ANOTHER weekend, another Spurs-in-crisis post-mortem on the following Monday. Look at the papers this morning and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is some member of the serially successful European elite that’s being probed and dissected, instead of a well-supported but perennially under-achieving also-ran. Such is the extent of the focus. For all Tottenham’s travails and persistent mediocrity, the club still has a gift for giving great copy.
The coverage has helped fuel a flurry of debate and navel gazing from fans and journalists. Depending on the take of individuals and some hard-to-ignore agendas, responsibility for the current chaos is distributed across the cast of managers, players, and directors of football (all past and present), and to varying degrees of culpability. But there isn’t enough focus on the ones really in charge – the owners.
Enic have controlled Spurs for 13 years. Critics of the Conservative governments of the mid-20th century described their reign as ’13 wasted years’ and there’s a forlorn sense that is what we are seeing with the regime of chairman Daniel Levy and his patron, Joe Lewis.
In that time Enic have signed and sold a cast of thousands, appointed or sacked nine managers (or ‘head coaches’), and brought in four Directors of Football. The owners have enjoyed the benefit of capacity crowds paying top dollar, and drawn on unprecedented TV revenues. In those 13 years Spurs have won precisely one devalued trophy and qualified for the Champions League once. Average league position has improved by roughly five places. By their own measure of not tolerating failure in their managers, Enic would have sacked themselves long ago.
They won’t of course. They run the show and, having taken the club off the stock market and gained full control thanks to an ingenious share scheme, are accountable to no-one but themselves. Levy long ago made it clear what the English National Investment Company is about, and aside from directors’ fees, the proper return on that investment will come with a sale. But with no buyer on the horizon, it appears Enic are here to stay. An immovable object.
The same cannot be said for their managers, who are moved on with unerring haste. Actually, ‘manager’ is a misnomer. Enic managers do not manage in the accepted sense. They pick the team (we can assume) and have a say in who is bought and sold (we assume) but do not have the kind of freedom to operate that Arsene Wenger, as an example, enjoys.
They are however the fall guy if things go wrong. Tim Sherwood, like all his predecessors, is now acting as a lightning rod for the growing disaffection. There are calls for his sacking, outrage at his press conferences, and mockery for his tactics, character, and in keeping with modern superficial ways, his dress sense.
Many fans have little time for him, and with good reason. He was an average player for Tottenham, labouring in the middle of the park and busy pointing fingers while the modern breed of mobile midfielders exemplified by Patrick Vieira showed him how it was really done. Since becoming a backroom operator at White Hart Lane and the training ground, he has been viewed with interest but also suspicion. Many Spurs fans haven’t forgotten his spiteful and damaging undermining of then boss Glenn Hoddle when Sherwood was ousted from the playing staff. Rumours of childhood loyalty to Arsenal might be superfluous in modern football’s disloyal world, but hardly endear him to Tottenham supporters.
Yet without anyone knowing quite how, Sherwood has since established himself as a major figure at the club, under the mentoring of Harry Redknapp and with the apparent blessing of Levy. It is said Sherwood has long had his chairman’s ear, whispering advice and guidance on football matters and more besides. His work with the academy and coaches is, by common consent, something to be applauded, but seemingly there is an unmistakeable whiff around Sherwood that he’s a sharp and manipulative operator looking for the main chance.
It’s said ‘seemingly’ because few really know. That’s the point about Spurs. The club has always been political and opaque in the way it functions but those characteristics have been magnified in the 21st century. Who signs the players? The manager or head coach? The Dof? Or the Chairman? Are managers instructed to pick certain players? Who dictates strategy, tactics, and implements long term planning?
Which begs the question: what is the long-term plan? It would be a nice idea. Whatever it is, it appears Sherwood won’t be around to work on it, at least as manager. He is already eyeing up a future role as Technical Director, publically voicing his ambition for another man’s job. It doesn’t make for petty viewing.
But if it’s hard to defend Sherwood it’s pointless to get too animated about him, either. He is a symptom, not a cause – a consequence of a culture created by others. No one at Spurs takes real responsibility. It’s the ‘not me guv’ school of business, whereby everyone from chairman to players deflect and shift blame for any failures. And it comes from the top. Whatever happens at Spurs, Enic always have a ready excuse to be absolved from wrong doing.
It is no surprise that their latest coach, with next-to-no management experience, and saddled with an ill-fitting squad not of his choosing, should be struggling. Andre Villas Boas, like so many before him, was not given nearly enough time over 18 months, so it is harsh to now condemn a rookie barely a third of a season into his shaky tenure. Sherwood’s 18-month deal that so enraged many was more a reflection of his canny grasp of how things work at Tottenham: see out the rest of the season as expected and the move on with compo in hand, or work out its full term. Either way, it was 18 months money, guaranteed.
Can anyone blame him? He has seen what has happened to his predecessors and reacted accordingly. When it comes to Spurs bosses it’s an interesting but minor diversion to argue about transfers, tactics, team selection, man-management, PR and all the other components a modern manager/head coach has to get to grips with, because Enic’s managers fare roughly the same. They enjoy an initial upturn in form and last on average about 18 months before, at the first sign of a wobble, being shown the door, departing with a generous payoff. Great work if you can get it, but no way to foster stability and build for the future.
