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A new generation of Spurs fans craves FA Cup glory

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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.

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Defending a Spurs fan’s right to be an idiot

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From Google Images

There is no escape from football in 2015. It is a 7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year orgy of rumour-mongering, overreaction and outrage, interspersed with the odd 90-minute kickabout.

It’s bloody brilliant.

It’s not even that you don’t have to go a day without football, the Europa League plus the TV creep into Mondays and Fridays has long since seen to that. With Twitter, Reddit and the hundreds of blogs and football websites, you don’t have to go an instant without football if you don’t want to. Back in the day, you used to read the paper to find out what your team was up to, and if you wanted the latest information you’d check teletext. How did we ever cope?

With the sheer enormity of football, us fans have had to become sophisticated in how we seek information. We have to filter out the clickbait, dodge paywalls and understand the agendas put forward by certain pundits. Take the Telegraph — once a bastion of reliable reporting, good cricket writing and solid conservative views. Now, all on the same page, you have some of the most shameless clickbaiting you’ll see anywhere on the internet, the phoned-in bitterness of one ‘Arry Redknapp, plus the reporting of Matt Law and Jason Burt, the source of the most well-informed Spurs news all summer.

On Twitter, you’ve got to find the right people to follow, on Reddit you’ve got to learn not to get into arguments with 15-year-olds who can snark faster than you, and online you’ve got to learn that ITK generally means “don’t have a sodding clue but do love getting hits on my website”.

I love reading the Spurs-supporting stats guys (yup, they are generally guys…) like Michael Caley and James Yorke, and am frequently enlightened. But expected goals? I think it is the “massively f**king predictable” goals like the one on Saturday by Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez that we need to focus on. I respect the work that goes into those massive pieces full of tactical GIFs, but I never read them because if the Spurs defenders can’t be bother to learn from their errors, I’ll be damned if I can be. I admire the efforts to bring logic to the chaos that is football, but sometimes, and maybe it is just a reaction to watching too many Spurs games, it feels a bit like a dog chasing its tail.

I prefer cherry picking pieces of knowledge from here and there, and shamelessly using the fruits of other people’s labour to support my preexisting conclusions. Does that make me worse? Or is that how we all operate, deep down? Just because an argument is well argued, mathematically reasoned and regressed to a factor of a million, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as wrong as the luddite, Not ITK, scribbled-down-on-the-back-of-a-napkin, hopelessly random points of view put forward periodically by piss-poor bloggers such as myself.

My problem with football is that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes. Where more forensic minds are able to dissect and make sense of aspects of the game, my response is emotional. When Spurs have a good result, I get my blinkers on and see nothing but sunshine. When Spurs have a bad result, I go through the seven stages of grief in five minutes flat. The rest of the time, I find myself obsessing over minutiae, getting worked up over things I have no control over, or being utterly overwhelmed by the sheer ludicrousness of modern football and the existential questions that this triggers.

What is football?

And why football?

Football used to be a town-wide excuse for a day-long brawl, so is it really any wonder it is now run by a criminal organization operating out of a bunker in a tax haven that attempted to sell the sport’s soul to a petro state? Oh I’m sorry, it’s the beautiful game now.

In England, football was something that took place once a week, something for communities, something that became a national event only on FA Cup final day. Football on a Saturday, church on a Sunday. What happened? Looking at it in the cold light of day, I’m really surprised God lost that one.

Football has become mindblowingly vast. Deloitte reported that FC Barcelona generated 1.2% of the entire city of Barcelona’s GDP in the previous season. Barcelona! Sure Messi is a good player and the Qatar sponsorship deal is a lucrative one, but this is a city of 1.6 million people, 7.5 million tourists a year, the economic, cultural and political capital of Spain’s wealthy Catalonia region, the birthplace of Gaudi, an Olympic host city. Mes que un club? Well, erm, yes actually.

