What a difference 24 hours make. On Saturday evening I was looking ahead to Sunday’s match at White Hart Lane and anticipating chatting to a few Spurs fans and getting a sense, first-hand, of the gloom surrounding the club.
Having visited Barnet and watched them toothlessly lose the day before, there was even a planned title – Barnet: At least they’re not Tottenham.
Now that planned piece has gone out the window completely, as Sunday could well have been the first small steps in the Spurs revival. Whether Harry Redknapp will be able to save them from the drop remains to be seen but the win against Bolton is definitely a vital victory for a team is desperate need of points and confidence.
Half a year is a long time in football
Last time I visited the Lane around seven months ago there was an extraordinary sense of optimism surrounding that corner of North London. Spurs had a trophy under their belts, the Special Juande’s revolution was well under way and, what’s more, Tottenham had the character to force a 4-4 draw against Chelsea in one of the most extraordinary games of football the Premier League has ever witnessed.
Fast forward from that March evening to a weekend in late October and there’s still again a sense of optimism around the ground, although this isn’t the belief Spurs can finally challenge the big four – more that the club may have finally found a man to lead them out of the mire.
When Harry Redknapp appears on the big screen before the game the Spurs fans respond with a huge cheer and it takes around five minutes after the kick-off for the first chorus of “Harry Redknapp’s Blue and White Army”. Whether it’s Redknapp’s reputation or just relief that the board have finally done something decisive, there’s a huge outpouring of White Hart Lane love for the wily old manager.
The Tottenham faithful may have shown Juande Ramos a lot more patience than fans of other clubs have done with managers of teams in less precarious positions, but there’s something almost messiah-like about the way Redknapp’s name is mentioned in almost hushed tones around the ground. There’s a fair amount of sympathy expressed for Ramos, and satisfaction that Comoli has also followed the ex-Seville man out of the door, but Harry Redknapp’s appointment has sparked optimism not seen since, well, Juande Ramos lifted the Caring Cup.
Redknapp responds exactly how you’d expect a showman to do so – waving on demand and sending out a Spurs side with homegrown favourites Jamie O’Hara and Tom Huddlestone, but more importantly a start for the almost permanently-injured captain Ledley King. The sight of the England man lining up in the back four is as much a cause for optimism as Redknapp’s arrival.
Singing your way out of the bottom three
You’ve never know Spurs had earned just two points this season by the noise coming from the Park Lane end, as the fans hardly shut up for 90 minutes. All it needs is a result to match the singing. If league positions were decided by fan noise alone, Tottenham would be pushing for a place in Europe.
For a team going into the day propping up the Premiership, there’s also surprisingly little negativity directed towards the players. David Bentley and Roman Pavlyuchenko both struggle to get going – the latter winning only two headers all night – but there’s none of the booing you’d expect towards a team sitting below where the fans expect them to be.
This is helped in part to Spurs getting off to a brighter start to a game than usual, coming at Bolton from the off. The romantics may like to imagine this to be down to a rousing pre-match battle talk from Harry Redknapp but, in truth, it has as much to do with Bolton’s negative tactics, which largely seem to involve sitting back and defending – an approach to the game which elicits bemusement from both sets of fans.
Although Spurs are willing, there’s still a nervousness about them, as you’d expect from a team short on confidence, and once the home side have had a couple of bright, probing attacks, the game settles into the kind of tedious midfield battle that is all to common to plenty of Premier League games.
This torpor is shaken on 17 minutes when the hitherto anonymous Bentley produces a peach of a ball for the equally ineffective Pavlyuchenko to nod home unchallenged, although his connection with the ball is so poor that Jaaskelainen in the Bolton goal is somewhat wrong-footed and Spurs take the lead. Pavlyuchenko then doesn’t win a single header until just before he’s substituted midway through the second half.
The fans respond in kind with an explosion of noise that’s fuelled, in part, by a belief that this could finally be their first win of the season. A glance at the Bolton section sees supporters shaking their heads at why their manager Gary Megson hasn’t ordered the Trotters to go for the jugular against a team that’s only mustered two draws in the league all season.
The goal doesn’t really settle Spurs who continue to produce some half-decent football that’s constantly ruined by a hurried pass (Jermaine Jenas being particularly culpable) or a slight cluelessness as to how best to distribute the ball after a brief period of possession. Bolton, for their part, look like they’ve barely noticed they’ve gone one down and continue with the same defensive tactics as before.
