Spurs In The 90s

This week Steff, Milo and Gareth jump in the Game Is About Glory time machine to go back to the 1990s. What was it like being a Spurs fan in the 90s? Was Alan Sugar really that bad? Which players typified 90s Spurs? Our best and worst games of the decade? All this and Steff regales us with tales of his encounters with Nick Hornby and Sir Alex Ferguson.

‘School Boys Very Own Stuff’ – Reliving my greatest Spurs memory

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 Gascoigne scored the most sumptuous goal and the 65 minutes he managed before being withdrawn was perhaps the most significant in his professional career.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.

3Tottenham Hotspur1064017422
4Crystal Palace1055017920
5Manchester City10451151217
6Manchester Utd10424131414
1st Division League Table going into game v Liverpool on 4/11/1990

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.

3Crystal Palace211263312042
4Leeds Utd211164362139
5Manchester Utd211065212335
6Tottenham Hotspur21966342733
7Manchester City20775302829
1st Division Table – 1st January 1991

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).

3Crystal Palace382099504169
4Leeds Utd3819712654764
5Manchester City38171110645362
6Manchester Utd38161210584559
8Nottingham Forest38141212655054
10Tottenham Hotspur38111611515049
Final 1st division League Table 1991 (20th May)

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).

They Can Be (Cult) Heroes…

…For more than one day. Sometimes the most entertaining players are the more unlikely ones. STEFF discusses the value of a great club cult hero.

I was at Wembley for that night in 1981.

I was on the Shelf for that night in 1984.

However there is a goal which rather perversely stands -if not shoulder to shoulder with those moments- most certainly a couple of bodies along in the same queue.

It was Sunday, April 8th 2001, and it occurred at Old Trafford during the FA Cup semi-final, in the 13th minute. I was seated in the huge main stand, lower tier, about five seats from the fan divide when Steffen Iversen got hold of a loose ball and leathered it goalwards. Well not quite. It was on par to hit some punter in the fifth row about 20 yards from the left-hand post, when suddenly an unlikely ginger head got in the way, deflecting the ball like a missile inside said-left hand post to put us 1-0 up.


It was such an utterly unlikely moment. 

We had been under the cosh for the first 10 minutes of the match, and the scorer -Gary Doherty- was, to say the least, an unlikely hero. In fact, he was such an unlikely hero that even he knew it, his celebration being one of total bewilderment, as if to say, “these things don’t come from me because I am at best a cult figure”. It took me five minutes to sit down and stop taunting the Gooners a few seats across, and even as I write, I remember the explosive, volatile eruption of joy Doherty’s goal provided. It was the birth of a superb nickname -The Ginger Pele- and tragically, there is not one supporter I know who believes he meant to cushion that bullet into the net as he did. Instead everyone, to a man, woman and child, knows it simply bounced off his bonce.

Doherty was a classic example of the Spurs cult-hero. 

A jack of two trades and master of none (he was deployed at centre-half and centre-forward), Doherty was a willful but not especially skillful trier who went out of his way to throw his body on the line for the club, procuring the odd moment of glory (as above), or more frequently, clownery, as with his incredible own goal chip against Leicester in 2004.

Yet when we look back, a major question arises. Does the cult hero really have to be an average-to-donkey class player, or is it permissible that the cult hero has silky smooth skills with more than a dash of insouciant inconsistency? It isn’t a straight-forward answer.

Take Alfie Conn, that mid-70’s Roy Wood/Billy Connelly hybrid midfield maestro who could light a match with his right foot (as in for your cigarette!) yet was also prone to bouts of outrageous clownery such as sitting on the ball mid-match. On his day, Conn made Michel Platini look like Gary Waddock, but sadly, his day didn’t happen with any consistency whatsoever, thus rendering him memorable as much for that explosion of hair and moustache as skill. John Lacy, a centre-half in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, had a giraffe like presence and was probably unfairly remembered as a gaffe machine, one of those names which elicited a groan when his name was announced over the tannoy and equally, someone who somehow become a comfortable “cult figure” for supporters to whinge on about. For entirely different reasons, you could argue that the rotund rocket Gary Brooke was another cult hero, his ability to super-sub onto the pitch and launch his generous frame into a howitzer which would end up breaking the net, becoming semi-legendary in the Burkinshaw days.