Chairman no longer have to simply hire and fire managers, count ticket sales and sign off on transfers. They must balance currency fluctuations, develop sophisticated tax reduction strategies and assess values of image rights in player deals. Managers don’t just handle tactics and morale, there is sports science, psychology and media to consider too. Football journalists no longer just write 300 word match reports for the Green ‘Un. They have to investigate finances, uncover corruption and assess corporate intrigue, all the while transforming themselves into social media brands immune to industry cutbacks with thousands of inquisitive followers who require more attention that editors ever did. Massive corporations outbid each other for the multi-billion pound right to broadcast a few hours of live action per week.

But when you stop and think about it, the foundation of this vast panoply is weird in the extreme. Supporting a team, and all the revenue generating opportunity for the industry it triggers, is supremely irrational.

Iain Macintosh reported delightfully last week on the Carlisle United fans travelling down to Plymouth for a 4-1 defeat and back again. You can admire these people, you can respect their dedication and stamina, but you have to acknowledge a stark truth: they are utterly bonkers.

The other week, I went to see my local team, relegated two seasons in a row, get beaten at home by local rivals. Ticket prices have stayed the same, the football has gotten infinitely worse, but there were over 5,000 people still thinking “we’ll turn it round this year” despite there being zero evidence in favour.

Last Saturday, I chose to spend a glorious weekend afternoon sat inside my living room, constantly refreshing a sh***y stream so I could watch the Spurs match even though it was lagging two minutes behind Soccer Saturday and I knew how the mess unfolded before I saw it. Did I get any pleasure from watching Spurs struggle against Leicester while I struggled to shut down the pop-up gambling ads? Not really. The Deli Alli moment was nice, but my happiness at that was more than outweighed by the anger at the goal that followed. Will I do the same again on the next match that is not televised? Oh yes. Football is a drug, just as addictive but with fewer highs.

Mind you, Spurs are a particularly abusive team to support. A deadly combination of high expectations, almost inevitable disappointment, plus a long-held tradition of general softness and inability to perform when needed. I always love reading little Reddit things by new Spurs fans explaining why they have chosen Spurs. Oh you guys don’t know what you’ve let yourself in for!

Is it rational to be waking up in the middle of the night to check news about Spurs? Is it rational for a grown man to be following academy prospects on Twitter and despairing when you fear they’ll be among the 99% who don’t actually make it? Is it rational to spend hours obsessing over transfer targets, tactics, dressing room cliques, styles of play and selection, things you have precisely zero control over?

Nope, rational it ain’t. Being a football fan is utterly irrational, if you boil it down to its constituent parts. I don’t care if my club considers me a Client Reference Number, and the industry considers me a cow to be milked. I happily submit to it, if that allows me to get on with being a Spurs fan.

If there is one thing that truly annoys me about football, it’s the idea that some fans are somehow “better” than others. Liverpool fans are the worst of course, the belief that they are “purer” than other fans. But at least you can rely on them to take the bait.

But there is discrimination even amongst Spurs fans — “you don’t go to the games, so your view isn’t worth anything.” Just because you don’t attend the games, or choose not to, doesn’t make your opinion invalid. This is a club with a 45,000-long waiting list for season tickets. Sure, if you watch every game you may be able to offer more first-hand insight, but there is no such thing as a better opinion. And let’s not kid ourselves, 99.9% of what is written and spoken about Spurs is opinion.

Personally, I love that fact that Spurs have fans all over the world, and everyday new people in places like the US and Australia are having that awful moment of realization: “Oh god, I’m a Spurs fan”. Not every fan lives in London, not every fan lives in the UK, not every fan can afford a ticket, not every fan is able to make the games. There are just Spurs fans, that is all the counts. There’s no better, there’s just different.

We are now at that silly time of the season when the media and footballing intelligentsia are desperately trying to avoid drawing too many conclusions from too few number of games. Websites run articles like “Top 10 Knee Jerk Reactions”, and then invite kneejerk reactions to the kneejerk reactions.

My kneejerk? So what! It’s an emotional game, we are meant to react — apathy isn’t a normal reaction to football, unless you were a Villa fan under Paul Lambert.

