Sunday, 30 April 2017

St Pochettino's Day

Spurs v Arsenal: The biggest game I can remember

Never mind the Cup finals, the Champions League nights or the relegation six-pointers - as far as I’m concerned, this is the biggest Tottenham game I can remember.

There is more at stake on this Sunday afternoon than any other match in recent history. 

I had just about got a handle on the emotions raised by these matches in my late 20s - to the point that on derby day I could operate on a normal level around actual people. But this time round I’m struggling. 

Since Thursday I have been taking deep breaths, trying to think of other things and attempting not to bite my nails in front of my impressionable one-year-old son. 

First and foremost, it's a derby. Derbies always have an edge but the North London Derby more than most. It's a game with a rich history that, even as a standalone fixture, has the potential to wreck weekends and relationships. 

Full seasons are known to have been remembered fondly or tinged with regret purely based on the results of these matches.

Taken on its own, without any context, this is a big game. But when you start adding in the colour, the stories and the subplots that surround it, the sheer size of it makes me feel a bit ill. 

The amount on the line - for both sides - is frightening. 

Tottenham are in a title race. Four points behind the leaders. That's close. But if Everton somehow take points off Chelsea, everything will go into overdrive. 

It would make the dream a real, tangible possibility. A draw at Goodison will mean victory over Arsenal can put us just two points behind as we chase a first league title in 66 years. I'm starting to shake just thinking about it. 

Add to that our unbeaten home league run. To go unbeaten at home for a whole season would be a mammoth achievement in any season. But being in this position to do it in the last ever season at White Hart Lane, to round off 118 years of history - success, failure, glory and agony - brings about the type of poignancy and emotion that you just cannot script. 

Then there is Arsenal. This is a big one for them too.

Say what you want about a third FA Cup final in four years but the top four is their bread and butter. They are the only team in the Premier League to have been there for the last 20 seasons. Non-stop. 

They are right on the brink of failing to qualify for the Champions League and we can administer an almost killer blow. That should be impetus enough to fire them up. But then, they have won the title at the Lane twice… surely we owe them for that as well.

Then there is St Totteringham's Day. Mixed emotions on that one really. I have always found any pain in finishing behind Arsenal comes a distant second to whether or not we've fulfilled our own objectives. 

But the end of last season was a nasty one. To be that close and still surrender the bragging rights for another summer of stick at the hands of a club going very publicly off the rails was difficult to take. 

Now, call it fate, call it coincidence, we get the chance to make amends for it with the derby of all derbies. 

My legs will be jelly. And it looks like all I have to do is sit on the sofa. Because none of my friends or the people they are going with has had the decency to get ill or break a leg - or anything that might see them surrender their ticket. 

The magnitude of it all means I’ve had to take the day off work regardless, ticket or not. But for Pochettino and the players, they do not have that luxury. They have to turn up, we’re all relying on it, however utterly crucifying the pressure might be. 

All they have to do is think of it as just another game they need to win. 

But it's not just another game. It never is - but certainly not this time.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Whatever you do Spurs fans, just don't mention the "D" word

It's here. That wave of enthusiasm is building again, just like it did last year, and I’d forgotten just how absolutely brilliant it feels. 

The moment Ander Herrera's deflected strike hit the back of the net against Chelsea on Sunday, the mood changed. 

As 70,000 Manchester United supporters celebrated a victory that reignited their top-four hopes, the expression on the faces of thousands and thousands of Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham followers said one thing: "F**k."

To Spurs fans, it represents just a small window of opportunity. But for our London neighbours, the realisation that this title race might not be done yet was enough to spoil their weekend. 

And it was quickly followed by a crushing sucker punch...  Spurs are still in the FA Cup. 

In the space of a few seconds, we had gone from Wembley semi-finalists to fighting for the Double. It seems a ridiculous notion at this stage - but you will be hard-pushed to find a rival fan who can take it in good humour.

"Don't mention the D word" I said jokingly in a post-match message to a fellow Spurs fan. His response was beautiful. 

"It's happening mate, believe."

A lot of folk may still be trying to keep their feet on the ground but, if you're lucky enough to have inherited Tottenham as your team I encourage you to forget your feet, forget the ground and start clutching at as many straws as you can. 

Even if you can't bear the thought of calling it wrong or you just don't want to tempt fate then, at the very least, try to enjoy the next three days. 

For that time, and possibly beyond, we are unlikely “Double contenders”. And our rivals absolutely hate it. It is their worst nightmare. 

The jokes, the banter and the backbiting have turned to straight faces and silence. This is the worst it could get. And it will last until at least Saturday evening. 

One West Ham fan in our office now won't talk football, an Arsenal fan is cancelling Sky. The Chelsea fans...? Well, there are no Chelsea fans but you can rest assured they are sh*tting themselves and trying to work out where best to hunker down if their doomsday scenario actually comes to pass. 

