There is a tendency within many different avenues of football to overplay the concept of a ‘big club’ in world football. By nature, there will always be disagreements over who are and who aren’t the ‘big clubs’ in the game today, and what criteria defines this honour, but ask a fan, pundit, whoever you like to name the top teams from England, and you’ll usually get the same stock answers: Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.
The matter of Everton being a ‘big club’ is another matter for another article by a better writer, but it can usually be explained by pointing to their history and their recent resurgence since David Moyes took the helm.
Spurs are an entirely different matter however, and their grouping with the genuine names of English football will come under even greater scrutiny in the next few weeks, dependent on the outcome of the Dimitar Berbatov/Robbie Keane transfer sagas.
If Spurs genuinely want to become one of the big players in world football, then they will need to buck their recent trend of failing to hold onto star names, and become a big club, rather than a feeder club.
As we approach the new Premier League season, the same question will be posed as is at the start of every new campaign: Is there any club who can break up the domination of the Top Four in the league and in regards to the Champions’ League places?
Fans and experts can point to Everton, to Aston Villa, to Manchester City, maybe even to Newcastle at a stretch, but it is actually Spurs who are best equipped at this current moment in time to challenge the Top Four and potentially break up the traditional hierarchy of recent Premiership years. The last few seasons at White Hart Lane have been punctuated by instability and change throughout seasons as the club strive towards their ultimate goal of Champions’ League qualification, a realistic expectation after a season in which a weaker side ran Arsenal right down to the final day, denied by a fired-up West Ham and a questionable lasagna when it really mattered.
That set the bar, but they’ve been stopped in their tracks by a range of factors since that defining 2005/06 season: a failure to perform consistently throughout the campaign, a change of management, the improvement in the Gunners – particularly last season – and especially the loss of important players who made a difference to the standard of the team’s football.
This coming season, it would appear that there can be no real excuses for Tottenham, if they are serious about breaking into the Top Four.
They have the money and the lure to attract continental names (an example being the purchase of the much-sought Luka Modric for a princely £16 million). They are paying top dollar for one of the star managers in European football, the squad is full of high-quality players, and questions are being asked about some of the clubs above them.
For Manchester United and Chelsea, the sheer quality of their squads should negate this matter comfortably, but if Liverpool don’t reinforce with some star names of their own and in particular do not find a scoring strike partner to compliment Fernando Torres, what does their season hold? Arsenal are another side who need to silence the doubters, but with a side that has already been stripped of some of its key performers, along with the threat of Emmanuel Adebayor being shown the door with no proven stars coming in to replace those going out, could they flatter to deceive once again?
If Spurs want to be the serious contenders that all these matters would lead a person to believe they can be, then this needs to be the season where they must combine all the elements, and take that Top Four spot that is certainly within their capabilities.
However, it would appear that their season could be unraveling before it has even begun, with United looking set on prising Barbatov away from the Lane for around £25 million, while Liverpool are doing their best to lure vice-captain Keane to Anfield with a £15-20 million bid. Tempting as I’m sure their money must be for Levy, Comolli et al, to allow these players to go would probably render their season a failure before it has even started.
Along with Jermaine Jenas, Berbatov and Keane were the catalysts behind Spurs’ climb up to mid-table security after the arrival of Ramos, whilst also clinching their first silverware in nearly a decade with the Carling Cup. Throw in a fit Ledley King, and you have the spine of a successful Tottenham Hotspur. To allow the two best strikers to depart would be a disaster for the club, especially given the relative proximity to the start of the season, whilst also giving their main rivals in the battle for the Top Four more of an advantage that they will start with over Spurs.
If Ramos, Comolli and Levy are determined to make Spurs into a ‘big club,’ then their best achievement of the season will be to prove to these two why staying put is the best decision if they want to fulfill their ambitions.
As futile as this may now appear, particularly in the case of Berbatov (Or should that be Emil Dantchev?), it may well be the defining moment of Spurs’ season before a ball has been kicked in anger.
Keep the pair of them: Challenge for Champions’ League football.
Let them go: Scrap around for UEFA Cup places again next season.
The problem is, however, that the likelihood is that by the end of August, both men will be plying their trade at Old Trafford and Anfield respectively. Certainly it is to be expected, given the track record of Spurs in recent years in their bid to hold onto their best players. Excuses can be given for certain players: with Steve Archibald and Chris Waddle, the attraction of European competition post-Heysel was probably too great. Clive Allen? Ditto, as well as his age going against him along with his ability to a degree when he packed his bags for France. Paul Gascoigne? The rot had already set in by the time Lazio came calling, whilst being beset with injuries in his time in North London.
