Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One Step Back and Two Steps Forward

During the lockout I began to follow Premier League soccer and chose Tottenham Hotspur as my team. Just as Ryan Smyth was a major impetus in my becoming an Oilers' fan, so was Irish striker Robbie Keane, who I recalled from his heroics against Germany in 2002, a big reason for me deciding to cheer for the Spurs. A few years along and I follow Spurs still, catching them when I can, also watching Champions' League, Euro and World Cup. The big stuff. I'm a casual fan.

Tottenham is a club with a long storied history who have failed to live up to that glorious past recently. Sound familiar? Although Spurs history goes back to 1882, a little longer then the Oilers. Recently however, a disturbing pattern had emerged at White Hart Lane. Young players come and then are sold to bigger clubs once they become prominent and the club meanders about the middle of the league, a once great club now a mediocrity.

In the last few years however there was a change with Spurs. They came close to breaking into the top four of the English league and began to make strong advances in the European club tournament that they qualified for the past two seasons. Young and flashy, they looked to be a team on the rise, a team to break the hold that giants Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have on English soccer. At the centre of this uprising was Keane, a player who might not rank amongst the elite of the game but was definitely a player of high quality. In low scoring soccer nearly every goal is a "big goal" but Keane has the reputation as a game breaker, the player who scores near the end of the game when the result is in doubt or who scores the lone goal in a 1-0 game. A terrific player, not amongst the greatest the game offers, but a player in the next echelon, imo.

If you are still reading this (I know that soccer causes eyeglazing among many), even if you are not a fan of soccer, if you are ever overseas I highly recommend going to a match if you can. My wife and I went to White Hart Lane two years ago and it was the experience of a lifetime. Really cannot be beat.

Anyhow with Keane one of the constants the Spurs have had a nice run the last few years, culminating in a League Cup title this season. In the Premier League there are three possible trophies to be won. The regular season title and two tournament titles - the FA Cup and the League Cup. With the big four teams its pretty difficult to take any honours but Spurs thumped their greatest rivals Arsenal in the semifinal 5-1 (imagine the Oilers beating the Flames by ten goals in a huge game) and then took down Chelsea in the final to win this year's League Cup and guarantee a third lucrative year in Europe.

So here we have a team on the rise, looking to return to past glories, led by a popular and charismatic player. And last week that player was moved to Liverpool, a team Spurs are chasing for one of the top four spots in the league, for a hefty sum of cash. Liverpool wanted Keane and approached Tottenham with an offer. Of course this info filtered to Keane. A month ago he was saying he felt he would end his career with Tottenham. Now with the opportunity to play for one of the top teams in England (and Europe), a team in contention for trophies year after year, and to reportedly double his salary, Keane went for it. The deal was made.

The club's supporters are divided between those who see the move as same old same old Spurs and those who support the club and call Keane a greedy liar. And then there are those in between.

The manager says Keane was terrific but Spurs policy is to replace players with players who are younger and also better.

For me as a Spurs fan its a bitter pill. I don't blame Keane although he should have kept his mouth shut. Then again, he probably never thought he'd be a candidate to get moved. Anyways I don't blame him. Since the 80s they have won three honours, in 91, in 99 and now this past season. Talk swirled around the club this summer about Berbatov (in the picture above with Keane, arms outstretched), their other terrific striker, getting moved. If I am Robbie Keane and I look at this club, I wonder if this past year was the start of something good or, if Berbatov is on the move for cash, if this may be the only trophy I ever win with Spurs.

Instead he goes to a club that is always in the mix, in England and in the European Champions' League, a team for whom money is no object. And his salary gets doubled.

An athlete plays for three reasons, imo - to win, to make money and to be happy, with one and two contributing to number three. Robbie Keane has hit the jackpot.

Now in fairness to Tottenham they are spending the money they received for Keane but they have gotten younger and its pretty likely that this upcoming season will see the club take a step backwards, especially if Berbatov is moved to Manchester United, as is rumoured. If they do take a step back then there will be no European tournament and thus less money and the club may have to sell other valuable players. You can see where this can go. Spurs are gambling that the kids they bring in to replace Keane and other veterans they have moved will be better and that they can improve what they have done the past few years.

Maybe five years from now Spurs' fans look back on a nice run and realize that moving Keane was the right idea. I sure hope so although I'm not sure why a guy good enough to play for Liverpool is not good enough to play for Spurs. This guy has been the constant in the success they have had recently. He's in his prime. It doesn't make sense to me but then again I'm a casual fan.

I find the parallels to the Oilers and Ryan Smyth interesting although of course there are many differences. Lowe knew that moving Smyth would be unpopular and would set the Oilers back. Fans were split over the move, just as Spurs fans are. A lot of Oilers' fans chose to villify Smyth. A lot feel Lowe can do no wrong.
Lowe was right on both counts but now the Oilers' arrows seem to point in the right direction, just a couple of years later. Those in favour of the trade point to Smyth's poor year last year, the direct return for Smyth, Robert Nilsson, and what many claim is another result, Sam Gagner, to show that Lowe was right. The Gagner connection drives me bananas but I'll leave it.
Lowe is looking better right now although this team hasn't won anything yet but I'm hoping that a few years from now Horcoff is skating the Cup around the ice and we look back and realize that the heartbreak was worth it.
And I think in North London they may be feeling the same way.
In both cases though I think that those who have gone before will make it a little bittersweet.


Marc said...

Interesting. I'm not sure about the Spurs/Oilers analogy though. Spurs have always been a big club with money. They've underachieved because they spend it so poorly. How many of the players that they brought in last year have they gone and sold this years? Man U and Arsenal don't do things like that.

I think the pre-lockout Oilers were like Nottingham Forest. They won two European Championships in the '70s but played last season two divisions below the Premiership. Everton might be the best post-lockout comparison. They found a manager they believe in and have stuck by him. They haven't been making splashy moves, but have been steadily improving over the past few years so they are definitely in the mix for the Champions League spot.

Sadly I support Newcastle United, who can only be compared to the Leafs. Sigh.

Black Dog said...

marc - its an imperfect analogy for sure, when MLSE was apparently kicking tires in the EPL earlier this year, Stephen Brunt compared Spurs to the Maple Leafs

Spurs have had more success then the Leafs in recent times though.

There are a lot of differences between the clubs and the situations but when Keane was moved it reminded me in many ways to the Smyth situation. Certainly it did on a personal level as a fan.

uni said...

Unfortunately it was a bit more bitter with Keane; it wasn't like he was leaving as a FA anytime soon, and also while Smyth was a 'financial' situation, Keane was flat out and out sold to Liverpool.

I don't see this as positive in anyway for the Spurs, but oh well.

Marc said...

Ah, I can see that. If they manage to get Villa or Arshavin in to replace him they may actually end up better off though.

Black Dog said...

uni - yeah, for me it was a huge surprise, he was signed through 2012 and while rumours swirled around Berbatov there was nothing about Keane that I heard anyways.


Still think the Smyth deal rankles more but as I said I am only a casual fan of Spurs. They have a long history of great teams and great players - I would guess they have plenty of players who spent the majority or all of their careers as Spurs. Meanwhile the OIelrs have none and Smyth was supposed to be the one.

marc - yes I can see that; same as the Smyth deal may end up working out in the end.

Still sucks though.

Bruce said...

I'm not sure about the Spurs/Oilers analogy though. ...
I think the pre-lockout Oilers were like Nottingham Forest.

Funny, I saw Spurs play Notts Forest at White Hart Lane about 30 years ago. Forest had a hell of a club in those days, but Spurs won convincingly, 2-0. Highlight was a perfectly-taken penalty by Glenn Hoddle who is definitely one of those great players you mention. I was standing on the terraces right behind that net, and as a recently-retired (back then) goalie I mentally took the fake and went left, just like the Forest goalie. Hoddle went left too ... the other left (since he was facing the other way). The ball nestled in the side netting with the goalie about six yards to the other side. Not just any goalie either, it was the great Peter Shilton. What a moment.

Vic Ferrari said...

I lived in England for three years in my early twenties, BDHS, and I fell into a crowd that was big into football. Like Bruce, they stood in the terraces behind the goal, a great place to watch a soccer game from. I would have gone for a seat, at least now and then, but according to the guys, real football fans never sat (now they have no choice, of course). And I agree that the experience is terrific, it's an event.

I supported Southampton, and it was a lot of fun, but everyone knew that if they found a good player, he'd be sold soon enough. No bitterness about it either, just a fact of life. Shearer, Wallace and Flowers all came and went, just in the time I was there. An aging Mark Hughes in the midfield and a terrificly thuggish Neil Ruddock (soon to be sold to Tottenham) gave us hope. And soccer is a game where anyone can win on the day, even moreso than hockey.

LeTissier chose to stay with the Saints (probably to the detriment of his career), and he was loved for it. He was already wealthy and his family lived in the channel islands, a comuter flight away, so that probably played into it.

A dazzling player, true genius. Apparently he never hustled back and always lost his mark, but I never noticed. Mad skill on that guy, criminal that he never got more time with the English side.

He's the reason that small market So'ton managed to hang in the premiership for so long, imo. Even made it to a league cup final one year, vs Notts Forrest (who as others have said, played a skill/possession game, a good Oilers comp I think).

So sticking with your analogy, Smyth would have been my LeTissier, but the Oilers fucked it up.

Black Dog said...

great stuff bruce and vic

vic - in terms of Keane its disappointing for me but I can't say I have that much invested in Spurs to be that angry about it

Smyth, on the other hand, was crushing. He was the guy who should have been an Oiler for life and its interesting to me how the guys who talk about how Lowe made the right move conveniently forget that Lowe himself admitted to his mistake once the summer came.

Would it have been money poorly spent? Maybe so, if last season was an indicator of what is coming for Smyth. But considering that they gave Souray the same contract ...

Its just a shame really. Horcoff's contract was one player too late, imo.

Vic Ferrari said...

Yeah, how good would this team be with Smyth? With Forsberg out, Babcock ran the big four at him nonstop in the playoffs, just as he always has (and Stastny ain't no Horcoff, sorry poolies). But in the round before that v Minny he was terrific, they played him with two replacement level guys (Cody McLeod and someone else iirc) and that line was a constant threat. Lemaire just flat ran out of good players to go against him because of Forsberg/Sakic and Hejduk/Stastny ahead ... and it showed.

A shame. Lowe pins that debacle on the EIG, and I suspect that he is right.

Aw well, what's done is done. New ownership, Horcoff signed (if Shawn had been punted at the '09 deadline instead, what percentage of the drooling orcs at HF would have branded him as overrated and greedy? 90%? 95%?)

Green fields ahead Pat, I can smell them.

Black Dog said...

Yeah Vic, I watched a lot of that Minnesota/Avs series, it was a good one and Smyth was Smyth. Terrific player still.

A guy who really impressed me in that round was Koivu, as an aside. No wonder they felt they could let Demitra and Rolston go.

Anyways its a shame about Smyth and a greater shame as to how a lot of folks feel about him. Interesting story - when I was in Edmonton last year I stayed with a friend. Not a big hockey guy, just follows it in a general way.

We were talking about the Smyth situation and he said how he could not believe how Smyth had walked away over 100 grand per. Now he's a casual fan, as I said, so I asked him what he thought Smyth had signed for with the Avs. He did not know so I told him.

Oh, he says, so he was going to leave 850 per on the table?

At least, I said, I wonder what the Isles were offering.

He changed his mind pretty quick about Smyth then.

Lawrence, Kansas right? And this guy is a bright guy. But when the local media spins it a certain way then you're going to get a lot of people believing what they are saying.

You know me, Vic. Blue skies all the way. Can't help it. I'm thinking Katz's next move is putting some money into scouting, especially in Europe.

And while the last two years were tough, I think Lowe does deserve some credit - the arrows are pointing in the right direction.

No guarantees but this should be a fun year and maybe the start of a nice run.

Bruce said...

You're right, Vic, the terraces are where it (was) at. Probably not quite the same these days with the mandatory seating as the old "standing room ONLY", but it would still be my preferred view (as in hockey), looking up the playing surface rather than from the side. Far better to have the long axis of the rectangle foreshortened than the narrow, and to have one team coming towards you and one moving away rather than both going side to side all the time. You see very different things about a team coming or going. As an ex-goalie in both sports I really like the behind-the-net perspective to get a line on shots and watch the action around the goal mouth.

In the summer of 1980, my fiancee and I attended a game at Wembley Stadium. It was the Charity Shield, an exhibition game at the very beginning of each season played between the League champions and FA cup winners of the previous season. (Now called the FA Community Shield) That year the combatants were mighty Liverpool and my favourite team of that era, West Ham United. Since it was a friendly it "only" drew around 90,000 fans, boozers, hooligans and/or zealots. We misjudged the timing and were standing in the ticket line when the roar went up for The goal. But we saw the last 70 minutes from the terraces.

In the first half we got to the top of the entrance ramp and no further due to the seething mass of humanity, not to mention a malodourous wall of Guinness-fueled sweat. I could just see the action from my tiptoes, but my bride-to-be (and believe it or not, still my wife) could see nothing and was fairly terrified in the process. But somehow there was a steady stream of traffic in and out, round trips to the pissoir and the beer vendor. Guys would come back in with a large beer in each hand and somehgow snake their way through the mob and back to their position without spilling a drop. It was unfrickinreal, dwarfing any acts of athleticism on the pitch below.

At half-time the terraces emptied as the mob headed en masse for a refill. We headed the other way, straight to one of the suddenly free railings that were placed intermittently around the terraces. We each grabbed on with both hands and settled in for a much more secure and enjoyable second half. Alas, the Reds' defence proved impenetrable as usual, and my Hammers couldn't couldn't find the equalizer. But who cares? Damn, it was fun.