14th April 1991 – the most memorable date in my Spurs supporting lifetime (which for reference begins in September 1988).
The scene was set – the first ever FA Cup Semi-Final to be played at Wembley after it was decided by the FA that it was illogical and somewhat dangerous to ask the biggest and best supported clubs in London to travel to Birmingham or Manchester. Arsenal, by then the league champions elect, were hot favourites to reach the final at our expense and not for the first or last time in their existence approached the game on the pitch and in the stands in a state of hubris.
What followed remains my greatest moment as a Spurs fan still eclipsing the incredible scenes in Amsterdam in 2019. The game provided some of the most iconic moments and commentary sound clips from Barry Davies that still today give me goosebumps reliving. Gascoigne scored the most sumptuous goal and the 65 minutes he managed before being withdrawn was perhaps the most significant in his professional career.
But how did that afternoon fit into the wider context of Tottenham Hotspur’s history. What had happened immediately before and after? This blog considers the 1990/91 season – our last to produce a ‘major trophy’ and perhaps the last time since Poch arrived on the scene 23 years later that we truly embodied the glory and promise of swagger that the name Tottenham Hotspur has been mostly associated with.
We went into the 1990/91 season with great momentum. We won 8 of our final 10 games of the previous season which culminated in leapfrogging Arsenal on the final day of the season to finish 3rd. Alas this was the first season in which English clubs were re-admitted into European Competition and so only Aston Villa, as runners-up, were granted a UEFA Cup Spot.
The feel-good factor in N17 echoed that of the country in Summer 1990 with England heroically reaching the World Cup Semi Final and it was Tottenham’s due of Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker who had earned the plaudits. Gazza’s iconic role in that tournament not only propelled him onto the world stage but was also the turning point in changing the image and perception of football as a sport in Britain.
Whilst everything on field had been rosy in N17 there were dark clouds circling as the extent of the club’s financial difficulties began to occupy front and back page news. The writing had been on the wall the summer before when Chris Waddle had been sold very reluctantly for a then British transfer record of £4.25m. Then, it was revealed that the somewhat modest fee of £1.2m for Gary Lineker (who had joined the club only the week before partially on the promise that he’d be playing alongside both Waddle and Gascoigne) had almost been defaulted and there was genuine risk that Lineker would have to return to Barcelona.
Having finished 3rd the previous season there may have been some hope that further investment in the team could have seen us realistically challenge Liverpool and Arsenal. Yet Spurs’ only incomings in the summer of 1990 were two 19-year olds in the form of Justin Edinburgh, signed from 3rd division Southend United, and John Hendry from Forfar Athletic. Imagine how this would play out now on social media?
Additionally, the conversion of the iconic Shelf terracing into Executive Boxes in the middle of the East Stand had caused understandable resentment amongst supporters leading to a strange paradox whereby there was genuine excitement watching the team but this was offset against the growing concerns at the way the club was being run.
White Hart Lane basked in the glorious August sunshine for the opening game of the season against Manchester City. The eyes of the football world were on Gazza who duly obliged with a trademark dribble and finish to cap off a fine 3-1 victory – Lineker scored the other two.
The good feeling and good form extended through the Autumn and after 10 games we were unbeaten and sitting nicely in 3rd spot behind just Liverpool and Arsenal. Gascoigne had continued where the World Cup had ended scoring 10 goals in 13 games including two hat tricks. However, whilst the England duo stole the headlines there were important supporting roles – namely David Howells, the homegrown versatile player who starred in a 2-1 victory at Nottingham Forest on 27 October with two late goals either side of a goal line clearance.
Having also comfortably negotiated the first two rounds of the League Cup and with the prospect of the Year ending in a ‘1’ expectations were sky high as we welcomed Liverpool to White Hart Lane for a Sunday live game on ITV in the first weekend of November.
A victory over Liverpool in March 1990 had provided the catalyst for that great run of form either side of Summer 1990 but in almost perfect symmetry a defeat against the same opponent, who showed their superiority, proved to be the beginning of a concerning dip in form.
