Some would see February 2001 as a bleak twenty-eight day stretch for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Not only was it the month ENIC were confirmed as our new owners, it was also the last time we tasted a home defeat at the hands of Leeds United, with George Graham’s Tottenham going down 1-2 to David O’Leary’s ‘young boys’.
Leeds made the Champions League semi-finals that season, their rise aided by big money signings which included Rio Ferdinand for £18m and Robbie Keane for £12m, splashing out £30.75 million net at a time when you would have to tot up roughly four seasons’ worth of splurging by Sugar to match their outlay that summer alone. In that respect, ENIC did not come in promising change.
Like Newcastle around the same time (who were just re-establishing themselves under Sir Bobby Robson following Ruud Gullit’s failed reign) if someone had offered me the chance to swap Tottenham’s immediate prospects for Leeds United’s, I’d have jumped at the chance.
In all competitions, that 1-2 at The Lane was their fifth straight win over us, a run they extended the following season when we traveled to Elland Road in November 2001 and went down 2-1, a result which left us ninth and them first.
No one would have predicted that was to be their last Premier League victory over us for at least the next nineteen years, and short-term hindsight never did shed favourable light on George Graham’s decision to swap their dugout for ours, even though he led us to this FA Cup Fifth Round Replay victory over them the same season he made the switch:
Yet, for Leeds, the financial calamity of only coming fourth and missing out on a Champions League place by a single point to Liverpool at the end of the 00/01 season would be compounded at the end of the 01/02 season when Newcastle pipped them to the final CL place, meaning they could no longer sustain the lavish spending endorsed by Chairman Peter Ridsdale in their bid to live the dream.
O’Leary was sacked in the summer of 2002 and Terry Venables came in. Levy also moved in on them for the first time, snapping up Robbie Keane for a fee believed to have been between £3m and £5m less than Leeds had paid to sign him from Inter just a year or so earlier.
Keane and Venables would indirectly combine for a goal when Leeds next came to N17: In what must have been El Tel’s first managerial return to the touchline at White Hart Lane since his sacking by Sugar in May 1993, the ball went out of play for a Spurs throw in near the dugouts as half-time approached. For no apparent reason, Venables rushed to retrieve it and threw it to one of our players while Leeds players, seemingly expecting a free-kick or throw-in to be awarded to them, stood around like statues as a long throw was immediately launched to our brand spanking new Republic of Ireland international who was then free to scamper in on Paul Robinson’s goal and thump home our second in a comfortable 2-0 win.
I can’t find the footage anywhere on YouTube, but I can remember the pundits discussing it at half-time and I’m sure they showed an angle from behind the goal where you could see Venables realising what he’d done in the background and throwing his hands up in the air as the ball hits the back of the net.
It wouldn’t be the last time we would take advantage of United’s hospitality as their free-fall gathered pace, buying Paul Robinson the season they were relegated for a reasonable £2.7m, Aaron Lennon for £1.08m the following season and taking a punt on an unknown Danny Rose for £900k in the summer of 2007, by which time Leeds were owned by Ken Bates and about to play third tier football for the first time in their history.
To ram home the ramifications of ‘doing a Leeds’, they kicked off the second-leg of the Champions League Semi Final away to Valencia on 8th May 2001 with the score from the first leg at 0-0 and kicked off the 2007/08 season away to Tranmere Rovers on 11th August 2007.
After the Venables assisted 2-0 home victory, we drew 2-2 at Elland Road the following April – Venables had been sacked the previous month and hasn’t managed since, though he was involved in Steve McClaren’s disastrous England stint – and then helped ourselves to all six points through the 03/04 season, which was the season they went down.
We have played them three times since, however, drawing them in the Fourth Round of the 2009/10 FA Cup while they were still down in League One. They had already put Manchester United out at Old Trafford in the Third Round, so there really should have been no taking progress for granted. Even so:
But, phew, it turned out okay in the end:
In a season where Redknapp’s Spurs had an abundance of talent and finally grabbed 4th to earn Champions League qualification, it still sticks in my throat that we needed replays in the FA Cup to get past Leeds and Bolton and Fulham before going out tamely in a Wembley semi-final to an Avram Grant managed Portsmouth.
