Here we are again. A year ago, we looked back at the building of a cohesive squad and a united fan-base. We looked forward to a promising 2016, progressing strongly towards a top four finish. A fair bit has happened since.
These end-of-year reviews are particularly difficult to write. After all, football is played in seasons, not years and so it seems fairly inconsequential to have a look back in this way. However, it is still intriguing to see how things have developed, how the conclusion of one season has fed into the beginning of another. This year has been particularly peculiar in that sense.
So let’s go back to January of last year. Full of belief and chest thumping pride off of the back of that late win over Watford, Tottenham brought us all back down to earth. Naturally. We started the year with a draw at Goodison Park that should have been a win. Aaron Lennon put Everton in front. Naturally. On the stroke of half-time though, Dele Alli swept in Tottenham’s first goal of the year after controlling a sensational Toby Alderweireld pass. A theme would develop here. Despite numerous chances, we had to settle for a point.
Things got worse before they got better. It was Leicester City that made things worse. Another theme. Firstly, we were held by the Foxes at home in the FA Cup, before Mauricio Pochettino’s side were sunk by a late Robert Huth header in the league three days later. It sent Leicester level on points at the top, although perhaps the significance of this was not fully realised then.
A key characteristic of Pochettino’s Tottenham to positively respond to defeat set in motion a charge like no other seen by the White Hart Lane faithful in the last twenty years. First, we took apart Sunderland, before finally getting one over Leicester with a 2-0 win in the FA Cup replay. Next came Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. A game defined by one moment, that defined one player’s extraordinary season.
From a goal down, Spurs had fought back and were in the ascendancy after Harry Kane’s headed second-half equaliser. With six minutes remaining, things may have started to become desperate, but instead the players stuck professionally to their task to manoeuvre one piece of sublime genius. On the right hand side, Kane swung a pass towards Christian Eriksen on the edge of the Palace area. The Dane cushioned a header into the path of Alli.
The touch, the flick, the spin, the drive. All forged into a single, flowing movement. Magic. The then 19 year-old announced himself to world football with those few seconds, setting social media alight with amazement and admiration. Nacer Chadli added another in stoppage time to round off a performance of character and guile that would carry through the next few weeks.
Further progression in the Cup came, before important league wins over Norwich and Watford lifted us to the heady heights of second. In February. Tottenham Hotspur in second place. In February. Quiet belief had crept into the minds of the more optimistic. We were grinding out wins where we previously would have stumbled. The real test would fall on Valentine’s Day. Manchester City at the Etihad.
Three points would pull Spurs away from City’s team of superstars and close the gap at the top to just two points. A win would make Tottenham genuine, very real title contenders. But we’d been hurt here before. 4-1 the previous season, 6-0 the year before that. Yes, we’d taken them apart at White Hart Lane, but this was a very different proposition away from home. City had just been embarrassed by the astonishing Leicester a week before. The Foxes had sent out a message that they were in the fight to win it. The question now was who would fight back hardest.
The answer wasn’t looking any clearer at half-time – both sides had thrown jabs, but not a great deal more. Shortly after the break though, Spurs were handed a slice of luck. A harsh penalty. No one cared. Certainly not our number ten. Kane finished and celebrated wildly. He felt it. The fans falling down rows of sky blue seats in the away end felt it.
Tottenham threatened to do what they so often do best by managing to fall on their sword and destroy all of the self-inflated hope when Kelechi Ihenacho equalised with fifteen minutes to go. The next few minutes were draining. Watching through your fingers kind of draining. City pushed, buoyed by momentum, but the new Tottenham that had emerged in 2015 stepped up again. No soft underbelly now. They gritted their teeth and they fought and they scrapped and then they twisted the knife.
The perfect Pochettino goal. Pressing high, forcing mistakes to turn over possession and then sweeping forward. Érik Lamela, transformed, sliced open the City defence to feed Eriksen on his birthday. He finished with a calm that belied the importance of his winner.
Euphoria. For the next sixty seconds of flailing limbs. For the next few hours, drinking in the celebrations. For the next few days, riding on the crest of a wave that so many of us have never felt before.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the most miserable Spurs fan in the world. It doesn’t matter what eventually transpired. The way our club, our manager, our players made us feel after that day is something special that we may not feel again for a long time. We dared to let ourselves dream.
Pochettino fed that belief. The celebrations at full-time were those of a side fully believing in the impossible. The Argentine strode towards the away end. The footage of it still produces goose bumps. The hugs for each and every one of his players, the triumphant fist towards the rapturous support in the stands. If you could capture one feeling that football can create, it would be that.