We won just 3 of the next 8 league games of 1990 and two comprehensive defeats between Christmas and New Year at Coventry (0-2) and Southampton (0-3) were a sign of things to come as we quickly exited any talks of a title run. Having been just 6 points off Liverpool before that meeting in November we had fallen away to 6th by New Years Day – the gap now 15 points.
As Spurs fans of the time will remember we were often referred to as a ‘Cup Team’ which was a recognition of the ability to win one off games but to lack the ability to string significant run of good results to become credible title contenders. And so, as 1990 became 1991 attention turned to the cups. The FA Cup provided kind draws against Blackpool (Division 4), Oxford, Portsmouth and Notts County (all Division 2) though hopes in the League Cup were dashed by a 3-0 home reversal against Chelsea in a 5th round replay.
League form continued to plummet in 1991. Additionally, Gascoigne was suffering from a hernia and having scored the winner against Notts County in the FA Cup QF in March was whisked off to have surgery in the slim hope that he may be able to return for the semi-final which had produced the titilating draw against Arsenal. We won just one of the six intervening league matches between Quarter Final and Semi-Final on 14th April – meaning a dismal run of just 2 wins in 12 games since the turn of the year. However, the most significant incident of the final of those league games – a 2-1 midweek defeat at Norwich – was the return of Gascoigne who completed more than an hour which confirmed his availability for the biggest game since the 1987 FA Cup Final.
There was of course a fear that semi-final jubilation could provide an ‘after the lord mayor’s show feel’ for the final which would be against Nottingham Forest on 18th May. The remainder of the league season was largely irrelevant and this was highlighted by no wins from the next 5 games cementing us firmly back into mid table. We would finish 10th (though bizarrely the final game of the season – a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford – would be scheduled for 48 hours after the FA Cup Final).
By the time of the Cup Final – still then the most significant day in the domestic football calendar – it was clear that Spurs’ very existence depended on winning the match (which would provide enough potential income from the subsequent UEFA Cup Winners Cup campaign) but that also this would be Gascoigne’s final game in a Spurs shirt after a record transfer fee of £8.5 had been agreed to take him to Lazio in Serie A.
With Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough seeking his first ever FA Cup Final success the game generated plenty of narratives but as he had in the semi-final it was Gascoigne who stole the headlines though this time for the wrong reasons. His over enthusiasm (by all accounts he had not been able to sleep the night before in anticipation) channelled itself negatively and he began like a bull in a china shop committing two challenges each worthy of a red card; the latter though did more damage to Gascoigne that it did to his victim, and so his final action in a Spurs shirt was to be carried off the pitch on a stretcher with Nottingham Forest 1-0 ahead having scored from the resulting free kick.
Spurs only settled once Gascoigne left the pitch and his replacement, Nayim, was involved in the second half equaliser scored by Paul Stewart. The Spurs players would later remark that they were determined to win the game, and the famous trophy, for Gascoigne. Des Walker, Forest’s stalwart defender, who had actually grown up locally to Tottenham in Enfield and been missed by Spurs’ youth scouts, had the misfortune of heading into his own net for the eventual winner in extra time.
The consequences of an emotional rollercoaster of an afternoon were that Spurs had won the FA Cup for a then record 8th occasion. Though not a direct effect of winning the match the club was sold to Alan Sugar bringing an end to the financial and even existential concerns that had built. Spurs would be returning to European Football for the first time since 1985 and their place amongst English football elite seemed well consolidated.
Gascoigne would not play for Spurs again. His proposed transfer to Lazio was postponed by 12 months and his serious injury knocked £3m off the price tag.
Terry Venables, heralded as a tactical genius, saw his personal ambitions in the boardroom rather than then dugout and, supposedly in partnership with Sugar, would become Chief Executive of the club though perhaps fulfilled the contemporary function of a Director of Football. He appointed Peter Shreeves to take control of the 1st team for the 1991/92 season.
However, the 1991 success was not a precursor to future success. The 90’s were largely a bleak time for us. We would not finish in the top 6 positions again until 2006 and flirted with relegation (1992, 1994, 1998, 2004) more times than we qualified for Europe (1999) or even reached a League Cup Final (1999, 2002).