Sunday, September 30, 2012

The miracle of Old Trafford

Rub your eyes and believe. It actually happened. The miracle of Old Trafford. As Spurs clung on to a slender but joyful lead, hard-bitten Tottenham fans the world over waited for a spurious penalty or spot of outrageous gamesmanship from a crap Michael Jackson impersonator. It did not come. The ball crossed the Manchester United goal line three times, yet keeper Anders Lindegaard did not have the presence of mind to roll it out quickly to the waiting Rafael. And somehow Tottenham’s rejigged rearguard withstood relentless second half pressure plus ‘Fergie time’ to erase 23-years of bad karma and humble Manchester United before some of England’s foremost prawn sandwich eaters.

Spurs fans woke on Sunday with sore heads and fast-beating hearts and the knowledge that, if Tottenham can overcome Manchester United (plus officials) on their home turf, pretty much anything is possible. Somewhere in the frosted wastes, a pensive but abominable snowman is pondering his future ahead of a joint press conference with the Dalai Lama.

Eighties’ pop siren Belinda Carlisle did not lie. True heaven is a place on earth (for this weekend at least). And any Spurs fan who has watched victory cruelly ripped away at Old Trafford over the years knows exactly what it’s worth. In the hours after the epic 3-2 win (achieved despite the ‘player revolt’ exclusively ‘revealed’ in ‘The Sun’ by hack Paul ‘Christopher’ Jiggins), I developed a nervous tick and found myself punching the air at regular intervals. Fortunately, NHS Direct informed me that such behaviour was quite normal and not a cause for long-term concern. Every so often I check the internet (an unknown quantity when Spurs last won at Old Trafford) just to confirm the validity of Saturday’s victory. And, Jesus, we really did win.

Yet that long fruitless run, almost smugly trumpeted in the media, was always a misleading statistic. On those rare occasions when Spurs found themselves in a strong position at Old Trafford, sinister forces intervened and an inexplicable decision conspired to turn the game on its head. Most notably, Pedro Mendes’ goal, witnessed by almost 68,000 people in the stadium, but oddly ‘missed’ by the officials. A selection of these atrocities were referenced on my bitter yet sadly accurate 2010 blog ‘The many crimes of Manchester United vs Spurs’ for those with an iron constitution.

The fates graciously decreed that Saturday would be different. For the first time in this long barren run, Spurs did not find a referee eager to equal the score should United struggle or fail to gain an early initiative. Our hero in the middle? The unlikely figure of one Christopher Foy. But his leniency did not entirely surprise this hardy veteran of debacles past.

You may not know that Spurs submitted a detailed dossier to the FA last December citing Foy’s curious decision making in the 1-2 reverse at Stoke last season (flashback to the ridiculously onside disallowed Adebayor goal, the three official instigated sending off, convenient myopia in several contentious penalty incidents) and ever since the referee and keen cyclist has kept a low profile in games he has officiated involving our beloved team. So when United players started predictably tumbling in the box Foy chose to sidestep controversy and ignore the amateur gymnastics.

Incredibly, United had already ‘earned’ four penalties in the previous five league games with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez’s scathing comments still helpfully fresh in the memory following a classic Manchester decision-fest two weeks ago. “In many ways, you feel as though you are fighting against a mountain,” lamented the likeable Spaniard.

You can roll out the favourable United statistics as much as you want, but the playing field is rarely even. ‘The Red Devils’ were comprehensively outplayed by 10-man Liverpool the previous weekend (the home side almost inevitably hindered by a sending off and contentious penalty) and, given Spurs’ bright away performances this season, I whispered to selected confidantes that this might be ‘the year’. The reservation on my rubber-walled room was cancelled at approximately 7.30pm on Saturday evening.

Superbly marshalled by William Gallas at the back, Spurs delivered on the back of a supremely dominant first half performance. New hero and poster boy Jan Vertonghen’s early surging run and goal set a positive tone before Gareth Bale’s effortless slalom through the United backline put Tottenham two ahead and evoked wonderful memories of that first night in Milan. The backlash was imminent, but Spurs refused to buckle and, for once, the officials declined to intervene. Clint Dempsey’s poacher’s finish was sandwiched by responses from the jheri-curled Nani and the significant other of Japanese porn star Ameri Ichinose, but stirred on by Andre Villas-Boas’ rousing half-time team talk Tottenham held on. Cue jaw drops, three crazy and wonderful points, a nifty leapfrog of Arsenal and insane celebrations and handstands throughout Yid-dom. The natural and passionate response of our Portuguese manager on the final whistle mirrored the emotions of all Spurs fans. A love affair is forming.

