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A year ago, Tottenham Hotspur were preparing to play in a European Cup Final in Madrid. In the time since 1 June 2019, everything has changed.
Tottenham Hotspur’s run to the 2019 Champions League final was the culmination not only of an extraordinary campaign, but an extraordinary five years under manager Mauricio Pochettino. When Pochettino was appointed, many Spurs fans – and, it was rumoured, club chairman Daniel Levy – had been casting admiring glances at Louis van Gaal. But Van Gaal took the reins at Manchester United on 19 May 2014. When, eight days later, Pochettino was appointed by Spurs, many were underwhelmed. Sure, he had a reputation as an up-and-coming manager, but many wondered if his ability to nurture up-and-coming players, rather than demand big buys, was the deciding factor in his appointment.
The reality in 2014 was that the idea one of the world’s biggest managerial names would take over at Spurs was, let’s say ambitious, at best. Yet by the time Pochettino left Spurs just five months after leading them out in Madrid, not only was he being touted for the top jobs in world football, but Spurs were able to secure the services of the most successful manager of the age to replace him.
Pochettino did indeed develop young talent, forming a team that for two seasons at its height played what was acknowledged to be the most attractive, exciting football in the English top flight. He made Spurs into Champions League regulars, the team challenged for the league title for the first time in decades and, perhaps most extraordinary of all for a club the rest of football seemed to delight in disliking, he made Tottenham Hotspur likeable again.
When I was a kid, growing up during the 1970s and watching the team of the early 1980s, it wasn’t unusual to find fans of other sides naming Spurs as their second team. Spurs had a glamour about them that even the decline of the mid-70s didn’t quite rub off. Attractive football, a bit of swash and buckle, entertainment for the eye and the heart, likeable characters. In a time before the combination of commercial hype and social media platforms meant every rivalry was ramped up to the nth degree, people didn’t mind admitting they liked teams other than the one they supported. Even if they hated them. Hate wasn’t quite such a literal accoutrement then. One of Pochettino’s achievements was to make the Spurs team genuinely likeable.
More importantly, he struck a chord with the club’s own fans. He connected with the best of the past, playing the kind of football the fans loved to see. His teams not only entertained, they thrilled. There was genuine excitement among those lucky enough to watch the team regularly – especially those who remembered the days under Alan Sugar and George Graham where turning up was a chore at best.
In our book One Step from Glory, Alex Fynn and I examined Pochettino’s years at Spurs and told the story of the Champions League run that was to prove the beginning of the end for him. The run is fascinating for two main reasons.
It brought the conflict that defines Spurs into perspective. The tension between success and style had been there even before Danny Blanchflower’s famous but much misunderstood quote about winning with glory, and the longer Pochettino’s stylish side went without lifting a trophy, the more pronounced the tension became. And if you really knew your history, you knew in the weeks leading up to the final that winning would not only put Spurs firmly into the elite group of just 22 clubs who have lifted Europe’s premier trophy, it would once more connect the two components of the conflict into what has always been the point – stylish victory.
The run is also fascinating because it signalled the beginning of the end for Pochettino’s Spurs – and retrospect allows us to see this even more clearly. The truth is that for most of the 2018/19 season, Spurs did not play that well. The Premier League campaign was a shadow of what had gone before, away form in particular was awful. In the Champions League, the club stumbled through the group stage, then turned in a surprisingly thorough and accomplished demolition of Borussia Dortmund.
What followed were two of the most extraordinary ties in the competition’s history, culminating in dramatic second legs at the Etihad Stadium and the Amsterdam Arena. Both matches seemed to encapsulate the season, with victory snatched after self-inflicted defeat seemed certain.
In the three weeks of joy that preceded the club’s first final in Europe’s premier competition, there was a feeling that it was the club’s year. But the falling apart had already begun. Pochettino’s tendency to issue odd statements at key moments had started to grate on even his most devoted supporters, and the bombshell that he may leave the club if they lifted the cup was the oddest and most disruptive of the lot. What was the purpose of it? And come the final, Poch made another decision that will forever be debated. He picked Harry Kane instead of Lucas Moura. Kane had been injured and out of sorts. Moura had scored the hat-trick that secured the Miracle of Amsterdam and was in form. But Kane was fit, and had proved himself one of the top strikers in world football. Moura’s brilliance had more often flickered than illuminated. The decision will be debated as long as people are still interested in debating football.
On the day, Spurs lost after a lacklustre performance against lacklustre opponents. The penalty in the opening minute was debatable. Less debatable was the fact that – as Liverpool fans admitted – their team had turned in one of its worst performances of the year. A Poch team in its prime would have swatted that evening’s Liverpool team aside to lift the trophy. But Liverpool won. End of story.
Pochettino retreated in the weeks after the game. When the following season started, the sense of togetherness was not there. Results and performances were poor. The usual rumours about the backing the club’s board was or wasn’t prepared to give in the transfer market began to swirl. There was a palpable sense of drift and, in the end, Poch was gone. Just like that. Within hours, Jose Mourinho was in his place. An appointment less in tune with what Poch had created or, in the minds of many Spurs fans, the character of the club would have been impossible to make.
Whether or not that move for something different succeeds, only time will tell. And time, as we now know all too well, has been slowed almost to a standstill. Everything seems both so long ago and so far away.
Spurs may yet achieve the success that opens up new vistas. But for now, the first day of June in 2019 remains an iconic moment. Because it was the culmination of a journey, a celebration of an era, a beacon of hope and a confirmation of despair… a mishmash of emotion and a reminder, now, of better times, of crowds and togetherness and joy and atmosphere and noise and bustle and, well, life.
There are some who want to forget. Others who aggressively dismiss any significance, because the day did not deliver a trophy for Spurs. They miss the basic pleasures, the essential joys. In these most challenging of times, the need to recognise and embrace the simple and pure joy of the moment is clearer than ever. It is possible Spurs may have their chance again. It is also possible they won’t for a very long time. But to dismiss the quality of the moment, to deny the treasure such moments constitute, seems even sillier now that reminders of the need to appreciate the good times are so much greater and more prevalent.
One year on and the very concept of glory is in question. But better to have lived and loved the moment than never to have loved at all. Losing the game was one thing, losing the ability to saviour the experience not just of one night in Madrid but of a thrilling five-year journey, seems a longer-lasting pity.
One Step from Glory by Alex Fynn and Martin Cloake tells the story of Mauricio Pochettino’s time at Spurs, the club’s European pedigree, and the extraordinary run to the 2019 Champions League Final. It is published by Pitch Publishing.