A rummy thing, football. Up diddly up, down diddly down, whoops poop twiddly dee, to quote one particularly sagacious soul – after which Man Utd win the whole dashed thing and our lot get edged out by that other lot. And that, it appears, is how football works. But when 38 games end with us essentially taking pride of place at the head of a 16-strong cohort of no-man’s-land stragglers, I am rather inclined to think ‘Dash it all, what’s the point?’
The Game Itself
Still, a game of football was there to be win, and win it we did, which I suppose ticks a box somewhere, albeit one of the more pointless boxes in football history. The urgency shown from the off was commendable enough, a clean sheet rather furtively sneaked its way into the stadium, we jolly well peppered the Sunderland goal throughout – oh that it counted a jot.
The mystery surrounding penalties at White Hart Lane remains as mind-boggling as ever. We can now add ‘Ill-Disguised Rugby Tackle Complete With Unsubtle Thump In Back’ to the list of offences, already including relatively uninteresting items such as ‘Handball’ and ‘Blatant Trip On Galloping Forward’, for which Spurs will most definitely not be awarded a penalty, and for which Bale will probably be cautioned.
On a general note I remain a little miffed at the use of just one genuine striker plus Dempsey, while Defoe picks his nose on the bench, in one-sided must-win games such as this. Similarly, the selection of two holding midfielders seems a little daft once the match pattern is established – although in fairness Parker remains convinced that he is the man to scythe open an opposing defence with one surging run after another, and AVB did eventually introduce Dembele into a fairly progressive role. While the patience shown by our heroes was probably to be lauded, and they did not simply resort to the aimless pumping of long aerial balls, someone somewhere might want to address our lack of lock-pickery, given that it was just about 90 minutes before said lock was unpicked (and even then ‘twas not done by any particular act of subtle wizardry and slick passing interchanges but rather by a sledgehammer swung by Bale).
An End-of-Season Thought On The Main Man
There was nothing particularly new about events on Sunday, but I hope you don’t mind awfully if I bang a favourite drum one last time, for while there is quite astonishing match-winning goodness in those size nines of his, Bale probably has room for improvement in terms of being the man to dictate games. Last season all things good tended to begin with Modric, and often travelled via VDV; whereas now Bale can be fairly peripheral for long periods (admittedly before then slapping the ball in from 20+ yards). The next step for him might be to evolve to match-bosser. Since he clearly is not doing enough for us already.
Further reflections on the season will follow in due course, and the more masochistic among us have already had hours of fun poring over the season’s fixtures to pinpoint the exact moment at which we threw it all away (Everton away? Fulham at home? Those blasted first three fixtures of the season?), but in terms of Sunday’s affair it was all rather hollow. And that’s it. Consummatum est, and in such disappointing manner that the whole bally thing might as well not have taken place. Dash it all.
Stoke away is traditionally the cue for an AANP diatribe against the merits or otherwise of the long-ball game, and assorted elbows, long throw-ins and whatnot. This time however there are bigger fish to fry, and by golly our heroes need to be at the ready with chef’s hats tipped just so.
The curious goings-on of Wednesday night leave some food for thought. In defence there was the tale of two full-backs, with Benny again believing his own hype, repeatedly attempting moments of trickery closer to ridiculous than sublime and consequently getting himself and the team into pickle after pickle, a performance that had AANP murmuring that he needed to be taken out the back and shot (the common means of dealing with transgressions here at AANP Towers). On t’other flank by contrast, young Master Walker looked suspiciously like a whippersnapper who had stumped scientist types the world over by growing a third lung. The lad looked unstoppable whenever he bombed forward, and if Lennon is below par again today his interventions will be jolly useful.
Glory be, Dembele is reportedly back to fitness for today’s encounter, for the Parker-Hudd combo was painfully lacking in verve. Understandably so, for they are third and fourth choice, but no less galling for that. Hudd’s passing range swung bizarrely between scrumptious and plain awful, while Parker simply no longer looks good enough for games against the country’s finest. He might fare well enough against Stoke however.
