Saturday, January 5, 2013
Spurs' new reality fits with cup romance
Andy Brassell, White Hart Lane
Less than five minutes were on the clock when the 5,000-strong travelling contingent began to chant "there's only one Gary Mabbutt", in honour of the former Spurs captain whose extra-time own goal clinched Coventry's last major trophy. When the man himself gamely came out at half-time to give a fairly jovial pitchside interview on his inadvertently decisive role in that classic FA Cup final of 1987, all four stands of White Hart Lane applauded.
• Tottenham 3-0 Coventry City
From the get-go, this was no run-of-the-mill atmosphere, nor was it a standard instance of a Premier League side trudging through uninspiring motions against visitors playing in a league two divisions lower. The shared experience of Spurs and Coventry harks back to a golden age of FA Cup finals, with the set between 1986 and 1991 being of a particularly fine vintage.
There's a reason that these memories warm the heart so much on a cold winter's day. It's easy to divide standpoints on modern football to being either a revisionist, retro romantic or someone who boasts that the Premier League is the world's greatest. There is a view in between - that the game in England today is light years ahead of what it was 20 years ago, but that the FA Cup's diminished status is a real pity.
When fourth-tier Stevenage knocked Premier League Newcastle out in January 2011, for example, many of the Toon's fans were more upset about the three-match ban for Cheick Tiote following his red card than exiting what was hitherto the most celebrated domestic cup competition in the western world. So there's worth in grasping at moments that bring the glitter of yesteryear into the present.
It was also in the FA Cup that current Coventry manager Mark Robins is widely held to have saved Sir Alex Ferguson's job back in January 1990, with his headed winner for Manchester United in the third round at Nottingham Forest staving off the axe. Three months later, Robins hit the extra-time winner in the semi-final replay against Oldham at Maine Road that took United to Wembley, where they would win the first trophy of the Fergsuon era after another replay, against Crystal Palace.
Plenty has changed since these halcyon days, of course. Sky Blues defender William Edjenguele was nine days old when Keith Houchen, Brian Kilcline, Micky Ginn and company took the trophy from Tottenham at Wembley. Coventry had a further May red letter day against Spurs since, staging one of their famous last day escapes from relegation at White Hart Lane on the final day of the 1996-97 season under Gordon Strachan, even if their 34-year sojourn in the top flight did eventually come to an end in 2001.
If the Sky Blues fans revelled in former glories, the financial benefits of the day were probably the highlight of the weekend for the club's board. They have £1.1 million rent owing on their cavernous Ricoh Arena, and an ongoing dispute with owners Arena Coventry Ltd (ACL) over the £1.28 million charged per year has seen them threatened with a winding-up order.
Given the continuing administrative traumas at the club, Robins has done a phenomenal job to lift Coventry to within five points of League One's play-off places. If their form at that Ricoh was halfway decent, they would already be planning a return trip to Wembley for May.
The loss of loan star David McGoldrick, who joined Ipswich on Friday - also on a temporary basis - having scored 16 in 21 League One starts for the Sky Blues this season is a huge blow, and indicative of the disparate means of Coventry and Spurs these days. Andre Villas-Boas was willing and able to field a strong side, despite the fact that England pair Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon, Hugo Lloris, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen were all given a breather on the Spurs bench.
If we're talking about cup precedent, Villas-Boas was ready to honour his. When his Porto swept to a league and Europa League double in 2011, they still found enough desire in the tank to dish out a merciless 6-2 beating of Guimaraes in the Portuguese Cup final four days after beating Braga in Dublin. After a few teething problems at White Hart Lane, his Spurs side are beginning to exhibit signs of a similar insatiability.
Whereas the gulf between the two sides may have been typically modern, Tottenham's hunger to attack the match at full throttle was refreshingly retro. There was no coasting through this. From Coventry's unlucky 13th minute, when Clint Dempsey guided home a Gareth Bale flick-on from Gylfi Sigurdsson's free-kick, we were watching a pack of wolves hunting down their prey.
While Sigurdsson vied to prove himself worthy of a regular starting spot, Bale was every inch his dynamic self in the whirlwind of the first 45. The Welshman drove a couple of sighters narrowly wide of the far post after typically lusty runs down the left, before stretching every sinew at Dempsey's deflected shot to toe home the second. When he was replaced by Andros Townsend with 20 minutes to go, he deserved the breather.
It also reflected the gusto with which the FA Cup is embraced in this corner of north London, where Chas and Dave's cup final ditties from the '80s still get plenty of airing from the stands on the first Saturday of January. When evoking the familiar image of Spurs at Wembley, it is not hard to envisage that there is a keenness in the squad to avenge the sad surrender to Chelsea in last season's semi-final.
After such a pummelling before the break, the second period was almost anecdotal, allowing us to view a few of Tottenham's minor caprices with only mild disdain. A still-rusty Scott Parker was able to get away with a few uncommonly heavy touches and misplaced passes, and a ponderous moment from Tom Huddlestone in the second half almost gifted a goal to the visitors' Leon Clarke. Villas-Boas' charmingly old-fashioned ethos of building momentum is working.