Gary Neville is owed a debt of gratitude from nearly every sports news outlet in the country. Following his spiel on Monday Night Football, in which he made several close-to-the-bone remarks about Tottenham’s footballing culture over the years, Neville drew plenty of anger. The froth and counter-froth seems to have sustained an entire industry for three days.
Of course, chief among those triggered was Harry Redknapp, who invited himself on to TalkSport to offer a rebuttal. Neville, in his eyes, was guilty of an egregious lack of respect and Redknapp, who managed Spurs between 2008 and 2012, lurched onto the airwaves already spitting with fury.
These little storylines are perfect for the digital age, because they generally divide the listening, reading and watching community into two separate halves: fans of the club in question, who are grossly offended by default and spend the days after commenting and clicking in righteous fury, and everyone else, many of whom enjoy the denigration of a rival and giddily chortle along in that irritating, post-LadBible way.
In this instance, the controversy is hard to understand though. First of all, Neville’s nastiest remarks probably weren’t aimed at any of Redknapp’s teams. The former Manchester United full-back would most likely have been referencing the sides he regularly faced during his own career and, between the two, there was very little overlap.
But if he actually was offering that criticism with Redknapp in mind, was he really so out of line? Spurs played some wonderful football during that period, no doubt, but in hindsight those teams are remembered now as much for what they didn’t do as what they did. Redknapp took them to the Champions League for the first time in their modern history, but his reign was also clouded with the suspicion that it should have amounted to more than just a couple of fond memories. They were good enough to win a Premier League title, but they didn’t – and, along the way, they still managed to stain the club’s reputation with all manner of humiliating results. The 5-2 losses to Manchester United and Arsenal leap straight from the page, but lost among them are many other poor results: twin losses to Wolves and Wigan at White Hart Lane, several deeply careless defeats to Sunderland, Newcastle and Stoke, and that ridiculous 5-1 loss to Chelsea at Wembley.
And those are footnotes, they’re not even the most notable failures: the Manchester City cup-tie, the 5-3 to Manchester United? The ‘Spursy’ tag might be outdated, but it exists for a reason.
So, while Neville’s diatribe on Sky was delivered with a certain grating joy, with the kind of crowing wink that many ex-United and Liverpool players have been guilty of down the years, what he said wasn’t necessarily incorrect. In fact, it’s a view shared by many who support the club. Even as recently as two years into Mauricio Pochettino’s reign, there were still plenty within that number who found great novelty in their side’s ability to protect leads, not give away ludicrously cheap goals and, most startlingly, see out games without raising their supporters’ heart rates. Redknapp did some great things in North London, but he made little impact on that defeatist culture. In fact, the very nature of his departure, remembered for Chelsea’s stealing of a Champions League berth but really characterised by months of limp football, supports the notion that Spurs were as accident prone as ever.
From the early 1990s until midway through the current decade, Tottenham were ‘weak’ and, when it mattered, they were often also ‘rubbish’. There are caveats, most notably in the financial advantages that players like Neville were beneficiaries of and the quality of teammate they were often surrounded by, but those differences shouldn’t preclude him from making what was – unfortunately – a fair assessment.
The criticism of him also seems to have missed the point: Neville was praising Mauricio Pochettino for his work and paying him the kind of compliment which head-coaches ordinarily dream of. Pochettino hasn’t just won a few games or achieved a couple of impressive finishes, he has actually changed Tottenham’s associations. He has altered the DNA. Admittedly, there remain those who guffaw every time the current side drops points (“an away draw in the Champions League? Lol” etc), but Spurs are now anything but a weak side. Even as recently as the last few days that’s been in evidence: 48 hours on from that dispiriting loss against Manchester City, Pochettino’s 2nd XI slapped West Ham out of the League Cup like they were an impertinent child. In front of a crowd who typically treat that fixture as their season’s be-all-and-end-all, Spurs cantered to victory without ever having to play that well. No Kane, no Lamela, no Lloris, no Vertonghen, Alderweireld or Dembele. All the excuses were on offer, but none were used.
And, when West Ham did pull a goal back and every Spurs fan born before 1998 braced for the worst, their team went straight up the other end of the field to finish the tie. Had that sequence of games occured under most other managers – not just Redknapp, but Andre Villas-Boas, Martin Jol, Christian Gross and so on – it’s easy to imagine the second game being surrendered as part of a group sulk. Neville talked about the club’s typical response to adversity and how, when a game got tough or circumstances conspired against them, Spurs would often just surrender. How can anyone dispute that?
Pochettino has initiated the change. Recruitment has played a part and it certainly helps that the team is stocked with a tougher sort of character now, but the collective level of responsibility – the communal response to the sort of adversity alluded to by Neville – is as impressive as it often is because of the Argentinian’s management of his players. To deny that is to short-change Pochettino. He’s not the sharpest tactician and he isn’t the very best at picking a side in way which doesn’t short-circuit momentum, but the emotional control he has over his team is almost unparalled in world football.
Unfortunately, recognising that in him comes with the consequence of denting egos elsewhere; he had to cure something which he inherited and which, by definition, his predecessors had failed to address. That might sting as an inadvertant criticism of others, but it’s one they still have to wear.
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