Enic’s defence is that it is the DoF system that provides real continuity. In theory and in practice at other clubs, that has been the case. At Spurs, it’s just another example of the churn. There have been four DoFs since 2001. In fairness to Enic the most promising one, Frank Arnesen, left of his own accord, but none have been firmly established, nor had the scope to do fully execute their role. To compound the upheaval, in between these appointments it’s rumoured the board have held sway over player recruitment.
The response to all this turmoil is to suggest that the managers and DoFs simply weren’t good enough at their job. To which the counter is simple and valid enough: who appointed them? If the people being hired keep on getting it wrong, then maybe questions need to be more appropriately asked of who is doing the hiring. The two most successful managers of the Enic years have been ones the owners didn’t really want (Martin Jol and Redknapp). What does that say about Enic’s judgement?
This environment of instability and short-termism is pre-destined to create uncertainty and the risk of chaos. Chelsea have bought their way out it; Spurs can’t or won’t. So now the club is going through another dose of feverish uncertainty. The result is another unseemly mess of various factions jostling for position, influence, or compensation.
Where do Sherwood and Baldini, stand? Either way they’ll be quids in. The scout Ian Bloomfield is now back in the frame providing another potential challenge to Baldini’s position. Various Dutch candidates are letting it be known they are ‘interested’ in the job – and who wouldn’t be? Managing Spurs is a sure-fire way to be handsomely paid, succeed or fail.
While in the job, much of what these here-today, gone tomorrow managers have to say is irrelevant. But in Sherwood’s latest quote-friendly performance, there was one line that hit home, and hard. Asked if a new manager would be arriving in the summer, the stand-in said “The silence is deafening, isn’t it? It’s up to Daniel.”
It really is up to Daniel. And not forgetting Joe Lewis. When it is said that Spurs need a billionaire in order to compete, it’s easy to forget that they already have one. But one who hasn’t – and probably never will – put his hand in his own pocket to bankroll the club’s fortunes.
That is to be admired in many respects. The advent of the oligarchs and petro-billionaires who now own a number of clubs have made the task of self-sustaining clubs that much harder. It’s been a tough ask for Spurs to compete. Teams invariably finish where their wage bill dictates and Tottenham, operating around sixth in that domestic ranking, are doing well to hover around fourth or fifth place in the actual league.
Indeed fans of other clubs might be wondering quite what it is that’s exactly wrong here. Spurs are in good financial health, lie fifth in the table with an outside chance of securing a qualifying position for the Champions League, and are still in contention in this season’s Europa League.
There have been a series of humiliating domestic thrashings, chiefly against the wealthier sides Spurs have been trying to compete with in recent campaigns, but it could be worse. ‘Just look at Leeds’, runs the narrative of the fearful and timid, holding up the bogeyman of Peter Ridsdale while thanking Enic for their prudent management of Tottenham’s comparatively weak resources.
There is something to be said for that. Enic have performed well in some respects. In the era of FFP, being solvent is no bad thing. The sumptuous new training ground has been built without a penny required from some generous benefactor. But progress where it matters – on the pitch – remains elusive.
So much for recent history. The question now is about what to do now. The call from many is to sack the latest manager. That will probably happen, but in all likelihood only temporarily staunch the blood letting and rancour. Others want to press the nuclear button and get rid of Enic altogether, albeit without a realistic suggestion for replacements.
There is another way, however, and that’s for a quite revolutionary plan that will shake not just Spurs but football as a whole to its foundations. It’s for people who are very well rewarded to do a job to do it better.
One criticism of Enic is that they have been too risk averse, too unwilling to speculate to accumulate. They could show a bit more financial ambition without straying from the strictly assessed balance sheet. Tottenham’s transfer dealings over the last five windows show net transfer outlay that is small to the point of being negligible in the context of PL finances.
With the new TV deal in place, Spurs could spend that little bit bigger and not have to sell the star assets first. It might even enable them to hang on to the likes of Gareth Bale without the apparent fait accompli that they have to be sold. The mistakes of 2010, when the hesitancy to fully exploit the fleeting opportunity provided by Champions League qualification meant a frustrating season that ran out of steam, is looking more and more like a wonderful chance lamentably spurned. The owners apparently did not have faith in their own manager (Redknapp) to sanction substantial investment and it has come back to bite them.
But perhaps more important than the spending is a plan. Spurs can improve without the need for Lewis to dip into some of his billions. Bridging the gap to the elite is far from easy, but with the right people in place and given time, it can be done. Appoint a Director of Football if that’s the way they really want to go. Let him pick a manager. And leave them to get on with their jobs over an adequate period. When things aren’t going quite so well, don’t panic, or pay heed to the calls for another cull. Have the courage of your convictions, stick by your decisions and make sure everyone knows you’re in it for the long haul.
Are Enic in it for the long haul? It’s a debatable point, as is what they really want for the club beyond an eventual return on their own investment. But this haphazard, short-term approach Spurs have now appears to be not just hindering progress of the team but constraining that potential profit.
‘To dare is to do’ runs the English translation of the club motto Audere est Facere, plastered around White Hart Lane and the spanking new training ground in Enfield. ‘To dare is too dear’, might be the more accurate modern definition, but that’s no excuse for Enic letting things slide the way they have. It really doesn’t have to be like this.