In the autumn of 1999, I went to Tottenham Hotspur’s old training ground on the edge of north London to interview their then-manager, George Graham.
Directly outside Graham’s sparse office was an enormous black-and-white picture of the club’s most successful manager, Bill Nicholson.
If they didn’t know it already, here was a constant, unsubtle reminder that this was the man all occupants of their manager’s office were expected to emulate.
Nicholson created the modern Tottenham and a style of spirited, joyful attacking football that still guides the club to this day. He remains the last Tottenham manager to win the league title, as a part of their famous double from the 1960-61 season.
In more than half a century since then, Tottenham have never really got close to winning another title, only finishing in the top two once more two years later, and so inevitably evolved in to more of a cup team. During the Premier League era, Tottenham haven’t dared to dream about winning the title—a cup and league stability always the extent of their aims.
Indeed when I interviewed Graham, I didn’t bother to ask him about winning titles, for these weren’t sensible questions for a Tottenham manager.
But, now under Mauricio Pochettino—whisper it ever so quietly—Tottenham have their best-ever chance of winning their first Premier League title.
Their rise has remained largely hidden in the shadows of Leicester City’s own incredible ascent, but with just 13 games remaining, Tottenham are five points behind and more than capable of overtaking them.
There is an inherent pessimism among Tottenham fans; if something can go wrong, it inevitably always does, but in this season of surprises, there is no reason why it can’t be Spurs who find themselves top of the table when the campaign draws to a close on May 15.
The genius of Pochettino is that he has built a team that respects the White Hart Lane club’s history and so continues to play with their traditional attacking flair, but he has also added a new resilience and sense of self-belief to his players.
This is a Tottenham side that is, well, very un-Tottenham and has proved to be extremely difficult to beat this season, largely because of their defence.
As it stands, Spurs boast the best defence in the Premier League, having conceded just 19 goals in 25 games.
In eight of the last 13 seasons, the team with the best defence has become champions, and at the moment, Tottenham are on course to concede fewer than the 32 goals Chelsea allowed last season when they won the title.
In between the posts, Hugo Lloris continues to make match-winning saves and quietly stake his claim to be the best goalkeeper in England, while in front of him, the Belgian partnership of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen with a choice of Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies on the flanks have erected a defensive barrier that uses their pace, brawn and positional sense to great effect.
Pochettino’s deployment of Eric Dier as a defensive midfielder has been a revelation, and it has provided the defence with another layer of protection.
Dele Alli has drawn admiration and comparisons with Steven Gerrard for his ability to cover the pitch and score goals, while a strong cast around him, including Mousa Dembele, Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son provide the creative spark.
Every team with a realistic chance of winning the title has to possess a goalscorer; a player always capable of nicking a goal. Step forward, Harry Kane.
The striker, still only 22, had a reasonably slow start to the season, but he has since banished any talk about him being a one-season wonder. He is too good and far too talented to be defined by last season alone.
Kane has grown into this season, and he now has 14 from his last 16 Premier League games after scoring just three times over the previous 17 league games. But so much still rests on the England international as the club’s sole established striker, and his fitness alone could decide whether Tottenham stay the course this season.
Beyond Kane, Tottenham’s striking options are incredibly limited, and their refusal to bolster their squad in the summer and January windows means they would have to use a makeshift striker like Son or Chadli in Kane’s absence.
But this is a young team who play without fear; players like Kane, Alli and Dier are unburdened by Tottenham’s usual neuroses—they simply go out to win.
I watched them at Crystal Palace two weeks ago when they were trailing at half-time, but they didn’t panic and slump like Tottenham teams of the recent past; instead, Pochettino made sure they kept playing their game, and by the end they had comfortably secured a 3-1 win—and another three points.
This weekend’s trip to Manchester City will, of course, be a stern test, but it should hold few fears for them after the manner in which they demolished City 4-1 at White Hart Lane in September.
There are more goals and more wins in this Tottenham side, and maybe—just maybe—this will prove enough to carry them to a first title in more than half a century.
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