One of my interests outside of football is mountain walking; this clash with Spurs was rather like a hard day in the hills. The ascent of hope since the weekend, the emotional peak of Muamba’s pre-match appearance, the plateau in the first half as our game didn’t quite click, the descent when Tottenham scored, anther high as we battered the opposition and equalised, and, finally, a plunge into the abyss as Spurs scored three goals and left our hopes shattered on the rocks below.
Sadly, this over stretched metaphor ends there. Whereas most mountain expeditions end with a few pints in a bar, on the journey home, hold ups and diversions prolonged my suffering, giving me plenty of time to ponder the ramifications of our humiliating defeat.
Despite Tottenham’s obvious quality, I feel that we ought to have taken something from the game. I don’t agree with the manager’s view that it ‘was a game we could easily have won’, but with better application we might have achieved a draw. A point would have kept the momentum going and if it were coupled with a win against West Brom in the next game, it would probably have been enough to keep us in the Premier League. The defeat means survival is now unlikely.
Unsurprisingly, given the number of players unavailable, Coyle named the same starting eleven as in the previous game, i.e. Bogdan; Boyata, Wheater, Ream, Ricketts; Eagles, Reo-Coker, Mark Davies, Petrov; Kevin Davies, N’Gog. I was unhappy with the 4-4-2 formation against a team with the class of Tottenham but it seemed that needs must; options appeared limited.
One name missing from the team sheet was, of course, Fabrice Muamba. Unless you live on Planet Mars, you will be familiar with the incredible reception he received when he came on the pitch. I probably wasn’t the only one to think that if Owen Coyle had selected the midfielder more often we wouldn’t have been fighting for Premier League survival. Nevertheless, I expected his appearance to boost both the team and the spectators.
My hopes were half fulfilled; the crowd was roaring. The players, however, struggled to find a rhythm. It might have been nerves but too many passes went astray and we lost possession too easily and too often. Tottenham did the bulk of the attacking; Modric was pulling the strings, while Bale, Lennon, Adebayor and Van der Vaart were always threatening. Fortunately, our back four and goalkeeper kept them at bay. The closest Spurs came was when Bogdan mishandled a shot from Bale but recovered well to block Van der Vaart’s follow up effort. The attrition was maintained until a few minutes from halftime when, at last, Wanderers put a decent move together. An excellent pass by Ricketts sent Petrov racing down the line and his cross was cut back by Eagles to N’Gog. Klasnic might have scored with the chance; N’Gog fiddled around and Friedel saved easily.
Then calamity struck. Reo-Coker, who was playing well, unbelievably passed the ball to a Spurs player. The visitors surged up the field, there was some desperate defending, and we got away with a corner. The ball was played back to the lurking Modric who lashed it into Bogdan’s top left hand corner. It was a good strike but the goal should not have been conceeded. Apart from Reo-Coker’s error, there was a Spurs handball before the ball went out of play. Furthermore, Modric was unmarked; how many goals of this nature must we concede before our coaches recognise that having everyone back inside the box for a corner is not the best deployment of resource. Also, whilst Bogdan had little chance of saving, one would think that one of our goalkeeping coaches would tell him that if the ball is going in the top left hand corner, you should go for it with your left hand. Schoolboy stuff.
To be fair to our players, we responded well. We might have had a penalty when N’Gog’s shirt was tugged, Eagles hit a first time volley that, on another day, might have found the net, and Boyata had a good chance that went over the bar. But at half time we were behind and the Championship was looming.
The start of the second half hasn’t always seen us at our best this season, but on this occasion, we resumed like a train. We pressed forward and Tottenham, who had looked calm and composed in the first half, now began to panic. Kevin Davies was repeatedly fouled with no response from Mike Dean and Eagles was blatantly handed off under the nose of a linesman without punishment. After dominating for ten minutes, we scored a first class and well-deserved goal. Kevin Davies headed on a throw and an N’Gog flick put Reo-Coker clear to score. We were back in the game and, suddenly, three points looked possible. The crowd raised the decibels to an even higher level as we forced a series of corners. From one of these, the experienced Brad Friedel punched the ball away like a nervous rookie. Spurs were rocking; another goal was imminent.
After twenty minutes it came, but at the wrong end. Three Wanderers players had a mix up on the half way line, the ball went to Bale, he flew down the wing and crossed to Van der Vaart, who scored easily. A minute later, they scored again. Another breakaway, this time by Lennon and Adebayor tapped in. The ground had disappeared from under our feet; ecstasy turned to despair. The Championship no longer loomed, it was dusting off the welcome mat and putting out the bunting.
Owen Coyle responded by bringing on Klasnic and Vela in place of N’Gog and Reo-Coker. It made little difference, nor did the later introduction of Maiyachi in place of Eagles. Klasnic did send Petrov clear with a spectacular reverse pass but Davies failed to convert the cross. However, interest had drained from the game. Tottenham scored again, the Bolton layers looked beaten, the crowd began to drift away. There was no way back. The exception to all this was young Josh Vela. It was the first time I had seen him and he was an encouraging surprise. He looked to have a football brain, he can pass the ball, and he was certainly not overawed by the occasion. He did more in twenty minutes than Mark Davies did in ninety. His display was the one encouraging aspect of the final twenty minutes.
The manager has been saying for weeks that our fate is in our own hands. Well, it ain’t any more. We still have easier fixtures than Queens Park Rangers but, after this defeat, I have little faith that we will take four points from West Brom at home and Stoke away, which is the minimum that we are likely to need. It is, of course, possible but not if we play with the naivety we showed in this game. It has been clear all season that the management and coaches don’t learn from their mistakes. I thought we were playing 4-4-2 because we were short of midfield players but Vela’s cameo display suggested otherwise. The youngster, playing with Reo-Coker, would allow Mark Davies to play further forward, where he is far more effective. That is how we should have played in this game. ‘We know the quality that Spurs have’ said the manager in typical Owen speak; why then didn’t he cater for it.
The opposing manager, the not-to-be-England-manager Harry Redknapp, closed his match comments with the observation that the appearance of Fabrice Muamba at the game put everything into context. I’m not a great fan of ‘the loveable geezer’ but I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment. No matter what the late Bill Shankly said, football isn’t a matter of life or death. Even if the Wanderers don’t manage to climb their metaphorical mountain, the Scottish hills will still be there for me to wander among. It’s just a pity that the team didn’t make Fab’s visit to the Reebok more enjoyable.