There once was a joke that Tottenham's season always ended at Christmas. It was one of those jokes where the punchline rejoiced with factuality. These days our season prefers to end on the final weekend thanks to rising from the depths of the barren 90s and early 00s to a more competitive new era where fortune favours the brave, to dare is to do and other emotive bursts of adrenaline, hope and desire to be better.
The heartache still comes attached as part and parcel of the game. Part and parcel of being Tottenham. That heartache, wonderfully ironic with its hurtful nature, makes those occasional moments of delirium feel even better. Is it the music that makes the drugs better or the drugs that make the music better? I've never been able to decide. What I do know beyond any doubt is that the Tottenham makes the football better because without the Tottenham, football is a mundane monotonous experience. Give me the heartache, it makes me feel alive. But don't be too greedy and throw some success over here once in a while.
I guess in some ways the joke is still on
us thanks to more compounding irony that twists and perverts our ambitions. Even when we do well, which is these days defined by challenging at the top of the
table, somehow there still remains a possibility that all the endeavour, hard graft and spirited focus will
still be tagged with a failure label. Slapped on the face for all to see. Finishing 5th is the new finishing 12th. We'll be tagged as being 'rubbish' and 'same old Tottenham' thanks to the logic that perceives finishing outside the top four as failure. 5th best side in the land, but still contemptible when compared to our counterparts.
The reality is far more simplistic. The failure is only ever defined in the first place because the success (the want for it) was tangible. In this case the success being Champions League football. Or finishing third. It becomes disappointing after the fact, if left empty handed, because we competed rather than pretended.
No echo of glory for many, preferring to define success by virtue of the modern
game. Champions League or bust. They might argue they are aiming high. Why settle for anything less? Why accept or rationalise?
I'll be accused of being an apologist, forever seeking a reason why we've come so close. Then again, if I had a penny for every time someone stated 'if we miss out on CL football this season, we'll never recover' I'd be rich enough to buy us a new striker.
But what if we finish outside the top four? I'm not for a second suggesting that I won't be gutted and upset. But is that emotion a superficial one based on our expectancy level fluctuating and then exploding before a pocket or two of implosions settled us back down again?
In a word, yes. But then that's another trait of football. You facilitate most outcomes and you negate your expectations from one week to the next. There's always a defence mechanism for defeat and a euphoric slice of optimism for a win. None of us can be criticised for wanting the very best for our club. We just happen to all have a varying place on the spectrum of what quantifies getting it.
Redknapp leaves Spurs.
Andre Villas-Boas is appointed. We lose two pivotal creative outlets in
Modric and van der Vaart. We don't replace them like-for-like. But we
bolster the squad in key areas signing a world class sweeper keeper, a
footballing centre-back (deputising at left-back) a new midfielder in
Dembele and one or two others that aid with squad depth but don't quite strengthen us to that required next level. No addition to
the forward line-up either, meaning we only have two for the season. Two.
Add to the mix, a complete overhaul of training and pre-match prep work, the positive progression of our training ground swap to Hotspur Way (another world class addition to the Tottenham family). Then add the negatives, the injuries to Kaboul and Sandro - both massive losses and a detriment to the way we would shape up.
There's the lack of full-back cover and Kyle Walker's form. The continued rise and rise of Gareth Bale, moving and roaming centrally to refine his all round ability and development but leaving a tumble-weed or two on the left flank. But then his crosses probably wouldn't find Adebayor (standing in the channels or deep) or Defoe (probably sat on the bench).
There has been a gradual, slow brooding process
of awareness and tactical growth...perhaps even call it a sacrifice,
where Villas-Boas has had to take time to mould the team, to allow the
training and prep work to kick in and influence. It's not always been pretty. In the early days it lacked spark. It sometimes still does. But the unity of the side, the work ethic and the manner in which can grind out a result and bounce back from a blip should not be brushed aside and ignored. There is a mentality here that has surpassed the fledgling one that Redknapp instilled.
The high line and its learning curve.
The counter-attacking away from home (our best form since forever).
The distraction of the Europa League. The lack of cohesion in the middle because of those injured and those
we failed to to sign (a true playmaker). There is an imbalance to the side that would benefit from a more disciplined central midfield. We might have seen one had Sandro not been lost for the season. Instead we've had players compensating and deputising for others. It hasn't flowed as well as it could have.
