The Great Disillusionment Of Tottenham Hotspur

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Rarely has the club’s fanbase felt more detached from the club.

Fans are the lifeblood of any sporting institution. From baseball to the NFL, rugby to cricket, the same rings true. Football is no exception. Supporters far and wide — those who live minutes from the ground, to those in remote, far-flung locations, are essential to the financial and social solvency of any football club.

Fans of Tottenham Hotspur are used to suffering, almost conditioned to expect disappointment. But even for a club without a major trophy in over a decade, who have endured more false dawns and defeats snatched from the jaws of victory than should be humanly possible, the state of affairs prior to the global shutdown was hard to stomach. The team had grown stale, rudderless, seemingly bereft of aim, purpose, or hope. The signature flair that epitomized even Tottenham’s most incompetent teams had long dried up, leaving something altogether more cold and insipid in its place. The coronavirus crisis, from a purely sporting perspective, came as a respite for both fans and players alike.

Even for a club without a major trophy in over a decade…the state of affairs prior to shutdown was hard to stomach.

Replacing Pochettino, the most popular manager in decades, with the most divisive manager since George Graham, was a risky move, and one that has already created rifts and discord throughout N17. Even ignoring his obvious ties to fierce rivals Chelsea, Mourinho’s grinding, pragmatic style sits in stark opposition to the club’s tradition of attractive, attacking football. To say that the natives are restless, would be an understatement.

Reasons for disenchantment

While the bungled handling of the Covid-19 crisis might have marked a nadir in ENIC’s tenure, supporters’ disillusionment with ENIC’s ownership has been festering for some time. As our previous article explored, it’s almost impossible not to draw a connection between the sort of PR debacle we saw in refusing to pay the wages and support the livelihood of its most vulnerable employees during a time of crisis, and repeatedly failing to support their managerial appointments with adequate investment in the football team.

At a recent meeting with the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust, Daniel Levy was asked why, when the club always seems to be two or three players away from glory, the board never seem to make the effort to take that next step? Why, when the new stadium was supposed to usher in a new era of competing, to no longer have to live in the shadows of any of our rivals, they appear further away than ever. His response was both shocking and illuminating:

There’s no correlation between spending money and success.

Daniel Levy

There may not be — at least directly — but there certainly isn’t one between not spending and success, which appears to be the implied belief. It’s also not what you tell a fanbase who have not seen a major trophy lifted since 2008, who have just seen their best manager in a generation depart — in no small part due to the chronic, repeated failure to replenish his squad. A fanbase who have just watched one of the freshest, most dynamic young teams in recent premier league history end up with absolutely nothing to show for it. It is almost impossible to read Levy’s comments as anything other than an attempt to gaslight a fanbase, trying to convince them that, despite all evidence to the contrary, spending money on quality players isn’t going to help anything. This, while overseeing a squad literally falling apart at the seams. A team shorn of hope and identity; a defense that can’t keep clean sheets, a midfield that barely exists and one, solitary, frequently injured striker on the books. This, despite posting revenues and profits higher than virtually all of their immediate rivals. Imagine if Malcolm Glazer or John Henry had said this? How would the respective fan bases of Manchester United and Liverpool have reacted?

Somehow, Levy gets away with it at Tottenham. Perhaps the fanbase has been numbed into accepting mediocrity? Twelve years without a major trophy is quite the barren spell. But it’s worth remembering that Tottenham are a club with a proud and illustrious history – one of only two clubs in England to have won at least one major trophy in every decade since the 1950s, and the first British team to ever win European trophy. Indeed, Levy and ENIC have now presided over the longest post-war drought in the club’s history.

What might have been

One only has to look to Liverpool, and Fenway Sports Group, for an example of how a coherent, comprehensive approach can yield genuine success – and in a fraction of the time. FSG are not a charity. They, too, are an investment firm. But they possessed the basic ambition to respect the traditions of the club they inherited, and were prepared to invest the requisite financial and logistical capital to grow their brand by winning things. The respective levels of ambition and competency could not be more different. They have also showed the ability to adapt and learn quickly from their mistakes, something ENIC — whether through intransigence or willful neglect — have yet to prove.

Initially, upon arriving in England, John Henry believed that he could employ the same moneyball tactics at Liverpool that had worked to such great success with the Boston Red Sox, the other major sporting franchise under his ownership. Within a couple of seasons, however, the approach was scrapped, and Henry was forced to change tack, realizing the same methods that worked in baseball, simply wouldn’t work in football. The club switched to an emphasis on youth, under 23 players who showed potential and fit with their style of play. Before long, this strategy was also eschewed, and replaced with a directive to find the finished articles. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson were signed within a few months of each other, plugging the two most gaping holes in the team, and shattering the world records for both a central defender and goal keeper. The rest, as we all know, is history. Liverpool’s resulting success is testament to FSG’s ability to evolve and adapt their approach — not over decades, but within the space of a couple of seasons. Despite having twenty years to figure it out, Daniel Levy and ENIC are still struggling to figure out their identity in the transfer market. Scouts, coaches, analysts and managers — under a variety of different directors of football and hierarchies — have come and gone, with no clear discernible strategy or connective tissue left in their wake. What remains is a patchwork of disparate ideas and solutions, driven by an underlying emphasis on saving money, but little else in terms of style or direction.

They (FSG) have also showed the ability to adapt and learn quickly from their mistakes, something ENIC — whether through intransigence or willful neglect — have yet to prove.

