Peep! With that shrill note of the referee’s whistle, the half was over. Despite conceding first to a Tore Andre Flo goal, Tottenham had responded quickly, with Ramon Vega rising at the back post to head home an Andy Sinton free kick.
In the Paxton Road End, a boy of around eleven turns to his grandad excitedly. “I think that’s the turning point,” he enthuses, breaking into his half-time Kit Kat and getting his carton of orange juice from his pocket. “In the second half, we’ll have all the momentum now.”
Next to him, his grandad clasps the handle of his walking stick and smiles at him. “You never know, I certainly hope so!” he replies, yet despite his optimistic words, the tone and look in his eyes suggests an alternate outcome.
The sad fact of the matter is that he did know – and in due course, the inevitable happened.
Within three minutes of the restart, Roberto Di Matteo had fired Chelsea two-one ahead. This was followed in nauseating fashion by further goals from Dan Petrescu, Flo (again) and Mark Nicholls before the Norwegian wrapped up his hattrick.
As the sixth goal went in, the boy, overcome with emotion, asked his grandad if they could go. “We never leave early,” was the response. “We always stay to the end.” (YouTube)
Even had the boy left and missed the last five minutes, the damage was already done. Chelsea had found a dark place in his mind – a place associated with failure, disappointment and humiliation.
This ‘event’ was further compounded over the next couple of decades with a constant flow of abject defeats and more pitiful results. There were victories – few and far between, but they were almost seen as shards of unexpected good fortune rather than a turning of the tide.
Thus, I am sitting here now before Tottenham play Chelsea and I am anxious. Statistically, I should not be.
Look at the league table (Sofascore) Tottenham sit atop (at time of writing) and the Chelsea are down in eleventh, having acquired fourteen fewer points.
Usually, a fixture of this magnitude would precipitate feelings of bullishness and expectation of three points – especially at home and under the lights.
However, there are a number of factors that suggest that the team in first will not easily brush aside the side in eleventh, and, in fact, this game may well be one that proves to be rather pivotal in the season ahead.
Chelsea Aren’t That Bad
I’ll start with the obvious, even though it pains me to say it. Chelsea are not as bad as their league position suggests.
Defensively, they are pretty sound and have only conceded eleven goals so far this season. It is at the other end that the problems are occurring. Chelsea should have scored at least six more goals based on the xG metric (Understat.com), which would give the league table a much different complexion. Based on xG, their points total should be 18, one less than that of Tottenham’s 19.
The worry is that even teams that are consistently profligate can have ‘days in the sun’ where everything clicks and the ball goes into the net, rather than skewing wildly off of Nicolas Jackson’s boot. They are a dangerous opposition to have and have a number of high-quality players in Raheem Sterling, Reece James and Enzo Fernandes.
Indeed, compare them to the other Premier League ‘crisis’ club Manchester United, who sit above them in eighth place. Anyone who knows anything about football can tell you which side is in the biggest predicament – and they’re based in the Northwest. At Chelsea, there are building blocks in place and it is clear that something is being developed.
The Pochettino Factor
Then of course there is the Pochettino factor. One of our favourite sons. A man who did so much for the club in his tenure at the helm. Despite the obvious love he still has for Tottenham, he will be desperate to get a result on Monday and his motivations are multiple.
Firstly, there has got to be an element of bitterness in the man. A large swathe of the fanbase was eager for Poch to return after the absolute mess of the previous season, however, Daniel Levy was not going to even entertain the notion – in a very public exercise of demonstrating ‘you never go back’ (when it comes to managers at least).
The impression was that the Argentinian was waiting hopefully by the phone, for a call which never came.
Secondly, he needs to win over his new fans. As horrible as that is to stomach, what better way to prove to the Chelsea faithful that he has emotionally moved on, than to register a win against his former club?
Playing Catch Up
Then there is the timing of the game. By Monday night, it is quite possible that we will be back in fourth place and there will be ‘pressure’ on us to regain top stop again.
As much as everyone is downplaying the ‘Title Challenge’, there is an element of really enjoying being top of the league and wanting the dream start to continue. With each success, the ‘reality’ increases and with it comes the pressure.
The counter to that, is that an evening game at White Hart Lane could induce an incredible atmosphere and the support the team has been shown this season has been phenomenal.
We saw what it could do against another youthful side a couple of years ago when Arsenal’s title charge finally capitulated, with the stadium being a thunderous cacophony of noise and support.
Now I do not subscribe to the notion that the players are affected by the past performance of a team. Why would Tottenham getting battered in 1997 make one iota of difference to Destiny Udogie or James Maddison? It doesn’t.
However, it does affect the fans. Fans that, if the team goes one–nil down, have seen this narrative unfold before. Subconsciously, they become more withdrawn; less boisterous and almost fatalistic in their acceptance of what might come. The noise level in the stadium diminishes and psychologically the away side grabs the initiative having ‘silenced the fans’.
Yet there is one thing that is different to the past. Genuinely different. That is Big Ange. He undoubtedly will realise the significance of this game and know that a victory would also be a significant statement to the supporters and the wider world.
However, he will stay calm and level – if we win ‘let the fans enjoy it’ – if we lose ‘the project is still in its infancy and we will learn’. This ‘emotional balance’ has translated somewhat to the supporters, which in turn is positive for the team.
Thirty-seven-year-old me is excited and optimistic about what Monday could bring to us, yet inside is still the eleven-year-old boy, mentally scarred by prior experiences who is absolutely terrified.
A final point on Pochettino’s Return
The last thing I’d like to address is the potential crowd response to Pochettino’s return. Ironically, a lot of the people, who have praised and celebrated in the fact that Tottenham Hotspur is a positive place once again, are advocating booing our former boss.
Quite frankly, I find this bizarre. Our club chose to not back him; our club chose to fire him and it was our club who made the decision not to bring him back. He has not committed treachery on the level of Sol Campbell.
You have to see this from a human perspective too. The level of manager Poch is, there are not that many viable jobs out there for him and the fact that he has spent so much time out of work recently is testament to that.
What are these supporters thinking? It’s like dumping a partner and then feeling as though you have the right to veto their future partners – which is preposterous.
Actually, there needs to be no acknowledgement of the man on the night. Instead – let’s keep the positivity going and get behind the team as best we can.
Thanks to Spurs Song Sheets (amongst others) we have a range of absolute bangers to be singing to inspire our players instead of having to resort to simplistic and tribalistic booing.
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