To hope is to do

There weren’t any tank tops in the new shop.

A billion-pound club stadium with the most seats in London, the largest single stand in England, and the longest bar in the UK running the literal width of a football pitch, and the damn shop doesn’t even sell a vest with the words ‘To Dare Is To Do’ emblazoned across the chest for 35 quid.

It makes you wonder what you’re paying for.

Lionel Messi, following the finest individual performance I have seen in person. Credit: Sports Illustrated

It certainly wasn’t the night in October where we limped to a 4-2 defeat against Barcelona, leaving us rooted to the bottom of the group without a point from two games. They were everything we weren’t: clinical where we were wasteful, inspired where we were monotonous; explosive where we were static.

Even the broken plays shattered in their favour. A moment of madness from Lloris in the first minute gifted Coutinho a goal, as he came barrelling off his line to chase down a through ball; while a moment of madness from Rakitic in the 27th minute saw him volley a ball level with his own head against the post and in, perhaps the most delightful goal I have ever seen in person.

But the starkest difference was in the most delightful player I have ever seen in person, and a man I was then convinced is the finest player of his generation. Even before his brace in the second half, Lionel Messi made the pass to set up both of the first two goals, and his performance was nothing short of a dazzling reflection of a lethargic, stretched showing from the home side. Missing Vertonghen, Dele and Eriksen, without a sense of control or purpose in central midfield, and lacking the kind of relentless hope such a quality as Messi’s can conjure, we resembled ghosts in our white kits, flittering in and out of reality, wailing around the fringes of the visceral, beautiful mortals around them still in their prime, embittered and haggard as life flashed past them, not through them.

This was it. The project had fizzled out at the finish line. We couldn’t compete with the best, we were squatters in a drafty, unfriendly farmhouse, while our rivals were advancing on fronts domestic and continental. We were done.

Son Heung-min scores the first goal in the creative-named Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Credit: ODDSbible

It might have been the moment when, an hour and ten minutes after the ceremonies had come to an end, Son Heung-min fired a bouncing, bobbling shot into the Crystal Palace goal to record the first goal at our new stadium, our proper home, a spacecraft made of curved glass and dreams and a thousand lightyears from the farmhouse in west London.

What started with a wall of noise at the Park Lane end and finished with a first league victory in a month was a curious affair, as much an elaborate papering-over of the cracks as it was a solution to a sense of malaise that had gripped the club. We struggled to break down a well-drilled defence, our overly talismanised striker failed to find his range, and we were still playing Danny Rose as a winger and, for all of his varied and impressive talents, the heir to Gareth Bale he is not.

And despite the victory, and the importance of removing that particular psychological barrier of uncertainty as to whether we could win at the new ground, little tangible progress had been made. We were not yet clear of the great rivals from Woolwich, just a point behind us despite being at the start of their rebuilding operation, while we sat half a decade into our project. Chelsea, embroiled as they were in a civil war as an ideologue of a manager tried to squeeze players, the squarest and most independently-minded pegs in the league, into his particularly rounded holes, were also within touching distance of what should have been a team at the end of its cycle.

Hugo Lloris saves a penalty from Sergio Agüero in the Champions League. Credit: Dan Mullan, Getty Images

It looked like it would be the thud six days later, when Lloris flashed some of the skill that balances out the poor decision-making and increasingly fragile performances that have characterised his play for the last few years. With the finest striker of his generation shooting from just 12 yards away, Lloris saved the penalty, on one level preventing Manchester City from picking up a crucial away goal in a knockout tie, and on another, more significant level, filling the new ground with the hope that, maybe, we could do this.

And then, about an hour and a half later, Son again drowned the ground in the sweetest hope, scoring what would be the winning goal on the night against a team that, without exaggeration, has had the wealth of a nation ploughed into it to deliver results on the pitch.

