Photo: Tony Obrien/Reuters
Eric Dier doesn’t hesitate. The key to Arsenal’s disappointing 3-0 home kick that pushed Tottenham into the Champions League at the end of last season and pushed their opponents to fifth place? “Atmosphere,” half-answers. “This was perhaps one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in and it was definitely the best in the new stadium. It was like the kind of night the stadium was built on. The atmosphere played a huge role.”
Dier’s response was unexpected because this was a game where the Spurs bullied their neighbors on a physical level and showed the kind of mentality that Antonio Conte was dying to see. Still, perhaps that shouldn’t be the case given the Spurs’ last few games, which started at home with Aston Villa two weeks ago.
That’s when some fans, enraged by the 2-0 loss, went to the presumed punching bags and called out the chairman’s head, Daniel Levy. More anti-Levy slogans would be chanted in the next match – an encouraging 4-0 win at Crystal Palace. Then last Saturday there was an unusual scene before the FA Cup draw with Portsmouth at home.
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On the pitch for an interview was former Spurs player Gary Stevens, who was part of the 1984 UEFA Cup winning team. He scored in a penalty shootout against Anderlecht and remembered the windmill arm celebration, taunting the crowd at first and probably hoping for a louder roar than he got when he did. But when Stevens mentioned that the fans should be behind the team, he strayed into off-message territory, saying that the players—believe him—really felt it when they showed their anger. At one point, Stevens found himself apologizing for the pep talk and lecture, and yet it was something he felt needed to be said openly.
This is where we are at the Spurs ahead of Sunday’s Arsenal and home derby; The climate is edgy, support is never too far from the boiling point. The corresponding fixture last May started to feel like a long way off, as a lot had changed in both clubs; Arsenal finds an ignition point to create a wonderful spark, Spurs engage reverse gear.
Only the first part is true. The Spurs are having a good season, a solid fifth in the Premier League, looking forward to their Champions League round of 16 draw against Milan and still alive in the FA Cup, where they visited Preston in the fourth round. But when the mob down the road is at the top of the table, the decent don’t cut it.
The Spurs have finished each of the last six seasons above Arsenal and have extensively put them in their place at the end of the last season. So how can they be 11 points behind by playing an extra game? Where is the Spurs firing point? Why don’t they do what Arsenal did?
Dier doesn’t believe that Arsenal’s fantastic football and form, movements both on and off the pitch now seem so unified, that it changes the landscape of Spurs players and puts them under even more pressure. Just because he agrees with the view that you can control what you can control. Anything else is a waste of time and energy.
But they definitely changed things for the fans and shaped the atmosphere around the club, especially during matches. “It’s not really a pleasant feeling for a fan,” Dier says. “I totally sympathize with that and feel it.”
In the 12th minute of the Portsmouth draw, the Spurs crowd cried out in a chorus chanting Conte’s name, followed by a quieter cheer of wanting Levy gone. It is the tension that haunts the club; admiration for the popular ruler and resentment for the president.
Why is it always him? That’s partly because he’s been in the role for so long since February 2001, and despite all the good work he’s done over the years, he’s done things that piss off many fans. The most frequent line of criticism relates to the lack of consistent big-money support for managers.
The thing that hurt Levy the most, who took away his protection, is undoubtedly the lack of trophies. There is only one on his watch – the 2008 Carling Cup. On the overall balance sheet, there’s a fan base that sees him mostly in black. And so, in moments of trial, when the blame has to be shared, he becomes the clearest target.
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Conte doesn’t help his complaints about the pace of the project, his leverage, his inability to say he’ll stay at the club after the end of the season when his contract expires. Yet everyone knows that a win against Arsenal can be transformative. “Games like this can have a huge impact on teams, fans and everything,” Dier says. “From an emotional standpoint, a lot more has been added to a game like this that can move you forward through a season. We hope you can do that.”
Let’s get back to the Spurs crowd that was so important on Sunday. Dier knows what it’s like to say they love him. “It’s an incredible rush,” he says. “You’re never out of breath. You feel like you could run and play all night.”
When he turns to the other side, as against Villa, he is exhausted. “Then you start to feel your legs and lungs,” Dier says. “It’s tough stuff, chicken and eggs. We must play in a way that moves the audience, and the audience can induce us to play that way. We need them to be with us in difficult times. That support is invaluable. That’s the difference between running against the wind and running with the wind at our back.”