And as for attack, head-scratching all round. Bale did his best to shake off the ‘One-Man Team’ tag on behalf of his team-mates (credit to Chelski for the shackling job, but AVB might hav countered this by moving him into the centre). Meanwhile, the suspicion grew that Adebayor is a 5 year-old trapped in a set of limbs too long for his control. As with AANP’s pre-school nephews, when things went well for him his spirits rose and he became amazing; when things go less well he dons the invisibility cloak. Fingers crossed then that he scores or assists approximately every 15 minutes today, as that would probably be enough to maintain an unplayable performance level throughout (as well as providing us with six goals).
Traditionally a point away to Stoke would be acceptable enough for our heroes, but anything less than victory today would almost certainly blow things for the season. No pressure then chaps.
It would seem after that particular nerve-wracker to swerve rather wildly from reality by suggesting that the Spurs go marching on. Limping on, perhaps, or maybe sputtering to a halt and having our constituent parts stuffed unceremoniously into a sack and dragged towards the finish line by Bale. A less catchy ditty though, what?
Glorious relief though that finale provided, it was rather a poke in the eye for the massed ranks of us who have been insisting all season that we are more than just a one-man team. The problem with this specific one man is that he is not the sort to pull strings and dictate proceedings like some boot-clad revolutionary. The game passed Bale by as much as it did any of the other lilywhite heroes, the only difference being that while the rest of them could have huffed and puffed away until next season without producing anything different, Bale can conjure match-winners from rather innocuous-looking starting positions way out on the right, or wherever else he may be. Our mob is still bereft of a conductor, through whom all business passes – but that is one to be addressed in the summer months. For now, the good fight continues to be fought.
Curiously, for a match on which so much was riding, our heroes opted to a man to produce one of the most anaemic displays in recent memory. Hudd occasionally stroked an impeccably-weighted pass, and Kyle Walker beavered away, but that rather unpleasant sound in the distance is that of the AANP barrel being scraped in search of match highlights, for there was precious little of note from anyone, and after 80 minutes the dream appeared to be dying. The only chances I can recall were the early Defoe snapshot, and the little move involving a Hudd pass, Adebayor back-heel and inevitable Dempsey waft into the stands. The better chances were Southampton’s, in the first half at least, and once again Lloris saved our jambon. On the debit side, Benny had one of those days, producing all manner of suicidal buffoonery that but for the grace of God might have cost us our season, and Daws showed, not for the first time in his career, that it does not really require complex equations from Mensa’s finest to leave him floundering.
Probably best not to dwell on such things. To play badly and eke out a win is vaguely cockle-warming, and ‘tis difficult to imagine our mob being quite so toothless once again for Wednesday night’s cup final. A job needed doing and was done, albeit ultimately by our one man again. Three more points, and the dream remains alive.
Crumbs. You may want to shield the eyes of your children, because this has the potential to turn into a right palaver. Southampton at home ordinarily ought not to elicit more than confident nod, but with things being what they are I think our heroes dare not sneeze in the wrong direction today.
It may be of some comfort that Southampton are not exactly knee-deep in the mire, but I suppose ‘tis unrealistic to expect them simply to roll over and allow us to tickle their tummies. Still, if they found themselves two-down with 20 minutes to go it would be marvellously obliging of them if they just gave up and went the way of all flesh. Oh that life at the Lane were that simple, what?
Having begun the season with the thunderous central partnership of Sandro and Dembele hoovering up all before them, we find ourselves with the slightly more idiosyncratic pairing of Parker and the Hudd as the curtain comes down. If ever there were a time for the Hudd to pick a perfect pass, or deliver any other sort of alliterative brilliance, this could well be it.
Ultimately however, I presume it will come down to Bale. The lad does have quite a sense of occasion, not to mention nerves of steel. Just as well, as I can barely bring myself to watch.
Quite the 80th birthday present for AANP Senior. Is there a more joyous sight to behold in nature than a tide of adrenalin-pumped lilywhites pouring forward in wave after wave of irresistible attack at a sun-baked White Hart Lane? A spritely cheetah catching a young upstart of a gazelle and tearing it to pieces perhaps? That scene in Terminator 2 when Arnie shoots the padlock while riding his bike, then reloads seamlessly by twirling the shotgun around in his hand, and shooting another padlock? All worthy of a moment’s silent admiration, and reason if ever it existed to top up the tumbler with a fresh splash of bourbon in a gesture of unadulterated admiration - but by golly the sight of our heroes simply overwhelming the current champions in that mesmerising final 20 minutes, to the soundtrack of the most remarkable White Hart Lane din, was enough to make me smash a bottle of champagne against the side of the nearest ship, so rip-roaring were the events unfolding.
