The generous interpretation, as Tottenham Hotspur moved to fourth in the Premier League, is that good teams win when playing poorly, and that they make the luck that they need.
This 1-0 win over Hull City, though, must be the least enjoyable, least impressive victory of Spurs’ season. Not only did it come thanks to a lavishly generous penalty decision from referee Michael Oliver with 10 minutes left – one that Steve Bruce described as an “absolute joke” – but it was played out in an anxious atmosphere, which Andre Villas-Boas said was far from amenable to good football.
There is a problem at White Hart Lane. This was Spurs’ fifth home league game of the season, and they have still only played well here once. Many managers would blame opposition tactics but Villas-Boas, in one of the franker explanations of recent months, said it was down to Spurs’ home support.
“It was a very tense, difficult atmosphere,” Villas-Boas said. “We looked like the away team but we kept our cool. We had to dig deep because we weren’t getting any help from anybody and I think the stadium reflected that. It was very tense with not a lot of support until the first goal, which made it very difficult.”
This seemed to be something that Villas-Boas had been waiting to say for a while. “This is very difficult for me, as fans are the essence of football. But we have broken the record of away wins because we play comfortably away. But at home it’s difficult. It is like it drags the ball into our goal instead of the opponent’s goal. It is something that is felt within the group, a feeling that invades fixtures like this.”
Whether this will mean a better and more supportive atmosphere at future home games, only time will reveal.
Spurs fans might point out that there was not an awful lot about which to get excited. For too long, Spurs were just as limp, insipid and slow as they had been here three weeks ago against West Ham United, struggling to find space, to break down a massed defence and even looking vulnerable on the break. The only difference was that Hull, a team decimated by injuries but very admirable in their commitment and focus, could not score a goal.
With 10 minutes left, Hull looked close to a very well-deserved point, and Spurs seemed set for their third straight home league game without a win. Then Jan Vertonghen, playing at left-back, found some space and fired in a cross. It hit Ahmed Elmohamady on the foot, bounced up, and hit his hand. Michael Oliver thought about it then blew his whistle. Roberto Soldado sent Steve Harper the wrong way. Bruce was the opposite of impressed. “It is a joke decision,” Bruce said, who clearly did not believe it would have been given to his side. “An absolute joke decision. How do you give a penalty in those sort of situations? Andre agreed. He thought it was a soft one. And in my opinion it’s not right. Not for the stakes we’re playing at. He has robbed the players of a well-earned point.
“He could not wait to give it. Absolutely could not wait to give it. He totally ballsed it up.
“If my player made a decision like that, he wouldn’t be playing next week or if I keep making decisions like that, I get the sack. The referee has cost us the game.”
It was the prospect of the point, of course, that made it so hard to take. And all this without Sone Aluko, Danny Graham, Allan McGregor and the ineligible Jake Livermore. Robbie Brady was on the bench. So there were first league starts of the season for Harper, Alex Bruce, Paul McShane and George Boyd, and Bruce’s 5-4-1 was working perfectly.
“They have all tried manfully to get something and in my opinion should have done,” Bruce said. “The lads were desperate to play here. Desperate to do well, and you could see that in them.”
In the first half, Andros Townsend and Kyle Walker forced saves from distance but there was very little in it, with Sagbo and Huddlestone going closer for Hull.
Villas-Boas introduced Mousa Dembele, then Christian Erisksen, and then Jermain Defoe without much obvious improvement. Spurs could not force overlaps or find pockets of space and the problems were increasingly clear. But they did take the lead, and held on even after a spell with 10 men, Townsend falling over the advertising boards into photographers, dazing himself and twisting his wrist, eventually coming back on to raucous cheers.
He is unlikely to play when the two teams meet here again on Wednesday night in the Capital One Cup. Bruce should get his wish of a different referee, but Villas-Boas will be left with the same crowd, and a possible awkward reception.
Tottenham (4-2-3-1): Lloris 6; Walker 6, Dawson 5, Chiriches 5, Vertonghen 6; Paulinho 5, Sandro 5 (Dembele, 45, 5); Townsend 5, Holtby 5 (Eriksen, 59, 4), Lennon 5 (Defoe 70, 5); Soldado 6
Hull (5-4-1): Harper 6; Rosenior 5 (McLean, 84), Davies 6, Bruce 6, McShane 6, Figueroa ; Elmohamady 5, Huddlestone 7, Meyler 6, Boyd 6 (Brady, 84); Sagbo 7 (Proschwitz, 86)
Man of match: Huddlestone
Match rating: 3