The Bonfire of the Vanities
“Again we’re going to have the debate whether a trophy will take the club to the next level. I don’t agree with it. It only builds your ego. The most important thing for Tottenham right now is to always be in the top four”
I’m going to attempt to break this quote down in classic unedited Spooky ‘War and Peace’ fashion.
What does he mean by ego? Is he referring to the supporters and bragging rights? The glory of a day out and open bus parade? Or does he mean a cup doesn’t hold too much influence over the progression and development of his side and players? Is he downplaying the importance of trophies?
Winning a cup doesn’t build momentum, that is a certainty. Or at the very least you could argue the point. It consolidates a winning mentality but at the same time if you push away from the obsessive desire and pressure of collective expectancy, a winning mentality isn’t anchored to what happens in a single one-off game. Winning games in the bread and butter of the league, producing consistency and competing is what allows a side to retain that same strength in other (lesser) competitions. Which then equates to winning cups. Which then cements a winning mentality. Which adds gloss to the momentum. I’ve just come full circle on this, haven’t I?
My opinion would be that you would find most people hard pressed to separate the two sides of the coin. They are both part of the same whole. However, if you flip it, it only ever falls with one side facing up.
Perhaps Poch should have been completely honest and simply said: “I don’t care about cups, we only care about qualifying for the Champions League because the money gives us a platform to build on the team and for the club to make more profit, cups don’t. Aside from giving the fans a day out”
But then that’s twisting his words to the one extreme. He obviously does care about winning something, that’s the end game. He just has to graft his way towards it first. We’ve got to one final and several semi-finals with him. A game of inches and a harsh learning curve, for him more than anyone.
Of course it contradicts our players that often state how important it is to win silverware and a cup. So the truth is probably lodged somewhere in there, all messed up and ambiguous. The reality for the club here is to focus on the league but do ‘our best’ to compete in the cups with the resources we have, but as a secondary priority. To put it into perspective, I’m certain we’d have booked our placed in the League Cup final if it wasn’t for the loss of Kane, Dele and Son. The margins here were devastating.
Spurs have retained a sense of consistency in the league for the past four seasons but that hasn’t given us a fruitful result in silverware in the other competitions. Perhaps because of squad limitations and how the club is run. That last sentence could do without the word ‘perhaps’. There’s a thousand arguments to be had here, all fuelled either by optimism, realism or pessimism depending on current form.
It’s all very subjective. There is no simplicity in the grandest answer we all wish for. Which is why we lose ourselves in the details.
Strip away the psychology and all the narratives and rationalising and what are you left with? Winning something, anything. At least that was the way of the footballing world in past generations. That is the supporters bread and butter.
When Tottenham were barely average, everything they did was focused on the domestic cups because they had no chance in the league. We barely won anything then too (the 90s and beyond). In addition, revenue and the money within the game is barely comparable to the modern day. Now that our team is one of the leading sides in the country, you’d think we’d be better placed. But this isn’t the past where it was possible to aim for silverware because the prize money was more relative to a clubs financial forecast. Today’s landscape is altogether a different beast. The 1980s are almost mythological in memory.
The money that was birthed from the Sky Sports era and Champions League has completely flipped how football works. It’s an industry and it’s one that is finely tuned on the vibrancy of the millions of pounds everyone within it can earn. When Poch says the most important thing is for Tottenham to be in the top four, it hurts. Not because he says it or that Daniel Levy bangs the drum. Not because it’s the antithesis of the football world I grew up in before Hillsborough and client reference numbers and super rich footballers and their super rich agents. It’s because I often try to pretend there’s another way when there’s not.
Spurs lagged when Sky injected their money into our game. We attempted to copy other clubs and failed with spectacular misery. Proving that it isn’t easy getting the right type of manager and club culture to spearhead and drive the team forward. It can be a once in a generation event. At least for a club attempting to ‘get there’ for the first time in an absolute age.
We spent plenty of money back then but only started to progress when the giants above us started to every so slightly falter. That gulf, in terms of finances, is still the difference maker today in how our club is run compared to others. The era where rivals and others bossed it and collected trophies has skewered everybody’s perspective. The expectancy we have - all fans - is about the moneyshot, about defining success only with winning something and not doing so is considered abject failure. Even if the vast majority of football clubs around us will never even compete at our level, let alone win a cup. The ones that often find success are the ones that fall back on that experience of yesteryear. Then you have it compounded by the next era of supreme power, the oligarchs, the ones that danced around Financial Fair Play. The ones that have no wage structure other than to pay the tax on behalf of their players.