All of which came about, incredibly enough, after a dispiriting hour in which the dream looked set to die. The willingness of our heroes could not be faulted, but in the early stages ‘twas eerily reminiscent of many a Saturday evening in the nightspots of London, when AANP has attempted to woo the good womenfolk of London by delivering a ten-minute stream of unfunny bluster, before a rival cad strolls by to instantly sweep the young maiden off her feet with little more than an arched eyebrow. Thus was our valiant but slightly desperate gameplan of headless chickenry swiftly punctuated by one effortless flash of genius from Tevez, and lo – we trailed.
The pattern changed little thereafter, our attacking trio of Dempsey, Bale and Sigurdsson conspicuously lacking the nous of a Tevez, while ahead of them Adebayor gave a glimpse of a dystopian future in which teams play without a striker.
AVB’s Moment of Glory
But enter stage left the sort of managerial jiggery-pokery so barnstorming it can shoot pterodactyls out of the sky whilst blindfolded. While here at AANP Towers the suggested solution was nothing more progressive than a plaintive whinge about swapping strikers, AVB turned the universe on its head by switching from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, and unleashing the Hudd. Memories of the introduction of Jamie Redknapp at half-time in the Euro 96 England-Scotland match no doubt came flooding back to the lot of us, as Hudd instantly brought with him the perfect polygamous marriage of calmness, vision, technique and hair, giving us complete control and a nifty selection of dreamy, defence-splitting passes. The lad looked like he owned the ruddy pitch, and with Holtby buzzing around like a demented wasp ahead of him, Bale flicking the ‘Magic ’ switch on his left boot and Defoe showing the sort of bloody-minded eye for goal that Adebayor would not know if it slapped him in the face with a wet fish, all pretty swiftly became right with the world.
This does create a wonderful few conundra for AVB, around whether to select Defoe or Adebayor next up (relatively straightforward methinks); and whether to go with the brand of sorcery that Hudd delivers a little too effortlessly, within a 4-3-3, or the tireless but slightly directionless pirouetting of Parker, in a 4-2-3-1 (perchance more of a poser). These are queries for another day; now is without doubt still the time for making merry and, frankly, rubbing our eyes in disbelief. Where on earth it came from is slightly mystifying, but our heroes have got their groove back, and it was rollicking stuff.
One final Herculean effort please chaps. Actually, six more such efforts, but you get the gist. After that ten-day hiatus it is all a mite breathless from now until the season’s end, and the drill is essentially win, win and win again – which sounds straightforward enough when hammered out in Arial 10, but is presumably going to be eked out in typically excruciating fashion by our heroes.
First up are the current champions, for the sort of to-do that will require a darned sight more cunning and brio than the average Sunday lunchtime transaction. Thank heavens then for the returns of Masters Bale and Lennon, who in their own unique ways, heralded and unheralded alike, add a touch of majesty to the earnest but occasionally sparkle-lite endeavours of their colleagues. The return to fitness of Defoe also provides an extra option, but I rather suspect AVB will stick with Adebayor, who, ludicrous penalty-taking aside, has showed some renewed energy in recent engagements.
Elsewhere, Dembele ought to be yanked aside immediately pre kick-off for a gentle reminder that this is no time for him to mooch around in the off-boil manner off Basel a week or two back, while Scott Parker will need to deliver the sort of performance that we all probably think is beyond him now. And if the back-four could tighten up a mite it would prove jolly timely too.
A tall order for sure, but not beyond the realms of possibility. We blinking well need to win this really (although, writing before any of the weekend fixtures, it is possible that others around us may drop points), so A-games all round please.
