Spurs' 20 defining matches reviewed

Updated: May 10


It’s easy to simply sling together a cut and paste job from the archives, but The Guardian team has gone to the trouble of doing a little research around the games chosen, picking out some background and contextual comment by their roster of writers, and providing a joining commentary between chapters that serves as a potted history of the club. Reading this, you also get an idea of how football writing has progressed, something I’ve noticed from researching press clipping for the forthcoming official history of Spurs in Europe, The Glory Glory Nights.


The games you would expect are here, staring with the 1901 FA Cup final and progressing through the trophy victories. There are also some more thoughtful choices, my favourite being the selection of the 7-0 drubbing of Newcastle United in front of 70,000 at White Hart Lane. That game announced the arrival at the very top of Arthur Rowe’s push and run style, and arguably helped change the face of English football. If you want to read more on that assertion, I’ll immodestly suggest my own ebook on Arthur Rowe. The report concludes with a lovely flourish from The Observer‘s Alan Ross, who wrote that “as darkness came choking in, Tottenham ran rings through it to the tune of seven goals”.


I love that kind of flourish, those touches of prose that stay just the right side of purple but which evoke occasion and emotion the way much modern sports writing cannot because, of course, the reader has usually seen every incident, every angle in multiple slow motion long before consulting any written record. It’s a pity much of that has been lost, but there must surely still be room for the kind of scene setting in which the paper’s Special Correspondent at Crystal Palace in 1901 set the scene for that years clash between Spurs and northern giants Sheffield United in the final of the FA Cup. One sentence really stands out, where he writes: “The chalk lines on the ground stood out boldly, and the shadows of the players were cast disntinct on the ‘green enamelled lawn’.” Beautiful stuff.


This collection recognises triumph in its many forms, so the matches chosen are not simply those in which trophies were won. There’s that Newcastle game under Rowe, or course, but also the 4-2 victory over Don Revie’s leeds united in 1975 which kept Spurs up, at least for a little longer before the post-Nicholosn decline took hold. Here, David Lacey observes that perhaps “the next most enjoyable experience to success is narrow survival”.


The 5-0 swatting of West Ham in the 1987 League Cup also features, but commercial demands presumably stopped the compilers including the semi-final against Arsenal – a match that infamously ended in defeat but which can arguably be said to be a defining game for Spurs as well as that lot. But the Woolwich Wanderers are not ignored, with Kevin McCarra’s report on the 5-1 thumping in the 2008 semi-final of that same competition one of the featured games. McCarra demonstrates more than a passing understanding of the Spurs psyche when he writes of “the joy of flattening Arsenal, of dismantling Arsene Wenger’s team and savouring a rout rather than the accursed moral victory in which Spurs have too often traded.”


The last three games selected put Harry Redknapp in his rightful position in club history. Such was the controversy surrounding much of what he said and did, and the circumstances of his departure, it seems sometimes people forget what he did achieve. So there’s the 1-0 against Manchester City in which Harry’s adventurous instincts proved key, and the pair of games against AC Milan which represented – arguably – the highpoint of Redknapp’s achievement. Sandwiched between those reports is, of course, Bale’s game, that magical night at White Hart Lane in which the Welshman confirmed his arrival as a world class player, and which continues to give almost as much pleasure to read as it did to watch.


Any list inevitably generates debate about what was not included. Perhaps the 1981 FA Cup semi-final replay should have been there, the quarter final against liverpool in 1995 which saw Spurs applauded from the field by a respectful Kop, the epic clash with Benfica in 1962. But there is enough here to keep any Spurs fan happy, and for £1.99 it’s a small price to pay for a couple of hours of nostalgic pleasure.


As I observed earlier, the flourish in the early writing may have all but vanished by the later stages, although the quality of The Guardian group’s sports desk ensures some valuable insight, but there’s always the old master David Lacey to save the day. I’ve long been an admirer of Lacey’s way with an intro, and there are two great examples here.


He describes the 1991 Fa Cup final as “the day Paul Gascoigne kissed a princess and croaked”, later expanding on his theme to observe that “only Gascoigne could kiss the hand of Princess Diana and, within the hour, find himself abed with Princess Grace.” And, introducing his report of the 1999 Worthington Cup final with considerably more flourish than had been on display on the pitch, he wrote: “Tottenham Hotspur won the English beer match at Wembley yesterday because, at the last, a Dane was able to find a part of the ground that no other player had been able to reach.” Marvellous stuff.


Tottenham Hotspur 20 Defining Matches is available for £1.99 as an ebook from Amazon.


• For more short reads and original writing on Spurs, see the Spurs Shorts series by me and Adam Powley. The three titles currently available are Danny Blanchflower, Arthur Rowe and Glenn Hoddle – all available from Amazon. Our book on the Spurs side of the early 1980s, The Boys from White Hart Lane, is also available in digital format.

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Contact me at martincloake@mac.com

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