Are Spurs The New Leeds United?
Spurs qualification to the Champions League this season (2010-11) thrust them in with the European greats who, with many seasons of Champions League experience behind them, would not have seen the London side as a threat. Having qualified for the knock out stages with a game to spare, Spurs have proved the doubters wrong. But, we've been here before when my very own team - Leeds United - were in an identical position.
Having finished in the dizzy heights of third, albeit a massive 22 points behind winners Man United, suddenly the thrill of Europe's premier club competition was open to both club and fans although the draw was cruel to say the least with Leeds grouped with Milan, Barcelona and Turkish side Besiktas. With only the top two qualifying, no-one outside of West Yorkshire gave Leeds a hope and this was not helped after an awful result in the Nou Camp which saw Leeds swept aside 4-0. Two home games followed and with it came a remarkable turnaround as a freak, last minute Lee Bowyer goal beat Milan and then Leeds walloped Besitkas 6-0 at a fever pitched Elland Road. Two draws, away in Turkey and then at home to Barcelona, left Leeds needing just a point in the San Siro to qualify ahead of Barcelona who had failed to beat Milan in either group game. In an astonishing display of gutsiness, Leeds led at the interval through Dominic Matteo and despite conceding an equaliser midway through the second half, held on for the draw that they (and Milan!) needed. Cue a night of celebration rarely seen before or since in the Champions League.
Fast forward ten years and we have Spurs who finished fourth last season to qualify and, like Leeds, didn't get a favourable group with Werder Bremen, FC Twente from Holland, and holders and domestic double winners Inter Milan who, despite the departure of boss Jose Mourinho, were still not to be taken lightly. Opinion was split after the first game. Was an away draw in Bremen a good result or did Spurs show their naivety by losing a two goal lead? The jury was out and nothing really changed after their second game - a comfortable home win over the Dutch side. Only when they faced Inter did they really get doubters to sit up and take notice. They could have easily been subjected to a record defeat after being a man down and four goals down after 35 minutes in the San Siro but this was the night when Gareth Bale announced himself with a sensational hat trick which gave the scoreline respectability. The wonderful 3-1 home win two weeks later suddenly gave Spurs - and Bale in particular - the European stage as the continent and his dog had their eyes opened, just as Leeds had done ten years previous. The home win against Bremen confirmed their qualification with a game in hand, thereby saving them a nervy, Leeds-style, last game.
Of course, the next round is straight knock out which is where things differ from the Leeds campaign, but there are other similarities. Spurs are rapidly becoming a `second team` for a number of fans who are being won over by their exciting, attacking style of play. Leeds had a similar tag in the early noughties, although lost it equally rapidly when the financial problems struck and the descent into the lower leagues began. Newcastle under Kevin Keegan in the mid 90s were the originators of the `favourite other team` tag with their `they score three, we score four` mentality and if anything Keegan's side had as much in common with the latter day Spurs as their defence was vulnerable but their attacking qualities were mind boggling. But much like Leeds, for all their potential, no silverware was forthcoming as the dream was being lived and once the dream degenerated into a nightmare, the plastic fans disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived. This is where Spurs could change the course of this footballing Groundhog Day.
Leeds boss David O'Leary and his `babies` were massively talented but massively naive and as the top dogs at Elland Road kept opening their cheque books to ensure the dream continued to be lived, the amiable Irishman in charge was enticing anyone and everyone available at hugely inflated prices and from there, the rest is history. Failure to qualify for the Champions League the next season didn't help, although Leeds fans will argue that only a disallowed goal at home to Man United stopped them, and from there on, the balance sheets were never going to balance and out went players at a hugely deflated price and the dream not only died, but ultimately plummeted two divisions and a number of humiliations.
Spurs could go the same way, but they won't! I'm not saying that they will qualify for the Champions League next season, they may not in this most open of Premier League seasons but they, and many other clubs, will have learned lessons from the Leeds saga. However the primary reason is that they won't go down the Leeds route is due to boss Harry Redknapp. Hugely experienced and an expert in wheeling-dealing in the transfer market, huge prices won't be paid for anyone but the very best. Indeed look at the bargain buy that was Rafael Van Der Vaart for a classic example of how shrewdly Redknapp deals. They have a cracking squad as long as they aren't forced to sell in the January or next summers transfer window and although one man does not make a team, Gareth Bale is as close to being indispensable as any Prem club have. If you take Messi out of Barcelona, then you still have an awesome line up, but take Bale away from Spurs and you lose a huge attacking threat without being able to replace it from the squad.
Redknapp and Spurs are on the verge of the most exciting phase in their already illustrious history. As long as they keep their feet on the ground and learn from the mistakes of others, then the footballing version of Groundhog Day will end this season with Spurs going onto bigger and better things as they make an impact on the Big Four. If they don't, then they cannot say that they haven't been warned.