Does the Covid-19 Debacle Mark a Nadir in ENIC’s tenure?

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The Spurs hierarchy have long cut a polarizing figure among Spurs fans. Could their latest missteps during the global crisis prove a tipping point?

The coronavirus and its myriad repercussions have thrown up a challenge unlike any witnessed by modern society. From healthcare and agriculture, to Silicon Valley and Wall Street, no industry, no aspect of life, has been left untouched. The sporting world, whilst not the first thing on people’s minds, has been thrown into disarray. Football has been hit particularly hard, with many smaller clubs battling to stay afloat, and even established clubs across the continent feeling the pinch on a scale few likely ever envisaged. Within the cossetted world of the Premier League, the sport’s richest, most popular competition, it was widely believed that individual clubs would be mostly immune, able to weather the worst of the coming storm. The vast riches afforded by the lucrative overseas and domestic TV contracts would provide a sizable buffer, insulating them from the surge of social and economic effects to which the public would be exposed, and shielding them from the fallout…

Not so, it turned out, for Tottenham Hotspur.

Condemnation was swift and far reaching, and rightly so…

The month of April saw Daniel Levy and the board of Tottenham Hotspur embroiled in controversy and ill feeling, as accusations of greed and indifference continued to eat away at the club’s reputation. Condemnation was swift and far reaching, and rightly so. The board was inundated with pleas to reverse course from fans, media, politicians — even the players themselves. Only when the upswell of criticism reached a fever pitch and became too much to bear, did the club backtrack on its decision to furlough its non-playing staff and slash the wages of much of their workforce. The question, however, was obvious: was the damage already done?

For a club that claims to be committed to the regeneration of its local community, acutely aware of its place in society, what transpired over the past few weeks has either been a gross mishap, or a brutal exposure of true form; a stark reminder of where the club’s priorities truly lie.

Tottenham fans have long held a love-hate relationship with the club’s hierarchy. While thankful for stabilizing the club, and bringing them out of the financial troubles that plagued Alan Sugar’s turbulent regime, many cannot help but wonder what things might have been like with more ambitious owners — ones who seemed as focused, and attentive, to things on the pitch, as off it. Thus while some worship Levy as an economic genius and laud him as a savior of the club, many have long seen him as little more than an aristocratic Mike Ashley, a skinnier, more refined equivalent of the Newcastle chairman — Ashley dressed in a fine suit. For them it came as no real surprise to see that the first two football clubs to enact furloughing of non-playing staff were none other than Spurs, and Newcastle. Ashley and Levy, for all their superficial differences, are two peas in a pod, kindred spirits; men who love money far more than football.

For both men, forcing low-paid workers to take a pay-cut isn’t an act in isolation, but rather part of a wider trend in a chronic aversion to spending money and investing in their clubs — at least in things that don’t yield an immediate return. So is there a connection between the failed transfers, the unwillingness to spend on their football teams, to repay the fans’ good faith of the past barren few decades, and their reticence in supporting the lower-paid members of their staff? Digging a little deeper, at least with regards to Tottenham, it’s hard not to see.

Is there a connection between the failed transfers, the unwillingness to spend on their football teams…and their reticence in supporting the lower-paid members of their staff?

This is, after all, a board who have hung numerous managers out to dry over the past two decades. Starting with Martin Jol in 2007, a warm, affable man who understood the club and its traditions and developed a deep bond with his fanbase, only to be cruelly informed of his sacking during a UEFA cup match against Getafe. After more failed appointments, Harry Redknapp came in and built on Jol’s foundations, taking the club into the Champions League for the first time in its history. Yet, once again, when the time came to push on, to invest some money in the playing squad to move to the next level, Levy and ENIC baulked. That crucial January window, when the club — for the first time in decades — was genuinely close to challenging at the top of the Premier League, will live long in the memory. The team of Modric, Bale, and Van Der Vaart was tantalizingly close, keeping pace with the Manchester clubs right through the new year. The common consensus was that the team was 1-2 players away from a genuine, sustained challenge for the title. Redknapp asked for Carlos Tevez and Gary Cahill, and was instead handed Louis Saha and Ryan Nelson, both on free transfers. The episode serves as a microcosm of Levy’s tenure, where off the field as much as on, the club appear to be perennially so near, and yet so far. Levy has carved out a reputation for being parsimonious, for driving a hard bargain — always trying to “win” at every deal he enters into. But it’s hard not to ponder the cost of his brinkmanship, to wonder where the club might have been — and what they might have won — had a few more of his managers’ targets actually been landed.