His opposite number was all too predictably uncharitable and beetroot-faced. Contrast Sir Alex Ferguson’s laughably ungracious demeanour in the post-match interview (he understandably wanted 10 minutes of injury time) with the almost zen-like stance of our former boss Martin Jol who (perhaps too) admirably refused to complain or lambast the officials when Mendes’ long range goal was inexplicably erased from the record books.

Yet there was a wonderful symmetry. One Portuguese was criminally denied at Old Trafford in 2005, but seven years later another would emerge to right the wrongs of the past.

Karma is sweet.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

‘Eiffel awful’: The unbearable life of Hugo Lloris

According to a widely disrespected but highly circulated tabloid newspaper, outcast goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was forced to watch Spurs’ 3-0 win at Carlisle on a grainy Arabic internet stream while handcuffed to a radiator in a north London basement.

The extreme punishment was meted out by ‘unpopular’ Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas after Lloris demanded that Brad Friedel’s age be verified on ‘Le Jeremy Kyle Show’ amid training ground whispers that his American rival might be ‘younger than Kanu’.

These unverified revelations have prompted furious uproar back in France where former ball-handler Fabien Barthez dubbed the French international captain a ‘Prisoner of war’. Lloris, who only has 3 years and 11 months remaining on his Spurs contract, was said to be devastated to miss the Carlisle trip and the chance to sample the local delicacy of Cumberland sausage. The game’s preferred goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini is said to have inflamed matters further by posting a picture of a delicious sausage butty on Instagram.

Highly-rated Lloris, who has made a solitary appearance in Spurs colours since signing from Lyon on deadline day, is said to have reacted darkly to the latest snub. “He mopes around Spurs' training ground with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, quoting Sartre to a LOL-ing Benoit Assou-Ekotto,” said a shady insider. “He tried to convince the girls in the canteen to go on strike, but they said ‘non’.”

Meanwhile, fellow goalkeeping outcast Heurelho Gomes, who now performs as a comedy street juggler in Covent Garden under the pseudonym ‘Coco Loco’, is recovering after being injured by a rubber skittle.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Jan Vertonghen's hair

Jan Vertonghen is an absolute beast of a player. Drop him blindfolded in a Siberian forest and he would probably report for training on Tuesday wearing a tiger-skin, shrugging off a mild case of the blisters.

Wrestling a feral tiger protecting its territory, Jan’s salon perfect hair would undoubtedly remain flawless and unruffled. I dare any Spurs fan to recreate the Belgian’s rock-like side-parting with a small rake and two tubs of Studio Line’s Indestructible hair glue. It’s virtually impossible to emulate and god knows I’ve put in the mirror hours.

The transformation of Vertonghen from overworked centre-half to buccaneering left-back proved a pivotal moment as Spurs overcame a sticky first half against a lively QPR to flip a 0-1 deficit into a welcome first home win of the season.

Andre Villas-Boas’ bold but ultimately misguided decision to start Gareth Bale, Tottenham’s most feared and effective attacking player, at left back spectacularly backfired. In the first half, Spurs looked impotent with Bale in a retreated position and the Welshman laboured with the additional defensive responsibility. Meanwhile, fellow speed merchant Aaron Lennon was bogged down with extra defensive coverage and QPR effectively swamped the midfield with Sandro uncharacteristically careless in possession.

Spurs should have been trailing by at least two goals headed into the break but for Brad Friedel’s ageless limbs and West London profligacy. At half-time, the now customary boos rang out, but despite the pointless protests a listless display had been relatively unpunished and I felt optimistic that Spurs could turn the tables with minor tactical tinkering.

And so it came to pass. AVB switched Vertonghen to left back, sacrificing the ineffectual Gylfi Sigurdsson to bring in Stephen Caulker at centre-half and unleash Welsh wonder Bale where he could finally damage the opposition. Clint Dempsey moved to a more advanced role and began to cause QPR problems with his intelligent forward play. Suddenly, a sluggish Spurs were reborn.

Overdue karma (see the previous blog) gifted the home side an own goal equaliser before a surging Vertonghen run from defence released Bale whose rasping shot cannoned off the bar and dropped to a gleeful jermain Defoe who buried the rebound. And in that moment boo-ers and supporters were, again, united as one.

