Thursday 13 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: A throwback to the glory game

Dele Alli celebrates his goal just before half-time which put Spurs 3-1 up at the break in their victory against Liverpool Photo: Getty
Dele Alli celebrates his goal just before half-time which put Spurs 3-1 up at the break in their victory against Liverpool Photo: Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's been a Retro kind of week. Huddersfield's win over Manchester United was a reminder of a time when there really were no easy games in the top flight of English football. Ophelia brought us seventies style power cuts while Munster's slog against Racing transported us back to an era when players could kick the ball out on the full and fans would have thought 'offload' played for the Springboks.

Tottenham's 4-1 defeat of Liverpool was Retro in excelsis. Maybe the tone was set when Spurs invited Jimmy Greaves to their Friday training session as Guest of Honour. Harry Kane was photographed with that greatest of goal scorers and spoke about his desire to be a one-club man.

It seems an old fashioned desire but Kane is old fashioned. He is a throwback who resembles that seventies hero of the White Hart Lane terraces, Martin Chivers who watched at Wembley as Kane reduced the Liverpool defence to a quivering nervous wreck.

Arduous

Other striking heroes of the Glam Rock era, Channon, Osgood, Toshack, would also recognise themselves in Kane whose directness and knack for taking punishment while staying on his feet all evoke that more physically arduous age. Those virtues contributed to his first goal. The perfectly weighted pass that put Son Heung-min through for the second showed the subtlety which gives Kane an extra dimension.

Dele Alli also has his seventies precursors. In his case they're the era's flair merchants, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Rodney Marsh. Like them Alli seems on a mission to disprove the phrase, "The English game doesn't produce technically gifted players." Exhibit A for the defence was the well executed volley which gave Spurs their third goal.

There's something beautifully gratuitous about Alli's skill. Like those hairy entertainers of yore, he seems fond of doing spectacular things just for the hell of it. Witness the moment in the 52nd minute when, hemmed in by two opponents near his own corner flag, he produced an outrageous back heel which cut out both of them and sent Kane galloping away. A Cruyff turn later was even more sublime and just as successful.

Alli's confidence perhaps stems from the plentiful experience of top class football he has accumulated at a time when young English players find such opportunities difficult to come by. Nothing seems more Retro than Mauricio Pochettino's willingness to pitch his latest prodigy Harry Winks in against not just Liverpool but Real Madrid at the Bernabeu where he came through unscathed. Winks, like Kane, came through the schoolboy system at Spurs, a route so redolent of times past they may yet confess an ambition to open a boutique.

The centrality of this English trio, along with Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier and the recovering Danny Rose, also seems a relic of times past. In this age of football globalisation received wisdom says you'll win nothing with Brits. Yet Spurs have gone the home grown route with such success that Pochettino may now be as important a figure to England as Gareth Southgate.

Even the venue of yesterday's game summoned up memories of the past. Wembley was once the site of all that was best in English football. These days it's the home of consolation cup finals and lacklustre performances by a national team struggling to defeat countries who didn't even exist back in 1966. Yesterday Spurs gave the game's greatest venue football befitting its history.

It was football worthy of the club's own tradition too. For decades Spurs were viewed as football's great aesthetes, their reputation for marrying skill and science going back to Arthur Rowe's legendary 'Push and Run' team of the early fifties. Bill Nicholson's Double winning team of 1961 the UEFA Cup winning team of 1972, the Hoddle-Ardiles-Villa combo and Hoddle-Waddle-Allen side which succeeded it all maintained an idea of Spurs as aristocrats of the capital.

Yet for the past couple of decades the former kingpins saw their neighbours Arsenal, once the very model of grim utilitarianism, not only outstrip them in terms of honours but be held up as the shining example of everything good about the game. Spurs, like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, could only sit in their crumbling mansion and think longingly of past glories.

The boot is on the other foot now and it is Pochettino who has affected the transformation. It may be the most impressive managerial achievement of recent seasons. Deprived of the resources available to his rivals, the Argentinian has done so well it seemed too good to last.

When Spurs finished third two seasons ago we predicted they wouldn't be able to repeat that. They came second instead. Still, it seemed pretty safe to forecast a decline this season when they'd be forced into the unfamiliar confines of Wembley. Look what happened to West Ham when they left Upton Park. Then there was the lack of additions to the squad.

Yet here Spurs are in third place, finding their feet at Wembley after a stuttering start and looking almost certain to make the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Next Saturday's match against Manchester United at Old Trafford suddenly looks like the most intriguing fixture of the season so far not least because of the contrast between Spurs' swashbuckling approach against a flaky Liverpool side and the extreme caution exhibited by United against the same opposition last week.

There's a contrast too between Pochettino, committed to adventure and determined to do the best with what he's got, and Mourinho, negative at heart and not, as was evident at the weekend, overburdened with loyalty to his players.

So roll on Saturday and an uncomplicated battle between the goodies and the baddies. What could be more Retro than that?

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