But for other players, it was simply a matter of Spurs not being able to offer what was available elsewhere. Jurgen Klinsmann lasted around a year before he said auf wiedersehen and headed off to Bayern. Teddy Sheringham wanted trophies and medals which Spurs couldn’t provide him with, so he swapped a potential Carling Cup medal in ’99 for three of greater stature with Manchester United. Sol Campbell saw pound signs a few miles down the road at Highbury, and stuck the proverbial two fingers up to the club that nurtured his fantastic ability, while Michael Carrick followed the lead of Teddy almost a decade previously, with two Premier League medals and a Champions’ League to his name since his £16 million move two years previous.
A simple factor connects all these departures for Spurs, however: The club were unable to offer what another team could, be that through whatever means possible at the time, and it marks the team out as a feeder club, rather than a big club. Berbatov and Keane are up there along with those names that have gone before, two players who most clubs across Europe, especially in the former’s case, would love to have in their team. Spurs have enhanced the careers of these men beyond question since they made their way to the club, but it will count for nothing if the peak of their career and their achievements are made for other clubs. Spurs have built themselves this nasty reputation of being just another selling club, and the best way for them to buck the trend is to stand their ground over the summer and retain the players that would give them a real chance of Champions’ League qualification over the summer.
The optimist may point to the example of Everton four years ago and argue that two players do not make a team, and that a club without its hottest property/ies can make a charge at the Top Four – as was the case with the Blues after the doom-mongering in the aftermath of Wayne Rooney’s departure to Manchester United – but the best have gotten better since then.
Liverpool are a better side than they were in Rafael Benitez’s formative year at the club, and even though doubts can be raised over Arsenal, last season proved that it is best never to write them off, especially with the youngsters in the squad bound to get better with experience in the key matches. If a side wants to break into the Top Four now, they will have to get better, because the best have gotten better since Arsenal’s close run in 2006.
With players of Berbatov’s class and Keane’s willingness for the cause in place, along with players such as Johnathan Woodgate, Alan Hutton and Tom Huddlestone to be complimented by potential stars such as Modric, Giovani Dos Santos and Heurelho Gomes, there is the quality in the Spurs side now to challenge the best.
If the two aforementioned leave however, a different perspective will take shape, even with money to bring in reinforcements before the start of the season. Where will the goals come from to supplement the obvious creativity in midfield? Darren Bent? Doubtful after last season. Luis Garcia? A risk at best, over-priced and over-rated at worst. David Villa? Let’s be serious now.
The only realistic shout in this category would be to take Lukas Podolski off the bench at Bayern, but it’s a risk similar to Luis Garcia, and even the undoubted ability Podolski has to offer would not compensate for the loss of Berbatov’s magic touch with the ball at his feet and Keane’s sheer work-rate to match his talent. Spurs can attract the star turns in world football, but as said before, it means nothing if they don’t hold onto them. Hell, if Berbatov and Keane go, will we be holding the same discussion in a few years time if Modric, Dos Santos and Gareth Bale live up the hype surrounding them?
I may seem like I’m berating Spurs at every chance, but I’m a neutral in this whole affair, really. Simply put, I would love to see another team thrown in the mix. Hell, with the exception of their potential rivals, we all would. A fifth team and a new face in the Champions’ League would probably do English football a world of good. Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City are still at least season one away from the same potential, but it may happen at some point.
For now though, the opportunity lies with Spurs as they currently are. The players are there, the manager is in place, the squad has the chance to have a stable season, they have proven they can beat the top sides and they can win silverware (even if it is the Carling Cup), and they have the money to improve the squad. Tottenham Hotspur have all the potential in the world at the moment, and they are not far away from being a ‘big club.’
But as New Order would put it, it can be Ruined In A Day. As important as the other players in the team will be next season for Spurs if they want to make an assault on a Top Four spot and trophies, Berbatov and Keane are essential, not just in terms of footballing ability, but psychologically as well.
If the management team at White Hart Lane convince the two star turns to stay, then who knows how far Spurs could progress next season, while also proving that they now have the ability to hold onto their best players. If Spurs lose out and the two men head off to pastures new, then it will be Spurs the feeder club once more, and not Spurs the ‘big club.’