a bit like West Ham — except without the need for binoculars, taxpayer subsidies and riot gear.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more articles and general Spurs chat. See more of my stadium pieces by searching in the stadium category in the right-hand navigation, or in the Deep Dives link above.

Advertisements

A new generation of Spurs fans craves FA Cup glory

wa5686077

The trademark magic was in short supply in the FA Cup third round. Weakened teams, poorly chosen televised games, sparse crowds and an unexciting set of match-ups meant for an uninspired weekend of football.

Spurs summed it up with a laboured victory over a defensive Aston Villa side that came for a 0-0, and for 70 minutes looked like they might get one.

But sometimes the most glorious things spring from the humblest of beginnings, and as Spurs finally found their swagger, it was possible to let one’s thoughts drift ahead to Wembley in May, half-covered in Lillywhite, the trophy there for the taking if only the players believe. Maybe, just maybe, this is going to be our year.

Let’s be clear: Spurs are massively, extraordinarily, almost indescribably overdue an FA Cup win.

Our reputation as a “Cup team”, still trotted out dutifully by the BBC commentator as the teams emerged from the tunnel at White Hart Lane, is as hollow as the new structure emerging behind the Paxton Road stand.

Spurs have won the FA Cup just four times since 1966, and it has been 26 years since Spurs last reached the FA Cup final, when we beat Nottingham Forest 2-1. The only longer drought in the club’s history, since the first FA Cup win in 1901, came between 1921 and 1961. The League Cup has been somewhat more successful, with five finals in the intervening period; two victorious, three not.

Since Spurs were last in the FA Cup final, Chelsea have won it six times and Arsenal seven. Hell, Portsmouth and Wigan have both won it. Our eight wins are a distant memory. No Spurs fan under the age of 30 will have any memory of what it feels like to be an FA Cup winner.

Early football memories are snapshots, fleeting moments preserved for eternity while the rest has been washed away. My first Spurs memory was Gary Lineker scoring a winner in the league against Norwich. My second was Gazza, 15 minutes into the Cup final, injured after that tackle. My third was dancing around overexcitedly when Des Walker powered a header past his own keeper. No wonder I’m hooked.

One thing I can’t remember is Gary Mabbutt actually lifting the trophy. My guess is, I was already out in the garden with my brother, playing another game of three-and-in: him as Lineker, and Gazza, and Paul Stewart; me, the squitty little brother, forced to be Forest, but perfectly happy to be Psycho, or Walker, or Nigel Clough.

The FA Cup was such a fundamental part of me becoming a Spurs fan, and for younger Spurs fans to be deprived of what it feels like to win is cruel. It’s a chasm in the footballing experience every Spurs fan should have. It has to be corrected, as an urgent priority of the club.

So why this year? After all, we’ve had plenty of chances before, and found 25 different ways to blow it.

One difference now is that, for the first time, there isn’t a single draw that we fear. That feeling of watching the draw and thinking “please don’t let it be them” — that’s gone, or as is near as possible. Sure, Chelsea and Liverpool away still present psychological barriers to Spurs, but these are barriers this team has to overcome eventually. Now is the time.

If there’s fear, it’s on the other side — no-one wants to be drawn against Spurs at home these days. Just ask Antonio Conte or Pep Guardiola. And possibly Gareth Ainsworth.

Another reason is that, more than any other team, Spurs NEED to win something this season.

The lack of silverware is a cause of embarrassment. Mauricio Pochettino has never won a trophy as a manager, and few of the Spurs players need private trophy rooms in their North London mansions. ENIC’s ownership has been blighted by the trophy drought: just one, in 16 years — constant fuel for the agitators, and the agitated. There’s no trophy for finishing in the top six, and the only prize for finishing in the top four is financial.

What reassures me about this squad, as well as their talent, is their hunger: they get it.

“If in five years’ time we hadn’t won a trophy with this squad, everyone would be disappointed,” said Eric Dier, the future arriving as he donned the captain’s armband on Sunday. “Football is about winning trophies. Look at the players we have now and the basis we have to win things. We have to keep working hard and improving but the whole squad is desperate to win things.”

Desperation is a powerful motivating force.

The Champions League flop means even more reason to focus on the FA Cup. The Europa League is a consolation prize, an afterthought, a plate competition to fill the TV void on Thursday nights. It’s a long, gruelling contest, and extremely hard to win, yet it teases clubs into playing stronger than advised teams as it has the illusion of winnability. Spurs are veterans, and have never remotely threatened — nothing we did in the Champions League suggested we’ve gotten any better at finding midweek performances against technically proficient European opponents with vastly smaller budgets.

