Football: Despair over rise of the minnow

By Paul Lewis

Leicester City training session at Belvoir Drive Training Complex on April 8, 2016. Photo / Getty Images
Leicester City training session at Belvoir Drive Training Complex on April 8, 2016. Photo / Getty Images

If you see someone slumped in an attitude of prolonged despair this weekend, look the other way and, whatever you do, don't mention Leicester. He's probably a Tottenham Hotspur supporter.

This English Premier League season is the most torturous of times for long-suffering Spurs supporters. Over 55 years after they last won the league title, this is the best Spurs team since the 'glory, glory days' that define the club. Heading into this weekend, they were a long second behind Leicester City, darling of the underdogs and Spurs may fall short, yet again.

The frustration this time is compounded by the fact they are being denied not by one of the wealthy gorillas of the Premier League but by Leicester's little-known squad, a team neutrals are cheering on when, in other times, they might have backed Tottenham.

It's many years since a small boy went to the cinema in Papatoetoe and was entranced by a news bulletin showing a bunch of Poms in white jerseys and black shorts doing clever things with a football.

The 1960-61 Spurs team was the first in the 20th century to "do the double" (league and FA Cup), coached by the legendary Bill Nicholson and with unforgettable players like Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay and John White - the latter tragically killed by lightning on a golf course in 1964.

The glory, glory days are a triumph and a burden. Season after season, Spurs flattered to deceive when it came to the league title. Periods of brilliance, games where they could wipe the floor with anyone, were followed - often in the next fixture - by jaw-dropping inadequacy and defeat at the hands of lesser clubs.

The glory, glory days became a cat-tailed whip Tottenham fans metaphorically beat themselves with, especially trying to live up to the attack-first philosophy of the side of '61 and the great Bill Nick's quotes like: "It's no use just winning, we've got to win well" and "It's better to have more fans watching football the way they like it played, rather than a few fans watching football the way we like it played." If they score four goals, we score five.

Somehow, Nicholson's legacy got a bit warped; the winning part submerged by the style bit. Tottenham became known for a lack of steel and defences with more holes than fishnet stockings, in spite of the likes of Cyril Knowles, one of the first overlapping fullbacks, whose exploits led to the song Nice one, Cyril scaling the UK pop charts of the time. Even when Spurs imported good defenders, they mystifyingly became crap.

Consistency over a full Premier League season was always dodgy and the planets never aligned again, not even when outstanding players like Paul Gascoigne, Glenn Hoddle, Gareth Bale, Graham Roberts, Jimmy Greaves, Pat Jennings, Ray Clemence, Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa, Gary Lineker, Teddy Sheringham, Ledley King, Terry Venables, Chris Waddle and Jurgen Klinsmann came up through the ranks or joined the club.

The glory, glory days seemed to be followed only by gory, gory days.

Oh, yes, Spurs became known as a great FA Cup side. The small boy from Papatoetoe had one of the great days of his life, working in the UK, at the press box at Wembley when Ricky Villa scored one of the best FA Cup goals of all time to beat Manchester City in an FA Cup final replay in 1981. Unless memory fails (it's possible ... a large amount was drunk later), we ended up at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in Soho, trying not to get thrown out.

Spurs were first to win the FA Cup eight times (a record since broken by Manchester United and Arsenal) but the Cup has lost some of its credibility. The league is a much more powerful symbol of superiority.

Manager Mauricio Pochettino has succeeded in building a team with the most belief in themselves since the days of the double, with a crisp, European-style passing game and, hallelujah, a defence.

Going into this weekend's matches, Spurs had shipped only 25 goals in 32 matches - the meanest defence in the league. It is an astonishing statistic for any long-term Spurs supporter to contemplate. They had also scored more goals than any other team - yet are seven points adrift of Leicester City, the team of nobodies managed by 64-year-old Premier League and Chelsea reject Claudio Ranieri, riding a swell of approval from underdog lovers everywhere.

Neutrals are laughing at big clubs who spent gazillions - Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and, yes, I guess Spurs - being upstaged by 'Faceless United', Leicester spending the same amount on their entire team as Manchester City did on midfielder Kevin de Bruyne.

Leicester have the better run-in, although both have to play Manchester United (Spurs tonight) and Chelsea in the six games remaining.

Leicester so far are holding their nerve; Spurs could only draw 1-1 at Liverpool last week - a match renewing fears among the Spurs faithful that, as someone once said: "The fluffy newborn chick of hope will tumble from the eggshell of life and splash into the hot frying pan of doom."

- Herald on Sunday

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