And so we welcome Wolves to Wembley, only the fifth time the Molineux outfit have visited one of our home grounds in the Premier League era, where our White Hart Lane record against them reads won two, lost one, drawn one. Hopefully their first visit to play us at Wembley will see us chalk up our first ‘home’ win against them since 2010, with their last visit, in January 2012, ending in a 1-1 stalemate. Given they were relegated that season, it’s definitely one of the results in our history we can all shake our heads over and mutter ‘if only’: Had all else stayed the same, a victory in this fixture would have seen us finish third and Chelsea take Arsenal’s place in the following season’s CL: Who knows what sort of sliding-door moments that change in results might have led to – Redknapp staying on and building the dynasty he spoke of so eloquently (once the England job had been given to Hodgson), Modric being persuaded to stay, Hazard being persuaded to sign. Maybe, perhaps, an earlier ousting for Wenger, whose Arsenal team would again keep us out of the CL by a single point the following season.
No-one can know for sure. But, almost certainly, CL qualification that season would have seen Redknapp remain manager, so it’s maybe a thought which flashed through his mind as he was knocking back fish eye juice in the jungle last month. Or maybe his mind turned to the five-two stuffing Arsenal gave us five weeks later, the three-one home loss to United the following week, the one-all home draw against Stoke two weeks later, or the two-one home loss to Norwich in April as our lead over Arsenal was wasted away in a second half of the season run of results which also included draws away to Sunderland and Aston Villa and a two-one defeat to relegated QPR.
Mixed in amongst all this was a five-one drubbing by Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final. Even with Martin Atkinson’s eagerness to award Chelsea a goal that never was to make it two-nil early on in the second half, it’s understandable why Levy sat back at the end of that season and decided it was yet again time for a change.
And what a change those six or so years have eventually led to: Our highest three finishes of the Premier League era, three consecutive CL campaigns, consecutive participation in the knock-out phases for the first ever time, and, now, our best ever start to a Premier League season.
Even though we haven’t lifted a single trophy in any of these seasons, this is what I used to yearn for during the vast majority of the Scholar, Sugar and ENIC years: A team that was capable of playing attractive football, a team that was capable of beating anyone on its day, but, also, a team that rarely dropped points to teams it had no business dropping points to; a team where every single result begins to matter more and more as the season progresses, and not in terms of staving off relegation or battling Arsenal for fourth or in lifting the odd Carabo Cup, but in terms of maybe just maybe winning the league – a team where you could make a comment about us maybe just maybe winning the league and not feel slightly ridiculous, because, ahead of the Poch years, in my time as a match-going supporter, I’ve only really felt we were proper challengers once, in 84-85, when an early April two-one home defeat to eventual champions Everton effectively put us out of a race we would finally finish third in: Even that season, when we still had the bulk of the team that had won two FA Cups and the EUFA Cup to call on, we lost to Villa away and Arsenal and Ipswich at home around that defeat, and Watford beat us five one at The Lane the following month.
We’ve definitely had some great sides since then – my own favourite being the 86/87 one – but rarely for back-to-back seasons, and season-on-season improvements are usually because we were pap the previous year.
Not so this season, where we’re comparing our progress against our three best premier league finishes: In the two seasons we finished third, we had 34 and 35 points after nineteen games. In the season we finished second, we had 39.
So we’re presently six points better off than we were at the same stage of our best ever PL campaign, and 11 points better off than we were following games against equivalent opposition last season.
Premier league era-wise, we really have never had it so good for such a sustained period of time, and, even better – at least as far as this season’s concerned – our performances are now regularly catching the eye as much as our results, something that definitely wasn’t the case earlier on in the season.
If City have taught us one thing over the past few weeks, though, it’s that you can’t take anything for granted. Wolves might be having an inconsistent first season back in the big-time, but they’ve drawn with City and Arsenal at home, recently beaten Chelsea at Molineux, and, earlier on in the season, drawn with United away. At the tail end of November, though, in-between drawing with Arsenal and beating Chelsea, they lost at home to Huddersfield and away to Cardiff. In short, they’re having the same sort of season we used to regularly have.
Our visit to them on 3rd November was one of our more bizarre performances of the season: Wolves had a good goal wrongly chalked off before we carved out a commanding three-nil lead with a Kane goal in the 61st minute, only for some poor defensive choices leading to Foyth giving away two penalties on his full PL debut and a nervy end to the game. Our next game after that was the must-win Wembley game against PSV, which we did, and, since then, other than the PL visit to Arsenal, we’ve notched up seven straight league wins, qualified for the CL knockout stages, and put Arsenal out of the Carabo. If we play as well as we have been, how Wolves play against us shouldn’t really matter. But, treating Swansea at Wembley as the equivalent fixture last season, we drew this game nil-nil. We mustn’t take anything for granted. We must take it one game at a time. Because, right now, we’re the invisible third-horse in a two-horse title-race. One of those two teams is trying to become the first team to retain the title since Fergie’s United in 2008/09, and, arguably, is more likely to be judged on how they do in the Champions League than the Premier League. The other team is the only team in the past ten seasons to have been top at Christmas and not gone on to win the league, a trick they’ve managed to pull off twice, which, maybe, in the backs of their minds, will compound the fact they’ve reached several cup-finals under Klopp and lost each one.
As much as we have the same sort of ‘bottle-job’ tag hanging over us as the Dippers undoubtedly do, we have a settled team which has consistently performed better post-Christmas. We also have no real right to be where we are, considering the net-spend situation and the Wembley situation, which should mean our players feel less pressure. And I very much doubt we will see the sort of opposition capitulations in City’s and Liverpool’s remaining games – or opposition players coming out and openly saying they would rather either of those teams were champions over us – that we saw during the run-in with Leicester. So maybe, just maybe… but, as we all know, there have been so many maybe moments at Tottenham, and few of them have ended up well. Maybe this one will turn out the same. But, then again, maybe not, because City have shown any team can suffer a wobble. Liverpool may suffer one too.
If we can avoid a wobble against Wolves, then take things one game at a time, we’re going to be in the mix as we finally head home to The New Lane. Who would have thought that when the transfer window closed in the summer? Or in the vast majority of the last thirty-odd years? But, then, way back in 2011/12, when we found ourselves third behind the two Manchester clubs on forty-two points following nineteen games – and six points clear of Arsenal in fifth – who would have thought the season would end with a P45 for poor Harry? Poch, mate. Best watch your step.