Lasagna-Gate and the European Heartache of Tottenham Hotspur

Alex LivieFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2013

Rolling Back The Years: On “Lasagna-gate” and Tottenham’s Champions League heartbreak.

Lasagna: A traditional Italian dish consisting of pasta, bechamel sauce, tomato sauce, mozzarella, minced beef and vegetables. (Hat tip to this writer’s mother for that).

Who’d have thought something that sounds so appetising could cause such a storm? But back in 2006, fingers were pointed at this hearty dish.

Tottenham lock horns with West Ham on Sunday in what seems like the umpteenth London derby of the season.

This may not have the fierce rivalry of Tottenham against Arsenal or West Ham versus Millwall, but it is one steeped in history with many interesting plotlines.

Tottenham have had the upper hand down the years as, according to the head-to-head record on Soccerbase, Spurs have won 59 of the 138 meetings in all competitions. They go into this clash firmly on the front foot, unlike West Ham who are 17th after a disappointing start to the season.

It’s too early to ascertain the importance of this game when looking at the whole season, unlike when the two sides met on the final day of the 2005/06 campaign.

At that point Tottenham were in pole to secure a place in the Champions League, as they only needed to match the result of Arsenal to claim a place at Europe’s top table.

With West Ham safe and focused on the FA Cup final the following weekend, everything was in place for Tottenham to take the three points. But they left their fans feeling somewhat hollow as the Hammers ran out 2-1 winners.

The result, though, does not tell the whole story as Tottenham arrived at Upton Park on the day of the game crying foul as a host of their key players had been taken ill on the night before the game.

As Matthew Beard of the Independent reported at the time, 10 players—star striker Robbie Keane and midfield pass master Michael Carrick among them—were hit with a stomach bug.

So concerned were Tottenham, the police were called, while environmental health officers took away samples of the food the players had consumed for testing.

Tottenham, managed at the time by Martin Jol, wanted the match postponed. Per Beard’s piece, Jol said:

I have never experienced anything like this in football before.

We would like to have postponed the match for one day but that was not really possible.

The Premier League was never going to agree to a switch, as all games kick off at the same time on the final day of the season to ensure no team has an advantage.

As such, Tottenham awoke on the morning of the game with Jol taking on the role of matron to see who was fit for duty. 

With so much at stake, Jol sent out his first-choice XI. But the sharp, incisive play which had been their hallmark for much of the season was absent.

Tottenham fell behind to an early goal from Carl Fletcher, only for Jermain Defoe to draw Spurs level with a stunning shot that flashed across the keeper and into the far corner.

At that point, Spurs were ahead of Arsenal, who were 2-1 down to Wigan. The Latics, though, were never likely to play party-poopers in the final match to be played at Highbury before the Gunners moved to the Emirates.

A Thierry Henry-inspired Arsenal turned things around to run out 4-2 winners.

Tottenham ran out of gas, with players seemingly feeling the effects of the previous evening. Carrick in particular was laboured throughout and was removed just past the hour.

In 2012, Defoe gave an interview to the Mirror's Darren Lewis where he spoke of his admiration for Carrick, who had hauled himself out of his sick bed to try and help Spurs over the line.

I couldn’t believe it. Such an important game and seven of the lads were sick. I still respect guys such as Michael Carrick, who went out and played even though he was struggling.

Tottenham attempted to raise one final effort, but Yossi Benayoun dealt a knockout blow when scoring West Ham’s winner 10 minutes from time.

While West Ham fans celebrated by throwing toilet rolls on to the pitch, Tottenham were left to reflect on a missed opportunity. The board were left to reflect on the missed £10 million windfall that Champions League football brings.

Jol, speaking to the BBC, was left to reflect on the previous evening.

 We had 10 players feeling sick overnight.

We asked to postpone the game for 24 hours but we didn't want to risk sanctions. We took a gamble but I think you saw we weren't strong enough.

It's always a thought that maybe we could have done better with a fit squad but I have to say to myself that it's all in the game.

We're gutted.

Given Tottenham’s plight in the previous 24 hours, Jol’s choice of words was a shade ironic.

The controversy did not end there, as Tottenham contacted the Premier League to ask them to order a replay. Their plea fell on deaf ears, while Spurs were mocked by their fiercest rivals. Pictures of Arsene Wenger, like the one from bergkampesque.com, popped up on the internet as Arsenal fans revelled in Spurs’ misfortune.

As the days turned into weeks and months, “Lasagna-gate,” as the incident became known, was etched in Tottenham folklore. Food poisoning is still felt to have been the cause of Spurs’ problems, but an investigation by the Health Protection Agency found no issues with the food served at the London Marriot Hotel.

Colin Perrins, head of Tower Hamlets Trading Standards and Environmental Health, per the BBC, said: "None of the results or findings indicated that food poisoning was the cause."  

Alex Mellanby, consultant in communicable disease control at the Health Protection Agency, again according to the BBC, said: "The only positive finding in this investigation identifies norovirus, a form of viral gastroenteritis, as the cause of the outbreak." 

Tottenham did make it into the Champions League in 2010, but by then Teemu Tainio had moved on. In an interview with the Mail’s Laura Williamson in 2012, Tainio spoke of the anguish he felt.

You go into the last game and know that victory would secure a Champions League place, so we were in control.

Then this episode came up, everyone got sick, and we had a fair chance to win the game but we didn’t.

It is still the biggest disappointment of my career.

Arsenal gave Highbury a fitting send-off by celebrating their Champions League qualification. It was a huge effort from the Gunners who, following defeat to Blackburn on February 25, trailed Tottenham by five points.

There were also those who suggested Tottenham had faltered in the face of pressure exerted by Arsenal. And former Spurs player Johnnie Jackson inferred, in a 2011 interview with Neil McLeman of the Mirror, that more was made of the affair than was actually the case.

I think it was exaggerated a bit to be honest. The only one who I remember actually played the game who was struggling was Michael Carrick.

But they ended up losing it and missing out on the fourth and I think they made more of a deal of it than it actually was.

Whether it was exaggerated or not, it made for a fantastic story that is still talked about.