SOMETIMES, for better or for worse, you don’t need to actually do much to make a name for yourself. Three days on set, distilled into five and a half minutes on screen, can win you an Oscar. You can publish one book, follow it up more than half a century later with a first draft of the same book, and pick up the Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Or – and one ventures to suggest that this may be the first, last and only time that Ilie Dumitrescu will ever be compared to Harper Lee – you can play a total of six football matches alongside four other chaps, and define the character of a team for a generation.
First of all, some context. The 2015-16 season may or may not herald a meaningful shake-up at the top of English football – it is of course, as former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was supposed to have said about the impact of the French Revolution, too early to say. In one respect at least, though, the campaign is threatening to provide its public with a level of upheaval that hasn’t been seen since those days of the mid-1990s, oh so long ago, when Swedish folk-dance-techno tunesmiths Rednex were topping the charts with Cotton Eye Joe, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles were still being weaned onto solids, and most improbably of all, Manchester United were top of the league.
Because where we are now is that with a handful of matches to go, and to a greater or lesser extent between them, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Liverpool are all in contention for Champions League qualification. If all four managing it would be historic, even just two would be a serious turn-up for the books, marking as that would the first time in 20 years that the make-up of the Premier League’s top four season-to-season will have changed (if indeed it changed at all) by more than one name at a time.
It wasn’t always like this. With the exception of Manchester United, who picked up four of the first five Premier League titles off the back of a perfect storm that took in the Class of ’92, the catalytic signing of Eric Cantona and the coming of age of Alex Ferguson, the teams that played in the early years of the new era were, frankly, all over the place. Arsenal, title winners as recently as 1988-89 and 1990-91, yo-yoed from tenth to fourth to 12th.
Pre-Britpop behemoths Liverpool, shorn of Kenny Dalglish, meandered around the top half without so much as a hint towards the glories of their forbears. Chelsea hung around inconsequentially in the league’s mid-to-lower echelons, while pre-Middle Eastern Manchester City were keeping themselves occupied by finding ever more imaginative ways to get their heads stuck in railings.
All of which meant that from second place downwards, the league was a crapshoot. Aston Villa, inaugural Premier League runners-up, plummeted to tenth and onwards to 18th before bouncing straight back up to fourth. Nottingham Forest went down, came up again and finished third, caught an attack of the vapours, wobbled down to ninth, and then finished bottom. Norwich City, near-permanent fixtures in the top flight since 1972, finished third in the league’s first year, decided they didn’t like the looks of where the modern game was heading, and via a short stop-off in 12th, returned to the lower leagues’ cosy confines for most of the next 20 years.
Opportunity knocked for teams with character, chutzpah, and a bulging – but not necessarily overflowing – bag of cash. Jack Walker, who had made his money in steel, showed with Blackburn Rovers what could be done if you timed your push right, picking up Dalglish as manager and breaking the British transfer record twice (first for young Southampton forward Alan Shearer, then for Chris Sutton from Norwich) before finishing fourth, second and top.
Meanwhile, over in the north east, second-tier Newcastle United, who were also under new ownership in the person of property magnate Sir John Hall, got shot of one inexperienced manager by the name of Osvaldo César Ardiles in favour of an even less experienced one called Kevin Keegan, won their first 11 games of the season on the way to a barnstorming promotion, and then finished third, sixth, second and second, tempting Shearer back up to his homeland – this time for a world record fee – en route.
Ah, Ossie, eh? The torment of what might have been.
After being discarded by Newcastle, Ardiles, the man who had opened English football’s eyes to the possibilities of foreign talent as a trembly-kneed slip of a thing from the Argentinian province of Córdoba, took refuge in the Midlands, where he led third-tier West Bromwich Albion to promotion in his first year. That was enough to convince Alan Sugar, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, of his managerial bona fides, and so the summer of 1993 saw him heading back, for what was already at the age of 40 his fourth management job, to White Hart Lane, the place where he had spent an auspicious decade as a player.
Spurs had wobbled a bit in the five years he’d been away, as the tentative optimism of the 1980s with its sprinkling of fourths and thirds in addition to a cup or two gave way to a characterless club with a confused backroom structure. On the pitch, the team was only a Gary Lineker goal spree away from a serious relegation battle in 1991-92, and it had taken a similarly talismanic effort from Teddy Sheringham for them to hold down a mid-table position the year after. Sugar, though, had been at the vanguard of the Premier League breakaway movement, and was acutely aware of its potential. He knew that it was time to act, and young, cultured, steeped-in-the-club’s-history Ossie Ardiles was his answer.
Ossie’s first season in charge offered plenty of hints at the direction of things to come. At one end, where his team scored more than fourth-placed Arsenal, he seemed to have the right idea. At the back, though, things looked far too dicey, and Spurs wound up juddering their way to 15th, with safety only guaranteed by way of a nervy win at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park in the league’s penultimate game.
