Juande Ramos’ stock is high at the moment. A quick skim of the papers and football websites will tell you that. Spurs’ 5-1 victory over their North London rivals Arsenal on Tuesday night had fans and pundits purring.
Arsene Wenger’s side was admittedly a mostly second-string one, but it was these second stringers who had already bulldozed past Premiership sides in Newcastle & Blackburn en route to this semi final clash. Spurs came away from the first leg at The Emirates a fortnight ago disappointed with a 1-1 draw, having dominated for large periods. And without a win against their more distinguished rivals in their last twenty one attempts, Spurs fans could have been forgiven for feeling that their side may well have wasted a big chance.
But that wasn’t the case at White Hart Lane as Ramos’ revitalized side simply steamrollered their way to a first major final since 1999. And if Ramos was the master tactician, Ledley King was the defensive rock so lacking this season, and Keane & Berbatov are the headline grabbers, then the real star of this famous win was a bit more unexpected.
Jermaine Jenas’ career has failed to hit the high notes since he was named PFA Young Player of the Year in 2002/2003, his first full Premiership season. Not a bad achievement when you consider he was up against a certain Wayne Rooney. Jenas was an all action midfielder, who drew comparisons to Patrick Vieira for his performances in Sir Bobby Robson’s exciting young Newcastle side. Robson himself said that “JJ” was capable of becoming a future England captain, and he wasn’t joking. Jenas made his England debut in February 2003 against Australia, earning the man of the match award in the process. It surely wouldn’t be long before he was a mainstay of the national side.
But whether he took his eye off the ball, or whether he suffered as Newcastle began to fade, Jenas’ form took a nosedive after that magical first season. A ludicrous missed penalty in a pre-season tournament in Malaysia infuriated Robson, who suggested openly that Jenas was beginning to believe his own hype. It was a common accusation during the remainder of his time on Tyneside, as JJ flitted in and out of the side, rarely raising his head above the clouds of mediocrity that had gathered around the club, and his development seemed to stall.
He left Newcastle for Tottenham in 2005, and was quoted in several papers describing life in the North East as “like living in a goldfish bowl”. It means he is a pretty unpopular figure each time he returns to St James’ Park, although he is adamant he was misquoted.
It seemed to be, to cynics like me anyway, an easy move for Jenas, a Tottenham side that played neat attractive football through its midfield, without the pressure that players often succumb to on Tyneside. And Jenas hardly set the world alight in his first season, despite Spurs running Arsenal mightily close for a Champions League spot. His continued presence in England squads, despite usually being limited to cameo friendly appearances, swiftly became a national issue. Many believe Jenas was lucky to be in the England World Cup squad in 2006 ahead of the likes of Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan & Nigel Reo-Coker (or a fifth striker, but that’s another issue for another day!), and the harsh fact is, most Spurs fans would have agreed.
He was better last season, eight goals from midfield is a decent Premier League return, but the energy and drive from his early days had seemingly been replaced by a far more conservative game. He rarely did much wrong, because he rarely tried to take any risks. He was an average player, playing well within his capabilities. His performances at the start of this season confirmed this, not many people would think of the name Jermaine Jenas when they were picking their fantasy teams.
Maybe it was the manager. Maybe he wasn’t fit enough. Who knows? But since Juande Ramos’ arrival in October, Jenas has looked every inch the player that once prompted Martin Tyler to announce “Jenas by name, genius by nature” after one particularly stunning goal against Manchester Utd.
His drive, passion and energy has returned and his re-found willingness to take risks has been instrumental in Spurs’ climb away from their early season woes, and their progress to the Carling Cup final, and over the two legs against Arsenal, Jenas produced the kind of display that will have Fabio Capello and his staff etching the 24 year olds name firmly in his plans.
His midfield running for the opener on Tuesday was Gerrard-esque, seizing the initiative, driving through a tentative Arsenal backline and firing a lovely angled shot in off the post. It set the tone for a fantastic performance. He bossed Fabregas & Gilberto with ease at times, his excellent set piece delivery forced the own goal from Bendtner, and his chested pass should have allowed Berbatov to add a 3rd soon after. It was a blistering first half. But rather than sitting back after the break, he simply picked up where he left off, flying round the pitch winning the ball back, keeping possession, and eventually making a mug of Gilberto to set up Malbranque brilliantly in the dying minutes for number five.
Spurs qualifying for a Wembley clash with Chelsea may well be the bigger story here, but Jenas’ contribution to the success should not go unrecognized. He seems to have (finally) found a manager who can get the best out of him. Ramos’ success at Sevilla was built on a high tempo pressing game, and was thus reliant on his side possessing incredible levels of fitness. It is well known that he and his fitness coach are in the process of instilling this mentality at White Hart Lane, and Jenas has excelled under this new regime, he looks fitter than ever, and his game has benefitted as a result.
Therefore, when Capello announces his first England squad, expect JJ’s name to be in there, and expect far fewer dissenting voices this time round.