Because of the gulf, Spurs are still playing catch-up. We are still lagging, even if we appear to be on the cusp of something great. There’s no buffer to protect us from the lulls that other clubs can afford to protect themselves with. Of course, there’s a separate debate to have around the onus of responsibility. That our chairman could perhaps take a gamble or seek to solidify the momentum we create. That the football, the essence of why we are all here, can be the tool to make more money for the club by virtue of, well, winning something. We could sign players to give us more depth, we just have to all agree the calibre will not match the ones at rival clubs because we’re not currently in a position to match wages. So what difference would it make? I’d love to find out to be honest.
Perhaps another debate to be had is how this club would perform if the manager and player acquisition model was different to the one we have. Would we even have the same affinity to the team and players if THFC was run like Chelsea? Would ‘we’ even care about affinity if it produced titles and silverware? Exactly what is at stake here? What are we willing to become to be successful? Or does the necessity for success allow us to sacrifice it all to be part of the winning elite? You would think, in the long term, that is probably the strategy whether we want it or not, once the club is sold by ENIC. The buyer will possibly want to increase brand stature by signing superstar players. The club will morph up to the next level, where it will have a better chance of achieving the dreams the supporters lust for.
I remember, a few seasons back (before Poch) some Spurs fans often remarked ‘I don’t care about the style of football we play as long as we win something’. It seems some are willing to sacrifice everything for ego, for that moneyshot. I can almost understand why a Tottenham fan would state this considering the turgid years we’ve endured before our fortunes changed. But still, there’s a limit, right? What is that limit? Does the club have a soul? I’d have to say we are the ones with the soul. If we give that up, there’s nothing left. Is becoming anything like Chelsea of City a bad thing or simply what is required to truly compete?
But there is still no guarantee. Because the clubs already there continue to grow and will always be leading the pack. We could also end up super rich and super tentative like our neighbours up the road. Clubs at this particular level sustain a profit that the shareholders wish to retain. Clubs are a business with a very loyal customer base, one that can favour less loyal customers (tourists and casuals) too. The product for them is to target a standard that protects that profit. Spurs is pretty much evidence of that, even at the level we currently sit at.
Poch emphasised qualifying in the top four. You can make the money that allows you to retain the services of your best players. You can offer them the opportunity to play in what is considered the be all and end all of the domestic game - The Champions League. As for players wanting to win something, they’re always going to find success at clubs that have established that template over decades. Spurs, dare to believe, but surely it’s arrogant to expect success at the highest level considering we pretty much have nothing to base our demands on. Other than the team and culture that Mauricio Pochettino has built. He’s the reason we demand more. He’s the reason our players and fanbase believe. It’s the reason why it hurts so much when we come unstuck.
We’ve lost recent League Cup finals. We have the curse of the FA Cup semi-finals that goes back as far as I wish to remember. It’s not like we haven’t endeavoured. The crux of the argument is that Tottenham have to rely on many variables (injuries) including the form and luck of the teams above them if they seek to win the Premier League because of the gulf and the current contained business model, one that is accompanied with the building of a new stadium. The Champions League is truly far-fetched if you embraced logic and pragmatism. So if these two competitions are the priority, then on this basis, winning a cup is likely to be something that happens not because we prioritise it but rather accidentally on purpose. Much like how we rotated our way to the semi-final only to lose on penalties.
Being part of the top four and CL is the target, every season, above everything else. This is modern football’s moneyshot.
Cup games are often a fragmented mess in terms of selection. Stop start squad rotation. The true nature and personality of a team is forged in the league (as cited already). I don’t think anyone can disagree that this is the belief our manager possesses. Meanwhile supporters share their extreme opinions avoiding the middle ground altogether, demanding one thing that can’t exist without the opposite thing they dismiss (spending money on players < > prioritisation of cups over Champions League ).
Let’s say we won the League Cup this season, that we got past Chelsea and we defeated City in the final. Personally, it allows me to forever associate this group of players to a concluding journey. That history will mark them down as winners of a cup final. The day will live in memory (after-all, football is about your mates and booze and drugs and singing and belonging). Ego is pretty much the foundation of all of it, it’s an escapism and it’s one with powerful primal tribal tropes.