Amidst Liverpool’s rise it’s often forgotten that Spurs were far superior for much of the past decade, finishing above them in eight of the past ten seasons. While Liverpool languished in the upper mid-table, Spurs had firmly established themselves as a Champions League club, a fixture in the top four. Indeed, Klopp’s game is almost ripped straight from the Pochettino playbook, high press, high energy, forcing opponents into mistakes. While Klopp did have success with his gegenpress in Dortmund, Pochettino was the first to implement this style of football in the premier league. At Spurs he took this ethos to the next level, leading a team of starlets poised for domination on the global stage. But too many failed opportunities to build upon this success, and a lack of urgency even with replacing players who aged out or left, meant that other clubs were invariably able to catch up. While Daniel Levy refused to provide Pochettino with the 1-2 players needed to take the next step, John Henry obliged. The loss in opportunity here, the self-inflicted stasis, is what makes the pain for Tottenham fans even more acute.

All supporters can ask for is that everyone is pulling in the same direction, for everyone from the chairman to the ground keeper to do their very best to improve results on the pitch. Every football club in England is desperate to build upon their relative positions. For relegation teams this means getting to mid-table. For mid-table clubs this means trying to push into the top 6 — and for top 4 clubs this means doing everything in their power to try to win titles. Sadly that is a distant premise at Spurs. Tottenham, it seems, were a club perfectly content to hover around the top 4, never quite willing to take that extra step needed to become champions. 

A Conflict of interests

The challenge for the Tottenham board was to consolidate and build on Pochettino’s success, to recruit and acquire the final pieces of the puzzle needed to take the team to the next level, and provide a platform for genuine, sustained glory. Instead, Levy spent his time recruiting the likes of Lady Gaga, Guns N’ Roses and Anthony Joshua; a host of disparate entities who were all tapped up by the club to perform at its gleaming new venue. Even the board’s public courting of the NFL has raised eyebrows within N17, with many wondering how this stands to help the actual football club. Thus, ENIC have been very busy; just not in ways that benefit Tottenham on the pitch. The aforementioned acts have precisely nothing to do with football; which is, after all, the sole reason that the club exists, and the purported reason that the new ground was built in the first place. Pop-stars and boxers are great, but in the context of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, they are merely money spinning ploys, auxiliary revenue streams designed to line the coffers of Daniel Levy and Joe Lewis — two men who display little interest in seeing that money reinvested in the actual football team. Thus for fans skeptical about tearing down White Hart Lane, their historic old stadium, and replacing it with something that while architecturally impressive, is yet to display any of the soul or atmosphere of the old ground, these latest moves do not sit well. Indeed, they would seem to buttress the theory that football is and always has been, an afterthought.

Newspaper clippings from ENIC’s initial takeover in 2001 are rudely instructive. Levy asserts that football clubs are wildly underexploited, and aims to alter this paradigm. Covid-19, and the ensuing global crisis did not force ENIC to act out of character, it merely just exposed them for who they truly are. And if resting on their laurels, standing still and allowing their teams to atrophy — if cutting corners and saving pennies — is their entire M.O, should anyone have been even remotely surprised by Tottenham’s millionaire owners asking the poorest members of his workforce to take a pay-cut? That ENIC’s ruthless thirst for profit, the self-professed reason for buying the club in the first place, then extended beyond the manicured grass of the football pitch to the homes and lives of those who nourish and nurture its existence?

Levy asserts that football clubs are wildly underexploited, and aims to alter this paradigm.

All of this contributes to arguably the greatest sense of disullionment in many Tottenham supporters’ lives. Even for those who grew up in the dark ages of the 90’s, where the team’s ineptitude often veered towards the comical, what’s happening now is hard to accept. Fans are growing tired of the false dawns and pervading sense of futility. Any air of excitement and anticipation is now invariably tinged with pessimism, an overriding fear that the team is constantly racing against its own self-induced decay, that the necessary reinforcements will never arrive — certainly not fast enough to stave off the rise of others. This is, after all, the hallmark of the Levy era, epitomized by the slow death of Pochettino’s young guns. All of that promise, that raw, unbridled optimism, reduced to nothing as the club’s stasis and team’s collapse became too much to bear.

Between the misguided handling of Covid-19, and the recent comments made by chairman Daniel Levy — seeming to justify and almost portend a continuation of the mistakes that have plagued ENIC’s ownership, fans can be forgiven for feeling a detachment with Tottenham Hotspur. Many have not forgotten that Levy was also the man behind an ill-fated attempt to uproot the club and everything it had ever built, to Stratford. The man who consistently keeps ticket prices amongst the highest in Europe, while chronically delivering a sub-par product on the pitch. These are undoubtedly testing times for Daniel Levy and the club’s board. Pochettino offered hope of a return to glory, a glimpse of a brave new world. Sadly it was merely a case of history repeating itself, as the club’s preoccupation with balancing the books scuppered the greatest chance for success in a generation. 

In the 1980’s, Tottenham’s last great trophy winning manager, Keith Burkinshaw, himself began to grow increasingly disillusioned with the direction the club was heading:

There used to be a football club over there

Keith Burkinshaw

He’s believed to have lamented, casting a rueful glance back at the wrought iron gates of the famous old ground. One can only imagine what the likes of Burkinshaw must think today.

1 thought on “The Great Disillusionment Of Tottenham Hotspur”

  1. Archie Tashjian

    The article is spot on and reflects how many of us now feel I.e. distanced from the club we love and wishing the day will come when we are rid of ENIC and Levy

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