…off the field as much as on it, the club appear to be perennially so near, and yet so far.

The list of players who almost joined is long and extensive: Luis Suarez, Eden Hazard, Sadio Mane, and Georginio Wijnaldum were all wanted by various managers. More recently, the likes of Jack Grealish, Paulo Dybala and Bruno Fernandes have slipped through Levy’s grasp. Many of these players went on to join our closest rivals, helping them to win titles and silverware Tottenham can only dream of while Levy pursued cheaper, less sought after options. But this is Levy’s ethos, always trying to do things on the cheap, scrimping on every penny; providing the bare minimum, and expecting the extraordinary. The remit for any prospective manager has long been clear: champions league, on a championship budget.

Given the constraints, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Pochettino actually managed the feat; defying gravity and turning water into wine for almost five years. Yet his ill-fated reign serves as a cautionary tale on how to destroy a promising football team. Fans were forced to watch the best team in a generation, led by the best manager since Burkinshaw, disintegrate and implode without so much as a single trophy. Standing still — in life, as in football — inevitably means going backwards. And so it was for Tottenham. Season after season Pochettino implored the board for some backing, to act like a big club, to start investing in quality players, to strengthen what everyone in football knew was a paper thin squad. Time and time again, Levy refused, preferring instead to stand still, allowing the squad to stagnate, and dooming Pochettino to an ultimately ignominious exit. By the end of his reign, such was the degree of the rot within the club — within the squad he had overseen — that it was almost merciful to part ways with him.

This latest faux pas, committed in the face of such an overwhelming global crisis, has ensured that the club have become famous. For all the wrong reasons.

Analyzing each of Levy’s managerial appointments, there’s a common theme, a familiar pattern throughout, one that unfolds in a fairly predictable cycle. The club hires a coach, oversees an initial round of (usually minimal) investment, then sits back and watches as things slowly unravel. Pochettino was the most glaring, most damning example of this, but he was merely the latest in a long line of managers to fall victim to ENIC’s now patented strategy. How many other clubs habitually provide their managers with so little in terms of support, regardless of performances, before discarding them in order to remove the inevitable glare from themselves? Again Newcastle is one of the few that come to mind. Perhaps the most incredible part is that somehow, at Spurs, the strategy has largely worked. Sheltered in his plush North London environs, Levy has managed to escape much of the scrutiny that the likes of Ashley are subjected to — both from his own fans, and the media at large.

Maybe this good fortune led to hubris, a belief that he could get away with anything, resulting in the sort of botched PR move we saw in the aftermath of Covid-19. The world’s 8th richest club, owned by a billionaire tax exile, forcing its lowest paid workers to take a pay cut? Unsurprisingly the move didn’t sit well. This monumental faux pas, committed in the face of such an overwhelming global crisis — at a time when the world was supposed to have been banding together — entrenched the club as a fixture within the news cycle. Levy’s single-minded preoccupation with profits and balance sheets, and failure to grasp the bigger picture, ensured that the club became famous the world over … just for all the wrong reasons.

Should anyone have been surprised by what transpired? Not if you’ve been watching over the past 20 years. But larger questions remain. Is this part of a larger issue with ENIC’s ownership? And more pertinently, is this a harbinger of what’s to come under Levy’s stewardship, where financial austerity and prudence always appears to come before the success of the football club?

One can only hope that lessons have been learned.

4 thoughts on “Does the Covid-19 Debacle Mark a Nadir in ENIC’s tenure?”

  1. This is the problem with Levy. If a club is asking for £25m for a young player that the manager / scouts say is a future superstar (like Hazard/Suarez at the time) Levy will wait out the transfer window and try to get the player for £15 with payments spread over 5 years or something like that. In the meantime the selling club just get pissed off and exhausted at Levys obtuse behavior. The agent and player gets frustrated and Liverpool / Chelsea or another club come in and slap down £25m on the table the same day. Hazard & Saurez could’ve been resold for £250m. Levy isn’t even a good businessman. He has to go.

    1. WorldofHotspur

      Hi Phil – you’re exactly right. Levy has a habit of chronically undervaluing our targets, putting in derisory offers, and hoping that the selling club just caves to his demands. And yes, even from a purely financial, business perspective, it’s not smart, because resale value on top talents is invariably more than in the bargain basement raids he loves to sign. In the long term this philosophy hurts us badly, and is the major reason why we fail so often to sign top players.

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