2008 was a wonderful day too. But modern football doesn’t deem it to be important beyond the celebrations. Beyond our self-worth and vanity. But then that’s football right? That’s the point of escapism. All the support, all the highs and lows, the travelling, the money spent…it ends with undisputed glory. Not because you demand it or need it but because it’s your team that has been victorious. And what is ‘your team’? It’s you and your mates and all the memories of those high and lows. This is the soul. It’s a reflection of commitment and loyalty. It’s important, even if it’s just a League Cup or an FA Cup. It has to be otherwise it’s all too mechanical on an emotional level.
I’d add a caveat that with those highs and lows; you accept them all with unconditional love. That stamping of feet and demanding ‘this that and the other’ is tainting that same romanticised notion of belonging to a tribe and that nothing else matters ‘…’cause you’re Tottenham’. Yet, we do stamp feet and demand and bemoan and we do this because that emotional connection is a little detached, collectively. Away day support is possibly the last kingdom of uncorrupted expression. We are now the children and elders of what football has become. This ugly festering cut throat illusion where identity is slowly finding itself consumed by commercialism and middle-class comfort.
Winning a cup, in this brave new world is what Pochettino and his players believe in, I don’t doubt that. But they appear to perceive it as a bonus of achieving their ultimate goal. Which is to transcend to the next level, something only the thirty-eight games in the league can allow. The odds are not favourable and are stacked up against them. Maybe he believes in the methodology. Maybe he has no choice. If he was at another club, a club of bigger stature, he’d be expected to win trophies - possibly every season - because of the budget he will be given there. Although it’s hard to know exactly how he would work under such circumstances considering the manner in which he builds a side. Is Levy a puppet master, pulling the strings whilst cutting the purse strings?
Spurs have never been a trophy hording type of club. If there was no Champions League there would be no debate. Football would be about the glory. A working class utopia of men thumping their chests and punching the air. Instead it’s micro-breweries and cheese-rooms. As much as we complain about it we accept it in equal measures too. If Spurs, in current times, struggled to get into the top five, they would truly struggle to achieve anything in the upper echelons of the game. Perhaps other than win a cup once or twice a decade. We wouldn’t be able to hold onto our best players beyond the time frame that currently exists with the ones we have (and we will probably lose them eventually because they will want to earn more money abroad).
The days of knocking for your mates and making your way to the game, paying ten quid at the turnstile and then looking for a ruck (but bottling out of it) after the game are long gone. Kids can’t turn up anymore in the way we (the 40+ amongst us) once did. The game no longer belongs to us. It belongs to them - the clubs that are now brand names. The career footballers and their trademarks. The football agents and their cuts. We have to pay for the privilege, pay for what was once ours. The experience means that we - as a footballing society - has also shifted towards demanding more for the money we part with. Which links back to ego and being able to gloat about it. This is something that has always been in the game but today it’s specifically married to the finances - the ones the club (any club) possess and the wallet in your pocket that you spend there.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær stated how top four isn’t enough for Manchester United, that it’s about winning trophies. It’s easy for this single statement to destroy the one that Pochettino shared. But it’s easy for a football club that has a twenty-five year template and an almighty foundation to claim this. A club that can and will probably continue to spend hundreds of millions on transfers and wages. We are simply not comparable to United. For Spurs, ‘doing it differently’ is admirable but ultimately a hindrance. There does not appear to be an alternative method. The warning would be to go beyond the comfort Arsenal achieved where they were often mocked for only ever appearing to aim for CL qualification. As long as both the manager and the chairman see beyond this, then we can be hopeful. You’ll find most believe Daniel Levy is more than content with the current model.
In the last two games, we’ve been knocked out both cups. We have key players missing. We’re stretched and lack the edge to combat high level games (or any games) if not at full strength. For all the philosophical theorising, the crux of it comes down to personnel. If it impacts the cups games can it also impact the league games? On evidence, you could state a solid ‘yes’ in answer to this question. But then to tie it all back into all of the above, that’s the bubble we exist in until something can fundamentally change with the clubs resources.
Football is about winning games. Winning games gives you (the fans and the team) a chance to be rewarded for it. Silverware marks the history books forever. I can only conclude that the current state of affairs is Spurs bridging that gulf and that doing so is more important than anything else, even if it means prioritising a league position to avoid falling behind again. That is what Pochettino meant. That is the club’s stance. I don’t necessarily agree with it but I can’t argue against it. Even if I wish to with all my heart.
Footnote: Poch has also sought to clarify his comments. Article here. Pretty much echoes what I’ve written. I guess we have both like the taste of Kool-Aid whilst others prefer to drink Flavor Aid.