In my view, Pochettino should de-prioritize the Europa League, unashamedly. Kids, reserves, unwanteds — a strategic choice to cede ground in Europe, in search for gains on the home front. Poch will say the right things — “we try to win in every competition” — but sometimes hard decisions have to made.

The league this season is shaping to be a brutal slog, with six fairly even teams fighting desperately for four places. It’s no season to be messing around with Thursday trips to Eastern Europe. But the FA Cup is a weekend competition, so long as you win.

As Liverpool showed with their severely weakened team against Plymouth, the tightness of the title race may take attention away from the FA Cup. A little more rotation, a slip here, a slip there; it’s one of those seasons where it might open up, and it pays to be the last man standing. Already the bulk of Premier League’s middle class has slunk out, meaning less chance of that dangerous type of team that has nothing to play for except Cup glory.

The omens are good. Ball 26 in the fourth round draw, 26 years after our last victory, 26 for Ledley, one of our greatest modern players who should have won far more. Wycombe at home — yup, we should win that one.

I’m dreaming of FA Cup glory this season, more than ever before.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

Half-full, or half-empty? Nine games gone and Tottenham’s performance is however you want to see it

There’s a glass half-full, glass half-empty feel to the start of the season for Spurs.

It’s been good, but it could have been better. It’s not been brilliant, but it could have been worse.

We’re fifth, but we’re only a point off the top; we’re unbeaten, but we’ve drawn four out of nine. The four teams above us have all conceded at least five more goals, but they’ve also scored at least six more.

After the Bournemouth draw there were some rumblings of dissatisfaction among the fanbase for the first time this season, and then, as surely as night follows day, came the “backlash-against-the-backlash”.

It gets pretty tedious, in particular given how open to interpretation the quality of the current performance is.

I think it’s fair to have some concerns about the way Spurs have started, but also to be pleased with certain aspects.

I’ve had a few conflicting thoughts bubbling away since Saturday, but can’t quite decide where I fall on the glass half-empty, glass half-full side of the debate, particularly now the initial frustration of Saturday has faded.

So what are you — half-empty, or half-full? Or just kinda half, like me?

Half-full: We’re a point off the top with nearly a quarter of the season gone. We have the best defence, again, and we gave Pep’s City an absolute kicking in our biggest game of the season so far.

Half-empty: We should be top, but have drawn two winnable games and haven’t capitalised on City’s poor run. We should have beaten both Boro and Sunderland by more than a solitary goal.

Half-full: We’ve coped without Mousa Dembele for large stretches, far better than we did last season. In two games without another linchpin, Toby Alderweireld, we’ve not conceded a goal.

Half-empty: We’re missing Harry Kane badly, despite the best efforts by Son Heung-min. Vincent Janssen looks like he has the potential to grow into a solid Premier League striker, but he’s not there yet, in particular in terms of poise in front of goal.

Half-full: It’s going to be so hard to beat Spurs. The defensive shape and intensity of the press is outstanding, and is a testament to Mauricio Pochettino’s coaching and motivational skills. With a bit of luck of the draw in third and fourth rounds, the FA Cup could be on in a big way for Spurs.

Half-empty: While Pochettino’s side are hard to beat, I’m not sure it’s particularly hard to avoid defeat against Spurs. Both West Brom and Bournemouth put in a huge physical effort, but mentally or tactically it hardly looked exhausting. This is worrying as, for most teams, a point against Spurs is OK.

Half-full: Victor Wanyama looks like one of signings of the season at £12.5 million. What an outrageous bargain in the summer’s inflationary market. Georges-Kevin N’Koudou has shown flashes in very limited minutes in a way Clinton never really did.

Half-empty: Moussa Sissoko has started poorly, and he doesn’t have the luxury of time like a young signing. He looks awfully expensive at £30m, and a poor fit tactically. Surely better players were available for the price?

Half-full: A deeper and more balanced squad has enabled Pochettino to show more tactical flexibility, such as the 4-3-3 formation and playing Christian Eriksen in a deeper role that has me thinking “Modric” and being very happy indeed.

Half-empty: City was the only really good 90-minute performance. Too many “bad halves” have undermined the season, and shown Poch struggling to adapt to opposition switches. He still seems too slow to react at times.

Half-full: Son has added the goal threat from the inside-left that Poch has craved, like Rodriguez at Southampton. This is a whole new dynamic, and will be even more valuable when Kane returns.

