The Spurs Way: How a Commitment to Flair Has Kept Tottenham on the Path to Glory

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 30, 2019

fans of Tottenham Hotspur FC, To dare is to do during the UEFA Champions League semi final match between Tottenham Hotspur  FC and Ajax Amsterdam at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium on April 30, 2019 in London, United Kingdom(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

When did Tottenham Hotspur's journey to Saturday's UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool begin?

Was it when Lucas Moura sparked the semi-final fightback against Ajax with the first goal of his unforgettable hat-trick in Amsterdam?

Or when Harry Kane struck the dramatic 11-minute double against PSV Eindhoven at Wembley Stadium in November to keep alive Spurs' hopes of progressing from the group phase?

Or when Kane curled a shot into the top corner of the Newcastle United goal on the penultimate day of the 2017-18 season to earn Tottenham a place in the Champions League for the third season running?

All those moments were important staging posts on the road to Madrid, but Tottenham's journey stretches back even further. In the way they have approached this season's Champions League, playing on the front foot (when required) and refusing to abandon hope even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Mauricio Pochettino's players have adhered to club traditions that extend back more than a century.

It may be 58 years since Spurs last won the league title and 35 years since they last graced a major European final, but certain beliefs survived the fallow years. That attack is the best form of defence. That football without style is football without soul. That the game, in Danny Blanchflower's immortal phrase, is about glory.

Pochettino has displayed an awareness of the club's heritage from his first press conference as manager in August 2014, when he cited "playing with flair" as one of his chief priorities.

Spurs have played some spell-binding football under the Argentinian, not least in the current Champions League campaign, and midfielder Moussa Sissoko says the players are aware of their obligation to uphold the standards of the past.

Moussa Sissoko has embraced "The Spurs Way."
Moussa Sissoko has embraced "The Spurs Way."Peter Dejong/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We have a winning mentality, so we want to attack from the beginning of the game and score lots of goals. That's why we are in the final," the France international told Bleacher Report. "I think it's a good mentality. Other teams might have different opinions or different styles, but here it is like that. We need to keep going in that way."


Keith Waldon knew there was usually a decent chance he'd find Glenn Hoddle in the weights room.

Hoddle, Tottenham's midfield lynchpin, struggled with niggling injuries during the early 1980s, and after training sessions at the club's base in Cheshunt, north London, he would often head to the weights room in order to build up his strength. It was there that Waldon, Tottenham's youth coach, would seek him out.

"We had a little weights room where we used to train at Cheshunt, and I would sit and chat with Glenn quite often while he was doing his weights," Waldon told Bleacher Report. "I used to collar him in there and milk him for all I could about what he was doing [on the pitch], how he was doing it and why he was doing it, so I could pass it on to the kids."

Glenn Hoddle is considered one of Tottenham's greatest players.
Glenn Hoddle is considered one of Tottenham's greatest players.Steve Powell/Getty Images

Waldon, a former professional player and physical education teacher, was obsessed with improving the technical ability of the young players in his care. In the elegant, two-footed, technically immaculate Hoddle, he had the perfect role model.

Matches at White Hart Lane presented Spurs' youth players with opportunities to watch Hoddle in action. He was always one step ahead, Waldon remembers, "spinning his head round and round" so that when the ball arrived at his feet, he could ping first-time passes to his team-mates without even looking.

Back at the training ground, Waldon devised drills to sharpen his players' skill sets. They would do one-touch three-versus-one possession exercises or, on an indoor training pitch, use multi-coloured shapes painted on the white walls as targets to improve the accuracy of their passing.

The goal of every exercise was to produce young footballers capable of slotting into the Spurs first team and playing the brand of stylish, attacking football—epitomised by Hoddle—that had become the club's trademark.

"Everyone at the club spoke about playing 'the Spurs way,'" said Waldon, who led Tottenham to victory in the FA Youth Cup in 1990.

"[Former Tottenham manager] Bill Nicholson was still at the club when I was working there. I'd sit and chat with Bill quite often, and he used to talk about pass and move. Everybody had this idea about the way Spurs should play, which was to pass and move, not just boot it long. And they wanted to see very skillful players. It was endemic within the whole club."


The association between Tottenham and a certain style of football took hold during the Nicholson glory years of the 1960s and '70s and persists to this day, enshrined in the club's stated ambitions to play with "flair, style and passion" and to produce academy graduates who play football "the Tottenham Hotspur way."

Blanchflower, inspirational captain of Tottenham's 1961 double winners, may have articulated it most successfully, but a spirit of adventure has been part of the fabric at Spurs ever since the club's foundation.

The name Hotspur, chosen by the group of north London schoolboys who founded the club in 1882, referred to Harry Hotspur, the flamboyant and swashbuckling knight immortalised by the William Shakespeare play Henry IV, Part 1. The club's Latin motto, "Audere est Facere"—meaning "to dare is to do"—further established the primacy of courageous endeavour.

