All in the mind?

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Leaving aside the bitter disappointment of our capitulation against a makeshift Everton side, perhaps the most striking aspect of Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park was the strength, at least on paper, of our bench.  Not many top European sides could afford to leave such an expensively assembled array of footballing talent (around £55m) warming the bench, and yet the sight of £15m David Bentley keeping £14m Roman Pavlyuchenko company on the sidelines has been an all-too-familiar one for Spurs fans this season.  

Optimistically this infers that the embarrassment of talent at Harry Redknapp’s disposal is such that even a striker with a near 1 in 2 ratio for his previous club and country cannot supplant one of the first choice front pairing or that the man who once scored a hat-trick against Man United and was touted as David Beckham’s successor just doesn’t make the grade.

Perhaps more accurately though, this may suggest either a lack of perspicacity in our transfer dealings or that, simply, we are a club that ruins players.  

If it were an over-firm training pitch, resulting in cruciate-ligament injuries, as was the case at Newcastle, or even ineffectual tactics, the problem would be easily remedied.  However, as far as I am aware, the training surface is ideal and the tactics, on the main, sound.  The problem has spanned the tenures of a succession of managers and has become endemic within the club.  Perhaps it is the inevitable result of a lack of continuity (7 managers in a decade) or perhaps the malaise of a club who have not challenged for the league title in Premiership history and haven’t won it in approaching 50 years.

With regard to the second of these hypotheses, since the ENIC takeover, the Board’s investment in both playing staff and training facilities has been comparable with any of the top teams in Britain.  Make no mistake, we have brought a lot of very talented individuals into the club, a veritable cornucopia of potential, yet the failure rate of these players is extraordinary. Managers have come and gone, each wishing to mould a squad of their own and the chairman has, for good or bad, backed each financially.  This has led to an unprecedented turnover of playing personnel.  Players such as messrs. Bale, Bent, Hutton and Bentley were expensive acquisitions who arrived to great fanfare yet all have fallen prey to the same fate that blighted a multitude of our other signings, failing to bring to fruition the potential that had been sufficiently in evidence to merit such handsome outlay.  

It would perhaps be less soul-destroying if it was simply the case that such players weren’t capable, didn’t have the ability to perform at the top level, but each have shown glimpses of brilliance that have fans tearing our collective hair out and remonstrating with the television or from the stands ‘why can’t you do this every week???!’

Could it be then that these high profile flops and the general underperformance of our beloved club owes not to a lack of raw technical ability, but something psychological, a miasmic attitude all the way through the club, like a stick of rock, engendered as a result of barren decades of underachievement?  

The result of this languor is a culture that insidiously pervades the club, the acceptance of mediocrity. Good players do not lose their talent overnight, however, they can quickly be ruined by complacency in the absence of the pressure that is normally commensurate with being a part of a top team.

Contrast this with the sense of entitlement evinced by clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, who expect to be competing for honours on a yearly basis.  They exude confidence and this can be self-fulfilling.  Players arrive at these clubs knowing that they have to perform on a weekly basis to keep their place in the side.  Watching our rather frigid performance in the League Cup quarter-final against Man. United, our innate sense of inferiority was obvious.  The temerity of United.’s youngsters was in sharp relief with the lack of conviction shown by our more experienced, more talented line-up.  The opportunity to end a 20 year winless streak at Old Trafford, against a shadow side should have acted as a spur, but instead appeared to mitigate defeat, ‘well, one more won’t hurt’.

In the past few seasons, Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov and even Robbie Keane have swapped the white half of North London for Manchester and Liverpool for the same reason that Teddy went to United and Judas defected to the scum over a decade ago.  With few exceptions, money is a minor part of the equation in such transfers.  For most players, the difference between very rich and very, very rich is not such an important distinction as between unsuccessful and medal-winning. These clubs all exhibit naked ambition, something, despite our financial clout, we have not shown for some time.  That we barely dare whisper the words ‘Champions League’, and then only in the company of fellow supporters, shows what a fantastical proposition we fans consider it.

I am of course aware that we do not have quite the status or bulging trophy cabinet of either of these clubs, but the deficiencies of our past need not preclude us from future success.

We are now seeing a new breed of club arriving to challenge the established order.   Emerging footballing powers like Chelsea and latterly Manchester City, neither of whom could lay claim to the same heritage or sustained success as United or Liverpool, nonetheless possess all the brash hubris and egotism that new-money brings, conscious that they can buy just about anyone or anything they wish.  Some people view these clubs with a supercilious gaze and their overt confidence of their Eastern owners as distasteful.  Perhaps, though, their unfamiliarity with British footballing tradition leaves them unencumbered by the idea of an established order, neither showing deference to the supposed ‘bigger’ clubs – something we may do well to learn from.

That Everton’s top 4 finish in 2005 has not been repeated should not detract from the fact that it happened.  While they have been historically a successful club, they, like us have gone through a rather lengthy lean period.  Unlike ourselves and to an even lesser degree, Chelsea or Man. City, their chairman cannot bankroll success, and yet they broke the monopoly of the top 4.  Can any one of us honestly say that the gulf in ability between ourselves and the big 4 is any greater than that which Everton overcame in 2005?  The difference then is surely in mentality.  Everton achieved Champions League football by a combination of talent, and more importantly, sheer determination.  I believe that the possession of this quality is of greater importance than any other in deciding the outcome of our season.  

Normally I would end by invoking the words of a much wiser man, such as Bill Nicholson or Danny Blanchflower, to add weight to my contention, but on this occasion, I will defer to a luminary of another code of football, Vince Lombardi.  Lombardi once famously stated ‘winning isn’t everything, wanting to win is’.  I believe that more than a trophy-laden recent past or overflowing bank account, it is this desire and sense of worthiness that our club must acquire in order to fulfil it’s undoubted potential.   

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By Robert Ainley

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