When you’ve been waiting for something for 22 years, it’s hard to know how you’ll greet it once it finally arrives.
As the 184th North London derby entered its 88th minute Sunday, I allowed myself to try it on for size. Tottenham Hotspur were going to finish above Arsenal in a Premier League season for the first time since 1994–95. And they were going to do so with four games remaining by beating Arsenal themselves in the final derby at White Hart Lane. Catching Antonio Conte’s relentless Chelsea for the first league title since 1961 is likely just beyond them, but Spurs had finally respected their fans’ wishes for one fairy-tale ending before bulldozers turn White Hart Lane to dust. Just as we turn our home into a fortress, we’re tearing it down.
The 2–0 win meant St. Totteringham’s Day — Arsenal supporters’ godforsaken meme-tastic day of celebration to mark the point at which their lead over Spurs in the table becomes insurmountable — is canceled for at least a year. Allowing myself a seat for the first time since halftime, elated with the sweetest of victories, exhausted like I’d put in a shift at right back, and extravagantly and self-indulgently blue about White Hart Lane’s numbered days — I decided it all felt quite strange.
You see, Tottenham fans are used to seeing happy-ever-afters become worst-case scenarios. Well, not worst case. Relegation’s hot-faced humiliation has been avoided since 1977. There’s been no whiff of financial ruin for more than 25 years. We don’t have to support West Ham United (JK, Hammers fans). But certainly, Spurs followers have built robust coping mechanisms around soccer’s more mortifying scenarios.
Some examples. When Chelsea — who had limped into sixth place domestically — beat Bayern Munich on penalties, in Germany to win the Champions League in 2012, they pinched the Premier League’s final spot for the following season’s competition. In a rule since abolished, back then only four teams per nation were allowed to compete. Spurs finished fourth (a point behind Arsenal, naturally) and dropped into European soccer’s least appetizing consolation prize: the Europa League. “Spurs,” my father said to me, “have become the first club to lose a cup final they weren’t involved in.”
Including that 2011–12 farce, Arsenal beat Spurs to the Champions League promised land by one league position five times in eight campaigns. On the first of those occasions, in 2006, the Spurs team were struck by a norovirus (not a poisoned lasagna as first famously suspected) on the eve of their final fixture and spent 90 minutes vomiting their way to a 2–1 defeat at West Ham. That was an actual thing that happened.
Last season Spurs required a single point from their final two games to finish above Arsenal and secure second place. Mentally spent after their futile Leicester hunt, they managed zero and saw the season off with a 5–1 capitulation to a relegated, 10-man Newcastle United. Also an actual thing that happened.
With all that in mind, this 2016–17 campaign has been a glorious, sexy thing. Spurs have won 16 consecutive home games and are one match from completing an unbeaten farewell season at White Hart Lane. I can finally consider my retaliation to the Arsenal dude at work who graffitis my desk with St. Totteringham’s Day bullshit. My team is meticulously nurtured by a ruthless and masterful tactician. And it’s a side full of fun personalities playing buccaneering, aggressive soccer.
Harry Kane is a homegrown goal-scoring phenomenon whose robotic efficiency means I am often guilty of taking him for granted. (I am so sorry, Harry. I swear I’m over this nonsense). I don’t understand why Toby Alderweireld isn’t marshalling Barcelona’s defense, but he’s ours and you can’t have him. Jan Vertonghen is the world’s most underrated center back. You look at the career renaissances enjoyed by Danny Rose and Kyle Walker and wonder if Mauricio Pochettino is some sort of fullback whisperer. And at 21, Dele Alli has become the EPL’s Russell Westbrook. A strutting, stat-sheet-stuffing tyro who, as the song goes, cost only £5m and is most certainly better than Mesut Özil.
Based on depth of pockets, Spurs have no business being the team to get Conte’s blood pressure up. Tottenham’s wage bill (perhaps the truest reflection of a club’s resources, stature, and ambition) is just the sixth highest in England, one spot below Liverpool and one above Everton. It’s around half of Arsenal’s. The then-world-record fee collected for Gareth Bale in 2013 helped, but the fact Spurs have a net transfer spend of £1m across the last five seasons is astonishing. Manchester City’s, by the by, is £402.5m.
And despite — or perhaps due to — that comparative frugality (we won’t dwell on the Moussa Sissoko deal), Tottenham should be viewed as the division’s coming force. The next dynasty. Malleable young talent is to Pochettino what established superstars are to José Mourinho. Theoretically they should be able to leave this team be for the next few seasons, supplement them with a few blue-chip prospects, and expect at least one title and a cup or two.