While the tie was a predictably scrappy, heart-stopping affair, Kane limping off in the first leg and City scoring four times in the second yet still slipping out of the competition, it was the first leg that was vital. Here, it was all in place: the stadium, all noise and flags and carefully guillotined pieces of white card; the team that was suddenly beginning to look not only like one greater than the sum of its parts, but the greatest possible sum of some, truthfully, rather underwhelming parts; and the hope that the finest manager of his generation, the most ambitious club of its era, and the coffers of Abu Dhabi could still be overcome on a patch of grass just off White Hart Lane.

It was at this point that we could tentatively have said that we made it. Despite the tempestuous move to the new stadium, restricted playing budget and the baffling increased reliance on players like Oliver Skipp in the latter stages of the Champions League, we were on course for another top-four finish, and had reached the promised land of the Champions League semi-final.

Lucas Moura leads the celebrations against Ajax. Credit: Matthew Childs, Reuters

But then we travelled to Amsterdam.

The first three quarters of the tie were a sobering affair, as we were steadily picked apart by a team that looked for all the world like an idealised version of ourselves. Young, aggressive, confident on the ball and utterly fearless, having themselves dispatched one of the tournament favourites in an earlier round, and a club with a certain romantic history woven through the laces of its players’ boots.

Our side looked like it had reached the end of its rope, meanwhile, a squad stretched beyond reason that had defied every prediction just to get this far, but was now reaching the logical end of its campaign. Our best player was injured. Our midfield diamond was batting his eyelashes at Real Madrid, with our manager rumoured to be following him out the door. We had lost at home, given up the precious away goal we had worked so hard to deny City a few weeks earlier.

And we had had our moment. The three goals against City in Manchester were an astonishing accomplishment by themselves, and the drama of the home side’s late disallowed goal, breaking as many hearts as dreams it realised in an instant, had provided us with a story that would reverberate down the aesthetically pleasing terraces and sensibly-spaced concourses of the new ground for a century. We had done enough. The journey was over.

Except, of course, that it was not. Whether luck, fate, or the result of an increasingly economical and infrastructural top-heaviness in European club football that has made elite teams comically bad at defending, mind-bending comebacks have become the norm in football. PSG, Barcelona and now Ajax had now all fallen to improbable recoveries that seemed to owe more to divine intervention, or a supreme force of destiny gently prodding loose balls off the chest of Fernando Llorente and into the path of Lucas Moura, than anything base and human such as tactics, training or human endeavour.

If Ajax had held on, they would have been worthy finalists, and we would have gone home with our heads held high and our hearts filled, having done all that could be reasonably expected to deliver the glory we so craved. Yet we scored in the 186th minute of a match originally conceived to last no longer than an hour and a half, and now destiny called.

Harry Kane walks dejectedly past the Champions League trophy. Credit: Sky Sports

Of course, it was not to be.

On one level, the strange crumbling of Tottenham in the biggest game in the club’s history had its roots in the human, in the reasonable. We started the game with two players, both named Harry and both unfit, and neither were truly effective. A thoroughly human error from Moussa Sissoko – while the handball law is a failed bastard of a rule these days, he had no business holding his arm out like that – gifted Liverpool the lead. And the Reds needed simply to defend competently against this overstretched and unfit Tottenham attack, having only the world’s most expensive defender and second-most expensive goalkeeper to do so.

But on another, to win would have been inconceivable. We were spent physically, yes, but also emotionally. The dramatic victories over Manchester City and Ajax had drained whatever forces of destiny had been pulled from the winds of fortune into our favour, and as we took our seats in the new stadium to watch the game on television screens roughly the size of the old stadium, vegan burger in my hand and overpriced Spurs hat on my head, this felt not like the end of a great campaign, but the beginning.

This would be the place – and these would be the snacks – that would be the backdrop for, if all goes well, a bright future of exciting football, glorious victories, bitter defeats and begrudging sales of our best players to Real Madrid. It would feel wrong to have won the greatest prize, to be the defending champions, forced to fend off challengers scrambling up the glass walls of our stadium with a pointed stick. The club feels like nothing so responsive, so passive and so defensive; it feels like the world is at our feet, and the naive optimist in me is hoping that we might just be able to realise these dreams.

This season we didn’t win everything, but for the first time, I’m not afraid that we won’t win anything.

And that’s what we’re paying for.

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