The night of 4 February burns in the soul of every Tottenham Hotspur supporter. That night. The 4-3 night. The shame of it, the frustrating, humiliating shame of it. It smoulders inside the team's captain, Stephen Carr, too. He is still pricked with hurt. And pride. And happiness. For it was also a glorious night - the night his wife gave birth to their second child, a daughter to add to their son.
Walking on air in the depths of despair. The emotions that raged inside the 27-year-old as he raced from White Hart Lane, moments after leading his side from a 3-0 advantage to concede four second-half goals, against 10 men, in the FA Cup replay against Manchester City, were so confused. So immeasurable. Carr simply felt sick as he arrived at the hospital.
"Very, very strange," he says slowly, deliberately, as he recalls the manic days earlier this month. "I had a feeling that she might go into labour that day because she felt a bit uncomfortable, a few pains, and she said it may happen early." Carr considered pulling out of the match. "I thought I was going to miss half the game anyway," he ponders. "She said she would ring me at half-time as well because she was getting bad."
The call didn't come. It did at 90 minutes. He pauses in reflection before adding with a rueful laugh: "I wish she had rang me so I could have got out of that. I could have come off!" Mother and child are well. "It's just nice," says Carr. "Something good came out of that night but I felt sick going there [to the hospital] because of what happened in the game. But with the birth and then obviously getting home... there are more important things in life. The most important thing is that she's OK."
He woke up - after what little sleep he could find - to headlines accusing the players, and him, as captain, in particular, of refusing to apologise for the débâcle. Of scurrying off into the night. Sitting last week in the quiet comfort of the Portmarnock Country Club outside his home town, Dublin - the Republic of Ireland's retreat ahead of the confidence-enhancing friendly draw against Brazil - he bridles quickly. "That was rubbish, absolute rubbish," he says. "I don't think an apology after a game like that would have made the fans go home any happier. That's the way I look at it. They might have a different opinion but I don't think so. Don't doubt that the players were hurt. But saying sorry wasn't going to make it better. The only way we could give something back to them was to get on a little run and get a few results."
Which they did, with roller-coaster wins against Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic. "Criticism's fine," Carr says. "Players don't mind being criticised, but it's when it's plain wrong that they mind. If a player doesn't want to talk after a game, he doesn't want to talk. There's no contract or anything that says he has to talk to any reporter after a game, even our website. We don't have to speak to them because sometimes emotions are running too high and it's about taking time and after a few days saying your piece.
"You've got mixed emotions. They could be high, they could be low. And after that game they were very, very low. Don't ever doubt that. The lads were in the dressing room and just shocked, shocked. And that's the only word. It hurt us. It'll probably make us a better team. One thing's for sure, we'll never take it for granted if we're ever three-nil up again. We'll never think, 'That's it, it's over' because it ain't ever over, even against 10 men."
Yes, but how, just how, did it happen? As a proud captain - "stand-in captain," he quickly corrects, "that's all I am because our captain is Jamie [Redknapp, who is injured)" - he was bewildered. "I couldn't do anything. I could see the game going, going and couldn't do anything about it. I don't know why," Carr says. "There was no immediate answer."
Indeed there was a sense of déjà vu. If not in the drama, in the emotion, with Ireland's unfathomable capitulation last autumn in their final qualification game for Euro 2004 away to Switzerland. "You're just left asking, 'What went wrong, what went wrong?' Sometimes these things happen in football," Carr says of that defeat, which denied Ireland a place in Portugal. He will now give the tournament a miss. "I'll just go on holiday and relax and enjoy my time off. I won't be watching it on telly, I'm not interested, no interest at all."
Back at Spurs and he and his team-mates knew they had to win their next game after the City defeat. Playing Portsmouth - extra-ordinarily another 4-3, this time in their favour - was almost as painful. "We're at home and they [the fans] think we should win. But no way. Every game is hard, very hard, especially with teams fighting for their lives," he says. "That's the way the League is but I understand that we're at home and the players got a bit nervous because of what happened and the fans were anxious."