If you want to freak out over the fact the squad had only one striker to start the season, go ahead.

If you want to scream at Daniel Levy for once again failing to provide Mauricio Pochettino with the central midfielder he craves, go ahead.

If you want to defend Erik Lamela, praise Mousa Dembele and dismiss Nacer Chadli, go ahead.

If you want to write off the season, claim that “this will be our year”, hype our young prospects to unimaginable levels, go ahead.

If you think Emmanuel Adebayor still has a role to play, Hugo Lloris should be sold and Christian Eriksen is just a poor man’s Danny Murphy, go ahead.

If you think that 4-2-3-1 is too limiting and we should be back to four-four-f**king-two, go ahead.

If you are “Poch out”, “Levy out”, “Kyle Walker out”, or the whole bloody lot of them out, go ahead.

There’s no right opinion, there’s no wrong opinion, there’s just being a Spurs fan and the emotions this triggers.

It doesn’t matter if you’re not ITK, can’t create a spreadsheet and have never set foot at White Hart Lane. Ignore the snark, the cynicism, the insidious attempts at logic, and have an opinion.*

Us Spurs fans should never forget we still have the right to be foaming-at-the-mouth, hypocritical, kneejerk, over-reactionary, deluded, one-eyed idiots. It’s how we cope.

*(I’d add a caveat though, in light of the extraordinary recent revelations by Martin Cloake, if you could keep your opinions civil and not entirely directed at THST leadership, that would be appreciated…)

Attempting to define success for Spurs in 2015/2016

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A question: What would a successful 2015/2016 season look like for Spurs?

Not such an easy one to answer, when you start thinking about it.

Two years ago, I was convinced Spurs had finally made the breakthrough after spending the proceeds of the Gareth Bale money on what looked like a batch of quality players. Perhaps cautious of the huge disappointment that followed, I tempered my “this will be our year” thoughts somewhat last August. Nevertheless the weakness at Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool made me think the Top Four was still on, especially if some of the Bale brigade improved after their tricky starts.

Instead, we saw conclusive proof that tens of millions of pounds had been wasted on the likes of Roberto Soldado, so much so that Mauricio Pochettino was forced to turn to young players like Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. And, perhaps more by accident than design, things turned around and Spurs fans started feeling happy again.

But was last season a success? It could go either way.

More optimistic sorts will say fifth place was good given the circumstances, a trip to Wembley brightened the season despite the result, and we had two outstanding derby performances at the Lane that will live long in the memory. Furthermore, we unearthed a genuine homegrown superstar, with the promise of more to come.

More pessimistic sorts will say we missed out the Top Four AGAIN, were miles behind Arsenal AGAIN, failed in Europe AGAIN, and had to endure horror shows at the Lane against the likes of Newcastle and Villa AGAIN.

There’s no right answer, and I prevaricate between the two positions as most fans do. After all it is an emotional reaction as much as a logical one. Overall, I’d say it was a fairly successful season: given the total failure of most of the experienced players, fifth was good and I’m hugely excited about the future. But, I have to be honest, I thought we could get Top Four and we were nowhere near. Fairly successful, but not an outright success.

How many other clubs would need to go through this sort of equivocation before deciding whether a season went well or not?

So, what would a successful season look like this time?

Before I sketch out the possibilities, I should qualify things by saying this debate feels inherently Spursy.

How many other clubs would need to go through this sort of equivocation before deciding whether a season went well or not? For Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, it is surely title or failure. For Liverpool, it is Top Four or bust, possibly literally given how much they are spending. For the promoted teams and cellar dwellers like Leicester and Villa, all that matters is survival. For most other clubs, you say Top Half, while bigger (Everton) or better run (Swansea, Southampton, Stoke) may say Europa League is a fair benchmark. But Spurs are in a weird position with revenues miles ahead of the bigger five clubs, but a way ahead of Everton in 7th, and this debate may be an expression of that.

So, some league positions:

Top Four: We can all agree, Top Four would equal success.