Watching our heroes fight the good fight sans Master Bale was quite an educational experience, from which the AANP conclusion was, not for the first time this season, to yearn wistfully for a VDV-esque creative type. Sideways, and sideways once more, seemed to be the mantra, even in the final half hour when sleeves were rolled up and battle-cries sounded. Players piled forward, and we spent most of our time in the final third – but the absence of a man blessed with the ability to spot and then deliver a pass through the eye of a needle had me wishing for a solid brick-based structure against wish to bang my head in frustration. Hats are certainly tipped towards the players for retaining possession with short passes when the temptation would have been for ghastly long aerial balls, but the lack of anyone with the guile to play a cute, defensive-splitting 10/15-yard diagonal pass that released a forward into the area was dashed frustrating.
In his defence, AVB moved to remedy this by throwing on first Hudd and then young Carroll, the two most likely to deliver one of those aforementioned defence-splitters, and Hudd in particular mastered the intricacies of the ‘sideways’ to ‘forwards’ switch with some aplomb (if you pardon the digression, watching Dempsey labour away in his devastatingly ineffective style throughout I did wonder if AVB might be tempted in future to stick one of Hudd or Carroll alongside Parker, and push Dembele into the attacking hole..?). In general however the style of play does not differ particularly without Bale – he being the type to produce moments of magic rather than pull strings and dictate proceedings. With or without Bale, we lack a string-puller.
Not that our heroes should be described as toothless, or impotent, or in any other way biologically wanting. Dembele, for a start, is a marvel of a man. Time and again he charged forward like exactly the sort of beast in a BBC wildlife documentary that one would want to keep a healthy distance away lest he trample you to your doom. And Adebayor, good grief, exhibited all the signs of a man who has certainly discovered the wisdom of yanking his lamp from underneath the bushel and proudly popping it onto a very public stand, and jolly well tapping his neighbour on the shoulder and share the good news while he’s at it. If the injury-blitz is particularly ill-timed, then the discovery, in the final furlong of the season, of the cobweb-streaked artefact that is Ye Long-Lost Forme of Adebayor could prove mighty serendipitous.
Things would probably have panned out a little more rosily if the urgent mentality adopted after conceding the second goal had been stumbled upon a little earlier, but I suppose ‘tis vaguely understandable that the early goal led to a period of self-congratulatory meandering. Hardly commendable, but understandable nevertheless.
In the grand scheme of things this does rather strike me as two points lost rather than one gained, primarily because the rotters around us have taken the hint and started grinding out wins come hail or shine. As was most aptly expressed by a lilywhite fan on the tellybox this weekend – onwards and sideways.
No Bale. No Lennon. And just in time for the most crucial multipack of fixtures of the season. Maybe Skynet did win after all.
‘Tis a test that ought to put some hair on the AVB chest. For all the huffing, puffing and neat technique, if our heroes are not scything teams open through nifty interplay and a killer pass of the VDV mould – and these days it tends to be the exception rather than the norm – the default setting does seem to be to look to Bale to magic up a goal from nothing, on his own. Time for AVB to stun the watching world, and Everton, with the mother of all Plan Bs.
On top of which, the absence of Lennon stirs some eminently forgettable memories of our lot taking to the field in lopsided manner and promptly turning a 12-game unbeaten run into a three-match losing streak. Presumably rather than the ill-advised solution of sticking Dembele onto the right wing again, the plan this time will be to muddle Messrs Sigurdsson, Dempsey and Holtby around the left, right and central positions, while letting Dembele run operations from the centre.
Elsewhere, Adebayor’s reign as Lilywhite Enemy Number One is reinforced by the game, with the usual array of mis-controls and air-kicks, but in truth I thought the blighter put the effort in on Thursday, his cause not helped by a lack of service. The defence at least ought to have a more solid look to it, with Lloris back and Gallas nowhere to be seen.
There really isno’t any margin for error now, especially with l’Arse churning out results, but Everton are themselves without a couple of key players, and if our lot can rediscover the zippy passing groove that occasionally surfaces it will matter not that Bale or Lennon are not on hand. Fingers crossed.