Half-empty: We’re still struggling to create good chances, and lack a secondary creative passer after Eriksen. Erik Lamela hasn’t started the season in great form, although his appetite for work is outstanding. There’s a fine line between purposeful asymmetry & unbalanced predictability. The right-flank is an issue.

Thanks for reading. Comments welcome as always. Please follow me on Twitter for more chat.

 

The power of incentives and why Spurs are finally in a position to achieve success

poch3_etihad

Over the interminable international break, I’ve been thinking a lot about two things — Spurs and politics.

In politics, I’ve been following the US election avidly and trying to understand why, despite everything we are learning each day, tens of millions of perfectly sane and patriotic Americans will vote for Donald Trump on November 8th.

For Spurs, I’ve been thinking about the success the club is currently experiencing, and trying to understand if there is some deeper explanation than merely an outbreak of managerial competence and a couple of decent signings.

In these two divergent trains of thought, strangely, I’ve found myself coming back to a similar place: the importance of incentives, both good and bad, in shaping outcomes and behaviour.

To a neutral observer (at least as neutral as anyone can be given the impact the US president has on the whole world), Trump’s rise has been baffling. Trump appears to be a sociopathic, predatory conman whose hiding-in-plain-sight brazenness and questionable sexual history has more than a shade of the Jimmy Saville about it. His evident emotional, intellectual and political shortcomings threaten a dangerously volatile presidency, and this could have all manner of devastating consequences given the power of the office (like, you know, commanding the US armed forces).

However, if you’ve spent the past eight years and more watching Fox News and listening to US talk radio, it will have seeped into your subconscious that America is changing for the worse, you are the main loser from that change, and that the current political establishment, embodied by one Hillary Clinton, is creating that change. I’m generalising of course, but you can see the incentive is now there to vote Trump: If you believe the current system is the problem, you have the incentive to vote for the one guy who appears to be from outside it and is talking very loudly about destroying it.

The rest — the ability to ignore facts about Trump and believe lies told by Trump — is an unparalleled epidemic of cognitive dissonance, and will be studied by psychologists and political scientists for generations to come should, as the polls suggest, Clinton limp pathetically to victory.

If that’s an example of a “bad” incentive — although philosophically speaking an incentive is just an incentive, immune to such subjective labelling — then Spurs currently are an example of the “good”.

Arguably the most famous example of incentives in football is the other lot. For years, Arsene Wenger has been told to deliver a Top 4 finish and Champions League football, and been strongly incentivized to do so through ongoing employment on increasingly lucrative terms. Arsenal fans no doubt wonder, if Wenger had been incentivized to win a title — through either the offer of more money or the threat of the sack — he may have done more to seriously challenge for the title in the past dozen or so seasons.

Chelsea are another example of how incentives can have a fundamental impact on a football club. Despite investing millions and being a dominant force in youth football, Chelsea have failed to see an academy graduate (barring the expensive Matic outlier) given an extended run in the first team since John Terry. The problem has been that a succession of managers have been so concerned about satisfying Roman Abramovich’s thirst for trophies that none has been able to risk the inevitable ups and downs that come with blooding young players.

In North London (yeah, take that, any Arsenal fans who read this), Spurs have been having some incentive problems of their own through the ENIC era. Specifically, the “buy-low, sell-high” business model that powered Spurs up from the middle of the Premier League pack to the “best of the rest” may have inadvertently created the incentives that prevented the club from taking the next step.

Think of that giddy time when Gareth Bale was beginning his metamorphosis, or Luka Modric was making Harry Redknapp’s team hum in central midfield, or Dimitar Berbatov was oozing class up front. There was always that fear we had as fans: “If he keeps playing this well, we’ll never be able to keep him.”

And this wasn’t mere pessimistic terrace talk — this was simply a statement of fact, given the financial model of the club at the time. This model created perverse incentives — success in player development and coaching could mean instability and the loss of key players, and what could be a step forward in fact turned into a step back. Little wonder, then, the club churned through a succession of managers.

The debacle that was the post-Bale reboot brought into full view the flaws of this strategy. The vision for how the club was supposed to be run hasn’t changed on a strategic level since Daniel Levy decided to move on from Harry Redknapp: an ambitious young manager committed to playing dynamic football and running the club in a modern, professional way.

Andre Villas-Boas, for all his personal shortcomings, was hamstrung by conflicting incentives and objectives: he had to sell his star player, yet somehow mould a collection of cheap replacements into a winning team without a sustained dip in performance. There were many reasons that AVB failed, but the incentives were never right.

