Though something feels off about it, Arsene Wenger’s top four trophy claim undeniably had merit.
It was used as a stick to beat the past-his-sell-by-date Frenchman as his relationship with Gunners’ faithful soured, but between 2004 and 2009, only one side other than Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal broke into England’s Champions League slots. For any team on the outside, it was a real achievement to disrupt the European arrangement.
Acknowledging the fact simply left a bad taste.
As did the lasagne that rescued Wenger’s side from relinquishing their title as a top four champions in 2006 to their biggest rivals, with a few pasta sheets, and whatever bacteria they’d been laced with, separating Tottenham Hotspur from a first Champions League appearance.
By the final Sunday in May, Mourinho’s Chelsea had streaked ahead of United and Liverpool in second and third, but Wenger’s men were at risk of slipping from Europe’s top table despite their run to that season’s final.
Cheery Dutchman Martin Jol had coaxed and cajoled an assault on the top four with a squad assembled by Frank Arnesen before he headed for Chelsea. It featured a bevy of bright-eyed ball-players who would be regular fixtures at White Hart Lane – or even bigger stages – for the next half-decade or more.
Michael Carrick, 24-years-old, had a career of being overlooked by England ahead of him, while Jermain Defoe’s dreams of rescuing scandalously bad Sunderland teams from relegation were still just a flicker in his goal-focused eye.
Robbie Keane, late of Leeds United’s meltdown, was playing in the lilywhite of another of his boyhood clubs. Even Ledley King’s knee cartilage hadn’t been minced, and begoggled Edgar Davids saw some of the youthful enthusiasm rub off and revived his glory days of Ajax ’95 in the middle of the park.
They could even give Grzegorz Rasiak a few games for God’s sake!
Meanwhile, the Champions League regulars from across the way were struggling to marry success on the field with expansion off it.
As the toll of constructing the Emirates sapped their squad – inspirational captain Patrick Vieira had left for Juventus the previous summer, presumably motivated by the opportunity to share stories and console the survivors in Turin of public ownings by Roy Keane – the prospect of missing out looked increasingly likely as the last ever North London Derby at Highbury ended in a 1-1 draw.
That result left the Gunners fifth and trailing their long-suffering neighbours by four points with just two weeks left in the season. Spurs would take that margin to seven points with a win at Bolton the next week, before the Gunners played the first of three league games in a week to end their campaign, their cup runs leading to a final week fixture glut.
They handled the first two with relative ease, 3-0 and 3-1 away at both Sunderland and Man City, but still had to hope West Ham could rustle up a result at Upton Park while they won their final game against a mid-table (no, really) Wigan Athletic.
Instead, someone at the Marriott West India Quay hotel whipped a brutal bechamel sauce that would be cursed by cockerels sympathisers for years to come.
Tottenham’s team took dinner on Saturday evening together as they prepared for the decisive game of their upstart season. By the early hours of the following morning, ten players had been taken ill, including Carrick, Davids, Aaron Lennon and Michael Dawson.
Desperate efforts were made by David Levy to have the game postponed as the sudden bodily expulsions accumulated, but the Premier League would only grant, at most, a two hour delay to the kick-off.
Spurs hadn’t seen this much waste since Ilie Dumitrescu.
Faced with the choice of playing with a team as likely to puke as to put in a tackle and being docked points points for failing to turn up (in body, not just in spirit) and likely Champions League oblivion, Jol pieced together a team from those still able to stand. Players were listening to his teamtalk as others ran for the toilets. Carrick started, but was hauled off after an hour, while teammates left the pitch to be ill on the sideline during the game.
Despite this, they scrapped ably for 80 minutes. Defoe cancelled out an early Carl Fletcher goal, and with Wigan holding Arsenal 2-2 at half-time, and Paul Robinson saving a Teddy Sheringham penalty, it looked like the convulsions could pass without Spurs’ ambitions flushing down the drain.
But Thierry Henry added two more to a first half strike to send off the old stadium in style, and Yossi Benayoun twisted Dawson’s already turgid body inside-out before lifting an effort towards the roof of Paul Robinson’s net with ten minutes left and any hopes their intestinal fortitude would hold was finally expunged.
The reversal meant Wenger’s side said farewell to the marble halls by knocking Spurs out of the top four for the first time since December.
The stakes of qualification for Europe’s top competition have only multiplied since, so the inevitable legal avenues were pursued, but there would be no replay, and there was no case to answer for the hotel and it’s dodgy kitchen.
Four years later, Jol and many of his squad long gone, Tottenham would partially exorcise the injustice under Harry Redknapp and enjoy a Gareth Bale-inspired continental spree the following season, but, like a bad smell, the sense of wrong would linger long after the infamous incident and fuel the sense that still dogs Tottenham Hotspur to this day: Spurs just don’t have the guts for a fight.