As imagery goes, Tottenham Hotspur losing to Manchester City on a Wembley playing field decorated with NFL insignia and pocked with divots was striking. Perhaps even more so the bobble on the pitch that prevented Erik Lamela getting proper contact on the ball for what would have been an equaliser.
Monday night felt like the moment when the dam burst on the best laid plans of chairman Daniel Levy. The team itself was held at arm’s length by City and meanwhile the problems facing the new stadium project at White Hart Lane have been going uncomfortably public. Tottenham are not supposed to be still at Wembley. News the club would not be opening its new premises until the new year was sneaked out on Friday evening, to nobody with half an eye on matters’ surprise, but nevertheless this was a distinct embarrassment.
“We have no doubt when open that this stadium will be one of the finest in the world – a leading example of British research and development delivering engineering and technological firsts that will be showcased globally,” said Levy in the club’s PR release but only after he was forced to apologise for the delay.
Then came well-sourced news in The Independent on Tuesday that Tottenham have been forced to go deeper into debt to service their project, increasing net debt from £366m to a possible £600m, with £237m of extra facility added. Only Manchester United face down debts like that, and with a far greater yield of revenue to fall back on and owners in the Glazer family who are comfortable with such liabilities.
Tottenham’s timing has been unfortunate. In a country and city with an uncertain financial future, with the shape of Brexit still yet to be decided by a parliament still scrabbling and squabbling over what a post-EU Britain may look like, undertaking a £1 billion project was always fraught with risk. There were lessons to learn from Arsenal’s lost decade after building the Emirates, opened in 2007, a year before a global financial crash squeezed the availability of finance, but Tottenham ploughed on anyway.
The single-tier South Stand modelled on Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, the Tunnel Club, the Sky Lounges and the infamous Cheese Room will have to wait. Like many a homeowner forced to live on microwave meals in a dust-filled house while workmen troop in and out, giving little idea on when they might finish up, Tottenham are not sure when this purgatorial existence ends.
Levy has a deserved reputation as one of football’s sharpest operators. He and majority owner Joe Lewis have brought the club a long way since assuming control in 2001 but the stadium delay threatens the club’s future, and not just for the matter of weeks fans will have to wait to check out their new seats.
What happened to Arsenal is instructive and an almost unavoidable fate. Arsene Wenger was his club’s best manager in many decades but he ended up losing his way once he could no longer lay hold of the money required to compete with rivals like Chelsea and Manchester City, even United with their Glazer constraints.
The same fate seems likely for Mauricio Pochettino, who has made his disquiet quite apparent in recent weeks. His brave face has dropped. “My feeling is the worst feeling I’ve had in the five years that I’ve been here,” he said, and that was ahead of the City match before his club’s best ever start to a Premier League season was surrendered on that linebacker-distressed Wembley surface on Monday.
Temporarily homeless, but hopeless in terms of winning the Premier League, Tottenham is a club looking for good news. Dele Alli’s new deal, announced by a photo in which Pochettino was unusually absent, is certainly that, but it is new players rather than the preservation of the current squad that Tottenham now need.
Pochettino himself needs a fillip. Managing Tottenham has come to resemble a Sisyphean task. He is fighting the forces of outside commerce while his bosses fight fires elsewhere, worrying about things like building contractors and health and safety procedures rather than players. Wenger ended up going nine years without a trophy but at least he had previously filled the cabinet with silverware. The lack of a trophy – or “title” as Pochettino would call it – has been used to beat his reputation by fans of Arsenal, Chelsea or the dwindling bunch of José Mourinho loyalists who support Manchester United.
Salvation may lie in the competition Tottenham play in on Wednesday when travelling to West Ham in the Carabao Cup. The temptation to rest players will undoubtedly be adhered to but with the Champions League all but lost, and the Premier League a matter of hanging on the top four, why not target the tertiary domestic trophy?
It would represent a means to sign off from Wembley in style, and a chance to begin a new era with a smile.