Enough, he concluded, was enough. “I’m going to be more clever and determined in the future,” he told supporters after the Oldham game, and in the following close season, he was true to his word. Committing wholeheartedly to his footballing philosophy and eschewing conventional wisdom with its bourgeois insistence on midfielders whose natural instincts forbade them from gambolling recklessly upfield in search of goals, out went club stalwarts Vinny Samways (to Everton) and Steve Sedgley (to Ipswich Town), and off into the long grass went the homely, steadying influence of David Howells. In came Romanian Ilie Dumitrescu from Steaua Bucharest, followed by the coup of the summer, Jürgen Klinsmann from Monaco. And out came the ‘Famous Five’.
Of that fabled front line, it is probably Klinsmann who is now most fondly remembered. But given the impact that he undeniably made, not just at White Hart Lane but across English football in the mid-1990s, it is easy to forget that when he arrived, he was roundly despised. Back in the days before anyone had noticed that everyone did it, he was seen as a diver and a cheat, while four years before, he had been part of the West Germany team that knocked England out of the 1990 World Cup before conniving its way to victory (admittedly against a similarly cynical Argentina) in one of the more brutal finals the World Cup has seen.
Instead, back then it was Teddy Sheringham who was looked on most kindly. The holder of most of the goalscoring records that mattered at Millwall after an eight-year spell in East London, and having proved himself in the top flight, first at The Den and then during a year at Nottingham Forest, he had joined Spurs in the summer of 1992 and, despite playing in a mediocre team, been the league’s inaugural top scorer with 22 goals. An injury-hit 1993-94 had still brought 14 goals and an England call-up, and by August 1994, his standing among Spurs fans was unimpeachable.
Darren Anderton’s wasn’t far behind. White Hart Lane’s other big-money arrival in English football’s last summer of innocence, he had established himself as a regular in the Spurs team at the age of 21, and made his England debut in Terry Venables’ first match in charge in the preceding March. In the days before injuries started to overtake him – he played 131 matches in all competitions in his first three years at Spurs – his legs were rangy, his crossing pinpoint and his goalscoring record more than respectable.
And then there were the tiny tricksters – Barmby, Hull-born but a Tottenham academy product, scurrying around in the gaps behind the front two, and out on the left, Dumitrescu, who had caught the eye with two goals and an assist as Romania beat Argentina 3-2 at the World Cup, and who used, according to Spurs kit man Roy Reyland, to order boots half a size too small and then play in them barefoot. “It’s so I can feel the ball,” he would say.
That sounded about right for a team led by Ossie Ardiles. Stuff solidity. There was room in the Premier League for the lot of them.
Of course, in football as in life, nothing is ever new, as Ardiles has been at pains to point out since. “To be perfectly honest,” he said in an interview with sport.co.uk in 2011, “I believed that those five people up front – or, to put it more correctly, five attacking players – could play in the same team. I was inspired by the Brazil team from 1970 with Pelé, Rivellino, Tostão and all these great, great players. They had five attacking players and Barcelona now play exactly like that, with only one holding midfielder, so it can be done.”
Indeed, Spurs’ version of the Famous Five wasn’t even the first group of players to bear the sobriquet, being as it was an echo of the front line – Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond – that had led Hibernian to three Scottish championships (out of four in total in the club’s history) between 1948 and 1952.
It was, however, in a game and a league that for all its rediscovery of the joys of gung-ho forward play and slapstick defending following the abolition of the back pass had moved on since the days of 2-3-5, a seriously ambitious plan. A place in the Premier League aristocracy was there for the taking, and the sight of Dumitrescu and Klinsmann taking their places alongside Anderton, Barmby and Sheringham, with all given minimal (if any) responsibility to defend, was quite the statement of intent.
And so it was that the first game of the new era came against a backdrop of great excitement – so much so that the Spurs club shop reportedly ran out of the letter ‘N’ (Klinsmann replica shirts, of course, featuring a stock-troubling three of the things) – and as it panned out, it was a perfect example of life on the sunny side of the street.
Against a Sheffield Wednesday side that had finished seventh the following season but contained three new signings in defence, Sheringham opened the scoring within 20 minutes with the neatest of outside-of-the-right-foot finishes from an Anderton cross that had befuddled the back-pedalling Dan Petrescu, Spurs having been far from the only team to have gone all gooey-eyed over the Romanians that summer. On the half-hour, it was 2-0, this time Anderton with the finish, sliding in past Kevin Pressman after a neat passing move involving Sheringham and Klinsmann.
Half time, then, and all was going swimmingly. Nine minutes after the break, though, Petrescu found himself free in the box (actually, that’s not strictly true – there were Wednesday players either side of him) to poke in for the home side, and midway through the half, a glorious sidefooted finish by Colin Calderwood, rifled past Ian Walker and into his own net as he tried to nick the ball from Chris Bart-Williams, levelled up the scores.
Still, no matter. Shortly after Calderwood’s cock-up, Barmby was given the run of the Wednesday defence for 3-2, and then, with eight minutes remaining, came perhaps the experiment’s defining moment – Anderton’s measured cross, Klinsmann’s bullet header, the celebratory dive that won over thousands in an instant. David Hirst’s immediate volleyed response for the Owls was as spectacular as it was immaterial.
