By its very nature sport needs a losing yin to a winner’s yang.
The heartbreak and tears starkly contrast with the celebrations and the glory and help elevate it to the colossal achievement it really is. This works out best in cup finals, where the lifting of a cup is made perfect by the dejected trudging away of failure in the background. One team triumphs, while the other team goes home empty-handed. It’s simple. Neat.
Where the juxtaposition falls down is after a 38 game league marathon, because, using the plainest logic, Leicester City are this season’s victors, while Aston Villa sheepishly hold the wooden spoon. Only there is too much separation between the two and the excelling and the failing have been enacted over too great an expanse of time. So inevitably we look to the runners-up instead. They’re the losers. They’re the chumps.
If this strikes you as being somewhat unfair then that transgression can be multiplied ten-fold this season. By finishing second in the Premier League, Spurs haven’t lost anything bar the attainment of a dream nobody could have conceived eight months ago. In a surreal season that has seen the title-holders Chelsea along with Liverpool sack their managers and never threaten a Champions League spot, both Manchester giants stumble along in perpetual crisis-mode, and Arsenal, well, do an Arsenal, their north London neighbours have built on last year’s promise to reach an entirely new plateau of excellence.
From their close-season culling of deadwood to being the only side to consistently keep pace with the Leicester juggernaut, their 2015/16 campaign has been consummately executed, largely thrilling, and highly-impressive from start to finish.
They have been the other success story. They have been sublime.
We all knew what Mauricio Pochettino could achieve at White Hart Lane should he successfully impose his high-intensity go-for-the-jugular pressing style mixed with no small amount of attacking expression. It was dependent on the players buying into this ethos wholesale, of course, and furthermore bring their A-games individually, but in his second season it was fair to assume we could realistically see an upgrade on his excellent Southampton side of 2013/14.
But finishing second and securing a Champions League place at a cantor? Forging an identity so exhilarating and youthful it has been transplanted into the national set-up? Seeing four of their players selected for the PFA team of the Year? Chopping their previous campaign’s losses by two-thirds while halving their goals conceded? These all amount to a quantum leap that defies all expectation. These all amount to a new presence at the top table that are deserving of effusive praise.
Yet there was no such praise last Monday, only social media scoffing. Discarding the Queensbury rules at the break their ugly battle with Chelsea saw them relinquish a two goal advantage and thus any lingering hopes they had for the title. They were chokers after all then? Losers.
We witnessed similar with Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side two years ago, a sensational season-long charge for the history books instantly reduced to a captain’s slip and mockery.
Is it fair? No. Is it right? Of course not.
Pochettino’s Spurs have contributed to this season far more than any other team other than a freakish pack of foxes. This summer they will form the heart and soul of England’s hope in a major tournament, while next year they will justifiably be feared.
Those claiming they are bottlers should consider this: If their alchemy could be bottled then the owners of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and all others would be queueing around the block to buy it.