I'm just smiling. It really is a beautiful time to be a Tottenham fan. For the next few days, anything's possible. All those years we’ve watched Arsenal lift titles and trophies while our season was falling off the tracks, this is a taste of what it felt like from the other side. 

So make the most of it.

I don’t mean be a dick about it. It is, after all, a delicate situation. It always is with Spurs. So I’m just saying you have to take the opportunity to breathe it in and enjoy it. Apart from anything else, this group of players have earned the right not to be lumped in with generations of underachievers. 

All Spurs fans know in their heart of hearts that we are still a long, long way off turning around this four-point gap and coming out on top. It would take a miracle. But then what's the harm in believing in miracles?

To Dare is to Do? Do it, I dare you.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Pre-match waffle: Spurs v Southampton

The big question surrounding Spurs around Southampton's arrival at White Hart Lane on Sunday is how we cope without Harry Kane.

The signs are good, with Heung-Min Son scoring that hat-trick against Millwall last week and Vincent Janssen finally netting from open play.

But Premier League opposition will be an entirely different prospect as two of our most inconsistent players compete to be the lead the line in Harry's absence. 

Add to that the fact that we have not reacted well all season to losing big names. 

The team seems to really take it to heart when a key member of our first 11 is missing. 

Injuries to Toby Alderweireld, Kane, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose have knocked our confidence at different stages of the season and, in truth, we have never looked wholly convincing without Kane. Except last Sunday. 

Behind the front line we now need our big names to step up. That's Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in the main becuase we know that both have the capacity to trouble any team regardless of who is playing in front of them.

Depending on other results, if Spurs can grab a win then I would be confident of getting over the line and sealing a top-four spot come May. 

If we drop points against Saints tomorrow, though, then it could lead to a real tooth and nail fight for fourth. And I'm not sure I'm ready for another fraught finish to the season.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

White Hart Lane to Memory Lane - my Sunday trip back in time

Sometimes you get a reminder of what football is all about. 

A moment that brings flooding back all those reasons we are still so wrapped up in a game that has changed irrevocably from the one that first swept us off our feet.

Sunday’s Spurs v Millwall FA Cup quarter-final will likely turn out to be my last trip to White Hart Lane as we know it, before it is completely bulldozed to make way for The (insert sponsor name here) Stadium. 

As a kid I started with three seasons in the now-demolished north-east corner, sitting through some of the worst times and teams in our recent history. It didn’t matter, it was my time and I loved it: learning the songs, wearing the shirt and piling all my hopes into whichever ultimately average signing we had hyped into a possible saviour that week.

My dad, who I went with on Sunday, had a rather better run. He is a veteran of the terraces from the 1960-61 Double-winning year, with the ticket stubs, press cuttings and programmes to prove it.

It was always going to be a day for nostalgia - but I got far more than I bargained for.

On telling my dad we had secured tickets for one last game at the old stadium, the tone in his voice changed noticeably from cautious indifference (“just do what you can and if we end up with tickets then great") to something approaching genuine excitement.

I expected the roles to have shifted since our last trip there together. Having been countless times without him in the meantime, this time maybe it would be me “taking" my old man to the game. But, just like when we started out 20 years ago, he ended up taking me. 

Doing it his way this one last time was clearly important to him as he started reeling off names of pubs around the streets he grew up on. Suddenly, however much I thought I knew about Tottenham paled into the background. To Dad, this wasn’t just one last game at the Lane - this was a trip home.

We took the Tube to Wood Green and walked to the ground from there, down Lordship Lane. Dad was in his element, he had been transported back 60 years and I was along for the ride.

Every shop front was a memory, a snapshot of a bygone era. “This used to be a pet shop, that was a greengrocers, your grandad once lived here, your uncle lived there."

Mentions of old schoolfriends led to more stories and anecdotes as my tour guide delved into the rabbit warren of his youth. One guy smoking a cigarette outside a shop got the shock of his life when we stopped just feet away from him and Dad pointed up and said: “I was born in that room there." 

I’d almost forgotten about the football until we passed the row of police vans parked outside the Elmhurst pub, which was packed full of Millwall fans.

The game itself was sandwiched between drinks at the Antwerp Arms, a community boozer round the corner from White Hart Lane that has been recently saved from development thanks to investment from the football club and its fans.

And it was in there, after a convincing 6-0 win - marred but not ruined by certain flashpoints inside and outside the ground - that we saw the very best of this sport that keeps generation after generation coming back for more.

At the old upright piano in the corner, a young man with long hair and a leather jacket sat down and began hesitantly playing songs from years gone by.

It was basically background music, until everyone realised what he was playing.

Within minutes he was surrounded as the enthusiasm spread and Tottenham fans all sang along: “Glory, glory hallelujah…"

The chorus swept through the pub as eyes lit up, arms were held aloft and the next number brought the house down. "Spurs are on their way to Wembley, Tottenham's gonna do it again..."