I’m pretty sure that AVB was supposed to become what Mauricio Pochettino is now, but for Pochettino the incentives now are perfect.

He is charged with building a team that is greater than the sum of the parts, without the need to sell key players but accepting as a consequence that there are limited funds to acquire new ones. Instead of trying to compete with the moneybags clubs in the transfer market, Spurs are forced to do things in a different way, and are benefitting from doing so through squad unity and a vibrancy other clubs lack. Pochettino and the club have every incentive to develop young homegrown talent, especially since Harry Kane has shown how worthwhile it can be. Crucially, with no need to sell, there is no upper limit now on what can be achieved — when Pochettino talks about building the “project” and competing for titles, he means it, because that is the aim.

No doubt the club’s ability to resist cashing in on star players will be tested in years to come. But curiously, the new stadium, while hindering the ability to spend, creates a further incentive not to sell.

Spurs will be borrowing a lot of money to build the stadium, but the success of the investment ultimately rests on selling the 25,000 extra tickets each match and filling the lush new hospitality areas. This will be much easier with a successful and appealing team — as the ability of the club to sell out Wembley against three deeply uninspiring Champions League opponents this season attests. Spurs, therefore, have every incentive to keep Kane, Dele Alli and so on, no matter how easy Manchester United fans seem to think it will be to eventually tempt them away.

There are many reasons why I’m excited about Spurs at the moment, and there are many explanations about why the club is now moving forward even at a time it is increasingly financially disadvantaged compared to cash-rich rivals. This isn’t to take away credit from the remarkable job that Pochettino is doing, and the contrast with AVB is stark. Pochettino has immense sway at Hotspur Way now — a strong manager has the power to shape incentives.

A lot of things have to go right for a football club to succeed, but if the incentives aren’t right, change is just going round and round in a circle.

Think of the current team, if the old problem of selling star players reared its head again. Instead of building a single, ongoing project, Pochettino would be facing the challenge of replacing departing talent with cheaper, younger alternatives. You can’t defy footballing gravity forever, and Pochettino wouldn’t have the incentive to risk this damage to his reputation. Eventually he’d would walk away, reputation enhanced, like he did at Southampton (or, if he left it too late, leave sacked and heading back down the managerial pyramid, like most of his predecessors at Spurs).

There are many ways to describe the state of affairs at Spurs currently, but when we talk about stars aligning, virtuous circles, everyone pushing in the same direction or whatever expression it is (i’ve used a fair few…), key to it all is that the incentives are right.

Long may it continue.

And now, having written all that, I’m off to put a fiver on Trump to beat Clinton and West Brom to beat Spurs on Saturday.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

Big but not ‘big, big’: The football media struggles to come to terms with Tottenham’s narrative-busting success

pe3o6z9ojhensk7h4xmdoxojbzmtt2bj-1

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.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.

Godspeed, Ryan Mason — One of our own

mason koala

The announcement that Ryan Mason has joined Hull City brings an end to the midfielder’s 17-year association with Spurs. Mason is player I have immense affection for, and I’ve rarely felt such pride as a Spurs fan as I did when seeing him step onto the pitch at Juventus Stadium in March 2015 in an England shirt.

Of all the prospects to have emerged from the academy in recent years, Mason’s development as a player has been the most surprising, and most inspiring. That he needs to move on from Spurs to find regular football at the age of 25 isn’t a mark of failure, but rather a success story that should be celebrated by the club and fans.

Young footballers face an extraordinarily rocky road, and few capture the randomness that awaits once a player signs a professional contract as Mason. In the past seven years, Mason has been an academy prospect and loan traveller, fringe talent and midfield mainstay, England international and rarely-used squad player.

Aged 23, after mixed loan spells in which he flashed both talent and susceptibility to injury, Mason found himself back at Hotspur Way in the summer of 2014, but firmly in the departure lounge. He’d made just five first-team appearances in a Spurs shirt, in the Europa League and League Cup, and this was surely destined to be his limit. The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino offered one final chance to impress.

Mason did enough on the pre-season tour of North America to secure a place in the first-team squad, but remained an afterthought for everybody, with the exception of the head coach. In late September, with Pochettino already growing exasperated by the expensive but underperforming midfield options such as Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, Spurs found themselves a goal down to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup third round with an hour played. The Argentine sent on first Harry Kane, and a minute later Mason, and the impact was almost immediate. Within eight minutes Mason had slammed home the equaliser, and Kane would tap in the third to wrap up the win.

