Tuesday 24 November 2020

Suffering is good for the football soul - but there are limits

In 1988 when Luton Town won the Littlewoods Cup - their first ever trophy - manager Ray Harford spoke about the importance of suffering through the lean years to make the success even sweeter.

This perspective would have been lost on all the Liverpool 'supporters' at my Hemel Hempstead school back then, a section of needy people, oft-termed 'plastic scousers' who chose guaranteed regular glory by following the domestic kings of England but, conversely, still became resentful, when my club, Arsenal, (beaten by Luton in that Final in 1988) began to interrupt their relentless boasting.  

For many years though, I felt as if I, too, had chosen my club, (even while accepting that my dad, and his dad, who’d lived on Highbury Hill where my Dad was born, may have had an influence!) But it wasn't based on gluttony. I joined just as Liam Brady left, and knew nothing of the four domestic and European Finals in three years Terry Neil's team had reached. In truth, I'd actually missed out on three episodes of upset, but there wouldn't be any more Wembley for a while, only for Spurs, winning the FA Cup in '81 and '82 and then the UEFA Cup in '84.    

It is probably insulting, as a fan of a world-famous club from the capital, to promote my tales of woe when there was proper misery going on elsewhere (especially at Luton, who were relegated just a few years after Wembley and then nosedived through the league and then out of it; they are, admirably, back in the Championship now, but wow have they been bruised) but I will do that anyway; cup humiliations at home to Walsall, and away at Oxford United and York City in the 80's (a time when such giant-killings were not half-expected as they are these days when a "shock" is paradoxically predicted by pundits) served to magnify the euphoria of Arsenal's own Littlewoods Cup Final win, a year before Luton's, against that mighty Liverpool.

Liverpool fans moaned of course, in '87, about the winning goal deflection off Ronnie Whelan who was playing out of position, just as they would moan about David Seaman making brilliant saves at Anfield in 90-91 when Arsenal beat them on the way to winning the league, though there is a sense that perhaps their grief became all the more acute seeing as it happened so rarely. Perhaps it's true that eternally struggling teams become immune, while those who have set themselves up for royalty end up being ravaged by piercing shocks to the system.

Arsenal winning the league at Anfield in the last minute of the last game in an accidental title-decider, by virtue of having scored more goals that 88-89 season with both teams level on points, is almost poetic in it's brutality to those far-away Liverpool fans who had signed up for something far different. Perhaps some fly-by-nighters didn't actually care a jot, but most became invested. While born and bred Liverpudlians understood that the 96 lost lives at Hillsborough just a few weeks before was the real tragedy, the 15 year olds in Hertfordshire may have been a few years shy of that protective philosophy.  

Back to the present day now, and Spurs are top of the league. It's only November, but they have dangerous players, a lauded, crafty manager hitting some sort of renaissance and The Year Ends in One next season. They should perhaps be allowed a turn at happiness, for they have suffered, too, particularly in the late 90's and 2000's, when Arsenal were winning doubles and going through seasons unbeaten while they tried 100 managers to try and turn it around, and the only one who did, briefly, was a former Arsenal manager, who was eventually sacked days before an FA Cup semi-final in 2001, which they lost to Arsenal.

It wasn't like Tottenham were always badly struggling; they started to head for 6th and 5th towards the mid-2000's, but there were times when it must have been hard to be a Spurs fan; losing to Arsenal's under-strength team in the Carling Cup semi in 2007; no wins at Arsenal's home since an even more reserve match in 1993 - days before Arsenal were due to play in the Cup Final (having beaten Spurs in another semi). Perhaps their nadir was in January 2004 (midway through Arsenal's 'invincible' season), 3-0 up at home to the proper Manchester City, who had a player sent off but still went on beat their hosts 4-3. 

The Sunday league team I played for in the early-mid 2000's was rife with Spurs fans, and they used full delusion and denial to get them through this period of life. Luckily they were all were young, single lads so would be out on the razz on a Saturday night instead of watching Arsenal’s latest masterclass on Match of The Day, although they stayed in to watch it when The Gunners’ 30 match unbeaten run was stopped by 17 year old Wayne Rooney at Everton in 2003.

I now have a handle on my suffering. I used to make myself watch every recorded defeat, as if avoiding it would disqualify me from any future success. I used to sneer at fans who said they weren't going to watch the highlights if their team had lost. But last season I decided, for my well-being, not to sit through MOTD2 when Spurs beat Arsenal at White Hart Lane and it didn't stop me enjoying Arsenal winning the FA Cup just a few weeks later.

So now that I am so grown up and wise, I should acknowledge the pain Spurs have been through - suffering I couldn't imagine. Even when Spurs got good they couldn't avoid pain, finishing 2nd in The Prem to Chelsea in 16-17 with a points total six more than the previous seasons’ winners, Leicester City, so if the Covid-era football lands them with a first league title for 60 years, a fair person would applaud, accept their triumph in dignity and feel happy for the minority of Spurs fans who are good people.

And then I think of some of those other fans, and start to pin my hopes on the annual Harry Kane ankle injury in March derailing their season so that they go a 13th year without a trophy. 

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