I’m not sure anyone saw that coming, from AVB all the way down to AANP. Blinking heck, Basel were as slick as any opponent we have played all season, their attacking interplay as good as the Chelski front three who six-yard-passed us to oblivion back in the early autumn. They may masquerade as a Swiss club side, but Basel played like a team of Bond villains – laughing in our faces as they pretty effortlessly repelled most of our attacks, and then slicing us open at will with interplay so fizzy our heroes could barely see them, let alone keep pace with them. Presumably up in the posh boxes their bald chairman stroked a cat and laughed rather evilly as it unfolded.
In the first half hour our mob seemed to be going about business in a fairly honourable way – ‘sharp technique’ and ‘good ball retention’ amongst the boxes being dutifully ticked off, with Messrs Holtby, Parker and Dembele in particular earning their little gold stars. All of which would please the Ofsted inspectors, but the truth that dare not be mentioned was that we were hardly blowing up anybody’s skirts, with barely a well-crafted goalscoring opportunity on the horizon.
And frankly it went downhill from there. Half the team filled the full-back positions at one point or another, and were duly skinned alive, and Gallas looked suspiciously like a man closing his eyes and guessing, until he just gave up and wandered down the tunnel early.
In fairness, the two-goal salvo was a worthy effort, the goals being forced in through sheer willpower as much as any particular finesse, and our heroes deserve credit for not folding as lilywhite teams of yore have regularly done. But it did seem, particularly in that final 30 minutes once Holtby’s energy was removed, that we were on the end of a rather peculiar 2-2 hammering.
On top of which both Lennon and Bale made unscheduled exits, prompting a flurry of understandable pessimism to fill the North London air. (Although on a medical note, I would point out that many a time and oft has AANP rolled over one ankle or t’other in the manner of Master Bale last night – and although there typically tends to follow 24 hours of stiff upper lip-inducing pain, luridly coloured and over-sized ankle swelling, several hours of tedium in Chase Farm A&E and several futile attempts to engage the young nurses in playful conversation, I actually tend to be back up and peddling my limited footballing wares again within a week. The moral of the story is slap some ice on it, give him an ankle strap and he ought to be back for the Man City game right as rain.) (Unless he’s actually torn his ligaments to kingdom come, or broken the thing, in which case we are all in a rather a bothersome fix.)
Pardon the digression. A final word or forty-two on the Basel episode of last night - it would be jolly impressive if our opponents play quite as well again in the second leg, but a testing evening undoubtedly awaits. Our heroes might be advised simply to forget the notion of away goals and just concentrate on outscoring them.
The Top Four vs Europa debate has become increasingly academic over the course of this season, because whatever the rights and wrongs AVB is clearly intent to keep hurling at kitchen sinks and first-team players at his Thursday nights, until that ineffably-shaped pot is in our mitts. As has been pointed out by various scribes, for all the potential hazards around fatigue this whole European campaign has, in general, been a rather edifying process for the mighty lilywhites, allowing the players time to dashed well understand the gravel-voiced murmurings of the grand fromage in the early part of the season, and also providing the occasional night of merriment and good cheer for the shuffling throngs on the White Hart Lane train platform. We might as well go on and win the whole dashed thing now, no? After all there barely seems another team qualified to do it.
A man with an unpronounceable surname is always worth a tip of the hat, so an entire football club possessed of what may – or may not – be a silent ‘s’ ought to be treated with a certain degree of deference. That said, we be the mighty Hotspur, and as such ought really to grind this lot into submission over two legs. Of greater concern at AANP Towers is the welfare of key personnel, for any sort of injuries to Bale or Dembele (or indeed, for the sake of our shape, Master Lennon) would be frightfully unwelcome at this stage of proceedings.
The usual selection larks and japes will ensue no doubt, with Friedel retained at the back, a soupcon of jiggery-pokery in defence and the usual midfield. Defoe is out and Master Dempsey is reportedly back, but Adebayor will presumably be unleashed once again to wreak his usual devastating brand of havoc across the Swiss back-line.
Traditional wisdom had it that a clean sheet and solid lead would be the order of the day, but this being N17, and the last round’s 3-0 home advantage having been transformed so effortlessly into a monumental pickle, it is difficult to know quite what the target tonight should be. Perhaps, in the finest tradition of a stag-weekend, we should just aim to make it through proceedings with no broken bones and no arrests, and then re-assess.