To follow City was difficult and things became less pristine from then on. An impressive Europa League win over two legs against Fiorentina righted the wrongs of defeat to them the previous year. Sadly, this was sandwiched by an FA Cup exit to Palace, another disappointing cup failure.
We ended February with another win that felt huge. A goal down at home to Swansea and despite constant dominance, it looked like it might just be one of those days. Except that’s not Tottenham in 2016. First Chadli, and then Danny Rose scored to reassert the message that this isn’t the same club anymore.
In March though, we faltered. Finally, we had a chance to go top. In our last visit to Upton Park no less. What happened is hard to explain. A flat and lifeless performance that deserved the 1-0 defeat. The North London Derby would provide a second go at reaching the summit, even if only for a few hours. In the end we were only there for thirteen minutes. What a glorious thirteen minutes it was though.
A year before, Harry Kane had given me the best moment I’ve ever experienced at White Hart Lane. This time, he tried his hardest to top it. A goal down at the break, Spurs came out in the second-half with the desire that had brought them so far. The sending off of Francis Coquelin on fifty-five minutes transformed belief into expectation. This was fulfilled five minutes later with the equaliser courtesy of Alderweireld. The aftermath was a blurry mess.
The frenzy hardly had time to die down before it was reignited by one Master Kane. Go on Dele. Yes! Go on Harry! Then delirium. I’ve never had it quite like that. Bodies everywhere, broken seats. I remember looking to the sky, still screaming with others screaming back in my face, feeling like I could pass out at any moment. Genuinely. If we’d held on, no other moment in over ten years of supporting Tottenham even comes close.
Somehow, despite all the momentum, we didn’t win that game. How crucial that would turn out to be. But another special moment from 2016 that would remain immortalised.
Some more league wins, and a pretty pathetic elimination from Europe at the hands of Borussia Dortmund. Pochettino only had eyes for one thing. Understandable, but still infuriating. Even more so now with the knowledge that we’ll never witness European football at our famous old ground again.
A draw at Anfield against an improving Liverpool wasn’t a disaster, but was where the hope began to fade. Yet when we began to lose faith, the players refused to crumble. Another memorable moment.
‘Spurs in full cry here – LAMELAAAAARGH’.
All my life Manchester United had been the dominant force in English football. Now I didn’t just see us beat them, I watched as we embarrassed them. The ruthless young side made a fully grown Manchester United friend of mine cry real tears in front of my eyes. Pochettino really is magic.
Another emphatic away win followed. Stoke on a cold Monday night. Difficult place to go. Not likely. 4-0 and another incredible reception for the magic man in front of the away end.
And then, after a season where the rulebook was thrown out the window, where Leicester just kept refusing to slip up, where all stereotypes of our club had been discarded, we just had to be reminded one more time that we will always be Tottenham Hotspur. A 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion. Obviously.
Another defining moment followed. For Spurs, Leicester and English football. It’s been analysed to death already. Still though, it’s always fun to watch Eric Dier attempt to break Eden Hazard and Cesc Fàbregas. The result confirmed what we already knew after the draw to West Brom. The dream was dead.
And so our minds switched from winning the title to just not embarrassing ourselves again. Two games, a point will do. At home to Southampton was winnable. Nope. Right then, we’ll surely settle it away to already relegated Newcastle. Oh for fu–
A season that had promised so much had once more concluded in derision and depression. A fine season, with some incredible moments, yet permanently stained by the latest of collapses.
The summer brought more hope. A young England side full of Spurs talent. Rose and Kyle Walker were typically energetic. Dier was probably England’s best player. Alli was mostly anonymous and Kane, for some reason, was on corners. For Belgium, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld were inexplicably separated and Marouane Fellaini was preferred to Mousa Dembélé. Marouane Fellaini. At least Ben Davies was key in Wales’ incredible journey to the semi-finals.
Some intriguing new faces entered Hotspur Way, but perhaps the departures were just as interesting. Watching Ryan Mason leave was particularly difficult after his long journey to the first team. Chadli followed Mason out of the door and so too Nabil Bentaleb, on loan. The great mystery of 2016 – what changed with the young Algerian?
The bruises from the previous season still ached as we started our campaign at Everton. Expectations had risen higher than ever before. This wasn’t a team seen as hopefuls for the Champions League anymore, this was a team with another shot at the title. Two draws against both halves of Merseyside and wins over Palace and Stoke only heightened the confidence.
And so the fruits of last season’s hard work swung around. Champions League football. Not at White Hart Lane, but instead at the Home of Football, in the name of progress. The day brimmed with anticipation. A sea of white flowed towards the world-famous arch to break an English football record. 85,011 people witnessed our return to the European elite, but a return that ended in defeat. Still, a strange and fun day out, surely things would get better.
