For probably the first time in several seasons I'm comfortably numb going into a North London derby at White Hart Lane. In recent times this game has meant something above and beyond the usual blood and thunder and bragging rights that comes attached by default. In past encounters we've been in the mix, competing. A side with a clear understanding of our objectives and ambitions with everyone pulling together.
Yes, it's all gone wrong in the fixtures that followed the clash of warring neighbours (in the past two seasons especially) but the resilient momentum can easily be connected from one year to the next, with perhaps a couple of stagnations along the way. We overcome, we always do these days since our renaissance from mid-table mediocrity to Champions League quarter-finals. However, that extra bit of something special that is needed to step over from perpetual pretenders to consistency contenders has yet to be made. No one ever said it would be easy, but there's an argument we've made it difficult for ourselves to transition and transcend. We, being the instigators of our downfall.
It wasn't long ago I wrote about a power-shift. The beautiful irony is that if you take Arsenal they've not really changed in many ways at all in recent seasons. They've just played at the same level and at times it's been more than enough to poke ahead of us by a single point (accompanied by those self-implosions of our own doing). This season, we've lagged because we've never been at a stage where we can point at Spurs and say 'yeah, that's it, that's Tottenham'. A lack of style and identity the over-used but factually correct soundbites to a seasons soundtrack that is about as entertaining as chalkboard scraping.
We've never reached full pelt, bravado aplenty, with punching knock-out football. The spirit has dissolved, for now. Hopefully in stasis rather than floating dead in the depths of space.
Arsenal and others have or are only now kicking into the gear that will leave the likes of us way behind, unable to match their speed and precision. We keep stalling. Months spent replacing engine parts and punctured tires.
Our frustrations are only such because of the high expectations we have - with reason. Well, to a degree. Signing seven new players to replace one magical one was not (with or without hindsight) the best of ideas and has proven key in our failings to get the team to build on our progression. We're the architects of our own self-destruction and even though we've failed to capture any of the momentum that had us proclaiming a new era it's hardly a surrender of all the work achieved in the past five years. New errors are holding us back although the next appointment at managerial/coaching level will prove to be the pivotal one in seeking that extra bit of something special that will finally elevate us.
Of course, that's what makes us Spurs. Always chasing that next level. If it was easy it wouldn't be Spurs. What we have at the moment, the football and the position the club is in with coach and players is a reminder that it could be so much worse. You wouldn't discount a recovery (next season rather than this one). The overriding concern is whether those same errors will be once more repeated, forever holding us back from fulfilling our potential.
As for the present day, we've got two defining games ahead of us.
Thursday night, should be a glory glory night. Big name club with a prestigious history and a connection to our own (1962, the infamous game of disallowed goals). It's our only chance of silverware but it's one that has been bullied and pushed around on an emotive level all season long now and is probably only deemed to be of massive importance because we've ballsed up qualification for the Champions League.
Football (cliché but true and often maligned) is about moments. It's about days out at cup finals, about writing history that will be spoken about for years. Trophy over 4th place, right? Well, yeah, although the question shouldn't even exist. Going for 'top four' should really be 'going for 1st place' - as improbable as that might always appear to be. Aim as high as possible. Don't make me quote the quotes. As that won't happen until we have a certified understanding and transparency of our future (long term coach, not interim) then we may as well throw everything we've got at every single game that remains.
Easy said than done. If the players have not been wired to think about glory and about days out then they're hardly going to find the required passion over night. Other clubs involved are taking this competition seriously. It's only ever been an afterthought for us.
Benfica have hardly lost a league game since the beginning of time (or something equally mesmerising). They're settled, in form and are focused on winning - be it in the league or in the Europa. We retain a sense of messy confusion, experimenting from one game to the next. Injured players, tinkering of on field responsibilities, formation shifts. There is no plan or dynamic presence of belief in anything we do. Can we take a 2-0 lead to Portugal? Are you spitting laughter at the suggestion? No and yes, right?
Then we have the NLD. A game that even when confident you go into it nervous because losing to them is the worst thing you can experience. The only thing worse is being water-boarded by Sol Campbell singing She wore a yellow ribbon. Such a soulless swamp of a club where usually the stench overpowers us and our heads drop as we gag and choke. That's at their gaff, at ours we tend to turn up for it. Beating chests and all.
Yet here we are going into the NLD the weakest we've been for seasons. Not in quality of squad depth but in player application. Mentally speaking we're hardly the same side of last season.
We've lost the intensity and the structure with the turbulent changes made half way through the season and I'm not sure there's enough about us to truly believe we can beat them. It comes down to leadership. There isn't any. On the field some of the players supposedly citied as world class look disinterested. There are no old guard experienced talismanic players that can (God forbid) galvanise the team. Christ, I said 'galvanise'. I've not used that word since the days of van der Vaart. Now there's someone that personified what it means to play against Arsenal and beat them.
So what of leadership off the pitch? Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you the latest press conference knowledge bombs from Tim Sherwood esq.
(quotes via the Evening Standard)
“A lot of players are playing for their future. We’ve spoken (Sherwood and Levy) about pre-season, about next season. I’ve said who I want to keep, who I want to bring in. I’m planning for next season. It’s no good me planning for next season if someone else is coming in. We’re obviously going to look at it in great detail, where the changes need to be made"
I've written about Sherwood's words in previous articles and whether this is a man attempting to drive his players towards redemption or a man so desperate and lost within all the tactical reshuffling that all he has left is to deflect. Then again, it doesn't matter does it? If you're having to publicly criticise some of the players in your squad and question their integrity then either the problem is too big for you to handle yourself or you're not big enough to handle the problem. Which is the same difference. If you have to rely on slating your team (as the coach) and hope it inspires them into a positive reaction then you're in trouble. There is no philosophy at play. Just the ramblings of a mad man that is manifested as a wannabe-supporter in managers clothing.