The pressure on him, also, has mounted. With less than a year and a half left on his contract, supporters want to know his intentions. Will he stay or will he leave the club he joined as a trainee in 1993 and where he is now entitled to a testimonial? Or will he do "another Sol Campbell", running down his contract and leaving on a free transfer? Stand-in manager David Pleat has already put an £8m price tag on his head.
"I haven't been offered a contract, it's as simple as that, and until I have I can't really comment," Carr says. But what does he want to do? "I want to keep my options open," he says candidly, although few should doubt, with his service record, his loyalty. "But I can only assess those options when they are in front of me, and nothing is in front of me at the moment. So I can't really assess it."
Unsurprisingly, he wants to see where Spurs finish this season, what ambitions they have and whether they match his own. "Let's see where we end up. The next contract for me is a big contract in terms of what it means for the rest of my career," he says, mindful of the 18 months, and a World Cup, he lost through a horrendous, career-threatening cruciate ligament injury. The absence has been bookended by selection, from his peers, as the Premiership's best right-back, a verdict confirmed last Wednesday by his powerful display against Brazil, Roberto Carlos and all. It capped his recovery. "I have to make the right decision [about Spurs]. It'll be down to a bit of everything but it's encouraging they're buying players. I didn't think they'd be in for Jermain Defoe [£7m from West Ham] so, hopefully, it's a measure of how far they're going to go."
The uncertainty over the new manager won't affect him, he insists. Carr is clearly a fan of Pleat, who took over when the unpopular Glenn Hoddle was sacked. "We know he's in charge until the end of the season. Before that was confirmed it was more uncertain," he says. "Now we know what we're doing for the next four or five months and then we know coming in the summer will be the new manager, whether he's from Europe or whatever. That's the best timing with the pre-season so he can get to know the players."
Carr praises Pleat's commitment to youth, picking out a resurgent Simon Davies, Ledley King and Johnnie Jackson in particular. "It's the way forward," he says. "A lot of clubs won't do that simply because of the pressure that managers are under now. They won't wait for them, they bring them in, then take them out. But he [Pleat] is good for them; when he took over in the past, temporarily, he always brought young players in and he's done that again."
Maybe that investment in youth explains some of the variability in Tottenham's performances? "Possibly, but it's those young players who are giving us the leads in the first place," Carr says. His ambition is clear, as is that of Tottenham's fans, who view the club as perhaps, although whisper it quietly, bigger than it is. "You're only as big as your results," Carr says emphatically, in reply to that. "And it's a question of maintaining ours. There's no reason why we can't get into Europe but we have to keep our consistency week in, week out. The signs are positive."
A glance at the League table is tantalising. "We're not horrendously behind Liverpool or anything like that. And we had a shocking start, too. We know it's tight, but there are seven or eight more teams saying exactly the same. So it's who from that who comes out with the most consistency."
Consistency. It's a quality that, it would appear, has always been lacking at Spurs. It's almost the "Tottenham way". "We go on runs," Carr says of the team's capacity for winning - and losing - streaks. "One step forward and two back. To be fair, we do seem to put ourselves under unnecessary pressure at times."
That pressure will lift a little if they can achieve a third successive win today at home to Leicester City. Victory is vital, not least because Spurs will not have another game for two-and-a-half weeks. The squad are then being taken away by Pleat for a break. Neither event will erase the memory of 4 February - but then it's a night Stephen Carr should never forget, anyway.
Biography: Stephen Carr
Born: 29 August 1976 in Dublin.
Height: 5ft 9in.
Weight: 12st 2lb.
Position: Defender (right-back).
Club career: Tottenham Hotspur, September 1993-present. Appearances: League 214 (four goals); FA Cup 16 (one goal); League Cup 23; Other 4.
International career: Republic of Ireland (30 matches).
Also: Played six matches for Republic of Ireland Under-21, one goal. Named in the PFA's Premiership team of the season for 2002-03.
The downside: A knee injury which required surgery wrecked his 2001-02 season, and led to him missing the last World Cup.Reuse content