Friday, November 26, 2010

The Tottenham tempest hits town

Tottenham Hotspur are riding some wave. A point off the top four in England, the Londoners have set the UEFA Champions League on fire in their inaugural season on the biggest stage, playing some dazzling attacking football. And after years of its fans craving glory the club is swiftly having to adjust to its new-found success.
A novice in the contiRedknapp.nent's top class, North London's other giant has qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League in 2011, and currently sits atop of a group containing reigning champions Internazionale, whom they swatted aside 3-1 at White Hart Lane.

Spurs also downed Werder Bremen 3-0 and Twente Enschede 4-1 at home, drew 2-2 away in Germany and netted three at San Siro, despite going down 4-3 to Inter in the end. While their domestic form is struggling to keep up, Tottenham are poised to break into the Champions League places again and their supporters are still wallowing from their most prized scalp - a 3-2 win at neighbours Arsenal. The immediate plaudits for this unexpectedly sterling season must go to mercurial manager Harry Redknapp.

The son of an East End docker, Redknapp might have a questionable record in the transfer market and speak like a cockney gaffer plucked via a time warp from the 1970s, but he has proved more than capable of drawing the best out of cultured continentals such as Luka Modric, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Rafael Van der Vaart. In addition he has proved to Fabio Capello how Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, bit-part players in the national team, can be employed to devastating effect.

A club renowned for favouring style over substance, Spurs' expansive football has been a joy to behold his season, and more than a few beady eyes have been cast in the direction of their Welsh wing wizard Gareth Bale, whose left-sided marauding cut Javier Zanetti and the rest of Inter's seasoned backline to shreds. Starting at left-back, Bale bagged a hat-trick in Italy with near-identical charges up the flank followed by finishes driven into the far corner, a firework display that had the whole Italian press cooing with admiration and relieved at Inter having scored enough to win.

A rich blend of diverse talents and an attack-minded manager has brewed up a Tottenham tipple that has forced the UEFA powers-that-be to take notice. Bale's power surges on the left are complemented by Lennon's waggle-dancing on the right flank; Defoe's sprints and clinical finishes up the middle are mixed with Crouch's air superiority and Pavlyuchenko's clever runs and deadly ground strokes. With a strong back four marshalled by French veteran William Gallas in order to shield an at-times erratic goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, the strings are pulled in the centre by the underrated Cameroon international Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the assured Jermaine Jenas, a classy distributor whom England will surely turn to again, while the ensemble is completed by the maestro in the middle, the Croatian conductor Modric.

The addition of a Dutch master at the end of the transfer window might have upset the balance, but Van der Vaart has landed with aplomb, scoring and creating in a free role, with only the high-octane pace of an attritional North London derby a game too far for him.

We should not begudge Tottenham their place in the sun as their trophy cabinet has a cobweb or two. Considered along with Everton one of the 'Big Five' in the 1980s, their last big trophy was 1984's UEFA Cup, while you have to go as far back as 1961 for the last time Spurs were champions of England. After years of suffering as the nearly men, Redknapp's remedy is working a treat.

In his apparently simple tactical plan and motivational instincts there is even something of the Brian Clough about him, although do not be fooled by the bravado: Redknapp drives from Dorset to North London every day with assistant coach Kevin Bond beside him, discussing in depth their tactical options.

Redknapp is one of the last of the truly English managers, breezily bypassing foreign additives in his recipe book: Tottenham pioneered the use of a Director of Football in England in 1998 with David Pleat but Redknapp eschews such continental sophistication, taking the word 'manager' he grew up with literally - he is the man who runs the club at the end of the day. And with the exception of the former Scotland striker Joe Jordan, the entire coaching staff is English, at a time when 15 of the 20 Premier League coaches come from outside England and seven from beyond the British Isles.

If Spurs have an Achilles heel it is surely in their inexperience. Their open and attacking style could well be found out by the stronger, wiser teams to be found in the knock-out stages, clubs battle-hardened by the yearly Champions League competition Spurs have yet to know intimately.

The warning signs are there: After only 20 minutes of play in their top-level European exodus, Spurs found themselves trailing Young Boys 3-0 in Berne, before pulling two back in Switzerland and thrashing them 4-0 in the return leg. Ditto in Italy, where Inter sailed into a 4-0 advantage over Spurs with only 35 minutes gone, slicing the Londoners' defence open from all angles in a footballing bloodbath, leaving Tottenham looking desperately out of their depth before Bale pulled the trigger and fired in three goals.

A quick glance at the company they will be keeping in the last sixteen should make them draw breath - Bayern, Inter, Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea have all made it through along with tricky customers like Lyon, Schalke and Valencia. In other words, we will surely find out what Spurs are made of before long.

The metamorphosis from a bridesmaid club has been so rapid and heady the fans will be wondering if it can last. And two possible obstacles are already visible on the horizon - the loss of Redknapp to the England job in 2012 and a move to a new stadium.

Redknapp has been explicit about his desire for the top job in English football, and with Capello's Three Lions mumbling rather than roaring, the Londoner is surely next up for the impossible job, if, as expected, the Italian's megabucks contract is not renewed after the European Championship in Poland & Ukraine. The Football Association have already said they will hire English next time, which presumably means a choice between Redknapp and Roy Hodgson. When Redknapp left Portsmouth and West Ham in recent seasons, both clubs ended up relegated within a couple of years, an omen for Tottenham with only a year and a half to go until the England job is up for grabs again.

The other upheaval on the cards concerns a move away from White Hart Lane - home to the club since 1899. The Lane has a double problem - its famous inaccessibility and relatively low capacity.

In a city blessed with the world's largest underground railway and a vast network of train and bus services, Spurs' stadium for some reason remains frustratingly hard to reach. The closest London Underground station is a good half hour's walk while the Toytown trains arriving intermittently at Tottenham Hale are a wholly inadequate service for a large arena.

36,000 seats also puts Spurs at a financial disadvantage compared to Manchester City (48,000), Arsenal (60,000) and Man Utd (76,000), a stunted revenue stream year after year.

Expansion to 56,000 seats on the existing site entails demolishing a slew of nearby buildings and planning permission for a multi-use shopping, hotel and sporting complex. Planning permission has been granted by the local council and the Mayor of London, leaving a refusal by the Secretary of State the last possible hurdle.

Yet Spurs have also applied to take over the Olympic Stadium across town in Stratford after the games finish in 2012, placing them in direct competition with the more local West Ham United and with British Athletics, whose demand for a running track would also conflict with Spurs' plans. What at first seemed to be an obvious leverage tactic to force Haringey Council's hand now appears a frightening possibility for die-hards, who are aghast at the prospect of Tottenham leaving their home patch. Spurs have AEG's millions on board, as well as the potential backing of billionaire Joe Lewis. In addition, London 2012's vice-chairman is a club director. In March 2011 we will know for sure, but within a month more will be clear.

Although the Haringey option appears the better of the two, Chairman Daniel Levy is believed to be genuinely excited about his club moving for free into an iconic stadium, which unlike White Hart Lane will have excellent transport links and proximity to the financial hub of Canary Wharf and London's expanding eastern corridor. The spruce surroundings of the Olympic Park are a world away from Tottenham High Road, one of the most impoverished and unappealing parts of London.

Whatever happens on and off the field, the next two years will surely be some of the most historic in the history of this 138 year-old team, and certainly the most exciting for decades.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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