Spurs have yet to win over skepticism about title credentials
White Hart Lane, a raw February night in 2004, Tottenham against Manchester City in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Kevin Keegan's job as City manager entering the game was under threat. When Spurs took a 3-0 first-half lead and Joey Barton was sent off for dissent after confronting the referee as the players walked off at halftime, Keegan himself admitted he was looking for the number of the nearest Job Center.
3-0 up with a man advantage? It takes a special kind of ineptness to blow it: a blend of brittleness, complacency and comedy haplessness that was the preserve of only two teams in the country. Spurs were one of them (City, oddly, is the other). Sylvain Distin pulled one back for City three minutes into the second half, and the script from them until Jon Macken's 90th-minute winner was inevitable.
Distin's goal prompted a qualm of doubt that swelled into full-blown psychosis. At some point, somebody should have stopped, pointed out Spurs had outplayed City with embarrassing ease in the first half and that all they had to do was not lose the second half against 10 men by more than 2-0. But nobody did. Panic swept the field.
Is that game relevant now? It's a strange thing to try to rationalize, but soccer clubs do seem to have personalities that exist outside the coach and the playing staff. It must, logically, be the fans: a store of emotional memory that conditions their reactions in the stands. Spurs fans know they're capable of messing up that sort of position and so the first glimmer of a comeback prompts anxiety deeper than that at other clubs. That anxiety then transmits itself to the players, who start to make mistakes, who fall, as nervous teams do, deeper and deeper, allowing the opposition onto them, building up pressure which only increases the tension both on and off the pitch until the thing they all fear has happened, the myth is reified and the personality confirmed.
And of course the media perpetuates the personality. It's useful to. This isn't just a bunch of mercenaries in white against a bunch of mercenaries in blue: it's Spurs against City, a club with a history of pratfalls against, well, a club with a history of pratfalls (only City, surely, could have been relegated as the division's top scorer, as it was in 1938). And that's the odd thing about this season's Premier League title race. Of the top three sides, two are renowned for their fragility, while Manchester United, ravaged by injuries and underinvestment, blunders on exhausted, fighting seemingly on instinct alone. It's like late-period Muhammad Ali brawling with Laurel and Hardy. And that's why Chelsea might yet have a chance of the title, why Arsenal, if only it hadn't tossed away leads at Fulham and Swansea, might have done, why Liverpool, if it had converted even four of those seven home draws into wins, would have done.
The question, given Spurs' improvement under Harry Redknapp, is how to regard Saturday's draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Had they won against a side who began the day fifth bottom, Spurs would have gone level on points at the top, would have made it clear that they are genuine title contenders. They didn't.
They were a little flat, conceded, picked up and dominated, equalized, dominated some more, and couldn't find a winner. The narrative for many was clear: when the pressure was really on, Spurs, in keeping with their reputation, couldn't cut it. But, as Redknapp said, that is perhaps unfair. Wolves' goal, after all, came from a corner that should have been a goal-kick. Emmanuel Adebayor had a goal ruled out for an offside that was fractional if was offside at all. "It's only one game and we're not going to win every game," he said. "We're not Barcelona -- who, by the way, drew at Espanyol the other night."
Yes, Spurs weren't quite at their sharpest, but they were unlucky. That happens, and this is an exceptional run they're on -- after losing their first two games of the season, against United and City, they've lost just one in 19 since, and that after they were on the rough end of some poor refereeing at Stoke City. You wonder what might have happened had their opening game, at home to Everton, not been postponed because of the London riots: might things have gone differently if they'd gone into those vital games against the Manchester clubs cold? Might they have been different if Luka Modric, who missed the United match and was then poor against City, hadn't been distracted by an offer from Chelsea?
Perhaps, perhaps not. What is sure is that since then, Spurs have proved themselves the most watchable side in the country. They're fast, perhaps the quickest team the Premier League has known; they're direct in a good way, playing an updated version of the classic English style with wingers in Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon and a big man-schemer front two of Adebayor and Rafael van der Vaart; and, most importantly, while it would be misleading to suggest they hadn't spent significant sums, the fact that the trio of Van der Vaart, Scott Parker and Brad Friedel were signed for a combined total of £13 millon ($19.8M) suggests that there is value in the market, that you don't need the megamillions of a City to compete.
Next Sunday's game against City, of course, will be crucial, but in terms of the long-term future of Tottenham and its manager, what begins the following day is probably more important, as Redknapp goes to court to face two counts of tax evasion. He denies them and the club have backed him, but it must be a distraction particularly given he could, in theory, be facing a custodial sentence (although the sums involved make that unlikely).
It does, of course, raise some delicious possibilities. Redknapp, like Noel Coward directing the thieves in The Italian Job, masterminding Spurs' title success from behind bars. Or Redknapp spinning the case out another couple of years, getting the England job, qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil and then taking advantage of the lack of an extradition treaty to stay there. Or, perhaps best of all, Redknapp on the lam, giving tactical instructions from the backrooms of a series of undisclosed East End pubs before finally giving himself up as he collects his championship medal on the final day of the season.
Redknapp was reportedly in France on Sunday scouting Marseille's Loic Remy, which hints at his concerns about a forward line in which Adebayor has just begun to falter. His big worry, though, is off-pitch. Tottenham for years have seemed to be battling not just other clubs but themselves. Now their biggest opponents may turn out to be Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.