“It’s a cliché,” Mason told the Telegraph. “But I had dreamt of that. I had always dreamt of scoring at White Hart Lane and to score a screamer…”

Such was the paucity of options, that cameo was enough to persuade Pochettino to give Mason a chance in the league. It was a daunting first assignment — away at the Emirates — but Mason performed with immense credit.

“It was weird,” he said about making his debut. “But, in my head, I’ve always felt I deserved a chance. I’d done well, I’d done well in training and I scored that goal. Still I think 90-95 percent of managers would not have put me in, they would have shied away from it and gone for someone with a lot more experience. But he showed faith in me.”

Mason went on to play 37 times for Spurs in 2014/15, and on March 31 he made his debut for England. In total, he played 70 times for Spurs, scoring four times.

But as much as his appearances, Mason was a symbol of what was changing at Spurs off the pitch.

Italy v England - International Friendly

Along with Nabil Bentaleb, Kane, Andros Townsend, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Mason was part of a core of young players that were creating a new feeling of togetherness at the club. It was, so the story goes, Mason and Kane who faced down the “Kaboul cabal” after the dismal home defeat to Stoke in the autumn of 2014, creating a new spirit of unity and commitment that would allow Pochettino to begin to implement his methods and changes without resistance.

The “one of own” chant is sung for Kane, but Mason was every bit as important in reconnecting fans and players. There is nothing more satisfying as a fan than seeing local boys out there on the pitch. It scratches that itch we all feel — that part of our support that rests on the fantasy that it might be (or at least could have been) us out there. Mason was out there living our dream, and the fact he’d got there as much through perseverance as God-given talent made it resonate even more.

Of the group that emerged under Pochettino, Walker and Bentaleb were the only ones who had previously shown the talent levels required to become regular starters for Spurs. Like Rose, Mason was having to adapt to a new position and more defensive responsibilities, but instead of having a year to mature at Sunderland, Mason had to learn on the fly, starting at the Emirates. The ability of Mason to adapt to both a new position, and a new system, is a testament to his footballing intelligence and Pochettino’s coaching ability. The Bentaleb-Mason midfield partnership wasn’t pretty, but it proved — just — sufficient for Pochettino to emerge unscathed from his first season in charge.

The third of Mason’s four career goals for Spurs came against Sunderland at the start of the 2015/16 season. Spurs had failed to win the first four games before the international break, and the failure to bring in players in the summer window meant the fanbase was simmering with frustration.

For 80 minutes, Spurs had played well but failed to score against a highly beatable Sunderland team, and the temperature was starting to rise. But with the game drifting to a draw, Mason exchanged passes with Erik Lamela, then set off towards the box, arriving at the perfect time. He chipped the ball over Costel Pantilimon to win the game, but in the process sustained a knee injury.

By the time he returned in late October, the Spurs midfield had changed. Eric Dier had emerged as a holding midfielder par excellence, Dele Alli had emerged as a superstar in the making, and Mousa Dembele, finally, had discovered a way to harness his immense natural talent. After starting four of the first five league games, Mason started only four more the rest of the season. Talk about the vagaries of football.

Mason did little in his sporadic appearances last season to suggest he could break back into the starting XI. Particularly harrowing was the Europa League outing in Dortmund, where Mason and fellow academy graduate Tom Carroll were hopelessly exposed by a Champions League calibre German outfit. It was a clear signal that better midfield options would be needed with Champions League beckoning for Spurs in 2016/17.

As a holding midfielder, Mason lacks strength and height, meaning he will never be the defensive option Spurs need alongside Eric Dier, that Victor Wanyama now is. As a box-to-box midfielder, Mason’s finishing has never been good enough — think of that guilt-edged chance at Stamford Bridge that would have kept Tottenham’s title dreams going for another week. As a playmaker, Mason’s passing is too mechanical and pedestrian.

But, mentally, Mason is as strong as they come. His high footballing IQ enabled him to understand the system, and earn Pochettino’s trust. He is a leader, and was selected as captain against Fiorentina last season in the Europa League. He is also a fighter — his Spurs career, short at is it, should by all logic have been shorter, had he not stuck at it so doggedly.

If you watched the preseason games, you saw the Mason conundrum as clearly as crystal. Against Atletico, Juventus and Inter Milan, Mason knew exactly what he was meant to be doing, offensively and defensively, but he couldn’t always execute it. Chances were spurned, passes were missed, the pressing was not quite tight enough. Simply put, Mason isn’t quite good enough at football for a team that is aiming for the title and competing in the Champions League.

