White Hart Lane’s recent finale was remarkable in so many ways, not least because the image of Daniel Levy on the jumbotron screen in the north-east corner was met with a resounding cheer. It’s almost 10 years since one of the most hapless, disappointing and downright reprehensible moments of ENIC’s reign. The scene was a UEFA Cup tie in October 2007, a game which Spurs lost 2-1 to Spanish minnows Getafe.
That match is remembered only for harbouring one of the strangest atmospheres the soon-to-be-extinct old ground has ever seen. In a bygone era when most of the crowd didn’t spend half-time on their smart phones, the news was relatively slow to trickle through. Halfway through the second 45 minutes, everyone in the stadium, including the man himself, was aware that Martin Jol would be sacked following the final whistle.
At the time of his departure, Jol joined a not particularly illustrious list of ill-treated Premier League managers. Yet rarely, if ever, have any of them been relieved of their duties in such chaotic, embarrassingly public fashion.
The reality is that the Dutchman’s position was untenable from the moment members of the Tottenham board had been pictured in Spain with the then-Sevilla boss Juande Ramos. Few will need reminding how big an error of judgement that decision turned out to be.
It’s a sad and inescapable fact that Jol’s sacking is one of the first memories that springs to mind when discussing his tenure. When the history of Tottenham Hotspur is written, he should instead be remembered for the promise he brought.
A jovial character who liked to get his press conferences over with to focus on the more pressing issue of smoking cigarettes – plural – Jol was hugely popular with the fans; in that regard, he is probably surpassed in the modern era only by Mauricio Pochettino.
There was more to his approval ratings than his personality. The Lane fell in love with the beginning of a revival, a rise in expectations, and the start of something very special – albeit a project that has had a few interruptions along the way.
The impact of Pochettino cannot be overstated. There is a serious argument to be had that Spurs now possess the most talented manager in England, and he has had an awful lot of work to do. It was in the years between 2004 and 2007, though, that an embryonic revolution started to rear its head.
A sleeping giant, Spurs had spent the previous five years attaining an average finish of 11th. And for a generation, there was nothing surprising about that at all. It was the norm, just as historic giants Leeds and Nottingham Forest no longer have a divine right to grace the top flight.
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Turning Spurs back into European regulars was a feat. As Bill Nicholson once put it: “It’s magnificent to be in Europe, and this club – a club like Tottenham Hotspur – if we’re not in Europe … we’re nothing. We’re nothing.”
With the lure of European football, albeit the UEFA Cup as it was then, Jol was able to tempt a player of Edgar Davids’ calibre to help Spurs in their pursuit of the top four. Darren Bent was the most expensive signing of Jol’s reign, but he was a rare case. In the 2006/07 close-season, the biggest fee Levy was asked to fork out was £10.9 million to procure Dimitar Berbatov from Bayer Leverkusen.
Like every Tottenham manager throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Jol’s task was to keep the mediocrity away. It’s fair to say he was one of the few who succeeded. The squad he inherited seemed fit for purpose at the time, but Michael Brown, Sean Davis and Erik Edman could not keep up with the club’s progress.
One of Jol’s first actions in the transfer market saw him raid Forest for the joint signings of Andy Reid and Michael Dawson. Strangely, it was Reid who commanded the larger part of the fee, the young centre-back accompanying him yet to make enough of an impression.
Several players who joined in that period went on to form key parts of the squad long after the manager who handpicked them had left, among them Younes Kaboul and a certain Gareth Bale. A focus on young English players was restored too, with Jermaine Jenas, Aaron Lennon and Tom Huddlestone all being brought in. One of Jol’s final additions was a 16-year-old Danny Rose for just £1 million.
This Spurs’ side’s brand of football was uncompromising, if a little frustrating. They played with an openness expected at the club, even if it lent itself to an inability to close out games. The capitulation against Arsenal in the League Cup semi-final was just one example of them struggling to get over the line.
Ultimately, Jol never quite achieved the goal of Champions League football. It was Harry Redknapp who would lead them into that most coveted of competitions, one which until Pochettino made it the norm, had become an obsession.