Then there's the obvious, like our goal difference. Our two strikers. One better off the bench as an impact sub. The other a shadow of his more robust bullying self from last season. But the problem isn't only with misfiring forwards. The creative outlet has suffered. We have immense human dimension, but far too often only one dimension in offensive positions.
The way we recycle the ball, the way we hold onto possession and then look to use it effectively, it's not as crisp as it needs to be to make up that all important difference with goals and points. So close, yet so far. We make hard work of it. But then it's hard work when you aim high.
Then we have the phenomenal form of Bale
that made third place tangible in the first place. The form that awakens and can make that difference. Some say we are too reliant on him. We might well be. But then if Bale was a forward and not a midfielder we'd be lambasting the lack of guile off the wings and through the middle. The fact he's scored as many as he has from the position he frequents and has scored so many goals out of nothing further solidifies his importance and his ability. Sometimes he's quiet, but then that can have plenty to do with tactics and his team mates. You can't crown him king when he plays well and then want him to abdicate when he doesn't.
Then (sadly) we have the current erratic
form of the side, lacking electricity, lethargic and sometimes lucky, is making each game feel like it's the last game we'll ever play. This is heartache. Tottenham is heartache.
A few months back I wrote about how we have changed, as a club. The personality of the team is stronger and that we no longer choke. I stand by that. We haven't choked this season. At times over-achieved. We've made it look effortless and at other times made it look a struggle. But the players haven't given up. I've never given up. I also wrote about how we have to embrace fear, we have to show some bottle. You only get what you deserve. If you do your very best and you get nothing, you can at least be philosophical about it.
This all might read like an apologists wet dream but in actual fact this is simply the way I see our season in terms of the coach and the players and the football. It gets complicated when you start looking at the politics, the chairman and the transfer market - but we have a summer to discuss that.
We have been exceptional (considering) if you take everything into account, without agenda or personal opinion on what you think might or might not happen in the future. At times, under Redknapp, we played some amazingly beautiful pace-pulsating football and we're let down by the football we played when beauty was replaced with ugly self-doubt. Under Andre Villas-Boas, we've only just started our journey. This is not his team quite yet.
Last season, 5th or 6th was cited in the summer. We finished 4th, should have finished 3rd. This season 5th was cited in the summer. 3rd was on for so long. Never say never. Others around us might get stronger, but then, so might we.
Considering the financially doped sides around us and the obvious lack of true depth in our squad, I'm looking forward to the final three games and next season. The coach has adapted well after his nightmare first season in the Premier League. Every problem we have is fixable long term.
That's when the politics come back into play. If I'm writing this very same article next season then I am an apologist and Spurs might well be trapped in a cycle where we are nearly and almost but never achieving and succeeding. The very nature of our ambition and progression means we can reach out and desire what was beyond us before. But to actually grasp and grip it and make it our own? That requires an extra something from the man that appoints the coach. We have an undeniable excuse, a transition, for this season, but we can't keep replacing one for another, season in and season out. Not if we want to push for the title because 4th and 3rd isn't 1st.
Chelsea away won't define this side although it will define this season. Whether you choose to label it with a failure tag is completely up to you. The fact that it has come down to a game (not unlike the Eastlands 1-0 back in 2010) is not unexpected thanks to how closely fought the top end of the table is and that it is very much a Tottenhamesque way to see out the season. Then there's the AVB/Chelsea story arc. Last seasons Champions League final and the hilarity that the club from West London might end up winning a competition that they doomed us to.
If there's no potential for heartache then there's no point to it. Which is why there is nothing to lose and yet at the very same time there's everything to lose. It's the beauty of football and the beauty of Tottenham. I can't deny I'm sick to my stomach with the hope that we beat them. Even if it only means (with pragmatism) that we still have to win the two games that follow. Points in the bag and momentum. One game on top of another. If you're good enough you win, if you're not, you might still win if you're lucky. If you don't, you're probably Spurs.
I'm positively dizzy with anticipation. I want this. I hope the players channel our desire.
There once was a joke that Tottenham's season always ended on the final day (or near enough) with broken hearts. Here's hoping the concluding punchline is revised. Whether it is or isn't, an echo of glory is already ringing in my ears.