Our job is to slate the players. His job is to remind them of the crest on the shirt (or their win bonus payment).
Sherwood and Levy have also discussed next season. That doesn't mean Levy shares Sherwood's vision for what next season will entail. All Tim can do is perpetuate the belief he will still be here by making bold statements to somehow prove he has what it takes because he says the right type of media savvy statements. Talking of making changes in the summer is also a touch irrelevant at this juncture considering we've yet to settle in most of the players we've signed. At least in my mind I've discounted the antics of this season because they've been so counter-productive for individuals and as a collective. It's hardly the worlds most tricky jigsaw puzzle yet here we all are scratching our heads over it. There's eleven pieces. At some point someone will fit them altogether.
“There have always been changes. You always need new players and there are always players who want to move on, but I want players who want to play for the club. They’ve got between now and the end of the season to show that. I don’t think any player should be doing you a favour by playing for you. At any football club. You’ll see players all over Europe, all over the world, who think they’ve outgrown a football club. That can’t be the case"
Players that want to play for the club? The high end players only want to play for the club if the club appears to be going places. If the vibe is downbeat, the only place they want to go is some other place. Sure, if one or two players think they've outgrown the club - see ya. Get rid. But if Spurs made a bold statement of their own and attracted a big name coach then watch how quickly they change their mind. It's time to forget about the long term and immerse ourselves in short term fixes because the game at the moment (that's the board and the supporters and the lack of player loyalty) is not built for five year plans.
Look how bad we've been this season yet how close we've remained at the top. Who cares if others are under-achieving? Fact is, we are. Fix it and a short term gain can blossom into long term success.
Want to know why CL is so important, more so than cup finals? Because the players - the ones that can make and break a football club - deem playing at that elite level more important. It's more important because everyone is out to make sure they get the best for themselves. Wonderfully ironic that these same players can't endeavour to achieve this together at their current club. But then why should they if its easier elsewhere and their current club is all but lost at sea? The players control the game. If we can control the players then we might get somewhere. Not easy when you look around at the money others are able to compensate in the way of contracts.
“People pay money to watch their clubs. It’s in their blood, and I think players owe them 100 per cent. It annoys me when I do see those players who think they’re doing a club a favour by representing them. I’m not asking for any assurances and I’ve got no guarantees. I’ve got an 18-month contract and I thoroughly expect to be here for longer than that"
The contract is there for personal protection I'm sure. Sherwood might actually believe the hype he generates every-time he opens his mouth but if he truly believed it he'd stick to one system or perhaps not chop and change so drastically from one game to the next. It seems like he's trying too hard to prove how adaptable he is, how clever he can be. If he's here for 18 months or longer, stick to what you know Tim and give your ideals 100 per cent rather than trying to do something that either you're not capable of or the players have no desire to do. Instead he's coaching/managing like a man desperate for some miracle breakthrough footballing formula that will strike gold for all concerned. Using luck as fuel will never work.
“Is the penny dropping after what I said at Chelsea? Maybe, but I can’t answer that. No one’s going to get preferential treatment because of what they’re paid. I’m working with these players every single day. I know the DNA. I know the players I can trust and those I can’t. I’m their manager, not their babysitter.”
He knows the players he can trust and those he can't. Should this be shared in the public forum? He's already decided who he fancies and who he doesn't so when it comes to signing new players is Franco Baldini rendered redundant? He knows the players yet opts to turn Kyle Walker into a right-winger marauding inside forward. If he knows the DNA he'd know that Spurs have had to fight hard over the years to defeat the mental fragility we've possessed for so long. Arguably, we've done that but this season it's crept back into our psyche.
Them and us should be them (everyone that isn't Tottenham) and us (Tottenham). Having a them and us culture within the club? That isn't a bright idea. Sherwood either isn't as strong a man-manager as he wishes to believe but equally so if others are left doing the coaching - his ideas might not be making the jump from chalkboard to the pitch as comfortably as he'd like. Our players have the look that suggests they don't know if they're being managed or babysat.
“I don’t think I’m upsetting him, no. Daniel has known me for a long time. He knew I wasn’t going to turn into a mute. He knows the character I am, he knows what he’s getting. He’s getting honesty.”
Levy doesn't care. He'll sack and hire who he wants. The fact that once more there's this potentially fragmented connection between the board and the coach pretty much sums it all up.
The ones truly lost in transition are the ones that are meant to be guiding the club out of uncertainty. Seems it's only the supporters that know their way around having had to endure multiple new dawns. I've seen worse transitional periods than this. Any given one when we went from being a mid-table side to a mid-table side. I know the bad times make the good times feel better but these are hardly bad times. They are simply times of wasted opportunity.
We should be giving so much more and yet here we are with very little to show for it. No one to blame but ourselves.
Both the Benfica and the NLD might yet prove to be catalysts for an end of season high. Or they may just be further evidence that this season was declared null and void the moment the AVB project failed, leaving us with no clear direction until the summer and everything in-between is unnecessary but unavoidable filler that only angers up the blood when it should really be accepted and downplayed as inevitable collateral damage.
Still, it's Tottenham, so I'm programmed to believe in the impossible.