Spurs dictated the majority of the second half, but QPR always remained dangerous on the counter and had a wonderful opportunity to equalise in the 72nd minute when the ball fell kindly for the effervescent Junior Hoilett only for Vertonghen to slide in heroically with a perfect, goal-saving tackle.

Three points secured and not a hair out of place. Spurs bounce to eighth, one point behind 'title contenders' Arsenal, and AVB’s job is safe for another week at least.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Are Spurs the unluckiest team in football?

If an old Romany lady offers you heather outside White Hart Lane on Sunday, I suggest you buy a fistful. Somewhere in history, Tottenham Hotspur underwent a ‘luck bypass’ and the imbalance of fortune needs to be redressed.

Whenever Spurs score a goal, I instinctively look for the offside flag. Swivelling my head like a suspicious owl, I then check the referee’s body language. Is he fending off disbelieving Spurs players, their heads shaking like crazed bobbleheads? Other fans are celebrating and performing mid-air somersaults but my eyes are madly scanning the field, waiting grimly for fate’s next cruel turn. Only when the ball is placed on the centre circle, can I allow myself a belated punch in the air. Yet far too often I slump back in my seat a knowing but broken man, curling my lip at an unloving god.

In life, ‘You’re either paranoid or you’re right’, but there can be little doubt that Spurs are a bunch of unlucky f**kers. Thursday’s entertaining 0-0 draw with Italian ankle-tappers Lazio was another case in point with THREE Spurs goals disallowed. Two should have stood. Clint Dempsey’s stooping header beat the offside trap while Stephen Caulker’s late nod was inexplicably chalked off for a foul after beaten pasta merchant Stefano Mauri flopped to the deck. Had the likes of Romanian referee Ovidiu Alin Hategan officiated in the Premier League’s ‘golden era’, Alan Shearer would have registered three career goals. Bizarrely, UEFA's official website failed to mention any of Tottenham's disallowed strikes!

And so Spurs’ initial foray into the 2012/13 Europa League passed without reward despite an encouraging and cohesive display with rookie defenders Kyle Naughton and Stephen Caulker highlighting their potential for better things and new keeper Hugo Lloris a cat-like presence between the sticks. Andre Villas-Boas showed respect for Spurs fans and the competition by fielding a strong line-up and his team performed but were too often chopped down in promising positions, resulting in 22 fouls and four yellow cards for the visitors. Referee Hategan again displaying hippie-like leniency.

But what of that dreaded Spurs luck? We’ve been poisoned by lasagne and demoted by a flukey Chelsea penalty victory (add Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi falling inexplicably ‘ill’ before the semi-final) denying two Champions League berths; had a ball several feet over the line at Old Trafford missed by the officials and two game-changing goals awarded for Chelsea despite having not crossed the line. One of our greatest players John White was tragically struck dead by lightning with Spurs at the pinnacle of English football and the list goes on and grows.

Disallowed goals now flow like cheap pinot grigio. Last season Spurs fans watched, open-mouthed as a bizarre number of Emmanuel Adebayor strikes were ruled out despite replays showing their authenticity. Had just one been allowed, Spurs would have finished third. Already this season, five Tottenham goals have been disallowed in five games.

Knock on the door of your nearest caravan.

Footnote: Given the attendance of UEFA grand fromage Michel Platini at Thursday night’s game, the racist chanting directed by a section of the Lazio support towards Jermain Defoe and other Spurs players will hopefully be punished. Hearing ‘monkey chants’ at an English football ground felt like a grim rewind to the 1980s and cannot pass without penalty. Update: UEFA has since charged Lazio and its Control and Disciplinary Board will meet on October 18th to deliver a verdict. It's worth noting, however, that Porto were fined a paltry £16,700 for a similar offence against Manchester City. Punishment enough?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

AVB dodges ‘axe’, ewoks go mad in Reading

On Sunday morning, the bomb was dropped. Dave Kidd (who in 1996 correctly predicted that robot human hybrids would inhabit Milton Keynes) exclusively revealed in the highly-respected ‘People’ newspaper that Andre Villas-Boas was a mere three games from the sack.