Fifth: This is where it gets tricky. By revenues/size of club/however you want to put it, Spurs rank behind Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. It is just a fact at this stage, and is the reason we’re building a bloody massive new stadium. I’ve argued recently that Spurs shouldn’t consider fifth a failure — the problem is that the Champions League is such a huge financial reward that missing out by just one place feels like failure. Finishing fifth is exceeding were we are “supposed” to be — but it is still somewhat unsatisfying. Can success be unsatisfying?

Sixth: Again, this is where we are “supposed” to be, so it feels harsh to call it a failure. A success though? Probably not. But saying that, does it even matter at all if you finish fifth or sixth? The reward is the same — Europa League rather than Champions League. I’d say, this is where style comes in. If Spurs are right in the chase for the Top Four until the end, and then just miss out and are pipped to fifth by goal difference, surely that is better than doing what we did last year, which was fall out of contention with a long way to go, only to recover slightly and pick up a place as Liverpool crumbled? It would certainly be more exciting — and as a club built on audere est facere and “failing while aiming high”, I’d like to think we could find success in a sixth place finish in the right circumstances. Furthermore, it depends on who we finish above or behind.

Seventh or below: Barring a few outlier scenarios, or an incredibly tight Top Four contest that sees Spurs nudged into seventh by just a point or on goal difference, seventh or lower should mean the season is considered a failure.

What other outcomes could be considered a success?

A trophy: Europa League victory would be a massive success, especially with the Champions League reward. FA Cup would be preferable to League Cup, but at this point, any trophy would be a hugely welcome addition to the trophy cabinet, and I’d happily sacrifice a few league positions. At the very least, we need another cup run.

Finishing above Arsenal: It’s been 20 long years, and it is really hard to envisage how Spurs are going to do this with Arsenal looking so strong in so many positions. But it would be bloody hilarious, especially as it would mean something absolutely bananas has happened over at the Emirates.

Finishing above Liverpool: This isn’t for everyone, but I really loathe Liverpool, and take great pleasure in the fact we’ve more or less had their number in recent years in league position. I just find the club so arrogant and boring, especially with the phalanx of ex Liverpool players on every UK TV channel. Their delusion and desperation is a welcome tonic to any Tottenham toil.

Finishing above Chelsea: If an Arsenal collapse seems unlikely, I’m not quite sure what would have to be going on at Chelsea. But boy would it be sweet.

More superstars: A slightly different vibe, but I just wonder if some Spurs fans would be prepared to swallow a bit more rebuilding if it meant the continuing development of our young stars. I’ve written about how I think Nabil Bentaleb is set to take it to the next level, but in the likes of Dele Alli, Alex Pritchard and Josh Onomah, there is every chance we are going to see some serious talent blossoming this season. It feels like Daniel Levy, after years of being the itchiest trigger in the business, is finally settling down to some long-term thinking in terms of building up a team for the new stadium in a couple of years. So perhaps fans will buy into that too. All I would say is, that perspective will be hard to find after the miserable post-Europa home defeats we all know are coming. And measuring sufficient development is hard, and impossible to call between what is success and what isn’t quite success.

So, what would I consider a successful season?

I just fear that this season, the Top Four are ahead by an absolute chasm. I don’t see how Spurs can possibly catch them unless we pull some rabbits out of the hat in the final weeks of the transfer window. I don’t think this is just my pessimism — the Top Four just look absolutely stacked and there is still time to fill the odd hole in their squads. It also feels like, given the massive new TV deal kicking in and the amount being spent by clubs lower down the league, the gap between Spurs and rest is shrinking.

For the first time in quite a few seasons, I’m genuinely starting the season without thinking: “This will be our year”. Next year? Maybe, but this season could be really tough.

Oddly, I’d take the same this season as we achieved last season: Fifth place, a decent cup run, and a couple more feel-good moments from Harry Kane.

Is that too negative, or should we just be realistic about what constitutes success, meaning we are more likely to actually achieve it?