...if nothing else, football is fickle in nature. A three-minute welcome interview involving a husky Portuguese voice on the charm offensive followed by five wins in seven is all it took to tame the rebels.
It was back in 2014 when a wily Scot called out one of the greatest fallacies affecting the modern game. West Hams fans, discontent with the defensive football being churned out by their side, were calling for manager Sam Allardyce to go. Sir Alex Ferguson, in what may be his punchiest response ever, hit back to defend an old chum. “I hope that before I die someone can explain the ‘West Ham way’,” he said. “What is it? They last won a trophy in 1980.”
Five years on and Ferguson’s jibe can now be applied to many within the Premier League goldfish bowl. As silly season dawns, and clubs dispense with managers faster than David Luiz does with his defensive duties. Chairmen and executives release hackneyed statements telling fans exactly what they want to hear: that their latest appointment will uphold the prestigious traditions of the club by playing attractive football and developing homegrown talent.
Despite inciting the wrath of Ferguson, the “West Ham way” is not an exclusive delusion; numerous clubs carrying a certain pedigree seek to maintain the illusion that playing offensive football is a key part of their makeup, while conveniently blotting out the years in which things didn’t exactly stick to the script.
From the “We’ve got our Arsenal back” chant to the Stretford End’s cries of “Attack, Attack, Attack”, to the exaggerated hostility that José Mourinho faced upon his appointment at Spurs, fans of the Premier League’s elite are committed to the fantasy that their club is <the> purveyor of slick, stylish football — and to go against that idea is to dishonour the club. Ultimately, fans project what they <want> their club to be, rather than accepting what they <are> at that moment in time.
Whether it was a sense of disdain towards how Mauricio Pochettino was dismissed, or the rage-inducing essence of social media, many argued the hiring of José Mourinho — one of the greatest managers of all-time José Mourinho — was to go against everything Tottenham Hotspur stood for. Some even proclaimed that it was “better to lose with Poch than to win with Mou”.
But if nothing else, football is fickle in nature. A three-minute welcome interview involving a husky Portuguese voice on the charm offensive followed by five wins in seven is all it took to tame the rebels. It’s funny how the debate about honouring a club’s DNA — another football cliché to abhor — dissipates when your left-back heads in a 91st-minute winner in the sodden Black Country.
However, was it unfair to even suggest Mourinho as a manager is the antithesis to the “Tottenham way”? Of course, the club proudly has a history of playing attacking, eye-pleasing football — but so do plenty of others in the professional pyramid. (Remember, Tottenham chose their white-and-blue strip to mimic Preston North End, the most exciting team in England at the time, at the turn of the 19th century.)
As fans then, we can be guilty of letting nostalgia take over: Roger Lloyd-Pack’s spine-tingling pre-match monologue speaks of Nicholson, Blanchflower and Greaves, but let’s not forget we are also Zamora, Thatcher and Santini too. You can’t have one without the other; the echoes of glory are nothing without the mediocrity that followed. So then, who are we to consider ourselves above one of the greatest minds in the game because of a warped sense of history and tradition?
And still, it was this history and tradition, before Mauricio Pochettino, that translated to a team pretty on the eye but a pussycat in a dogfight; a team with a soft underbelly that would go out of its way to shoot itself in the foot when the finish line was in sight. There’s a reason why Pochettino will always be cherished by supporters of the club: not because he maintained the Tottenham identity, but that he redefined it entirely.
In the Midlands on Sunday, Mourinho’s Tottenham were no doubt lacking in push-and-run panache, but who’s to say the performance wasn’t worthy of pride? The team were disciplined, committed, focused and kept battling on despite the opposition’s unrelenting attacks. And although many would argue Mourinho and Pochettino’s footballing philosophies are polar opposites, the win at Molineux had shades of the last-minute wins of the 2014-’15 season against West Ham, Aston Villa, Hull City and Swansea. Scrappy, exhausting, rewarding.
But enthralling football is the order of the day in 2019 thanks to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City — a freakish anomaly in that they merge sublime football with winning trophies. And this is further intensified for Tottenham fans who have grown up on the philosophy of “the great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning”. They won’t accept substance without style — and that has to be admired.
Yet, there’s one Bill Nicholson quote you won’t see plastered around the new stadium. “If you don’t win anything, you have had a bad season,” the great man once said. I’m sure José Mourinho, as well as Sir Alex Ferguson, would agree with that sentiment entirely.