[due to a technical hitch this piece has been published a little late. I actually wrote it right after the Bolton game.]
It was about half an hour in to a drab, goalless first half between Chelsea and Spartak Moscow that I heard 5live’s Alan Green said a few words that succinctly spelt out how the broadcast media in this country cover European football.
“I certainly don’t want Spartak Moscow to score”, said Green, “but the purely neutral would want Chelsea to concede here”. The neutral, then, would want a Spartak goal, but this was not what our commentator wanted. It’s no secret that the BBC abandon their impartiality when an English team (or Arsenal) are playing in Europe, but it’s taken some getting used to for me to hear my beloved Spurs discussed in this sort of context.
Growing up, I spent countless evenings hunched on my parents’ sofa watching Newcastle, Leeds and the so-called big four taking on Europe’s elite, and have always felt as if I’m expected, for whatever reason, to be supporting those teams rather than Marseille, Barçelona or Zagreb.
A couple of weeks ago, for the first time, I was treated to a Spurs game on ITV in midweek: the Champions’ League aria, the MasterCard adverts and the poor quality analysis all somehow adding to the excitement, associated, as they are, with the competition in the same way that so many things set us thinking of Christmas or of any special occasion.
What was different, though, and made all of this feel unusual, alien, and uncomfortable was the fact that this time the hype was all about Spurs. I’ve daydreamed about this, and I’ve watched Spurs and the Champions’ League so many times, but not together. It felt familiar and new at the same time.
We’re there on merit, of course, and the glamour ties against Inter Milan are our deserved reward for going to Eastlands in May and beating Manchester City (not waiting for them to die of boredom, Roberto) and for digging in when it mattered in Switzerland and fighting back to claim the two crucial away goals that turned a nightmare start in to qualification for the competition proper.
Sitting on the sofa, though, I was blinking as if I’d stepped out of the cinema. The San Siro. Somehow, despite having seen it so many times from that exact spot, it was strangely different.
What was unusual was the beginner’s introduction to Tottenham Hotspur that I got from ITV when the coverage finally started. There, in front of me, was a West Bromwich Albion fan telling me what was going to happen, and inviting the thoughts of a man who had played for Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. The second pundit, Marcel Desailly, was even stranger: when one club is from Italy and the other from England, where is a Ghanaian born man who grew up in France supposed to put his loyalties? Of course, being on ITV, he was right behind the team from London. Having spent all those years at AC Milan, he could scarcely change his stripes to follow Inter. Then again, there’s hardly any love lost between us and Chelsea, for whom he played for six years: one longer than he spent in Milan.
Desailly was playing in central midfield for Milan in the European Cup when I first saw him, so there’s a strange symmetry that he should be there, pitch-side, at his old ground introducing my team’s first Champions’ League appearance to be broadcast live into my own living room. It’s seeing all of these faces that made it seem so much more real, so much more like the European Cup I remember from my childhood.
Despite all this, though, I don’t need to feel that all of these people are suddenly Spurs fans. Especially when I know for certain that they’re not. All of that somehow feels a bit disingenuous. I rarely watch the earlier rounds of the Champions’ League these days, and when I do I don’t become a Liverpool fan for the evening: that only happens when they’re playing Arsenal. And let’s get this straight: in no game against any other team will I ever want Arsenal to win. Ever. I’ve had arguments before with Manchester United supporters, for example, who tell me I should support English teams in Europe, but I don’t. I can’t, and nor would I want to. I’m happy to watch football matches of any level as a neutral except when Spurs are involved, or when it affects our own league position: the Blackpool versus West Brom game, for example.
But the fact that Barçelona come from Spain would never, ever make me want Arsenal to beat them, whatever about the UEFA coefficient of the Premier League. I was ecstatic when Juliano Beletti scored the winner for Barçelona against Arsenal in 2006. Some comedian had commented on another blog that Arsenal being in the final might, as had been suggested, “unite the whole country”, but what about the few in London who wanted them to win? It’s funny, sure, but it’s true of all teams, I bet: there are plenty of people watching in their home countries who want Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle and Spurs to lose despite the fact that they’re playing a foreign team. It’s a little naïve to assume otherwise in a sport where so many tribal loyalties exist and grudges are held so strongly for so long.
A couple of Everton supporting mates have wished me the best for our campaign in the Chamions’ League, “living their dream”, as one put it, and my mate from Bolton (who supports Blackburn) was texting me pretty much non-stop as we demolished Young Boys at the Lane. For all of that, though, I’ve been heard much more about how “hilarious” is was when Young Boys took that early 3-0 lead, and when Samuel Eto’o put Inter 4-0 ahead of us in the San Siro.
It was then that the backlash really began to start: Gareth Bale’s hat-trick didn’t count, as Inter had relaxed by then, and the “real” score, for one Arsenal fan on a message board was 4-0. Yup – as opposed to the fictional score in UEFA’s record books that was carelessly based only on the number of goals actually scored by each team during the game.
