It comes with a slow shudder of shame. One-nil, first-half penalty, a totally predictable affair. Neville said it would happen. Carragher said it would happen. Arsenal-player-but-secret-Chelsea-man Merson said it would happen. But then he would.
Yet, as if to spite the lot of them, there lingers that secret pride ready to flare out if they are proven wrong. When this starts to fade, when the last hopes are extinguished, things have got really bad.
I will never forget the 5-2 loss to Arsenal in 2012. 2-0 up; Saha’s fine shot, and Adebayor back in front of his old fans rubbing it in that much harder. Then, in a flash, they were level. Spurs were shaken. It was clear to see. Half-time came and Arsenal were smelling blood.
But to concede three more? Three?! That was unforgivable, unconscionable even. How could they have thrown in the towel like that?
The utter humiliation of having turned from swaggering victor to abysmal loser in a matter of moments has haunted me ever since. I was fifteen years old, but wise enough to clock that it wouldn’t be the last time. It was only then that I understood the almost paranoid reluctance to dream with abandon; something I had encountered in other Spurs fans. The bitter fear that no matter how good things might seem, there will inevitably come a moment when it all goes wrong.
Then came Mauricio. To me, Pochettino embodied what football should be. Emotion, camaraderie, loyalty and crotch-grabbing Argentinean passion. He understood the game: its unpredictable beauty, its wild energy. He loved the fans and the fans loved him. Under Pochettino, Tottenham was one club; its team, manager and fans united through a common bond. We cried with him, when on his knees he pounded his chest, overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude, and thanked those lucky Spurs fans in Amsterdam. At that moment, that team, that manager and every Tottenham fan dared to dream. Pochettino dispelled the cobwebs of fear, of hesitation, the reluctant apprehension to believe. He reminded us what Tottenham stands for: to dare is to do, and to dare is to dream.
The magnitude of what Pochettino did at Tottenham is sometimes forgotten. Flying in the face of what we think to be possible, in an era of oil-state-backed corporation clubs he crafted a team on a shoe-string budget, nurturing players from the academy. And in the process he gave English football its best ever player, Harry Kane, and took the team within a hair of the very top.
It is said that had Tottenham signed even a single player of quality in the summer of 2018, they would have got past Liverpool in the Champions League final. But not enough is said about the achievement of reaching football’s biggest game with an unchanged squad from the year before. It was, first and foremost, a testament to Pochettino’s work and to the strength of the bond he shared with his team. But it was also an important example of an alternative to team-building. Under Pochettino, Spurs focused on the assets they had; they bought into the coach, and believed in his project. It was the first time a club had gone without a signing in the summer window, since it was introduced in 2003. Here was a club adamant to grow sustainably from within, refusing to be slaves to the market. To me, there was nobility in that. There would have been more had we beaten Liverpool, but, alas, history remembers only the winners.
It all came crashing down that night in Madrid. The wheels came off, and the effervescent emotion of the previous five years spluttered like a whimper. The next few months were the hardest, as we watched the ghosts of what had been, trying to recast themselves. When they sacked Pochettino, we knew the dream was over. That team was so obviously his, no one else could recreate the same spirit or capture that magic. Lightning doesn’t strike twice.
So they went with Mourinho. The king of pain himself. His task would be to bleach the wounds and eviscerate the sadness. I didn’t want Mourinho. He was too tainted. No matter what he did, he would never be remembered as a Tottenham man. But, if it had to be Mourinho, he had to win. You can’t look at what happened at United without dreading it for yourself – all the lethargy and misery he seemed to inject into the club. How could you want that for yourself?
Because he’s a winner. Three league titles. Respect. Have some respect. So, we choked down the coarse treachery of his appointment, and believed that Daniel Levy and the board saw something more than the depressed has-been that Man United Mourinho had become. Maybe they knew what they were doing? Maybe United stifled him? That would be just like them. But we would let Mourinho be Mourinho. We wouldn’t expect the world from him, need him to kiss the badge or move to Enfield. But he did have to win.
We hoped Levy felt the steely, whetted point of Mourinho’s being, and bargained that that was what Spurs were missing: a razor-edge, bad reputation, and anger management issues. The squad, still reeling from the loss of the Champions League final, had lost the man who had nurtured them into internationals; their benevolent pater familias. So Levy went with the antithesis. A bold and desperate move. Still, for all his failings, Levy has steered the ship responsibly. I believe that he really is a Tottenham fan, and is as desperate as anyone to see the club win. But ever since Amazon Prime exposed him to be an excruciating sycophant, fawning over Mourinho’s sheer celebrity, it has become harder to believe that he knows what he’s doing, in regards to the current manager.
And here we are. Talks of a title-challenge put to bed months ago, looking upwards at the top four, and hoping against hope that we might just squeeze in, courtesy of Liverpool’s injury problems and the fallout from Lampard’s sacking at Chelsea. Mourinho is looking suspiciously like he will fail to deliver on his promise, and Tottenham, having come so far, appear to be back at square one.
It is the unique hardship Tottenham fans have to endure. Watching a team that is almost very good consistently fail at the final hurdle. Not everyone can be the also-ran; not everyone is good enough. There are clubs where the aim is just to stay in the league. There are the just-about-comfortable teams. There are the teams you might back to surprise or be competitive. And then there are teams, that for some strange reason, have that something in them that pushes them over the finish line. Then there is Tottenham, who don’t quite fit anywhere.
At the biggest clubs – those who have won before – the expectation is to win again. Tottenham have never won. In nearly thirty years of the Premier League, Tottenham have never won. Yet Tottenham’s ambitions are the same, and not unreasonably. Spurs boast world-class training facilities and the shiniest stadium the world has ever seen. A talented squad and, despite it all, a highly decorated manager. There is enough to attract, and retain, world-class players. So why shouldn’t the expectations be the same?
It is because Tottenham are not decorated. They’re not champions. Though I hate to even think it, this team, filled with players of generational quality, might never be champions. Few teams have experienced disappointment like Spurs have: coming within inches of a title that was usurped by a Leicester team (backed by every breathing creature save Spurs fans), reaching a champions league final in genuinely spectacular fashion only to stand lifelessly by and watch Liverpool dominate, or playing and losing seven times in a row when reaching the last-four stages of the FA Cup.
But maybe, just maybe, this is the secret to Tottenham’s strength; the unerring will to keep trying. Ultimately that is what Tottenham is all about. Where we dare to exceed our expectations, and where we dare to dream of winning it all – over and over again. That is Tottenham; where to dare is to do.