I’ve followed Spurs with a passion that at least one girlfriend has described as “unsettling” since the 1994–95 season, where, unbeknownst to my 11-year-old self, I signed up for a lifetime of defending Jürgen Klinsmann to American soccer fans. Jürgen will always be my favorite Spur, and I idolized him. My parents split around the time he announced his exit for Bayern Munich in April ’95 (that team, FFS) and I’m not sure which piece of news affected me more. But his departure did steel me for 20 years of watching Tottenham talismen being picked off by football’s aristocracy. Teddy Sheringham, Sol Campbell, Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, Robbie Keane, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale. All gone with varying degrees of animosity. I interviewed Bale in Madrid a year after his move, and it was like being forced to visit a former partner who’s now incredibly content in their new life with a better-looking, richer lover.
The blockbuster new stadium that will replace White Hart Lane is of course designed to hoist Spurs up a few notches on the food chain. Its planned 61,599 capacity will invigorate matchday revenue and arm Tottenham with financial muscle it lacks without the steroids of a Russian oligarch or Middle Eastern petrobillions. By around 2022, it could become home to a potential London franchise in the NFL, which is reportedly contributing £10 million to the construction. In time, it should establish Tottenham Hotspur as a superclub.
But the ambition of the stadium could be the thing that brings down a would-be dynasty. Due to the scale of its build and proximity to White Hart Lane, Tottenham can’t finish construction without first demolishing their home of 118 years. So ahead of WHL 2.0’s August 2018 opening, the team will head 14 miles west to rent Wembley for a season. And the thing about Wembley is … well, Wembley is terrible. Actually, that’s not fair. Wembley is a gleaming, 90,000-capacity soccer cathedral where dreams come true. It’s just terrible if you’re a Spurs fan.
After beating Chelsea in the 2008 League Cup final, Tottenham played nine matches at the national stadium and lost seven of them. Often in quite hilarious ways, too. Penalties! A 5–1 against Chelsea! An embarrassing collapse against another terrible, relegated opponent!
With White Hart Lane unable to meet UEFA technical standards after losing its northeast corner, the #SpursAtWembley nightmare rolled into this season’s Champions League. Spurs lost their first two group games there and won a third a lot of fans would rather they had thrown: a dead rubber that parachuted them into the wretched Europa League. There, Alli saw his first straight red card and the team exited their favorite competition at the first round of asking. And of course, just recently, Spurs took an almighty swing at Chelsea in a Wembley FA Cup semifinal and ended up on their backs. That’s now seven FA Cup semifinal defeats and counting.
Watching Tottenham dismantle almost every trembling visitor in a dilapidated, jumping White Hart Lane this season, you’re reminded that the team is about to give up one of its greatest assets. Spurs are leaving a stadium in which they cannot lose and moving into one where they can’t win.
Of course, Tottenham may crack this Wembley nonsense. The last few performances have been pretty encouraging, and, after five visits this season, supporters are now familiar — if not comfortable — with its size, its pubs, and the hourlong gridlock to the underground station that makes you question precisely why sports occupy so much of our time, money, and emotions.
But Tottenham’s best players now expect title challenges. They’re thirsty for silverware. Kane recently said: “I just want to win. I want to win trophies. … In three years’ time, if I haven’t won a few trophies by then I think it will be disappointing.” Note the lack of “… with Tottenham.” That’s clearly his preference, but the guy’s jonesing for medals however he can get them.
They’re also thirsty for wage parity with inferior contemporaries on inferior teams. You think 17-goal Alli’s not asking his agent why one-goal England teammate Jesse Lingard is earning nearly double what he is? I can’t get too upset that Walker’s reportedly had his head swivelled by Manchester City’s flirtations: He’s 26 and could treble his income. Manchester United want human Swiss Army Knife Eric Dier. People are finally appreciating the subtle majesty of Christian Eriksen. Hugo Lloris just has to say the word and he’d be put on a golden EuroStar bound for Paris Saint-Germain. One season of backward progress and suddenly a lot of the stars (and Pochettino) could be expected to start returning rivals’ calls.
I blame Pochettino. He’s admitted that year three of his project merely involved establishing Spurs as a top-four contender. Instead, he’s wildly overachieved and improved his players to the point at which the club may not be able to afford paying them all their market value. Can Spurs fend off Europe’s superclubs, succeed at Wembley and keep the band together until they’re able to become a superclub themselves?
After this weekend’s fan-servicing triumph, I’m quietly confident. Hopefully this group fancies the idea of creating history together and staying Tottenham’s leading men over becoming character actors in bigger-budget productions. Keeping Pochettino happy and motivated is key, as the majority of players have clearly tethered their Tottenham futures to his. In abolishing St. Totteringham’s Day, the man’s already done what nine Spurs managers were incapable of doing. If anyone’s qualified to negotiate the treacherous and delicate road ahead, it’s the Argentine.
The next few weeks will be heartbreaking. I’ll miss White Hart Lane so much I’ll bid savings I don’t have on stadium artifacts in the inevitable fan auction. I will probably cry big, fat, ridiculous tears when we’re torn from the stands after the final fixture and I’ll tell myself that we’re not really losing our home, we’re just rebuilding it. But Tottenham Hotspur, my ridiculous football team, my first love, my only club, my burden and my joy, is changing. We’re finally good. Let’s not mess this up.