Best Supporting Actor

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Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, if nothing else, last weekend’s and this week’s international fixtures do at least grant us Spurs fans the opportunity to temporarily shelve the debate about why White Hart Lane has become a fortress that strikes fear into every home team that sets foot (feet?) on it. For the moment, we need not worry about whether that sad state of affairs is due to our amazingly critical crowd, our amazing shrinking pitch, the amazing contracting away-team goal, the amazing expanding away goalkeeper or the loneliness of the long pissed-off striker spearheading our Christmas tree-shaped formation.

Many fans either writing articles or commenting on others’ articles appear confident that our formation is to blame and that the answer is to play two up front. But which two?  Defoe and Soldado? I don’t see it – Soldado doesn’t fit the mould of the big guy that Defoe has historically profited from partnering and creating chances for someone else isn’t exactly what Jermaine is known for, is it? And factoring someone other than these two in either involves putting faith in the largely untried and untested Harry Kane  or sending a ‘come back, all is forgiven’ message to the very much tried and tested  – at least in terms of fans’ patience – Emmanuel Adebayor.

It’s not just a case of putting two good strikers together, expecting each to support the other. No, like a good love, a good strike partner for your principal striker is hard to find. It’s a specialist position, with an extensive job specification. It requires someone who, if footballing  performances were recognised with Oscars, would be content to pick up the one awarded for ‘best supporting actor.’ Now, I’ve no doubt that many fans will have their own idea about what such a specification should entail but I’ll hazard a guess that few would match my own. Let’s see: a shade above average height; receding hairline and slightly stooping posture making him older-looking than his years; no real pace; a bit ungainly and awkward of gait; not exactly blessed with the sort of physique that encourages shirtless goal celebrations.

OK, I may have overplayed the less sympathetic aspects of his physical attributes a bit for comic effect but that’s pretty much how I remember possibly my favourite Spurs player of all time. In fact, that’s probably why he’s my favourite; he looked so bloody ordinary, like a Sunday morning league player. Looked like he enjoyed a few pints after the game like a Sunday morning player too.  But these ordinary looks belied an extraordinary talent. ‘Unique’ is an over-used word in football but I struggle to think of anyone quite like this man. He seemed able to instinctively calibrate to an extraordinary degree of accuracy the level of touch needed to divert the ball precisely where he wanted it to go, which was either into his own path as some hapless defender went speeding by in the opposite direction or, more importantly in the context of this debate, into the path of his strike partner, or at least where it would cause panic in opposition defences. So good was he in this role that, across nearly 10 years of service between 1965 and 1974,  he forged not just one but two of the greatest striking partnerships Spurs have ever known, first with the peerless penalty box wraith Jimmy Greaves and then with the wholly different powerhouse that was Martin Chivers.

I’m talking, of course, of the one and only Alan Gilzean, the wizard of flicks, slick, silky touches and backheels. I’m sure there must have been times when he dwelt on the ball and was caught in possession but in my mind’s eye I just see the ball skimming off that large forehead with the precision with which a world champion snooker player pockets an obliquely-angled shot into the middle pocket, or a backheel played without breaking stride into the path of a teammate as he and a defender chase a ball at full pelt to the touchline, or a delicate sidestep on a rain-swept pitch and a disdainful glance at the defender sliding past into the hoardings.

I remember him playing with a smile on his face, and putting smiles on fans’ faces. He looked as if he enjoyed playing at the Lane, in front of that, then as now, ‘so critical’ crowd. Looked, I would go so far to say, as if  he enjoyed playing to the crowd; enjoyed embarrassing defenders by doing something a little bit different. Enjoyed scoring goals – and he certainly scored his fair share – and making them for his prolific strike partners. He was the ‘supporting actor’ supreme. And a real entertainer. And, oh, how we could do with someone like him now.

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