When Keith Burkinshaw agreed to leave Tottenham at the end of the 1983-84 season, the club identified as his successor Alex Ferguson of Aberdeen, who were about to complete the Double in Scotland, a year after winning the European Cup-Winners' Cup.
The then Spurs chairman, Irving Scholar, admired the style of Ferguson's team as much as their success, "a vital prerequisite for any Spurs side", and liked his dedication and discipline. Scholar claims that the two men agreed personal terms and shook hands on a deal before Ferguson changed his mind out of loyalty to Aberdeen's chairman.
Will the episode come back to Manchester United's manager as he walks up the tunnel at White Hart Lane today? It is a stadium he was speaking highly about in the build-up to the game – "good football ground, good pitch and they are always going to have a go at you" – and it would have been fascinating to see what he made of a job that eventually went to Burkinshaw's assistant, Peter Shreeves.
Certainly there would have been less clearing out to do than when taking over an ill-disciplined, relegation-threatened United squad two years later. Ferguson would have inherited a side that had just won the Uefa Cup and even without him went on to finish third in the League twice in three seasons.
Instead Spurs became regular opponents, starting with a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford and often taking part in some of United's most entertaining games of the season. With the clubs sharing similar visions of entertainment, they have often competed for the same type of player; Ferguson was furious when Paul Gascoigne signed for Tottenham from Newcastle, more philosophical when Southampton turned down his bid for Gareth Bale, then sold Bale to Spurs shortly afterwards.
The latter transfer in 2007 was a coup for the Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, who has been something of a thorn in United's side ever since. A year earlier he had managed to prise some £13 million plus extras out of them for Michael Carrick, pushing the price much higher than many supporters of both clubs considered at the time to be good value. The following summer the object of United's attention was Dimitar Berbatov, which led to Levy complaining about "a blatant example of sheer arrogance and interference with one of our players" and accusations of hypocrisy, given that Ferguson had recently complained about Real Madrid's underhand pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. The seed was sown, however, and an unsettled Berbatov duly moved almost on the last stroke of the transfer window, though not until Levy had driven the fee up to £30m by having a newly enriched Manchester City bid as well.
Luka Modric provided the next battleground between the clubs, Levy holding out against selling to a Premier League rival such as United or Chelsea and getting another season out of the Croatian before selling at huge profit to Real Madrid – just as United did with Ronaldo.
The latest skirmish was fought over the promising young United defender Ezekiel Fryers, who spent last summer training with Tottenham, only to discover that they would not meet United's demands for a fee of up to £6m. The player moved to Standard Liège, who under Uefa regulations did not need to pay as much, only to return to Tottenham a fortnight ago claiming the new Standard manager did not rate him.
Ferguson smelt not so much a rat but a whole colony of rodents, declaring: "To me, I think it's a blatant manipulation of the rules. It's a Daniel Levy deal. You know, it's his fingerprints all over it. It's the kind of thing we expected he was going to do. I'm disappointed in Tottenham, I really am. I think it's a blatant manipulation of the situation. All of a sudden he signs for Standard Liège and when I heard that I expected him to go to Tottenham in January."
United stopped short of making a formal protest to the League. But it is fair to say that the manager will be especially keen, having suffered an unusual defeat over Fryers, to avoid an equally rare loss at White Hart Lane; his first there since 2001.
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