It wasn’t a Tottenham fight back in the second half, it was Bale’s fight back. A defeat, albeit one sustained playing with ten men for eighty minutes of a match away to the European champions and still by the single goal, meant we had been found out: we’re not good enough. We were the also-rans included to make up the numbers and had been made to look as such. No matter the grit, the fighting spirit that all of our players showed to stay in that match, as they had in Berne, and fight their way back towards parity: we were a joke.
If that opinion is as popular as it seems, and it seemed to me to be almost universal the following morning, and if the rest of the country are either Tottenham fans by default or Spurs for the night out of some sense of patriotic duty, then why not just present the game like any other? Why should a man from Accra who spent a decade playing for fierce local rivals of both the teams he’s about to commentate on claim to support one more than the other?
I admit it: I don’t like it when would-be neutrals become Spurs fans for the night. Give me Mark Lawrenson over all of that any day.
It’s not much better when we win. I read the Fiver, on the Guardian website, most days: it’s meant to be a funny, slightly sarcastic take on football, but, given the stick dished out after we’d been beaten by Inter, surely credit was due after the return fixture, when we dominated the possession against them for 90 minutes, created so many chances, and the world’s best right-back wassent back to Milan in a London taxi? No: talk was immediately of the inevitable “European hangover” to come against Bolton, despite the fact that we’d lost only one of the five games played immediately after European matches this season, and won three. Alright, it’s just happened, but it wasn’t inevitable, besides, credit where credit’s due: we’d just demolished the best team in Europe.
Otherwise, the general reaction was one of amazement at Gareth Bale. The lad had had another stormer, but, let’s be honest, he’s looked a player since he arrived. Scratch that, he was “the next Ryan Giggs” while at Southampton. Now he’s done it on the big stage, though, he’s really the next Ryan Giggs, apparently. Not just for Wales, but for Manchester United. Except if Barça get him first. And we’re a one-man team, anyway. Presumably, then, we’ll be fighting it out for 17th place with Cardiff City next season.
The defeat to Bolton hasn’t helped. I didn’t go, and listening to it on 5live has been a painful experience. I’ve just been reminded that we’ll need to qualify for next year’s competition via the League, and that beating Inter in what Andy Gray laughably called "the biggest game in Spurs' history" doesn’t mean we’ll beat Bolton by turning up throughout. It was a pretty shabby game for the most part, apparently, so I guess they needed something to talk about.
Surely, though, as professionals, you’d think that Green and his mates could prepare a little more thoroughly than the last two pages of Wednesday’s Sun? All I heard was that we’d beaten Inter but were trailing at the Reebok. Thanks: I could have got that from Teletext. Bale, Bale, Bale. Hangover, hangover, hangover. It’s as if the excellence of Tuesday’s performance and result had become a stick to beat all of our fans with.
Bolton were excellent, apparently, and wanted it more. Kevin Davies played very well, and they pressed us and took advantage of the extra day’s rest they’d had. Fair play to Bolton, they’re a good side and one of the toughest away games in the Premier League. If I were one of their fans I’d be screaming for the credit that my team deserved for turning over a team that had just hammered Inter, the best team on this continent.
Sadly, for whatever reason, the Inter result will be the stick that we’re beaten with, just as last year the 9-1 against Wigan somehow made it worse whenever we slipped up. It’s an angle, an eye-catching, easy to remember little hook for headline writers, the first page of Talking About Tottenham for Dummies. No need to know our players, Alan, or our history, Andy: our biggest game ever was only on Tuesday.
I know I’m not happy when we’re over-hyped, when every neutral is a Spurs fan for the night. It doesn’t feel right. And when we don’t get the credit that we deserve, or losing to Bolton becomes somehow worse for having beaten Inter, then I don’t like that either.
I just want to watch the game, chaps. I couldn’t get to Milan, and didn’t want to go to Bolton. If you’re lucky enough to be paid to enjoy the rollercoaster, then please remember this: we at Tottenham like having six or seven goals in our games. The rollercoaster is what makes all of this worthwhile. And we have set our sights so high that even failure will have in it an echo of glory. Two weeks on Wednesday, when you’re Tottenham Til I Die for two hours because the opposition are German, please remember all of this. Put it in your crib sheets, and stop talking about which of our players might aspire to be good enough for Manchester United. Because once you’ve built them up, you’ll have to knock them down again.
Oh, and also because I don’t care. The fact is that all of this has made me realise that, when it comes to discussing Spurs, I only really pay any attention, to the opinions of other fans. We just tend to know more about our own club, to support them only because they’re our team, and, with a few exceptions, tend to take a more balanced view of how good they actually are. Gareth Bale wasn’t the new Messi in the San Siro, and was never in Rafael or Gretar Steinsson’s pocket. Those were never our words, so I won’t be mocked for them when the real culprits, with the benefit of hindsight, mock us for that hyperbole. We’ll be there or thereabouts.
Not all commentators have to support Spurs: just tell me what they’re doing out on that bit of grass. In the mean time, I’ll be talking Spurs with the other fans. Thanks.