Levy at Spurs: A Critical Assessment

Volume 1: 2001-2007

The ownership of Tottenham Hotspur is something most English football supporters can claim reasonable understanding of. Though whether or not one is familiar with Joe Lewis’ ENIC Group, its ENIC International subordination (registered in the Bahamas) and the company’s other worldwide footballing portfolio (including significant stakes in Slavia Prague and Rangers), the average fan is healthily aware and likely armed with a popular preconception of Tottenham’s figurehead: Chairman Daniel Levy.

Due to dominant discourse surrounding him, admittedly framed by the club’s 21st century tendencies, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Tottenham fan fearing financial turmoil for the club. Contrastingly however, post-millennial temptation to ride the wave of the Premiership’s (rebranded Premier League in 2007) increasing riches proved all too alluring for some of English football’s most recognisable outfits. Though much like, to their credit, Levy and Spurs’ pragmatic approach to the club’s wonderful new 62,000 seater home (taking inspiration from established builds whilst avoiding improvable aspects of other stadium moves), the chairman’s desire to steadily trail behind (yet keep pace with) English football’s cash parade has meant that, whilst several giants have cramped and fallen, Tottenham Hotspur has remained in touch of the proverbial pacemaker; readying itself to eventually lead the way. In light of Spurs’ monumental current position, boasting establishment as a Champions League club alongside one of the world’s most enviable new stadiums, this comprehensive journal article reviews the topsy-turvy 18-year journey there, assessing Levy’s undeniably laudable work, though also recognising his many mistakes and the limitations of his backing.

Ambitions: 2001-2019, and beyond…
To briefly sum up Levy’s reign, it’s fair to say that a lot has changed; yet congruently, nothing has changed. Indeed, upon ENIC’s takeover of the Premiership ever-present, it was a club in need of fanbase reunification amid discontent during the final Alan Sugar years; much deriving from supporters’ reluctance to get behind manager and Arsenal icon George Graham. This embodied by a chant from the time which sang: “man in the raincoat’s blue and white army”.

Though what’s most explicitly unmodified is the Spurs board’s disinclination to compete financially (transfer fee and wage wise) with the rest of the upper top flight sides, much accreditable to Levy’s status as a lifelong fan of the club, as well as the volatility of a business subject to irrational player price inflation and the jeopardy of relegation down the English football pyramid. Compellingly, the infamous demise of Leeds United, yet to return to the Premier League since finishing 19th in 2004, illustrates the divergent fate, this millennium, of a club who recklessly aspired to mix it with Manchester United and Arsenal, the undisputable dominators of the Premiership’s opening decade. Leeds essentially were unwilling to settle for the top half (at best) mediocrity Spurs wreaked of at the time of ENIC’s 2001 purchase, ultimately investing in Champions League football, hooked by their run to the semi-finals in the aforementioned year, yet falling short too many times (finishing an inadequate 4th in 2001 and 5th in 2002).

Revisiting Levy’s Spurs fandom, the man commendably will not mortgage the club’s future. Whilst, to combat some of the prior highlighted disillusionment ENIC walked into, the appointment of Glenn Hoddle within a month of the new regime certainly displayed fan-like thought to bring back a true Tottenham hero, as well as drawing favourable PR to endear the new chairman, the board and the team to its fanbase. Actions more recently mirrored by current Liverpool owner John W. Henry, who reverted very early in his reign to Kenny Dalglish when seeking a replacement for Roy Hodgson (2011). It can only be speculated as to what Levy foresaw between then and now, though my guess is foresight as to the league’s increasing revenue and, at best, an initially unfledged openness to renovating the charming and charismatic yet lagging White Hart Lane. Now up and running, the glorious Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is his legacy and elevates Levy to what will eventually be legendary status. However, I’m sceptical as to whether or not he arrived with the project pre-conceived. One reason for this being an identifiable trait whereby he pragmatically (and often effectively too) observes the operations of footballing competitors, mimicking certain practices where appropriate. For example, where Man United addressed stadium upgrades via ad-hoc expansion of Old Trafford, Levy made a calculated decision (whilst considering the former approach for the Lane) to instead follow Arsenal’s lead regarding a brand-new build. Arguably, opting to redevelop in the same spot as the old Lane incorporates elements of both methods. Additionally, the London club’s slow growth, exemplified by steadily improved league positions and the new stadium, has elevated it to what is now a monumental resale proposition; encapsulating the very premise of an investment company, which ENIC is. Thus, while it’s debatable as to whether or not the Spurs chairman/fan entered with the intention of revolutionising the paradigm of sporting stadia or indeed he and ENIC aspire to sell their lucrative asset (Tottenham Hotspur Football Club), one thing fans can rest assured of is that he would only resell to a buyer enshrining the club’s very best interests.

A club in the midst of mediocrity
Expanding upon the dynamic Levy first graced, from a footballing angle the playing squad was one with a British and Irish core (rather epitomised by long serving former player turned-coach Chris Hughton), plying its trade in front of a rousing 36,000-seater White Hart Lane. In regard to the Lane, its influence in preserving Tottenham’s satisfactory on-pitch success mustn’t be underestimated. Indeed, as the ‘Spursy’ notion began to gather pace amid the club’s fading cup tradition and increasingly accentuating gap between competitive rivals (namely United, Arsenal and Chelsea, who all began to consistently outperform them in the league, as well as usurp Tottenham’s record of 8 FA Cups), the ground, so close, atmospheric and demanding ensured that every addition to the playing staff (both British and foreign) invariably bought into the expectation of attacking football, yielding the required results for safe final league positions. Contrastingly however, away form remained markedly poor, hugely restraining significant progress up the table:

Season Final league position Home wins Home losses Away wins Away losses
1996/97 10th 8 7 5 11
1997/98 14th 7 4 4 12
1998/99 11th 7 5 4 8
1999/00 10th 10 6 5 9
2000/01 12th 11 2 2 13

Taking over a club firmly established in the top flight, the difficult part would be bridging the gap between them and the consistent challengers for European football (notably Leeds, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle United, aside from token champions United, Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers). Particularly considering the glaring truth that ENIC would not simply throw money at this. Thus, Levy’s observant trial, error and improvement process would begin in the recruitment department. His strategy would however, for over 10 years, lack both contingency and coherence; exposed in volumes 1and 3 of this journal article.

Initial recruitment strategy: The British model
A feature of the boss’ transfer propensity is an obvious scepticism of the British market. Looking longingly up the Premiership, Arsenal had largely trailblazed a European recruitment strategy, whereby lesser-known players had been identified and subsequently secured for fees denoting exceptional value. Famously, Patrick Vieira (£3.5m from Milan, 1996), Nicolas Anelka (£500k from PSG, 1997), Emmanuel Petit (£2.5m from Monaco, 1997), Freddie Ljungberg (£3m from Halmstad, 1998) and Robert Pires (£6m from Marseille, 2000). In fact, during this period of market imperiousness from the Gunners, the domestic signing of Francis Jeffers from Everton (£8m, 2001) exemplifies a rare blemish, justifying the need to tread carefully within an inflated British seller’s market. To contextualise further, Liverpool’s divergent Premiership success (in comparison to Arsenal’s) saw them never nearer than 7 points to a league title (2001/02) between 1996/97 (Arsene Wenger’s arrival season) and 2003/04 (Wenger’s final championship). Much attributable to inferiority regarding transfer business, polarised by a domestic player preference. Examples feature Emile Heskey (£11m record signing from Leicester, 2000; funnily equalling Thierry Henry’s switch to Arsenal from Juventus, 1999), Dietmar Hamann (£8m from Newcastle, 1999), Nick Barmby (£6m from Everton, 2000) and Christian Ziege (£5.5m from Middlesbrough, 2000). Briefly revisiting John W. Henry, the £35m signing of Andy Carroll in his inaugural transfer window (January 2011) embodies an early error from him regarding submission to the British player premium; one which has somewhat triggered a more measured and, today, fruitful approach to market activity from the Reds.

Returning to Spurs exclusively, Levy’s recognition that the club must be savvy in terms of recruitment, in light of what would be a modest budget, gave shape to what’s been a confusing structural identity. Indeed, with the club having been substantially burnt by the £11m signing of Serhii Rebrov in the pre-ENIC summer of 2000 (potentially the Sugar regime’s attempt at employing a European recruitment strategy), Levy originally, in addition to defaulting to Hoddle, eased in via what this article labels the British model:
Manager largely in control of ins and outs, development of British talent and some academy emphasis with the bulk of signings having prior domestic experience.
Signifying this: the sizeable £8m purchase of the late Dean Richards from Hoddle’s former side Southampton (2001) and the capture of ageing stars Gus Poyet (£2m from Chelsea) and Teddy Sheringham (returning on a free from Man United). All being activities from Levy’s first summer at the helm, those incomings depict a mediocre window, compounded by the feeless loss of Sol Campbell across North London, whose move illustrates Tottenham’s naivety at the time: one, in trusting that he’d sign on with what the player had described as ‘his club’ and, two, underestimating Campbell’s ambition ahead of Spurs’ underwhelming immediate objectives. And as previously alluded to, Tottenham Hotspur’s renowned identity as a ‘cup team’ (most significantly by virtue of 8 FA Cup and 2 UEFA Cup successes) was too becoming a thing of the past, and could no longer assure its captain of medals.

Clearly operating a tier or two below the elite, the club’s endeavours within the British model found most success around circumstance, which would ultimately kickstart a steady rise up the table. Indeed, Spurs capitalised on relegations, rivals’ financial plights and the division below in the pursuit of better value in the domestic market. Beginning with the £7m signing of proven Premiership marksman Robbie Keane (2002), recruited along with England goalkeeper Paul Robinson (£1.5m, 2004) and, later, England starlet Aaron Lennon (£1m, 2005) amid Leeds United’s fire-sale, following monetary anguish and consequent relegation (2004). Congruently, West Ham’s shock drop to the First Division in 2003 (compounded by subsequent failure to return until 2005) allowed for bargain acquisitions of Freddie Kanouté (£3.5m, 2003), Jermain Defoe (£6m, 2004) and Michael Carrick (£3.5m, 2004). Finally, arrivals of Michael Dawson and Andy Reid (both from Nottingham Forest for a combined £8m, January 2005) following Michael Brown’s £500k move the previous winter from Sheffield United further bolstered the young British core taking shape at White Hart Lane. The highlighted players predominantly initiated Tottenham’s improved league finishes (9th in 2004/05 and 5th in 2005/06), though at boardroom and staffing level, things were becoming slightly more complex…

2003-2004: First attempt at European model
Perhaps still in admiration of Arsenal’s recent transfer vindications, Levy began to morph recruitment into the European model:
Director of Football often in place and cost-effective (when executed) in comparison to British model’s British/domestic-based player premia.
Trailblazing this shift at the club, advanced further by Hoddle’s dismissal in September 2003, the £6.25m signing of Helder Postiga from Porto earlier that summer explicitly exemplified a type of buy which would become customary. Though following the dual summer 2004 appointments of, first, former Denmark international Frank Arnesen as the club’s Director of Football and, later, recently departed (following Euro 2004) France manager Jacques Santini as head coach, Levy’s sharp modification of the club’s direction had now been truly initiated. Joining Santini’s coaching team, Dutchman Martin Jol. Hughton also remained.

As previously highlighted, many circumstantial domestic-based footballers had arrived since ENIC’s takeover between 2001 and 2004, though activity in the latter year’s pre-season window underlined a shift in transfer policy, as the Lane welcomed £2.5m Porto man Pedro Mendes (sending Postiga back the other way), Basel’s Timothée Atouba (£4m), Noé Pamarot (£2m from Nice) and Erik Edman (Heerenveen, £2m); none of whom remained in favour for more than a season. Nor Santini, who had resigned by November. In the aftermath, amid rumours of strain from the outset between the Frenchman and Arnesen, the director’s addressal of reassurance to the White Hart Lane faithful regarding the situation behind the scenes at Tottenham perhaps, in itself, illustrated a lack of understanding from both Levy and Arnesen as to the role the latter was playing. Classically a more anonymous job than that performed by the Dane, such prominence is hardly conducive from a manager/head coach’s point of view. Resultantly, the European revolution had failed, seeing the club perform the first of many flips back and forth between the two structural set-ups. Though fortunately, the foundations were more soundly in place than many would’ve thought for Spurs’ long-awaited return to the upper reaches of the league.

2005-2006: Reversion to British Model
Having effectively pulled up turning too quickly, Spurs had been left with several inadequate players and no manager; none too dissimilar to the Bale-AVB-Baldini debacle explored in Volume 3. Arnesen remained to proceed with his recruitment duties, whilst Jol stepped into Santini’s shoes as head coach. Though with a competent core of young British talent, the backing of White Hart Lane and Hughton’s calming continuity, gradually improving results in early 2005 saw Jol mould his team into one of the Premiership’s most exciting outfits; quickly dissipating the air of turmoil surrounding Tottenham’s direction. Indeed, even the emergence of Dean Marney as a prospective academy wonderkid strengthened the case for a full default back to a more familiar system. Though ultimately, despite the undisputable upturn in the club’s trajectory from this point onwards, the lack of contingency regarding recruitment and, more broadly, club composition (displayed by these two sharp swerves) would become a theme of Levy’s next decade or so of decision-making.

Having guided the team to a respectable 9th at the end of his first partial season, solidifying Michael Carrick’s (unfancied by Santini) place in the team and introducing January signing Dawson into an impressive partnership with Ledley King, Jol had quickly begun to build a side adequate for a serious top-four challenge. Perhaps aided, in terms of his autonomy, by Chelsea’s poaching of Arnesen as their new youth co-ordinator; an acrimonious saga which eventually saw Chelsea ordered to pay Tottenham up to £10m in compensation. To briefly expand upon this, Levy’s fury amid the affair, combined with his status as a Spurs fan, consequently christened a modern paradigm whereby the two clubs (inherently mutually fractious) simply do not do business with each other: exemplified years later in 2011 when Tottenham, despite intense pressure from the player, categorically would not entertain Chelsea’s relentless pursuit of Luka Modric; even prompting a rare verbal statement from the chairman, who asserted to Sky Sports cameras that “this is not about money, we’re not selling our best players” and that a bid increase would “make no difference”. This despite a historically backed readiness to sell up North. Damagingly in regard to the strength of the team, in the form of Keane to Liverpool (£19m, 2008), Carrick and Berbatov to United (£18m and £30.75m respectively, 2006 and 2008) and, more recently, Kyle Walker to Manchester City (£50m, 2017).

I digress. Jol, an honorary son of English football, continued his preference for domestic players prior to 2005/06 with the additions of Jermaine Jenas, Aaron Lennon and Tom Huddlestone. There were also useful overseas arrivals (namely Teemu Tainio, Paul Stalteri and Yeong-Pyo Lee), none more impressive though than Jol’s masterstroke in recruiting Dutch compatriot and European football icon Edgar Davids. Conceivably utilising his limited time before a new sporting director would arrive, the signings not only added to Tottenham’s growing portfolio of young England (and Ireland, in the shape of Keane and Stephen Kelly) internationals, but also saw the manager smartly revert to circumstantial dealings. Indeed, Jenas (only 22 yet vastly experienced in the Premiership) had grown unhappy at Newcastle since Sir Bobby Robson’s sacking in 2004, whilst Lennon and Huddlestone (£4.2m for the latter, Derby) were savvy Championship purchases. Additionally, though ineffective at Spurs, Premier League journeyman (then wonderkid) Wayne Routledge’s switch from relegated Crystal Palace further underpinned the philosophy. Thus, to Levy’s credit, the manager had been awarded a considerable degree of control to construct the side in his image; almost paying ultimate dividends as Spurs unforgettably missed out on the 2006/07 Champions League by virtue of 2 points and the infamous food poisoning scandal. The club was however in Europe for the first time during the ENIC era, the realistic zenith at the beginning of the season.

The feat of UEFA Cup qualification in 2006 was one which would be repeated the following season, as Tottenham established itself as a consistent participant of European competitions. By no means perfect, though certainly moving forward, Jol’s team had risen fans’ and board’s expectations; and having successfully utilised the British model to return to Europe, the next step was the Champions League. However, from the outset of the journey under the Dutchman, the same complexities surrounding the club’s long-term organisation lingered, embedding themselves as early as September 2005, when Arnesen was replaced by Damien Comolli…

2006-2007: Jol, Comolli and Hybridity
As alluded to earlier, Martin Jol connoted a head coach akin to a Brit. Once of West Brom and Coventry, his commitment to attacking football and development of British talent, alongside an unfortunate lack of gamesmanship (exemplified by his stiff upper lipped approaches to both the Pedro Mendes incident at Old Trafford [whereby a goal was not awarded despite the ball being explicitly over the line] and the food poisoning situation) and inability to close games out. Most principally in light of the latter deficiency, the goals against tally of 54 during the 2006/07 league campaign. In spite of a second consecutive 5th place finish, the gap had again widened between Spurs and 4th placed arch-rivals Arsenal from 2 points to 8. Ledley King’s extensive absence significantly weakened the team, as did the sale of Michael Carrick to Manchester United (£18m). On the other hand however, Dimitar Berbatov arrived for £11m from Bayer Leverkusen to hit the ground running. A Comolli addition, Berbatov, among other ins and outs, illustrated that Levy still preferred to pursue the European model, setting about the shift in (this time) a more gradual fashion. But, for better or worse, Jol’s autonomy was to be invariably compromised.

Summer 2006 saw a more hybrid recruitment strategy, as well as an inaugural demonstration of a frequently attempted and rather high-risk squad reinforcement approach, whereby a combination of manager and director of football set about replacing a significantly cashed-in player with numerous others. The player flogged: Michael Carrick, whose vision, industry and overall class in the midfield was not sufficiently replaced until Luka Modric’s entrance two summers later. The strategy would be exercised time and again over the next decade, most notably in the case of Gareth Bale (Volume 3). But quite simply, though not horrific, Didier Zokora (£8m from Saint-Étienne) did not cut it as Carrick-calibre replacement. Meanwhile, supplementing Berbatov, Mido (finally purchased permanently from Roma, £6m), Benoît Assou-Ekotto (£3.5m from Lens) and the forgettable Ricardo Rocha (£3m from Benfica, January 2007) (buys aligned with the European model), hybridity of philosophy was apparent as Jol introduced the Premiership experience of Fulham’s Steed Malbranque (£2m) and Wigan’s Pascal Chimbonda (£4.5m) into the group; two solid footballers whose relationship with the White Hart Lane faithful would be warmer than Chimbonda’s ubiquitously gloved hands, both playing central roles in the immediate future, including within Juande Ramos’ League Cup success in February 2008. The extent to which the highlighted strategy works is debatable, as, perhaps by law of averages, investing in bulks of players who’ve shown at least some worthy promise is likely to breed some success. Though what maximises most the possibilities is Levy’s logical refinements, in that players recruited must be young and capable of being resold. High turnover at the club may thus be attributable to a ‘trialistic’ term, whereby players quite obviously not settling are moved on as quickly as possible before their value is too greatly diminished. This is also, for obvious reasons, expanded upon most extensively in Volume 3. The model is therefore conducive to minimal monetary loss. Apparent too, arguably increased success as the process was repeated. The other side of the coin however, from a club stature point of view, is entrenchment of the footballing food chain, clear to see (both from a domestic and continental point of view) below:Spurs sell-buy model

By the summer of 2007, ensuing the back-to-back 5th place finishes, there was a feeling among supporters, as well as within the club and the media, that Spurs were ready to push for the top 4; as, in addition to the flourishment of the Keane-Berbatov partnership of the season just gone (yielding 55 goals between them in all competitions), enhanced club stature (in light of progression to the UEFA Cup quarter-final, plus a later feel of growth as the first new stadium plans were discussed in November) and a relative transfer splurge during the summer in question (one too in which key assets, most notably Berbatov [amid aggressive Man United pursuit] were kept), Arsenal’s (the previous two years’ 4th place side) switch to the Emirates Stadium was beginning to run parallel with glaring season-by-season cuts to their playing staff. Having lost the best left-back in the world (Ashley Cole) to Chelsea in August 2006, the planet’s foremost striker (Thierry Henry) now had departed for Barcelona…henry-eduardo-tweet-1-e1562075854798.png

Adored by the fans, Jol had earned Levy’s trust, which would extend substantially into the summer’s transfer window. As displayed below (instantiated players shortly to be named), the hierarchy allowed summer 2007’s transfer policy to veer (reluctantly) slightly more towards the British model, Jol’s preferred strategy (having consistently drawn good performances out of domestically-recruited players):British vs. Euro model

However, dormant disconnects between board and manager were always likely to arise as soon as footballing results took a decline, due to the underlying influence of Comolli, largely incompatible with the degree of control Jol (backed by the White Hart Lane faithful) had believed his work had merited. In that, it’s my belief that, whilst backing a predominantly British approach to this pre-season’s business (augmented by the odd Comolli addition [namely Younès Kaboul, £8m from Auxerre, and Kevin-Prince Boateng, £5.5m from Hertha Berlin]), Levy was poised to pounce on the first sign of difficulty. Indeed, having greenlighted a £10m move for Southampton left-back Gareth Bale (the rest, emphatically so, very much being history), it was most profoundly the major move of the window (Darren Bent’s record £16.5m move from recently relegated Charlton), unfortunately for the manager, which would prove to be a relative undoing of himself. Indeed, a slow start for Bent of just 2 goals (1 in the league, 1 in the UEFA Cup) during Jol’s three-month portion of the season embodied a consequential excuse for the chairman to wield the axe. Meanwhile, Bale exhibited promise, though was way too raw to be burdened with any such responsibility to instil the organisational stability required for the Dutchman to salvage his job. Alas, the defence (incredibly containing Bale himself) remained the same shambles it was the previous season, and after an unacceptable 7 points (and just 1 win) from the first 10 Premier League games, the popular gaffer found himself out the door; and not quietly or gracefully (on the part of Levy and Co.) either. Instead, in an embarrassingly acrimonious manner…

Tottenham 1-2 Getafe (25th October 2007): “Stand up for Martin Jol!”
The date will go down as a dark day in Tottenham Hotspur and Daniel Levy’s respective histories. A sequence of events whereby an unrecognisable lack of class was displayed, demonstrating hierarchical activity more attributable to Chelsea’s historically questionable treatment of high-achieving, fan-revered managers than that expected of Spurs. With reports rife, after an admittedly poor start to the campaign, that Tottenham had approached Sevilla boss Juande Ramos prior to Jol’s farewell game (with a 4½ year contract widely understood to have been agreed), the Dutchman (of course still in post) proceeded to take charge of the fixture. During the game, as the team relinquished a 1-0 lead to fall 2-1 behind, an almost surreal atmosphere began to percolate White Hart Lane, with it becoming increasingly clear, moment-by-moment, that Jol was to be fired immediately after the final whistle. By method of a near Chinese whispers effect, the Lane’s proximity worked spectacularly against Levy, Comolli and the Spurs hierarchy, as the ultimate executive decision penetrated all four corners of the ground; Jol seemingly one of the last of whom to receive the final memo. To apply a positive spin, he was at least able to wave a sincere goodbye to his adoring faithful, who paid tribute with encoring verses of “Stand up for Martin Jol” throughout the course of the second-half. However, the departure was undoubtably undignified, subsequently exhibiting a real absence of class.

Martin Jol since, in my regretful opinion, been unfairly written out of Tottenham’s steady rise. But as the first Spurs manager in my memory (despite my first game being Santini’s opener against Liverpool in August 2004 [I was only 6]), I’ll never forget or depreciate the man’s impact upon reinstating the club as one of English football’s principal competitors. And until Harry Redknapp arrived, sustained the exciting football on the pitch and, success-wise, went one better in delivering Champions League football to White Hart Lane, I genuinely rued the loss of a, personally, iconic member of Tottenham Hotspur’s personal fabric.

End of Volume 1

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