It’s easy to forget how close Jol came. The proof of that lay in the severity of the Lasagne Gate heartache. What if they’d chosen the carbonara? As it was, the defining moment of the era was a first league victory over Chelsea in 16 years. Fittingly, Dawson and Lennon got the goals, epitomising the exciting, homegrown venture that was starting to show signs of even more potential.
To put it in perspective, Liverpool are the only top six side Spurs didn’t beat last season. Back then, it was special – DVD-making special. Hoodoos like that shouldn’t matter in football, but they do for those clubs striving to establish themselves back among the elite.
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The defence leaked, the trophies didn’t come. Above all, though, Spurs were playing the right way. That was more important than ever following the short but mundane reign of Jacques Santini, memorable only for its unprecedented tedium. The Frenchman, who left after 13 games citing personal reasons (though actually because he could not see eye to eye with sporting director Frank Arnesen), would no doubt have been appalled by Jol’s first official game in charge, a 5-4 defeat to Arsenal. Noureddine Naybet opened proceedings with a volley, and it became the first match in Premier League history to have nine different scorers. The result was undesirable, but the performance was a breath of fresh air.
Santini’s had been the shortest reign of any Spurs manager in history, and before that, David Pleat had been acting as caretaker for a year. After such a tumultuous time, they were fortunate to find among their ranks a coach who was willing to take a risk on his reputation.
Eventually, Jol had to go. A run of one win in 10 games did not look like it was going to end, regardless of the off-field reasons behind that crisis. The 3-1 loss at home to Everton was resounding, the defeat to Arsenal by the same margin depressingly familiar, but momentous nevertheless. The sense in the boardroom was that Jol had taken the club as far as he could. It is only in more recent years that the significance of all he achieved is starting to dawn on his former club.
So, from Jol to Redknapp to Pochettino, Spurs have been making steady progress for a long time. Of course, that is overlooking the setbacks – if they are to be seen as such – of Ramos, André Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood. Some lessons have taken a little longer to sink in than others. Arnesen is quite possibly the only director of football who has enjoyed success at the club, and it is little wonder Jol took such issue with his successor, Damien Comolli.
A remarkable self-publicist, Comolli’s record at Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool has since been called into question. At Tottenham, the only notable signing he was responsible for, from start to completion of the deal, was Benoît Assou-Ekotto. Berbatov, for whom he was keen to claim the credit, was largely Arnesen’s doing. Jol’s view of Comolli has been vindicated. The technical director model does not work at Spurs. Franco Baldini had to come and go – squandering the proceeds of Gareth Bale’s sale – for that message to finally hit home, but it first became apparent a decade ago.
The Spurs hot seat is now a happier place, but Pochettino has other reasons to thank one of his many predecessors. Jol worked with Mousa Dembélé at Fulham prior to the midfield talisman moving across London, while he also contributed to the development of Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen at Ajax, transforming the latter from a midfielder and full-back into a centre-back.
Pochettino is undoubtedly the man behind Spurs’ current good fortunes, but perhaps the rest of the Premier League shouldn’t be so surprised. What is being built in north London – both on the pitch and on the site of the old White Hart Lane – is sustainable, well thought-out, and offers hope for a bright future. Just like the new stadium, it has not always looked as if anything tangible would be achieved, but the foundations are now solid.
There have been few better times to be a Tottenham fan in living memory. The only downside right now is being bombarded with statistics that would suggest they have been the best team in the country, with no silverware to show for it. Leicester’s fairytale was supposedly in the making since Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s takeover – the billionaire’s investment in facilities and recruitment clearly paid off. It was never going to be maintained, however, which means the Foxes’ triumph will always be seen as a bizarre fluke.
For Spurs, perhaps the upside to another year of frustration is the comfort that they are repeatedly coming closer and closer. It’s certainly been an interesting decade, featuring four permanent managers since Jol’s unbecoming exit. The irony is that what he achieved would no longer be considered enough, but it is thanks to him that Tottenham have moved the goalposts
By Katherine Lucas @Kat_Lucas_