‘The People’, affectionately regarded as an ‘inky bible with tits’, is rarely wrong outside of speculative tittle-tattle and spurious tabloid chuff and suddenly a terrible scraping sound was audible in north London. Presumably, Alan Curbishley rising, zombie-like, from his managerial crypt. Meanwhile, Kevin Bond was wildly texting, ‘DO U NEED DRIVER?! PETROL & PRINGLES GRATIS.’ Inevitably to Curbishley’s old number.

But just as the former West Ham manager was pushing away the concrete slab, Villas-Boas shockingly WON a game and SAVED his career. The scenes at the Madejeski Stadium were joyous and wild. I swear I saw a group of exuberant ewoks bundling each other when Gareth Bale scored the pivotal second, but now accept that my reading of ‘The People’ had triggered dreadful hallucinations and a complete removal from reality.

As I departed the fog of Reading, via its dreaded stadium bus, memories and thought fragments slowly pieced together and I recalled a fantastic (yet ewok-free) Spurs performance. Jermain Defoe’s brace and intuitive play rightfully earned plaudits but Mousa Dembele’s mastery of midfield was, at times, jaw-dropping. Dembele kicks like Van Damme, wows like Hepburn and may prove to be Daniel Levy’s best business yet.

The Belgian drove forward in a way that Luka Modric never could, breaking up play, prompting and weaving together a previously unhinged midfield corps in tandem with hairy enforcer Sandro and freeing the fast-forward Bale and Aaron Lennon with destructive effect. Elsewhere, compatriot Jan Vertonghen marshalled the defence superbly alongside the unfairly maligned William ‘Mad Bill’ Gallas who provided his now standard goal line clearance among other key interventions.

And so AVB was granted a ‘stay of execution’ or Kidd’s story was shockingly exposed as conniving bollocks. Whatever took place, it delivered a welcome transfusion of enthusiasm to Spurs fans. And maybe, just maybe, we have a season on our hands.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Daniel Levy’s ‘Moneyball’ and the price of cheap boos

In the final week of the transfer window, Daniel Levy was throwing around more bids than a violent nursing home. This scattergun approach, inevitably, came at a price on Saturday as a disjointed Spurs were pegged back by a spirited Norwich City in front of a funereal home crowd. The money conscious Levy sold yet failed to replace Tottenham’s two main playmakers banking over £43 million in the last week of the window, but another buoyant balance sheet has come at the price of an unbalanced and underperforming team. Great business, but this is football’s ‘Moneyball’.

The afternoon’s lowlight was undoubtedly the cascade of boos at half-time with the score all square, thanks only to two stellar saves from the under-threat Brad Friedel. It was our ‘bin bag’ moment. Tottenham supporters can mock the Emirates match experience as much as they please but the emergence of the nouveau glory fan at White Hart Lane has proved cancerous to Spurs’ once vibrant home atmosphere.

These are not true fans. Most likely they are beneficiaries of the club’s new and misguided ‘loyalty’ point system where ‘support’ over four of the club’s most successful Premier League seasons is valued and rewarded. Loyal supporters in grim times past (who may now have young families and find their opportunities to attend limited) have been marginalised in recognition of these baying parasites. But I guess four years of 'support' means the nouveau fan is 'due'.

In truth, Spurs played like strangers, without the coherence of old. Partially, this was due to a feisty Norwich outfit who, on another more fortunate day, may have departed with all three points. They certainly fashioned the better chances. I would pay them greater credit, but for the endless histrionics of Simeon Jackson who in his time on the field kissed more turf than a 2008 Lindsay Lohan.

Somehow an adroit finish from debutant Mousa Dembele gifted Spurs the lead, but it was a false promise. As Norwich pressed, Tottenham capitulated for the second week in succession with Snodgrass drilling past the otherwise excellent Friedel after another Norwich free-kick.

There was still time for the dismissal of the returning Tom Huddlestone who was red carded after a 50-50 challenge with Jonny Howson. Referee Mark Halsey (who endured a slapstick final 20 minutes) will probably look back at that decision through a gap between his fingers.

After a promising but unrewarded start at Newcastle, the Andre Villas-Boas era is misfiring. Many seasoned supporters around me, including the measured ones, felt the Portuguese would be gone by Christmas. Thankfully, David Pleat is still available. Like the dizzied Juande Ramos before him, AVB is a flashy, ‘designer’ signing favoured by Levy, yet under his stewardship top class players are playing listlessly, without cohesion or understanding. His fault or Levy’s window? Like a hermaphrodite, it’s a bit of both. True Spurs fans will cheer and persevere regardless.