Tottenham’s supporters probably left London Stadium today feeling less jovial than they might have done. As they snaked away from the ground, across the nondescript Stratford wasteland and between the many, many cranes, they would have felt relief at seeing West Ham’s late fightback fall short and been glad of the 3-2 win. But they would also have felt a mild sense of deflation.
Winning is winning.
It’s one of those truisms which is impossible to argue with. Football matches are decided by the score, after all, and not by how anybody feels at full-time. Nevertheless, had today’s London derby ended after Christian Eriksen had put the visitors into a three-nil lead, the mood around Tottenham’s win would have been different. That would have been a conclusive performance. That would have been a noisy neighbour being put well and truly in their place.
As it was, Slaven Bilic’s side emerged from the game with pride relatively in tact. For long periods, they were made to look distinctly inferior; even without the influential Moussa Dembele and equally integral Victor Wanyama, Spurs looked like an immeasurably better football team. However, an instinctive Javier Hernandez goal and Cheik Kouyate’s late second, falling either side of Serge Aurier’s reckless dismissal, ensured that it can credibly be claimed to have been a close game. Years from now, when the result appears in black-and-white, only the score will describe it.
It shouldn’t matter, especially not in the binary world of derby football, but somehow it does. An essential part of victory lies in knowing that it has plunged another fanbase into misery. That you will fly home along the tube tracks and they will trudge home in the rain, perhaps even to an angry partner and an irritable child. Later, enthusiasm for that evening’s Match Of The Day will come from knowing that beaten supporters rarely have the stomach for it; you’ve been there and watched enough bad, attention-diverting films at 10.30pm on a Saturday to know that to be true.
But 3-2? From 3-0 down? It’s not the kind of glorious, points-stealing comeback which redacts everything which came before, but West Ham showed just enough heart to change the tone of the match-reports. Plumb the result into Google now, for instance, and the articles which appear will all be framed by Tottenham’s “survival” or West Ham’s “spirit”.
For the victorious supporter, that represents the denial of a raft of micro pleasures which are supposed to come with victory.
In the abstract, this theme run across the breadth of the game. In Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot, which tells the story of German football’s post-2004 rebirth, the author also describes the early career of Thomas Muller. In the years since, Muller has grown to become one of the finest and most effective players in all of Europe, but his reputation initially suffered from his scruffy aesthetic. That relates to his appearance – his socks at half-mast, his untucked shirt – but also the goals he scores. It may be redundant now, but the combination of his lack of finesse and apparent habit of only finding the net after a deflection or a half-block by a goalkeeper inarguably damaged the perception of who he was as a player. Important goals are supposed to look a certain way and to come with a radiant quality. Muller’s existence – and his excellence – is almost a challenge to the game’s decency. He is not as he should be: his performances and their effect are not in harmony.
His career, among many others, also offers a reminder that, actually, just as the winning is winning maxim isn’t as air-tight as assumed, not all goals are equal either. Discounting the circumstances under which they’re scored, they are always at the mercy of variables. The punctuating effect of a post or crossbar, for instance, or whether a goalkeeper chooses to dive or not. Think of David Bentley’s goal in the North London derby nearly a decade ago, for instance, and consider what that might have looked like had Manuel Almunia not palmed the ball into his own net. Or Xabi Alonso’s famous halfway line strike against Newcastle: Steve Harper’s comedic crawl was visual terrorism and probably altered that goal’s place in history. Of course, the moment still belongs to Alonso but, like a theatre hand trapped after a scene change, Harper remains an indelible, unwitting part of it.
No elegantly stranded Neil Sullivan, no real place in history.
Is any of this actually reasonable? No, not at all – worse, the stark realities of the league table and the goal-difference columns make it entirely incidental. But then that’s football – and perhaps one of the softer strains of its enduring appeal is this perpetual tease. The goals with their flecks of imperfection, the away wins which come with their aggravating caveats; both conspiring to keep the turnstiles rattling and the fan hunting the snark.