That means Mason is open to criticism by fans, and to being sold by the club. This is the Premier League, and it’s a tough environment. But when I see comments on social media like “I never want to see Mason in a Spurs shirt again”, it makes my skin crawl with embarrassment.

Mason is a homegrown player, a local boy who came good. Few players in recent Spurs history have been so visibly proud to wear Lillywhite, and he has been a pivotal part of the transformation in the club’s culture since Pochettino took over. It would be wonderful if he was a better player, but he has maximised his talent and is a symbol of so much of what is right about the club. If he was 0.1 percent better, he’d still be with us; if he was 1 percent worse he’d be playing Sunday League and watching Spurs from the stands. These are the margins. If you find yourself hating a guy like this, you fundamentally misunderstand what is happening at Tottenham. You may be happier supporting Manchester City.

If you want to know how much Spurs means to Mason, you only have to Google it. It’s clear in pretty much any interview he has given. This was to FourFourTwo:

“I’ve been at the club since I was seven. I’m from north London and so, yes, the club is very much a part of my childhood. At first the football is just fun but as you progress it becomes a dream to try to reach the first team. From the age of about 14 you want to walk out at White Hart Lane on a Premier League matchday. I had to wait a very long time for my chance but it was worth it, and maybe the wait made it sweeter.”

Few clubs match Spurs in the ability to produce footballers. The Premier League and lower divisions are littered with former Spurs youngsters who have thrived away from White Hart Lane. The club is able to raise millions through the sale of academy graduates such as Alex Pritchard, Townsend, Jake Livermore and so on. This funds future development work, and creates a virtuous circle.

The fact that Spurs have secured a large fee for Mason — believed to be around £10 million — and his place in the squad is being taken primarily by Harry Winks, another homegrown player four years his junior, shows that Spurs as a football club is working. This is what is supposed to happen.

Mason is one of our own, and always will be. While the current eight-year-olds entering the academy will dream of being Harry Kane, the example set by Ryan Mason is just as important, and arguably more realistic. Persevere, work hard, maximise your talent, and you might get to play for Spurs and England.

I hope he goes on to achieve great success at Hull and beyond. If his body holds up, I have no doubt that he will.

Godspeed, Ryan Mason.

Curtain raiser: The case for Spurs in 2016/17

By Charles Richards / @spurs_report

Tottenham v Arsenal 2015

A new season means a blank slate, and a chance to forget about what happened last time around. For the five wealthiest clubs in the Premier League, there is plenty to forget.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool experienced varying degrees of misery in 2015/16. Three of them missed out on Champions League football, and two on European football altogether. Four of the five clubs have changed managers in the past 12 months, while a large section of the fifth’s fan base wishes they had too.

Leicester’s title was so unexpected, and so out of keeping with the status quo in the Premier League since Manchester City struck oil, that it can be shrugged off. The big boys will return to their position at the top of the table, while Leicester will slip back down to their rightful place in the pyramid with a pat on the head. “Doing a Leicester” is something for lesser clubs to dream of, but now dominance will be reasserted.

If last season was “Jamie Vardy: The Movie”, the 2016/17 campaign is shaping up to be “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Inconveniently, however, it wasn’t just Leicester who gatecrashed the party.

Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant Spurs side defied expectations to emerge as Leicester’s closest challengers, keeping up the pressure until the 36th game of the campaign, long after everyone else had given up and expected Spurs — of “Spursy”, “Lads It’s Tottenham” fame — to give up too.

Judging by the early raft of previews and general tone of the conversation, this awkward turn of events is just another thing to be forgotten. You won’t see Spurs in a “Who Will Qualify for the Champions League” prediction by any self-respecting journalist or pundit. The bookmakers and punters agree, listing Spurs as fifth or sixth favourites. The UK broadcasters have little belief that Spurs will be involved in any early top-of-the-table clashes, having selected just two of Tottenham’s opening six games for live coverage.

The narrative ahead of the 2016/17 Premier League season goes as follows:

  • New managers and blank cheques at Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea mean a return to the top.
  • Arsenal’s Champions League place is guaranteed as long as Arsene Wenger remains in charge.
  • Liverpool, reinvigorated under Jurgen Klopp and not afraid to spend, are the most likely challengers if anyone falters.

