The notion of “luck” has special onus within the confines of football. From the terraces to Twitter and even extending to a manager’s post-match press conference, an unfavourable result can trigger the assertion that Lady Luck did a disservice to the defeated party.
A recent study conducted by ESPN, investigating the role luck plays, concluded Liverpool were the team disadvantaged most over the last campaign. Sincere sympathy for the Scousers would be hard-pressed from the Spurs faithful though, as when it comes to being on the wrong end of fortune’s favour in the Premier League era, Tottenham take some beating. (The evidence being in the reason why the term “Spursy” has evolved from inside-joke to widely-recognised footballing term — need I bring up Lasagne-Gate?)
It was 13 years ago when the ultimate epitome of this “luckless Tottenham” came to the fore. On 4 January 2005, Martin Jol, having graduated from backroom staff to man in charge only two months prior, took his team to Old Trafford facing a gargantuan task. On that bitterly cold Tuesday evening, Tottenham arrived in the red half of Manchester having last tasted victory there back in 1989.
Donning a heavily-dated, Stretch Armstrong-simulating Kappa strip, the away side set up in a 4-5-1 formation in an endeavour to stifle a Ferguson-helmed XI boasting the likes of Ferdinand, Keane, Scholes, Giggs and Ronaldo. A win for United would see the Reds remain within touching distance of title-favourites Chelsea; a similar outcome for Spurs would, aside from ripping up the history books, boost the chances of Uefa Cup qualification ahead of Bolton and Middlesbrough.
In a game remembered for the incident that defined it, Jol’s side — who were seven games unbeaten going into the match — performed admirably, demonstrating a level of defensive resolve — bolstered by Paul Robinson’s heroics — rarely associated with Tottenham teams of the Noughties. As United huffed and puffed, unable to break their opponents down, Spurs grew in confidence, earning a dignified draw as the match ended goalless.
Containing Ferguson’s United on home soil — and earning a point in the process — should have been a cause for celebration for a Spurs side who in recent encounters had often found themselves the well-trounced victim of their Devilish tormenters. And a celebration it would have been, if it weren’t for one detail.
In the 89th minute of play, Pirates of the Caribbean extra and Tottenham’s Portuguese playmaker Pedro Mendes, having tried his luck from distance earlier in the game, hooked high a half-volley from just inside his own half following a bungled clearance from the waywardly positioned United goalkeeper, Roy Carroll.
You should be acquainted with the rest: Carroll did a Karius before doing a Karius was even a thing; the ball squirming out of the goalkeeper’s unconventional palm-chest clasp, looping over his shoulder — and looping over the line. The referee that evening, Mark Clattenburg, looked to his assistant Ray Lewis, who kept his flag down. Lewis, in a frantic effort to keep up with play after Mendes’s speculative effort, hadn’t been watching the ball’s downward trajectory. No goal was given.
“The goal that never was”, as it’s now known, is still a sore subject to this day. In the direct aftermath, those who attempted to digest proceedings either had it down as rotten, Spurs(y) luck, or as a manifestation of the No Place Like Home theory regarding Ferguson and United — the Scot’s side notorious in getting the rub of the green with refereeing decisions at Old Trafford.
With hindsight, the real travesty over the goal that never was is it prevented the win that never was. Spurs were not only — considering the disparity between both clubs at the time — denied a giant-killing of epic proportions but denied a historic win that should have kick-started Jol’s reign at the club. (The direct repercussions are obvious now: Spurs finished the 2004-05 season three points off European qualification, while it would be another seven years before the Old Trafford hoodoo was officially laid to rest.)
Thirteen years later Spurs arrive at Old Trafford an entirely different beast to the one Jol so-nearly steered to victory. On the pitch at least, Spurs are longer inferior but worthy adversaries. That being said, a victory away at United on Monday would likely have the same cathartic effect on Pochettino’s team at it would have Jol’s; it’s a chance to exorcise some painful demons.
Although Spurs, thanks to the Argentine, venture up the M40 with hindering hoodoos and the “Spursy” namesake all-but banished, one blemish remains: Pochettino has never won at Old Trafford with Spurs. It’s a fact that acts as the cornerstone for Pochettino’s detractors — the assertion is he’s been routinely “out-schooled” by his counterpart at the Theatre of Dreams.
Pochettino won’t be thinking about his own standing though; he’ll know that three points on Monday evening will only enhance his team’s title credentials — acting as a statement of intent to the rest of the league. Having lost more away games at Old Trafford (21) than any team has lost away from home in Premier League history, a Spurs triumph will undoubtedly prove a season-defining moment — just as it would have for Jol all those years ago. (However, this time, the stakes are much higher.)
Unlike the Dutchman however, Pochettino possesses a team capable of coming home with a comfortable win instead of a flash-in-the-pan victory. But as history has proved with all of Spurs' trips to Old Trafford, his team will probably require a good dose of luck to get them over the line.
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