It continues to get tricky as you look through the eras. 

Nayim was undoubtably a cult hero, but more for what he did from the halfway line in another shirt against Arsenal than anything he did for us, and then there’s Nicola Berti, who via nothing more than reputation, nationality and good looks became an instant love for us all, and who also had one of the greatest player songs ever with “My name is Nicola Berti…” Thinking about it now, is it possible that Nicola Berti is a golden example of a cult hero despite doing next to nothing of note in our shirt other than looking suave? 

Steffen Freund acolytes would fiercely argue that notion.

Unglamorous, determined and grimly physical without any silk (or flairy skills for that matter), Freund was revered for his terrier-like space invader qualities, which saw him flying around pitches with scant regard for anything other than winning the ball. You’d debate that any team needs a Freund-figure -we currently have Hojberg- but compared to Freundy, Pierre looks more like Pele or Pirlo than plodder, and besides, there was something about the way Steff wore his hair and carried himself which just screamed “cult hero”…he also enhanced that legend tenfold by popping up on the terraces with us at away games. Thus was born, “I love Steffen Freund, Steffen Freund loves me.”

I know I’m missing dozens, from the dynamic  Jose Dominguez to the indolent Stephane Dalmat, and I haven’t even investigated the notion that to be a cult hero you need to have a song (a mate and I once spent an entire, admittedly drunken, half at Man City away applying every player song from the decades to Clint Dempsey, a cult hero surely). Take Peter Crouch, who delivered another moment of I-was-there ultra-joy for me at Eastlands in 2009 when he nodded us into the Champions League for the first time. I mean, isn’t Crouchy too good to be a cult-hero? Can you be too good? However, when it comes to finding a current example of a universally-agreed, quintessential cult hero par excellence, it’s actually rather easy.

Moussa Sissoko.

I understand the half cases for Clinton N’Jie and perhaps even more Georges-Kévin Nkoudou, but it is Sissoko who epitomizes everything a true cult hero is. Not especially masterful at anything, yet gloriously committed to the cause, he is a player who has sacrificed himself repeatedly at the altar of  versatility in order to serve the team, a player who did not get a sniff of his best position for two years, instead filling in wherever duty called. He endured, to my mind, disgraceful abuse for some time as he gave his all in such situations, yet finally he started to win fans over. It started with the “wake me up before you go go/who needs Bale when you’ve got Sissoko” song of endearment, and continued to mushroom to the point where he ascended to having his own firm, direct song; “Ooooh Moussa Sissoko (repeat)”. And in many ways, just like the Ginger Pele in 2001, it is a Sissoko moment which will forever live in my memory as long as any glory night…

…There I was, on June 1st 2019 in Madrid, minutes before the CL Final kick-off, engaged in a the fullest of fulsome renditions of “Ooooooh Moussa Sissko” which rang out around the Wanda Stadium as the game kicked off. Within 30 second, it was Sissoko who had been (harshly to say the least) dinged for a handball and penalty. I put my arms around my friends, looked to the sky and uttered, “We’re not allowed to have nice things.” I will never, ever forget seeing the evening sky through the wanda outer roof, barely able to watch the penalty being taken, so many emotions coursing through my veins, my pre-match prediction that he would score the winner and thus become immortal suddenly looking as ludicrous as when I’d said it.

If ever a cult hero’s definition, and perhaps dichotomy, was defined, this was surely it. Because remember, had Sissoko not floated that ball 50 yards forward in the 95th minute during the semi-final second leg in Amsterdam, we would not even have been in the Final to start with. 

His cult-hero statue outside the new Lane is surely guaranteed.