As for Spurs, the failure to win in the final four games of last season, plus unconvincing performances by Harry Kane and Dele Alli at the European Championships, are unarguable precursors to a year-long drop in form that will return Spurs to their signature, revenue-linked sixth position. Any success for Spurs in the previous season was in direct correlation to the lack of success by bigger clubs. Leicester winning the league was a fluke and will never happen again, ergo Spurs finishing third. Enjoy the Champions League nights at Wembley, Spurs fans, because it’s back to the Europa League in 2017/18 and beyond.

I mean, why do we even bother?

Here’s the thing though: rival teams never look stronger than they do before you’ve actually seen them play. Pep Guardiola’s tactical wizardry, Jose Mourinho’s psychological magic sponge and Antonio Conte’s manic energy are at their most impressive when they exist solely in your imagination. These dreams fuel football, and justify the billions ploughed into the game, not just by oligarchs but also fans.

The problem, once the season starts, is that reality intrudes on these dreams. Injuries, luck, form, inspired opponents, sulking strikers, fallings out, defensive errors and greedy agents can all conspire to make Pep’s tactics look naive, Conte’s energy wasted or Mourinho’s mind games misdirection rather than magic.

Don’t forget that Spurs are good

As James Yorke, a Spurs fan and therefore not one to succumb to a bout of the 2015/16 forgetsies, wrote in his excellent curtain raiser on Statsbomb, there is a six-into-four dynamic this season that means something has to give. But reading and watching the early previews, a curious logic appears to be emerging: the teams that most “need” to finish in the top four are identified as the teams that are most likely to do so. Klopp and Pochettino are less likely to lose their jobs if they fail to secure a top four finish, therefore Liverpool and Spurs are less likely to secure one.

I can understand how this conclusion is reached. But if we learned one lesson from last season, just one, it’s that you don’t get what you need, want or deserve in the Premier League. You just get what you get.

Watching the Manchester clubs spend hundreds of millions on flashy new players, and Roman Abramovich underwrite yet another mammoth Chelsea rebuilding, is intimidating to other teams and fans. And it is supposed to be that way. We’re still David standing there with our slingshot, but Goliath is back on his feet and he’s even bigger.

However Spurs fans (and Liverpool fans after watching their club repeatedly “do a Spurs”) know better than anyone that spending isn’t anything. While it makes you look strong, normally the need to spend is born out of a weakness. You can look at the history of transfers and see that 50 percent work out, 50 percent don’t. Smarter clubs do slightly better, stupid clubs do slightly worse. Not every weakness that dragged the Premier League elite below expectations last season is going to be fixed, and even fewer are going to be fixed immediately.

No club has needed to spend less than Spurs this summer. Sure, we had to buy a second striker and increase the midfield options, but the same starting XI that finished third last season is in place and ready to go. There is no need to adapt to new tactics, understand a new philosophy, or learn how to play together. Spurs walk out at Goodison Park on August 13th knowing exactly what they are meant to be doing.

Last season, Spurs conceded the joint fewest goals along with Manchester United, and five of those 35 goals came in the shitshow at Newcastle. We had the best goal difference (+34) and second best expected goals difference (+29.3, behind Arsenal’s +34.4, per Michael Caley). A bunch of other metrics looked good, if that is your thing. Mauricio Pochettino’s side equalled the club’s highest Premier League points haul, and in six of the ten prior seasons, 70 points would have secured a top four place. Spurs didn’t ride a hot streak, a single superstar or a freak set of results. Spurs were just plain, old-fashioned good, and had the youngest starting XI in the league to boot.

The “Spurs are good” genie is out of the bottle, and it would take an extreme set of circumstances to blow Spurs off course. Do you think Spurs are going to forget how to press? Are Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen going to forget how to play together? Are Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembele going to wake up one morning as the ineffective players they were two years ago? Is Christian Eriksen going to stop making smart passes, and Harry Kane stop finishing them off? As I have stated repeatedly in the past six months, the success Pochettino has created at Spurs has been built on extremely solid foundations. There is a plan, and it is working.

Instead of taking the dismissal of Spurs’ chances as a slight, or as a precursor to a return to the Europa League, we should embrace it.

Spurs are dipping back below the radar, ready to surprise the league by once again not being the Spurs everyone expects us to be. There is a chance to quietly build momentum while the talking heads fawn over Pep and Conte, and the press covers every waking move by Zlatan and Mourinho, the Premier League’s Kanye and Kim. Less pressure means more space for young players like Dele Alli and Eric Dier to grow, for emerging talents like Josh Onomah to find their feet, for new signings like Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to bed in.