The seeds for Spurs' commitment to expansive football were sown in 1912 when a former Scotland international named Peter McWilliam was appointed manager. As Jonathan Wilson detailed in Inverting the Pyramid, McWilliam was well-versed in Scottish traditions of passing football, and it was this approach that he introduced at White Hart Lane. He encouraged his players to "treat the ball as their best friend" and proclaimed that "belting the ball" had "no place in the Tottenham way of doing things."

In his second spell in the Tottenham dug-out, following a hiatus at Middlesbrough, McWilliam came into contact with three players who would each go on to become hugely influential managers in their own right: Nicholson, Arthur Rowe and Vic Buckingham.

Rowe and Nicholson both managed Tottenham, while Buckingham went to Ajax and laid the foundations for the Total Football of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, establishing a stylistic legacy that has been carried into the present day by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15: A sign of Bill Nicholson Way, where the White Hart Lane stadium is located, prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City at White Hart Lane on August 15, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Rowe introduced a style of play based on quick one-twos known as "push and run," and it proved dazzlingly successful, winning Spurs back-to-back Second and First Division titles in 1950 and 1951.

Nicholson, a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, took Rowe's approach to the next level, transforming Spurs into the best team in the land. They won a league and FA Cup double in 1961—the first English team to achieve that feat in the 20th century—and two years later became the first British side to win a major European trophy when they thrashed Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final.

Bill Shankly, the great Liverpool manager, jokily referred to Tottenham as "Cockney tap dancers." But for Nicholson, winning with a flourish was the ultimate achievement.

"It's no use just winning," he said. "We have got to win well."

In the 1970s and '80s, Spurs' reputation for flair was sustained by players such as Hoddle, the Argentinian pair of Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa and England team-mates Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle. A childhood Spurs fan, Hoddle joined the club at the age of 12 and went on to make 490 first-team appearances, during which he scored 110 goals.

"The style of football that I had, I was made for Tottenham," Hoddle told the club's YouTube channel in 2014. "... They've always looked at special players and players that can make the difference and do things that are out of the ordinary. I think they have a style of player that the crowd have always loved here, and over the years there's been a multitude of different players like that."

During the lean years of the 1990s and early 2000s, the club's fans clung to figures such as Jurgen Klinsmann and David Ginola as evidence that, although Spurs' trophy cabinet continued to gather dust, something vital from the past was being preserved.

When local rivals Arsenal were grinding their way to league titles under George Graham, Spurs supporters took solace in the belief that their side still played the best football in north London. It made the sophisticated and successful football Arsenal later played under Arsene Wenger a doubly bitter pill to swallow.

"One of the hardest things during The Invincibles era was that it was almost like the two teams had swapped personalities," says Martin Cloake, a Tottenham fan who has written several books about the club. "We used to mock Arsenal: 'Boring, boring Arsenal!' was the terrace chant. It was quite hard to take."

Players such as Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale brought Spurs' stylistic traditions into the 21st century. And be it the vision of Christian Eriksen, the trickery of Dele Alli or the rapier-like thrusts of Son Heung-min, there is a trademark swagger about the current crop, as well.

The likes of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric brought style, if not trophies, to Tottenham.
The likes of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric brought style, if not trophies, to Tottenham.Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

"One of the reasons why this team is so loved by fans is because they've rediscovered a bit of that flair and style," says Cloake. "I've been going since the late '70s, and the last three or four years, I've had some of the greatest pleasure that I've had watching my team play."


In addition to various sporting firsts, Spurs have also shown an appetite for breaking new ground away from the pitch. They became the first sporting establishment to be listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1983, and their chairman at the time, Irving Scholar, was one of the first people in English football to apply commercial principles to the running of a football club.

Scholar took his cue from the major American sports, and the current Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, has exhibited a similar openness to copying best practice from the other side of the Atlantic, notably ensuring the club's spectacular new stadium is equipped to stage NFL games.

Though an established member of the Premier League's "Big Six," Spurs do things differently than their big-spending domestic rivals, having famously placed so much faith in Pochettino's coaching that they have not signed a single player since Lucas Moura arrived from Paris Saint-Germain in January 2018.

B/R Football @brfootball

32 began. Two remain. Tottenham vs. Liverpool is the Champions League final 🏆 https://t.co/GiWZQMuX9t

It was the Brazilian's breath-taking hat-trick against Ajax that swept Spurs into the first Champions League final in their history, sparking a joyous reaction in the BT Sport studio from Hoddle, who had undergone life-saving emergency heart surgery less than seven months previously.

Spurs stand on the brink of the unthinkable against Liverpool on Saturday. And they have done it all their own way.