Monday, 29 February 2016

Every Game is a Cup Final

At around 4pm on Sunday 28th February, I thought I might have a heart attack. I felt giddy and light-headed and strangely exhausted. A bit of research concluded I had a touch of altitude sickness.

Let me put this into some context. My beloved Spurs had been as high as 3rd in 2012 and were quietly being talked about as outside challengers for the title; regardless of what followed, Spurs did something I've grown very familiar with, they dashed my expectations with insipid performances, dropped points and a failure to keep a huge lead of their North London rivals. They eventually limped into 4th place - a fantastic achievement until Chelsea - who finished 6th - won the Champions League and deprived us the place at Europe's top table we just about deserved.

When this title talk began, in January 2012, my eyebrows took on an almost permanent Spock, gradually wilting as Spurs became Spursy. It really was downhill all the way after that. Well, not exactly 'downhill' because finishing 5th, 6th and 5th hardly shows a massive decline. I expect fans of at least 86 other football league clubs would be heartbroken for us to have finished so poorly while playing mind-numbingly dull football.

The one thing any anally-retentive fan will point to were the number of lost points to teams that true challengers would beat. The 'if only' games that every year Spurs fans point to against relegation-threatened teams where we got done over. Every so often I'd find myself more worried about playing Villa than Arsenal and that was all down to expectations and hope: I expected us to win, I hoped we wouldn't screw up. I was disappointed more often than I care to remember.

Whenever Spurs have done well, the next hurdle always seemed like a step too far. Ever since Lasagne-gate some say, but I remember back in the early 1980s when a win would have put us top in a three-way battle with the two Liverpool clubs; instead we turned a lead into a defeat and ended up a long distance behind in 3rd. Smaller hurdles - win this match go 4th, win this game go 3rd and always the pressure seemed to be too much and Spursy turned up.

At the end of September, Spurs were 100-1 to win the league; they'd had an indifferent start but had only lost one game, the problem was they were drawing too many and not killing games off - a bit Spursy and pretty much expected. With the general lack of transfer activity (lots of deadwood shipped out and only a bunch of kids brought in) most pundits believed Spurs were in for another season of transition and very few had them challenging for a top 4 spot let alone an unlikely title tilt.

The draws kept on coming and while Leicester City were winning plaudits and more than a few strange looks, Spurs were just beavering away, dropping points but not losing games and then they broke back into the top 6 and from that point on something clicked.

The false dawns came and went this time. A bad defeat at home to a woeful Newcastle could have been the catalyst to a drop in form, but the young team came out and put that defeat behind them. They had been better in every department that day apart from scoring and this was to be repeated twice more at home before January was over. Leicester performed an admirable smash and grab victory to make everyone realise the Foxes were actually proper challengers and Spurs, well, they would be content with 4th.

After Leicester came Leicester and then Leicester; one draw  and one win (both in the cup) finally saw us get the better of them and since that league defeat the team has moved up a gear; only another home defeat in the FA Cup has blemished a perfect record as Spurs seem to have forgotten how to lose and that's (whisper this) usually the marker for future champions.

In February, Spurs went 2nd. It was almost comical. Expectations for the season had been dashed in the most contrary way, we aren't just punching way above our weight, we actually look like the best team in the league (with apologies to Leicester, but we do). The altitude hasn't bothered the team and neither it seems has the once cursed Europa League and their insane fitness levels mean they look fresher (especially at the end) having played four games in two weeks than the team who had a fortnight in Spain.

Revenge against a very competent Fiorentina side was as one-sided and easy as the fixture was for our opponents the same time last year and then a resilient Swansea decided to park a bus and see if we could break them down. I've watched Spurs dominate games this season without the reward and it looked like the old frailties were going to resurface on Sunday, but at no point during that game did I think we would lose; you don't have 34 attempts on goal without one or two sneaking past an ex-Gooner goalkeeper with a point to prove.

Then Spurs were made favourites for the title after that win. Favourites. Think about that. Favourites to win the Premier League. Wow.

I think the turning point in this team's development happened in the aftermath of their League Cup final defeat to Chelsea. Mauricio Pochettino made the team go and stand and watch Chelsea pick up their trophy and celebrate. I thought at the time it was an inspired move and that was when I started to believe in the manager.

And then I look at the table and I get giddy again. Usually I'd laugh and expect the fall, but is this what fans of challengers feel? Is it right to think my team is playing so well it's the other team that needs to be worried? I'm not confident, but I'll bet you neither are Leicester fans, while Arsenal and Man City fans are thinking practically - regardless of what the bookies say, our teams have won this before, logic dictates one of us will surely win it again and the heroics of Spurs and the Foxes will be consigned to the fond memories of their fans. Except, if I was a fan of either of these chasing teams I'd be worried how much longer my club can not play like champions and still stand a chance?

This wonderfully crazy season (unless you're a Villa fan) is giving neutrals the competition they all want, although I'm sure Chelsea and Man United fans aren't as happy as they'd like to be, but every team goes through transitional stages and if they were to piss and moan I'm sure everyone else will just point to their success and tell them to share the love.

So with a terrifying 10 weeks in front of us, where the Europa League and other teams' own fixture congestion also means we have Monday night matches, Thursday night, and everything points to us facing that 'catch up' which the pundits reckon is the psychological disadvantage to clubs in these kind of positions. I can't help feeling that this will spur them on and that should scare the crap out of teams we're facing. Swansea looked utterly shell-shocked from the constant bombardment of their half by a skilful and youthful team so full of confidence at their own ability, the Welsh will not have a more difficult game again this season. You could forecast that it'll all come crashing down, but that doesn't look like happening to these kids. They play like champions and if they can continue to play like champions for the next 11 matches, there's a good chance they could achieve something I've always secretly known I would never see.

But... While that's a good point to stop, think about this: if Leicester City is not a flash in the pan and they improve; if Pep Guardiola revolutionises Man City; if Arsenal can show some ambition; if Man Utd get Jose Mourinho; if Chelsea bounce back to the level we expect from them; if Everton can reinvest some of this investment money; if West Ham under Bilic can thrive at the Olympic Stadium; if Jurgen Klopp really can turn Liverpool back into a top team; if Southampton continue their improvements; if Stoke continue to attract great players and learn some consistency; if every club in the Premier League has almost a billion quid to spend and if Spurs can keep Pochettino, Alli, Kane, Lloris, heck all the team and can invest in clever squad players - can you imagine just how exciting next season is going to be?