Fueling the fire

What seemed so egregious last season was the relish that greeted every Spurs mistake in the run-in from fanbases who’ve forgotten what it is like to see local boys wearing the shirt, or whose teams had never seriously challenged Leicester for the title. This was only compounded when the same Spurs players formed the core of the England team that flopped at the Euros.

Because we have to explain everything, and connect everything, these two storylines merged into one. Spurs were mentally and physically exhausted, the subtext of which was weakness.

But Spurs didn’t “lose” the title to Leicester; we were only ahead of Leicester for 13 minutes last season and couldn’t chase them down. England didn’t flop because the Spurs players were shattered; England flopped because Roy Hodgson and Gary Neville, in a gross act of footballing negligence, sent the players into battle devoid of tactics and a game plan.

If others want to interpret this confluence of negativity as a precursor to doom, so be it. But do you think, for one second, that Pochettino will let the players dwell on what happened at the end of last season and over the summer, and indulge a hangover? Do you think, for one second, that the anger at falling short last season and the outbreak of schadenfreude will do anything other than drive this team on?

Make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title this season.

“We want to win it, and we will go for it,” Alderweireld said towards the end of last season. “I think we now have a different mindset from the one we had at the beginning of this season. Then we were thinking the top four would be brilliant, now we are thinking more than that, we want to go one better.”

Over the past 12 months, Spurs fans have been slower than the players in believing what can be achieved, a caution born out of bitter experience. We are still looking at possible scenarios and bargaining with ourselves as to what is possible, trying to find the balance between hope and realism, mentally hedging against disappointment by lowering expectations.

A sliding scale of acceptability emerges: If not second, then third; if not third, then fourth; if not fourth, then at least win a cup; if no cup win, at least reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League; if we don’t finish above Arsenal, let’s at least finish above Liverpool or Chelsea or West Ham or someone.

But for Spurs, it is no longer about trying to define success in this way: this is the old way of thinking. For Pochettino, the only target is to win the title, and his whole ethos is about continually improving his team until that happens. Finishing in the top four accelerates the building process because Champions League football helps recruitment, increases the budget, and aids player retention. But it isn’t the goal in itself for Pochettino, no matter what the bean counters say. There’s a world of difference between something that is good enough, and something that you really want.

What does progress look like?

Measuring progress is difficult, because it can be counterintuitive. It is possible to improve as a team but still finish lower down the league. We only have control over our opponents’ results twice a season.

So how will Pochettino measure progress, and how should we?

There will be statistical measures that we may or may not see, assessing the quality of things like the press, attacking build-up, set-pieces and fitness, as well as the increase in mental strength that Pochettino considers so crucial yet is so hard to define.

But more visibly, Pochettino will be looking to fix the areas where Spurs fell short.

That means more single-goal wins, whether they be late winners, rearguard actions to protect an early lead, or simply greater control when we’re not playing well. That means fewer dropped points at White Hart Lane, particular against teams such as West Brom who come and sit deep. That means better performances in Europe, because our Europa League displays have been consistently mediocre and we need to raise our game in the Champions League.

Crucially, that also means better results against the other “big” clubs. Spurs improved results in these matches last season, taking 15 points from 30 compared with just seven from 30 in 2014/15, but there is still room for improvement. We’ve not beaten Liverpool yet under Pochettino, and we still need to overcome our Stamford Bridge hoodoo.

These are all yardsticks to measure Tottenham’s progress against. We may solve all the problems, or we may not. The extent to which Spurs manage to do this will determine the strength of the title challenge. But the problems are clear, and they are fixable, and Pochettino has consistently shown the intelligence and ambition required for the task at hand.

If I have one concern, it is a lack of an alternative or supplementary midfield creator to Christian Eriksen. But there is nearly a month left in the transfer window, and plenty of money in the kitty after the relatively light investment since Pochettino took charge. Every other club has a weakness that is just as glaring — in central defensive for Manchester City and Chelsea, the right flank for Manchester United, in most defensive positions for Liverpool and up front for Arsenal. We’re just as likely to find our missing link, if not more.

We’ll know if Spurs are making progress because suddenly our games will be on TV, the players will be in the papers, Mourinho will start his mind games and Chelsea will begin baiting us. Articles describing Spurs as the “surprise package” will be written, glossing over the fact that Spurs being good again really shouldn’t have been that much of a shock if you’d only paid attention.

I’m not going to predict that Spurs are going to win the league — as anyone who follows me on Twitter or has read this blog for a while will attest, my predictions are beyond hopeless.

But make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title. Just a shame you had to read it here first.

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat.