With a team called Sheriff playing a team known affectionately as “Spurs”, one could be forgiven for believing the Europa League meeting at White Hart Lane was going to be an evening of “cowboy” football. This competition is still in the “yet to convince” stage, the groups disturbingly resembling an Inter-Toto summer tournament in their composition. Like the Football League Cup and countless other competitions, the Europa often has a feeling of “we don’t want this competition unless we happen to slalom our way through to the latter stages.” A pity, for almost all of the participants have little or no chance of Champions League football – at least on a regular basis – and there was a time when the UEFA Cup, its much glitzier predecessor, was every bit as strong as the European Cup.
Tottenham should be one of the favourites for the competition, if they keep their eye on it and – perish the thought – actually play their strongest line-up. It is all too easy to go out cheaply in the group stage if you don’t concentrate – Spurs can vouch for that. Chelsea showed in 2012-13 that if you focus on it, you can win it.
White Hart Lane used to have a special atmosphere on European nights, but the stadium looks dated and swamped by unwelcoming security railings and down-at-heel industrial units. Perhaps this is why Keith Burkinshaw, the man who introduced Britain to Argentine World Cup winners, once said, “there used to be a football club over there”, as he departed WHL. I was pleased to see the old cockerel on the ball still sits atop a stand. But it is no surprise that Spurs want to move, they have fallen way behind neighbours Arsenal and Chelsea and WHL has a hostile feel to it.
There was a time when the club played host to Benfica in their pomp, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern. Now, they have a team from Tiraspol of the breakaway “Moldovan” state of Transnistria, which is not a logistics company, but a state comprising half a million people. Kremlin hardliners will be pleased to note that their flag and emblem retains the old Soviet hammer and sickle.
However, Sheriff (I’ve seen three different spellings), is very much linked to the corporate world. The club was founded by a former “cop” (their words) who runs the Sheriff Security Company. So, it’s a works team of a sort. But that badge – a western sherrif’s star! Nevertheless, they are Moldova’s – or should I say Transnistria’s finest – and have won the league title, Divizia Nationala, 12 times. Only in 2010-11 did the title elude them since their first championship. This year, they are on target to win it again, seven points clear of Costuleni and Tiraspol, their local rivals, after 14 games.
Spurs didn’t pay Sherrif the compliment of fielding their strongest side, although they probably didn’t need to. Their form in Europe has been solid, functional and had yielded five straight wins so far, including a 2-0 win in Tiraspol. Andre Villas-Boas, who is essentially, Mourinho without the humour, made nine changes from his starting line-up against Everton a few days earlier, depriving the crowd of seeing the likes of Andros Townsend, Aaron Lennon, Roberto Soldado and Paulinho in action.
But the Spurs squad has a bit more strength in depth these days and into the team came AVB’s European marksman, Jermain Defoe, who was Spurs’ leading scorer despite rarely featuring in the Premier League. Also included was record signing Erik Lamela, who had yet to impress the White Hart Lane crowd. Lamela cost Spurs £ 25.7m from Roma and may yet feature in the 2014 World Cup for Argentina. Defoe, meanwhile, probably still has hopes of an England berth, but if he doesn’t win a regular Spurs place, he may find that difficult.
Defoe went into the match just one goal away from beating Martin Chivers record in European competition for the club. As much as Defoe’s record deserves credit, Chivers’ haul was achieved in an age when Spurs’ opponents had a little more calibre than the likes of Sheriff, Troemso and Anzhi Makhachkala. Chivers, at his peak, was a superb player, strong and lethal in front of goal. But he was, according to the legendary Bill Nicholson, his manager, a lazy player at times. Chivers’ two goals at Wolves in the 1972 UEFA Cup final first leg effectively clinched the competition for Spurs, although the second leg at WHL still had to be played. That game ended 1-1 and the first UEFA Cup final, an all-English affair, was won 3-2 on aggregate. I was there that evening, perched in the Park Lane End, the last time I attended a European tie at White Hart Lane.
It was at that end the club song, “When the Spurs go marching in”, was sung that night and against Sheriff, it started up once more, this time in an almost haunting, slower, Welsh male voice choir version. It was impressive and it’s good to see that the old traditions prevail.
As for the game, it was hardly memorable. A first half in which Sheriff parked innumerable “buses” in front of their goal as Spurs tried to break through. Their squad included players with the number 88, 89, 90 and 99, as well the ubiquitous Brazilian imports. Does Brazil really have SO many players earning a crust in virtually every Eastern European country?
Half-chances and poor finishing from Defoe and co. proliferated the first period, although Younes Kaboul caught the eye a couple of times. But the best chances of the half fell to Sheriff, a shot from Ismail Isa that struck a post and another low drive by Cavalcante Mendes that went inches wide.
It couldn’t go on like that, though, and in the 60th minute, Lamala sent a left-foot shot into the bottom corner of the net. It was his first goal for the club, and although he had a good game, the media raved about him, I saw his major contribution to the evening in winning free-kicks.
And the odd penalty. For seven minutes later, he was fouled in the area and Defoe stepped up to score from the penalty spot and pass Chivers’ record.
Sheriff were allowed back in the game a few minutes later with a goal from Isa, the first Spurs had conceded in six Europa League ties. And that was the final score: 2-1.
The win put Spurs into the next round, where the real two-legged action will start. And it will be tougher, because eight Champions League losers will join the throng. In fact, I heard a group of hard-faced Spurs fans – undoubtedly veterans of terrace battles past – who, donning what looked like “Peaky Blinders” caps, were salivating over the possibility of Celtic being in the mix. “They like a scrap, but really they just want a laugh and a drink,” was the conclusion as the train snaked its way back to London, doubtless taking the Paxton old guard to Liverpool Street’s Hamilton Hall, where Spurs fans seem to congregate before a home game to stock up on lager.
So what can we make of this Spurs side and the Europa League. They made incredibly hard work of poor opponents. A full strength Spurs XI – one of the top five in the country – would have made a much better fist of it. Field your best team at all times – I am sure that is a message that would have echoed around White Hart Lane in the days of Bill Nick. But then Nicholson did not have the luxury of choosing players with shirt numbers in the high 50s in his day….