Not that his eventual successor Villas-Boas fared any better, managing us to a 2-1 fourth round FA Cup exit at Elland Road in 2012/13, which is the last time our paths have crossed before today.
This time around, they’re having the crazy sort of season we used to be infamous for, narrowly losing a seven goal thriller to Liverpool on the opening day, then beating Fulham 4-3, holding Manchester City to a draw and going to high-flying Aston Villa and doing them 3-0 yet following that up with back-to-back 4-1 defeats, the first at home to Leicester and the second away to Crystal Palace.
Since then they’ve narrowly beaten Everton and Burnley, put five past Newcastle and West Brom and gone down 2-6 to arch rivals Manchester United. West Ham and Chelsea have beaten them too.
Their only goalless game was against Arsenal, and any time I’ve seen them they’ve tended to look three passes away from conceding or scoring, so if we get it right we could be in for the sort of field-day we enjoyed against Southampton and Manchester United, and if we get it wrong we could be in for the sort of humiliation we last witnessed away to Sheffield United.
My feeling is we’re more likely to get this one right than wrong. As depressing as it is to align our favored style with other low possession teams, Palace only needed 35% possession and Leicester 32% to rack up four apiece against them, and United only had 41% possession in that 6-2 Old Trafford thumping, so maybe there’s a reason why Mourinho’s head-to-head against Bielsa reads played four, won four, 15 for and two against. The way Pochettino’s mentor sets his teams up to actually try and play football is the managerial equivalent of a Jose Mourinho dream.
We also have the advantage of not having played since last Sunday, whereas this will be Leeds’ third game in the same amount of days. Given that Bielsa often comes in for the same sort of criticism Pochettino used to in terms of burning his players out and demanding too much, there’s a good chance our mid-week rest could work in our favour more against Leeds than any other Premier League team.
Either way, I’m really looking forwards to this one. I was too young to remember the infamous seventies Leeds teams so have never had the hatred for them many football fans have, and during the periods I’ve seen most of my live football – the eighties and the last ten years – they’ve been in the lower divisions so I’ve no personal experience of standing in the pouring rain watching them rip us apart, or running down Tottenham High Road with bricks smuggled down from Yorkshire being lobbed at my head. Hindsight and nostalgia have given me a bit of a soft-spot for the Howard Wilkinson team which won the last First Division, Gordon Strachan being one of my favourite non-Spurs players of all time, Gary Speed and Gary McAllister hardly being tough on the eye, plus the fact they’d only been promoted a couple of seasons before, weren’t put together through massively excessive spending, pipped Manchester United to the title and then nearly got relegated the following season. If Tottenham aren’t going to be champions in a particular season, what’s not to like about any of that?
Their own Amazon Prime documentary – Take Us Home: Leeds United – has also endeared them to me. The first season focuses on the season before last, where they looked favourites to win automatic promotion but ended up in the playoffs and lost to Frank Lampard’s Derby County in the semis after being two goals to the good at one stage of the first half. I remember watching that game on TV and it was such a Tottenham-like performance I couldn’t help but feel empathy for them. The fact Bielsa stuck with them, sold £27m worth of players to comply with FFP, yet still found a way to overcome that play-off heartbreak and guide them back to the Premier League for the first time in sixteen seasons all while playing attractive, attacking football just seems so impressive to me.
I obviously want them to get stuffed today, though, with lots of lovely space for Ndombele, Kane and Son to cavort in during the 7.2 minutes of possession we enjoy, four nil up within ten minutes having had two shots on target then shutting up shop for the rest of the game, Mourinho lording it over Bielsa in the after-match press-conference, joyfully stating that the 1.3% possession we had through the second-half is truly the way football by adults is meant to be played.
Come on you Spurs!