The songs kept coming and the voices got louder and louder as Tottenham anthems namechecking Ossie Ardiles, Keith Burkinshaw and Cyril Knowles bridged the gap between the those who saw it all and those ready tpick up the mantle.

“Wember-lee, Wember-lee…", it continued. Dad and I held our glasses aloft.

Nobody was thinking about the top four, the Champions League, new stadiums or transfer fees. People hugged and danced around, no malice, no bravado. Just pure enjoyment. 

The beautiful game means different things to different folk, but sometimes we lose sight of the glue that holds it all together.

Football is about fans. Football is about family. Football is about people. Everything else might change but, for me, that is where it starts and finishes.

Follow me @Taxi_For_Maicon

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Pre-match waffle: Spurs v Millwall

Nobody can deny Tottenham have had a straightforward FA Cup run so far - but supporter reputations have made this quarter-final tastier than it needs to be. 

On paper, Haringey police look likely to have a busier afternoon than Mauricio Pochettino's lads - but Wycombe caused us all sorts of troubles as we beat them 4-3 in the fourth round, so I'll not write Millwall off. Especially when they will be massively up for this. 

I'm not a big fan of the FA Cup these days. I always used to be but I think the powers that be have wrecked its reputation and refuse to reinvigorate it.

The last time we won it in 1991, it was traditionally regarded as Europe's premier cup competition. 

I would go so far as to say that we haven't won a major trophy since - because nobody can convince me that the League Cup really matters. It's nice to win and can be a good supplement to a decent season but it's a song and dance over very little.

And since Des Walker's own goal won us what should have been "Gazza's Final", it just feels like the FA Cup has gone the same way.

The decision to make it a guinea pig for next season's video technology trials will likely devalue it even further. That said, I do think it holds special significance for Tottenham this year. 

The FA Cup has gone from being our best chance of a trophy to our only chance and there is a lot of talk about whether this Spurs side can get over the line and win silverware.

Given our much-publicised struggles with big games, it could be exactly what we need to push on and really match our potential.

Doing that would also mean two wins at Wembley, which might just banish this nonsensical "jinx" that has developed around playing at the national stadium. 

Chairman Daniel Levy would love to get that hoodoo out the way before moving into Wembley full-time next season. Although I bet he wishes he could wait until after the FA Cup final before making a decision.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Spurs v Gent: The moment you just knew

You knew it. You just bloody knew Thursday would go that way. The focus just wasn't there. 

Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino might have spotted it within his much-publicised 50-second rule. But for the rest of us it was made painstakingly clear at a Spurs corner in the 29th minute.

Harry Kane's own goal might have left us needing to score two more in the right end but you still felt Gent were there for the taking, such was the space and license we were being given to play in the final third. 

But when you have just conceded - and are desperate for a quick route back into the match - you expect your players to be switched on. 

Christian Eriksen whipped his corner across the box and totally wrong-footed the Gent defence. 

Dele Alli hurdled the ball, getting the slightest of touches to steer it right across the six-yard box. 

But it wasn't just the Belgian side caught napping as any Spurs players within any sort of reach were oblivious the set-piece had even been taken.

This looked like a training-ground routine gone wrong - executed perfectly by Eriksen - and should have been seized upon and easily turned into the net, even if the move wasn't intentional. 

But Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama were so slow to react the ball was nearly out of play before they saw it.

What's more, if it was a set-piece routine, it is now worthless. Everyone has seen it on national television and Mark Hughes will be preparing Stoke to deal with it on Sunday. As will every other Premier League manager we are left to face this season.

This was not the only instance where Spurs' focus deserted them: Mousa Dembele doing the hard work and beating his man from a short corner, only to turn back into him and commit a foul. 

Kyle Walker, admittedly one of our best players on the night, bombing past the full-back then slicing a near-post effort high into the Wembley gods.

Jan Vertonghen attempting a one-two in an advanced position, only to clatter into the ref. 

Obviously there were far bigger flashpoints that had a more damning effect on the game's outcome. Dele doesn't need any more criticism. Everyone already knows the situation.

But this lack of concentration - which Poch had warned the players about in the build-up to the match - gave the game away that Tottenham were just not switched on enough for a big European night. 

Scratch that, they just weren't switched on enough. Full-stop. Because this should never have been a big European night. It should have been a walk in the park. Gent were rubbish. 

We played Gent off the park in the second half despite being a man down - finding space that no Premier League team would have given us and still wasting chance after chance. That is also something that has to change. 

Dier's mind was again wandering before the goal that killed us off with eight minutes left. 

After two thirds of a season spent rebuilding a reputation shattered in the final weeks of last season.Our mentality is now right back under the spotlight. And with good reason.