And they did. More Premier League wins, an away win in Moscow and progression in the League Cup. A glimpse of the mercurial Marcus Edwards and a first goal for the delighted Josh Onomah. Once again, our hot streak would find its biggest test coming against the blue half of Manchester.
This wasn’t the same side we’d snatched three points from in February. This was a team rejuvenated under Pep Guardiola, flying undefeated at the top of the table. Only one club would leave White Hart Lane undefeated that day, and it was those in white who once again triumphed. And how incredibly they did.
Those on the pitch mustered the absolute peak of a Pochettino performance. City were ravaged with relentless pressing, intensity, aggression and ruthlessness. That first-half performance was the most complete of any Spurs side in decades. In the second, Tottenham hardly looked likely to surrender their two-goal lead. Pochettino had once again masterminded something quite special.
It’s as if reaching that summit of performance had taken everything. Or perhaps it was down to the poorly timed international break stalling all momentum. After climbing to second with the dismantling of City, Spurs failed to find another win for seven games. Another cup exit, despite a late fight-back at Anfield, drab draws and then a loss to Bayer Leverkusen seemed to suck all positivity out of White Hart Lane (and Wembley). The performance was inept, not what we had come to expect under Pochettino.
What had changed so drastically in the weeks since Tottenham reached the pinnacle of excellence? Injuries to our spine had certainly contributed, setbacks we had the luxury of avoiding during our storm on the title in the previous campaign. After seven weeks out, Kane returned just in time to terrify Laurent Koscielny once again. His penalty was enough to take an impressive point.
The win drought would finally be broken at home to West Ham. Pochettino had decided to be brave in his handling of youth once more and was repaid with a goal from Harry Winks. The look on the midfielder’s face could only come from one of our own. The look of someone living his dream. It was Kane who again was the saviour from the penalty spot in stoppage time, just minutes after equalising. West Ham United, it happened again.
The slump out of the Champions League was completed days later. Everything that had felt so special the first time round had been missing this year. The draw had failed to inspire, Wembley never ignited and there would be no underdog story. No heroic, hopeless hat-tricks, no taxis, no super-slow renditions of ‘Oh When The Spurs’, no late San Siro magic and no trips to the Bernabéu. Instead, a second loss to Monaco and a fruitless win over CSKA. And another go at the Europa League.
There was hope for revenge at Stamford Bridge after Eriksen swerved in an early opener, but Antonio Conte’s side had long found a rhythm that continues to carry into the New Year and our unbeaten run was finally, even mercifully, ended. A narrow loss at Old Trafford proved the run had perhaps merely papered over some growing cracks. The belief that had surged through the club in the previous season and for the early stages of this had evaporated. Time had come to set new goals and just start winning games again.
And so 2016 ended on a high. The performances have been resembling more of what this side can produce and the results have lifted them back towards where they desire. Wins against Hull, Burnley and Southampton closed out the year in successful fashion. Chelsea are already almost over the horizon, but some positive results in January could provide another catapult for a young side that rides on momentum.
The past year has been particularly difficult to sum up. Incredible highs, but some of the most gut-wrenching lows. The life of a Tottenham fan, neatly presented in twelve months.
Certainly, it has been another year of progress under the 44-year-old Argentine. A year ago, we were grateful to him for re-establishing a lost connection between those on the pitch and those in the stands. In 2016, he has used this to fuel a team that gave everything in an effort to win our first league title in over fifty years.
The journey we were taken on at the back-end of last season made 2016 the most memorable year in my Tottenham supporting life. When those players came to the pocket of noise at the Etihad and then at the Britannia, you felt they were doing it for you. They were fighting for this title for you. They wanted to make history and it was all going to be for you and all those years of money and time and tears that you had invested. For that, 2016 was special.
This season was always going to be difficult with exulted expectations. Still, we have the youngest team in the league and the recovery in the Christmas period has allowed some optimism to filter back through. We sit with more points than at the same stage last season. We still have yet to field our strongest team on a consistent basis and there is still time for our signings to make a mark. Moussa Sissoko is actually becoming a useful asset; anything can happen.
The young group have set themselves up to once again make a mark in 2017. It is going to be an emotional year. It will be a defining one in the club’s history, regardless of anything on the pitch. So as we move closer to the saddest of farewells, be thankful for the past year. We got to witness a Tottenham team take us on a journey and a fight for the title at White Hart Lane.
For many of us, it was an experience we’ve never had before. The likelihood is it won’t happen again before the wrecking balls roll in. Despite the heartbreak and the subsequent difficulties, it was still unique, still an incredible ride. A year to be remembered.
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