“It’s magnificent to be in Europe, and this club – a club like Tottenham Hotspur – if we’re not in Europe – we’re nothing. We’re nothing.”
It’s a quote stamped on the club like a brand. Not the risible modern Babel-speak that views football merely as a marketing vehicle, but a totemic statement burned into Tottenham’s collective consciousness. It was Bill Nicholson’s mantra, the defining aim that the club should always pursue. Last night, Bill Nick’s successors lived up to his ideal. Spurs are back in Europe, making the rest of the continent sit up and take notice, and nothing feels more natural in the Tottenham world.
For year, Spurs fans have clung to the memories of those glory glory nights to underpin the club’s reputation as a genuine force. For too long, it’s only those memories we’ve had, providing justification for those who label Spurs as a spent force. Tottenham’s record in Europe is an admirable one, a triple-trophy haul that exceeds that of a whole swathe of other clubs, yet our absence from Europe’s premier competition has faded those triumphs with every passing season. Now, at last we are back where we belong, reminding an older European generation what the club is made of and showing a new one that there’s another club in North London that can play a bit of football.
Last night’s magnificent performance against Milan perfectly encapsulated Tottenham’s re-emergence. Harry Redknapp’s expansive, ambitious style has seen the club make worthy progress domestically, but in Europe it is proving even more effective. It is a potent mix of pace, natural British physicality and commitment, and genuine flair to which opponents are struggling to find a retort.
So many players look right at home. Peter Crouch, too often a gangling, awkward and timorous presence in the Premier League, seems to the manor born in Europe. Redknapp’s reliance on hitting long diagonals to Crouch can seem almost bovine in its ineffectual crudity against defences that lap this sort of stuff up back home, but it was wonderfully effective against a clearly nervous Milan rearguard. It was a tactic that pinned Milan deep in their own half, particularly in the first period, enabling the excellent Sandro and Palacios the time and space to dictate midfield matters without being pressed like they can be in the Premier League.
This was not the Milan of old by any means, and great players like Nesta and Seedorf are now looking every part of their advanced ages. But Spurs exposed such frailties in superb fashion. They took the game to the hosts from the off and even in retreat were composed and resolute. Trying to pick out a poor individual performance from the Spurs ranks was a pointless exercise. To a man they were all excellent in their application and persistence.
The result was one of Tottenham’s best results in Europe in a campaign that has already garnered a wealth of wonderful moments. Neutrals are rallying to the Tottenham cause; even those with a hostile disposition are acknowledging Tottenham’s refreshing quality. Indeed, Spurs are the best thing to have happened to the Champions League for years. Redknapp promises to have a go and his team keep on delivering on that pledge, with a boldness that deserves greater reward. It may fail in the final analysis, and the job against Milan is only half done, but in the meantime, Spurs are giving jaded Champions League watchers a welcome injection of enthusiasm and excitement.
Whatever happens for the rest of the season, Redknapp and his team have given their supporters some of their old swagger back, and for that we are all grateful. This modern Spurs have won nothing yet, and ultimately that should be how any Tottenham side is judged. But on a bright February morning it feels good to be a Spurs fan again. The cockiness has returned, we’re back in Europe and it feels right. Nicholson would no doubt be pleased.