Tottenham Hotspur’s new Enfield training ground, with its immaculate lawns and spirit-level straight flowerbeds, can sometimes feel like a film-set, or rather an environment too perfect to be real. Reality is for Tottenham High Road, its matchday traffic jams, burger vans and post-riots Aldi. Down in Enfield they exist in a bubble where the pitches are always pristine, the main reception resembles the lobby of a City law firm and “To Dare is To Do” confronts you from so many angles one has to fight the urge to sign up for a skydiving course or such like.
It opened for the first season of the short-lived Andre Villas-Boas regime, an appropriately modern manager for such an environment, or so Spurs thought at the time. At least in terms of their training ground, they were in the same league as the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Walk around the new Spurs training ground, that superseded the impractical Spurs Lodge, located opposite Chigwell’s leading municipal rubbish tip, and you might believe you are in a club capable of competing with the best in the world. But blink your eyes, shake your head and confront the reality. Or, as Tim Sherwood would say: “Wake up.”
Spurs are in the process of blowing the chance to qualify for Champions League football again. The difference this time is that they have a manager with the strength of character to say what he thinks. Sherwood’s comments after the 4-0 defeat by Chelsea on Saturday were revealing to say the least, and pushed Spurs on to the back page for the first time since Villas-Boas’ departure. But Sherwood has been saying as much for a while.
His attack on the “lack of characters” in the team, the fact they are “too nice with each other” instead of demanding the best – “they need to dig each other out more often” – will attract attention because it is rare a manager says such things. But Sherwood was asking trenchant questions of the Spurs hierarchy, chairman Daniel Levy and technical director Franco Baldini, when he was still caretaker coach.
The thrust of it being this: is Levy prepared to give the manager time to build a team? Will he trust him to sign his own players and bring those from the academy Sherwood previously oversaw into the first team? Or will every slump signal a new managerial appointment, a change of direction and new players signed by Levy and Baldini to try to rescue the situation?
When it comes to backing Sherwood in the long-term the length of his 18-month contract says it all. As for the club’s endorsement, Sherwood himself says, “the silence is deafening”.
Levy has done many good things at the club, not least the now-abandoned policy of buying young British talent that eventually yielded the biggest transfer fee in the history of football for Gareth Bale. But Levy has also always given the impression he believes he is one inspired appointment away from transforming Spurs from perennial also-rans into an elite Champions League club. Goodness knows, he keeps trying.
Whether that has been Jacques Santini, Martin Jol, Juande Ramos, Villas-Boas or Baldini, there have been too many false starts along the way. His most successful appointment of recent years, Harry Redknapp, was made in desperation to stay up. His next one? It could be Louis van Gaal or Frank de Boer or even Mauricio Pochettino and perhaps they will be the one to take Spurs to the promised land. But you would not bet on it.
To my mind, the radical decision would be to stick with Sherwood, the most off-message manager Spurs have ever had. On Friday, in another typically provocative pre-match press conference in Enfield, he pointed to the faith shown in Brendan Rodgers by Liverpool and the rewards that had yielded.
In Sherwood, Levy has a manager who won the Premier League as a player with Blackburn, ran the club’s youth system for five years and knows the club well. He is raw, but learning quickly and he can hardly expect to show the full extent of his ability if he is given just five months in the job, and no summer transfer window.
Like many British managers he has been quickly pigeon-holed by some as tactically naïve. In fact, like Rodgers, he has a way that he wants to play and he is not prepared to compromise, even if that means occasionally taking some big hits. He is also trying to impose this style on a squad he has inherited, rather than built, with all the attendant pitfalls.
It does not take much detective work to guess that Sherwood feels last summer’s £110 million investment in seven players, led by Levy and Baldini, was little short of a disaster. Aside from Christian Eriksen and Paulinho, both useful but hardly world-beaters, the net effect of the sale of Bale and others has been to send the team backwards not forward. None of the seven, of which four are injured, started the game against Chelsea.
Garth Crooks memorably described Spurs’ summer transfer business as the club having “sold Elvis and bought the Beatles”. Six months on, the Elvis part looks right, but it would appear that, rather than the Beatles, Spurs have acquired the Lighthouse Family.
The chances are that Levy will roll the dice again this summer, get rid of Sherwood and bring in another big-hitter. Laughably, Roberto Mancini has expressed an interest – one struggles to think of a manager less suited to the Levy way. It will all sound perfectly promising in theory. But what about the alternative to that cure? That would be giving Sherwood, Levy’s rebellious manager, the chance to build.
One year and one week ago to the day, Spurs beat Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane to move seven points ahead of their rivals and consolidate third place. Spurs then dropped out of the top four over the last 10 games of the season and since then the net swing in points has been 13 in favour of Arsenal who have played a game fewer. Now it is Arsenal who are well-set for Champions League football next season.
Over that period, Spurs have sold their best player, spent £110 million, sacked their manager, gone some way to undermining his replacement and are still getting thumped by the top teams in the Premier League. You do not have to look too hard to work out where, to quote Sherwood again from Saturday, “it all went Pete Tong”.
After the Europa League tie with Benfica on Thursday, Spurs face the old enemy, Arsenal, at White Hart Lane on Sunday. It will be interesting to see how many of that gang of seven from the summer Sherwood calls upon in a game that could define Spurs’ season. A penny for the thoughts of Mr Levy too, who tends towards the dramatic intervention when events hit crisis-point.
His instinct in these situations is usually to seek out the kind of exotic coaching name whom he believes can transform Spurs. That is not a category in which Sherwood, from Borehamwood, just two junctions round the M25 from Enfield, scores highly. But the Spurs manager does seem to have hit upon an essential truth about his club’s current state. It is just a question of whether his chairman wants to hear it.
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