The Sun’s Neil Ashton was roundly mocked this week for an article in which he favourably compared the present Spurs side with Busby’s Babes and Bill Shankly’s great Liverpool side. English football was entering a golden age, the tabloid’s chief football reporter trumpeted, while strongly alluding that this was directly due to the rise of Mauricio Pochettino’s men.
The Premier League should ‘cherish, encourage, and embrace’ them. They are ‘irresistible’. He ended his puffed-up piece of propagandising by insisting that we all watch this incredible team while we had the chance.
Yet Ashton’s ludicrous hyperbole was hardly an outlier. Across all media platforms Tottenham are praised to the rafters with such casual regularity these days that a newbie to the sport would assume it is they who have made this season’s title race a one-team formality and not Manchester City. For the record Spurs are twenty points shy of the top and are currently lying outside of a Champions League spot, one point behind a Chelsea team deemed to be in entrenched crisis.
The press’ enthralment of Spurs is hardly a new phenomenon of course with the North London club long said to have benefited from positive coverage in comparison to their rivals. The timing of its escalation though is puzzling even when recent impressive performances away to Liverpool and Juventus and at home to Arsenal and Manchester United are factored in. In recent seasons they have been in genuine contention to win their first league title for over 65 years.
Now they are hopelessly adrift of that aspiration and furthermore are on course to only match their second worst league placing since 2009. In the last few days alone two journalists have confided to me that they are absolutely perplexed by their colleagues’ decision to ramp up the Tottenham love-in now of all times.
If it is somewhat galling to see the continued excellence of this excellent 11 portrayed in an exaggerated fashion that is nothing in relation to when it is broken down further to the biased representation of its players. The beatification of Harry Kane is one thing but at least the striker justifies his acclaim on a weekly basis with goal after goal after goal. Dele Alli however does not have the performances to back up the hype. Not this season. Far from it.
The attacking midfielder has always included a good portion of rough with the smooth, an ‘edge’ to his game that pundits and journalists alike could excuse when his form was exceptional with the reasoning that it was necessary to fire him up a level. That reasoning incidentally was never less than nonsense at the best of times. Only now it’s anything but the best of times for the 21-year-old and with the player a shadow of his former self his proclivity to indulge in football’s dark arts has really come to the fore.
It is fair to suggest that if this nose-dive in form and reckless elevation of ego had combined in any other previously over-hyped English star the press would delight in their favourite sport of Tall Poppying, laying into the player with unsavoury relish. Yet in the case of Alli he ‘needs to cut that part of his game out’ apparently. Two weeks ago at Anfield he even received contrary praise for admitting and apologising for a dive so startlingly blatant even Donald Trump would have held his hands up to.
The last home-grown player to enjoy such unaccountability was a young Wayne Rooney. Rooney was ten times the player Alli is at a similar age.
It does not take the mind of a conspiracy theorist to work out why this is so. Alli cannot be considered a popular player among neutrals and in fact the very opposite applies. He does however play for Tottenham Hotspur.
If coverage of this modern Spurs side can be viewed as generously enthusiastic then the same cannot be said of their depiction on social media. There – presumably as a direct reaction to the flowery prose and smitten glances encountered everywhere else – it slants too unfairly towards the negative given their establishment as a force to be reckoned with in recent years. Spurs are damned for being ‘bottlers’. They are derided for an absence of silverware. They are ‘Spursy’.
This begs the question – why can’t Pochettino’s team be reasonably estimated? Why can’t it ever be somewhere in-between with considerable admiration for the outstanding work done by the Argentine during his three-and-a-half years at the Lane coupled with a recognition that for all of their strengths, collective and individually, there appears to be an – admittedly high – glass ceiling to their ability?
Perhaps this is illustrative of where we are now in football with nuance and reason discarded for only extremes. It does need pointing out though that considering where the main section of Spurs’ cheerleaders reside the charge that they don’t win anything is unfounded. They’ve won the Media Cup now for three years running, on this occasion uncontested.