Pride is so, so important for fans. Not just the sort which comes from winning, collecting trophies and daydreaming about the distant past, but the day-to-day type which is derived from their team’s spirit.
Yesterday afternoon, Tottenham were largely the better team during the North London derby and their control of the game should probably have afforded them more than just a single point. But to look at the table after such a game is to miss the point because, regardless of the actual score, it’s an occasion when performance is everything.
Not “performance” in the sense of tactical decisions and the detail of the play, but application. Derbies demand honesty and hard-work and, outdated cliches though they are, those are the qualities which supporters have a right to demand. Modern football is full of disparities and there are very few top-level geographical rivalries which don’t suffer from a slanted pitch and a lack of competitive balance. Consequently, the winning can’t always be the most important detail and, instead, the value is in the nature of the battle and the strength of the resistance.
If they are fighting against the odds, a team must rage against the dying of the light. If they are to be slain and supporters are to suffer the social media barbs and the jibes at work, then the players must be carried out on their shields to make it bearable.
Honesty is the vital ingredient. Tottenham against Arsenal is currently a weighted rivalry and, having escaped the shackles of Highbury and enjoyed over a decade of continuous Champions League football, the latter are able to field a side which has been paid for in gold. Spurs may not be a poor relation and the financial disparity is only really contextually relevant, but they are still at a clear disadvantage in these games and, in theory, Arsenal should win all of them.
What’s so heartening from a Tottenham perspective, is that the current set of players don’t care for that reality. They aren’t willing to roll-over for Alexis Sanchez or bow at the feet of Mesut Ozil’s mercurial ability, they think only of grinding against those odds and defying them.
That’s where pride comes from and it’s also why derby games are such a valuable barometer of a team’s value.
Football is cold and scientific in 2015 and anybody who places value in its intangibles is dismissed for being archaic. But there is still emotion in the game and derbies provide the perfect prism through which to view a team’s true personality. Their heart, their desire, their refusal to conform to the game’s rigid hierarchy: all the qualities which are sniggered at and dismissed are actually among the most important of all.
Of course that’s true. When a player puts on your team’s shirt, they become you for ninety minutes. At its core, fandom is about representation and by supporting a team the individual is allowing a group of players and a set of values to be their public face in the football world. How that side performs is therefore very important, because that emotional bind can’t be untied and re-tethered as and when it’s convenient. There’s a trust and a responsibility within that relationship and that’s why under-performance often feels like a betrayal.
The supporter may feel aggrieved at having spent money watching something they didn’t enjoy and perhaps be resentful of the outcome, but the real wounds are inflicted by unrequited loyalty and by the suggestion that the crest doesn’t mean as much as it should to those afforded the privilege of wearing it.
But this Tottenham team can be trusted with their fans’ hearts. Their pockets of talent are to be admired and recognised, but their performances are underwritten by a wonderful honesty. The players understand their duties and they carry them out with unflinching applictation: there’s a respect within that and an acknowledgement of responsibility. Mauricio Pochettino has bred a culture which has no tolerance for anything half-hearted and that has given his team a deeper texture - one that allows them to stand-out from the holographic superficiality which is the norm at the summit of the game.
Yesterday’s game was a very good example of that. Arsenal may have snuck a late equaliser, but if ever there was a contrast between how a derby should and should not be approached then that was it. The hosts were lacklustre, half-hearted, and ready to fall back on the excuse of having played in Germany four days earlier. Tottenham, by contrast and having had a day’s less rest, were feverish and chased the ball with a rabid intensity.
Christian Eriksen ran himself to exhaustion, Erik Lamela gave every ounce of his energy, and Kyle Walker subdued Alexis Sanchez to virtual insignificance. Even the white-collared players work in this squad; there’s not a trace of luxury anywhere.
That’s the precious commodity. If there is truth in that theory of representation, then it’s also a highly desirable characteristic; to be a Tottenham fan at the moment is to be associated with a team who represent a very pure set of virtues. They are the club of organic development and the team which is more than the sum of its parts.
There are no divas or disaffected cliques, only a visible brotherhood which transcends any of their imperfections. They are a credit to their club and how often does a supporter have the privilege of feeling that way?