This “breathtaking exhibition of football”, as the Independent described it in its match report, was just the start. Klinsmann shook off what had initially looked a serious blow to the head from Des Walker as the Wednesday game drew to a close to start as part of an unchanged team against Everton four days later; and sure enough, this was another whirlwind game, with the German scoring twice, one a spectacular volley, and Sheringham missing a penalty, all in the first half. Paul Rideout beat Ian Walker to a cross within a minute of the start of the second period, and by the end Spurs were hanging on, but a win was a win.
Defeat to Manchester United in the third game? It was the 1990s. Everyone lost to Manchester United; and three days later against Ipswich Town, another blistering start, this time with two goals from Klinsmann and a flying header from Dumitrescu wrapping up the points within 38 minutes. Chris Kiwomya scored with four minutes to go – of course he did, Ossie didn’t do clean sheets – but come full-time, Spurs sat a point off the top.
Even while results were going Ossie’s way, though, the chronic imbalance of the side was clear to see. In attack, a kaleidoscope of talent; behind, gamely manning the trenches with battered bayonets and weary faces, the willing but limited full-backs David Kerslake and Justin Edinburgh, Calderwood (nominally the ‘1’ in Ardiles’s 4-1-5, but a centre back to the manner born), and behind him, a 19-year-old Sol Campbell and a 21-year-old Stuart Nethercott. Beyond them, Walker offered up his soul to God and did what he could.
And sure enough, it didn’t last. Despite Klinsmann’s sixth-minute opener, the team succumbed to a 2-1 home defeat to a Southampton side that had avoided relegation by a point the year before, and followed that up with a 3-1 loss away at newly-promoted Leicester, this being back in the days when teams weren’t suppose to lose away to Leicester.
And funnily enough, given how the phrase resonates even now, that, for the Famous Five, was it. After six matches with an unchanged team, Barmby missed the next three (including a trip to Watford in the League Cup in which the other four scored all six of Spurs’ goals), and then Anderton, for the first but sadly far from the last time, succumbed to a groin injury.
Ossie himself stumbled through to the beginning of November, before a 5-2 hammering at Manchester City and a 3-0 defeat at Notts County in which Dumitrescu was sent off proved too much of a test of Sugar’s patience. Former QPR manager Gerry Francis took over and led Spurs, for the last time yet, to a finish above north London rivals Arsenal, but also presided over a slide from mid-March that cost his team a shot at Europe, and bit by bit, it all fell apart.
Barmby and Klinsmann left that summer, for Middlesbrough and Bayern Munich respectively; Dumitrescu fell out of favour, fell out of love with the game and had retired within three years, and while Anderton hung around, he would never play as many games in a season again. Only Sheringham soldiered on, before in turn leaving for an Indian Summer at Old Trafford that cast his less than fruitful White Hart Lane return in 2001 into sharp relief.
Spurs may yet prove to be a different team these days. We may even be about to see the end of those two great linguistic institutions, St Totteringham’s Day and the notion of being ‘Spursy’ (although convincing someone who grew up in the 1990s of that may take a while). But for most of the next two decades after Ardiles’s departure, the ethos of the Famous Five has been what has defined them.
Tottenham may have always been, to some degree, cavaliers to others’ roundheads – and more power to their elbow for that – but even in post-Ardiles dilution, there has been a sustained commitment to flighty individualism, through David Ginola and José Dominguez to Stéphane Dalmat, Rafael van der Vaart and even Gareth Bale, that has not always served them well. To give the floor to Roy Reyland again: “Ossie was holding a typical team meeting one afternoon, saying as usual, ‘Play, play, play’, when Colin Calderwood, our centre half and a dry Scotsman, put his hand up and said, ‘Gaffa, you keep talking about the fab five, but what about the shit six?’” Acceptance, even celebration, of that philosophy has too often been the approach.
And the term ‘Famous Five’ itself? Perhaps, in truth, it was never more than satirical. Just as more recent evidence indicates Zhou Enlai was referring not to the French Revolution but to the rather more contemporaneous Paris student riots of 1968, phrases that gain popular traction are apt to lose their original meaning; and given what the next 20 years would bring, the following, from the Nottingham Evening Post’s report of the League Cup defeat to Notts County in October 1994, perhaps says it all. County, it said, had fully earned their victory, its defining feature “a revamped forward line that frankly embarrassed the Spurs famous five”.
Ultimately, whatever the intention behind the phrase, it tapped into something in the Spurs supporter’s psyche – the ‘echo of glory’ of which Bill Nicholson spoke. And Ossie’s sights were certainly set high, which was no bad thing. But as people from Glenn Hoddle to Roy Keane to John Barnes to Diego Maradona have found since, there is a world of difference between being a great player and a great manager; and the former will rarely become the latter by trying to build teams that are too much in their own image.
By Harry Reardon @hsreardon