But this wouldn’t be Spurs without a customary wobble and ten minutes before half time the Tottenham defence, who’d been looking much more solid with King back in the side, suddenly forget they’re in the business of preventing goals and do their best, twice, to gift Bolton an equaliser, but somehow make a couple of last-ditch blocks.
How to just about win a game
There’s a quiet contentment around the stands at half time as, although the football is hardly world-beating, the fans can see an improvement in previous games. As one fan says: “That was much better.” The second half is also better, but Spurs do try their best to level matters for Bolton, who come out with a slightly renewed sense of purpose.
Bolton’s main threat for an equaliser is Spurs’ own goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, who was unable to watch a cross without flapping badly at it, often opting to punch as opposed to catching the ball. Bolton eventually cotton onto this and start pumping high balls into the box, to which Gomes duly panics every time. Ledley King prevents, on numerous occasions, Bolton finding the net and for the first time in the game grumbling, mostly aimed at Gomes, could be heard from the terraces.
As with the first half, the game lulls into some kind of catatonic state, only briefly enlivened when Gavin McCann receives a second yellow for a rather daft foul, and Bolton go down to ten men. Any hope the Trotters have of finding a way back into the game are slowly receding, especially as Luka Modric is now commanding the play in the centre of the park and having possibly his best game in a Spurs shirt.
And as Bolton scratch their heads on how best to find an equaliser, Spurs – and in particular their Croatian midfielder Luka Modric – start to edge forward somewhat more. Two quick substitutions later – the ineffective Pavlyuchenko and Jamie O’Hara for the pacy pair of headless chickens known as Aaron Lennon and Darren Bent – and Spurs start to put serious pressure on the Bolton goal.
Bent may not know when to pass and when to shoot, and Lennon still runs into cul-de-sacs, but their speed combined with their willingness to chase lost causes puts Bolton on the back foot. A second goal looks likely and when Bent is brought down by Jaaskelainen in the area, Spurs get a penalty, Bent nets and it’s all over. Cue another burst of Harry Redknapp loving from the stands. The man hasn’t even picked his first team and Spurs fans have already taken him to their collective bosoms.
Bolton fans, however, are less enamoured with Gary “The Ginger Mourinho” Megson and spend the last five minutes hurling abuse at their manager, while Spurs fans look on in a mixture of bemusement and, possibly, a small amount of smugness.
“We’ve got our Tottenham back,” sing the White Hart Lane faithful as they leave the ground. It may just be one win, but you sense Tottenham fans need something, anything to cling to at this point in the season. Whether Harry can work his magic with a side that desperately needs strengthening remains to be seen, but for the time being, the Spurs supporters are, mentally, heading back to the top again.
And in contrast…
The day before I was in another part of North London to watch Barnet lose 1-0 to Exeter, which provided a neat contrast with Spurs, a team with which there is no love lost thanks to the Arsenal connection.
The Bees are also struggling down the wrong end of the table (but for the points deductions of Luton, Bournemouth and Rotherham, they’d be 21st and in a relegation battle).
Unlike Spurs, and somewhat unusually for a club at this level, Paul Fairclough is now in his fourth season as manager, a stint that’s already seen him lead Barnet to promotion from the Conference in 2005, but this season the Bees have lost their buzz.
It took them until the end of September for Barnet to register their first win and although Fairclough’s men have drawn with League 2 leaders Wycombe and edged a 4-3 thriller at in-form Rotherham, the natives are getting restless.
There was a very small amount of booing from the Underhill faithful as they struggled to create chances against a solid Exeter back line, but this has been enough for Fairclough to tell the Mirror: “I’m going to give money back to the fans who call us rubbish after 10 minutes – as long as they clear off by half-time. We don’t mean to lose games.”
But it seems likely they’ll lose many more games. Devoid of any real firepower up front, and with Albert Adomah as the one bright spark, Barnet could be in for a long season.
There’s certainly no renewed sense of optimism in this quarter of North London, even going when they went into Saturday’s game on a mini-run of form, and patience is slowly wearing thin with the squad and manager.
Like Spurs, there’s a belief they belong in their current division. Unlike Spurs, they may have to wait longer to turn a corner.