The first column: The Summer of Total Football

I SPENT much of the mid-1970s walking around in an orange adidas t-shirt, a tribute to the Dutch national team of the period, and in particular, Johan Cruyff.

In some ways, I was ahead of my time, because donning sportswear was not the fashion statement that it is today. However, I thought it was cool. In fact, I considered that the Netherlands must be a great place with so much going for it. Not only did the country have Cruyff, Ajax and Edam cheese, but it also had Focus, the instrumental band of Hocus Pocus and Sylvia fame.

Terrific football, excellent cheese and an off-the-wall rock band. What’s more, the Netherlands were also brilliant exponents of Jeux Sans Frontieres. How I longed to go to Amsterdam, the land of free love, brown cafes and clogs. The Dutch, to me were all pseudo hippies with a real chilled-out, liberal approach to life. But back to Cruyff and those flying Dutchmen. It was nothing short of a tragedy that Rinus Michels’ team did not win the 1974 World Cup. They played superb, flowing football but they also had a hard edge – not many people recall how gritty Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol could be.

The Dutch team were also so wrapped up in their “We’re free” attitude to life that they forgot to win the competition. Once they took the lead against the West Germans, they decided to rub the hosts’ noses in the Munich turf. But they underestimated the steely psyche of the Germans, who were not going to walk out of the giant Bedouin tent that was the Olympic Stadium without a fight. Typically, they etched out a 2-1 win and the Dutch side, which flew so close to the gods, were beaten. They couldn’t believe it, the world couldn’t believe it, but those that knew the Germans, didn’t question the outcome. Ironically, 1974 was also the end of the great Ajax side – Cruyff and Neeskens, the heart of the team went in search of pesetas, and by 1975, Focus were but a memory, unable to build upon their breakthrough in the UK. It’s a knockout was also running out of steam, which just left the Edam cheese to eulogise about.

As for the Dutch national team, they were never quite the same. Although a Cruyff-less Holland got to the final of Argentina 1978, it was more by luck than judgement. Ironically, if Rob Rensenbrink – who filled the orchestration role of the Dutch master – had scored at the end of 90 minutes, the Dutch would have surprisingly beaten the host nation. But how would they have got out of a Junta state that dropped dissidents from helicopters into the River Plate? In some ways, although there would have been some justice in a Dutch win, it would not have made up for the failure of 1974. So, my orange shirt was indeed a tribute – to the finest team never to have won the World Cup and to the best European footballer I have ever seen. And I can’t help thinking of Ajax, Cruyff and Munich 1974 when I put Moving Waves in the CD player.

They go together…along with a ball of red-waxed cheese. This is why my next book is the one I have always wanted to write – the 1974 World Cup. To be published in May 2024 by Pitch Publishing.

Neil Fredrik Jensen

Spurs face the reality Conte wasn’t their man

WHAT will Tottenham Hotspur try next? Since they reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2019, the peak of the Mauricio Pochettino era, the club has been wringing its hands, agonising over the direction it should take. 

Pochettino left shortly after the final in Madrid, perhaps burnt out, perhaps disillusioned that, despite the plaudits, Tottenham were never going to make it big with his squad. Spurs are still waiting to “make it” by winning some silverware and they’ve now tried three managers since “Poch” departed. Antonio Conte, the latest temporary employee, had 16 months that seemed to implode in a flurry of anger and recrimination in the space of a few weeks. Conte has had external issues to deal with, not least his health, but increasingly it became apparent this was a case of love on the rocks. As Neil Diamond sang, “’aint no big surprise”.

Conte clearly wasn’t Spurs’ man, Jose Mourinho wasn’t Spurs’ man, Nuno Espirito Santo didn’t get the chance to prove he was their guy. Three coaches, all with a track record before arriving at the Tottenham stadium, couldn’t make it work for Spurs. And with each passing season, a sense of anxiety has grown, among the fans, among the players and, one would assume, up among the prawn sandwiches. Spurs are in a spiral of tension where each component of the club may actually be feeding the anxiety of the others – fans, players and management. They all want success, they all want lovely football but they keep making the wrong decisions by backing the wrong men.

Tottenham Hotspur’s trophies


Spurs have always caveated their lack of modern success by insisting the club wants to play beautiful football – winning the Spurs’ way. This has persisted since the early 1960s but in the age of hire and fire management, building something in a two year period that adheres to some form of mythical culture is impossible. Each of their managers arrives with their own style, a system that has made them successful at some stage of their careers, a way of working that has attracted the club to them in the first place. These men are not going to change their ethos, firstly because they probably cannot and secondly because it has worked well for them in the past. Hence, the club should know what they are hiring and it should be aligned to their own goals. How often have clubs disposed of a coach because his playing style was not compatible with the club’s supposed DNA? Given managerial jobs last barely two seasons these days, so a coach is unlikely to transform for a club that will undoubtedly sack him on a whim.

Furthermore, in this age of instant gratification, clubs cannot afford to look too far into the future and they want/need success almost immediately. This makes any plan to create development paths almost impossible. Look at the Spurs squad and compare it to the period when Pochettino was in charge. Only three players who were nurtured by Tottenham were in the squad that faced Southampton in Conte’s last fixture. Dele Alli has gone, his career in tatters in what has to be one of the saddest tales of underachievement and Harry Winks is on loan at Sampdoria. Kane is still banging in goals, but each summer signals another year older and still no medals. Some of the club’s acquisitions in recent years have been a let-down, such as Richarlison (£60m), Ndombele (£55m) and Reguilon (£25m). 

This season, the club has gone out of the cups rather cheaply – a punchless exit in the Champions League last 16 to AC Milan, a defeat at Championship side Sheffield United in the FA Cup and a first time of asking loss at struggling Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup. For a club that has not known major success since 2008, they seem to allow opportunity to fly out of the window rather too easily.

Conte was clearly very unhappy and he let it be known. His rants did look like he was refusing to take responsibility for Spurs’ shortcomings. When he pointed to the club’s ownership tenure coinciding with a lack of success, the office was about to be cleared.

From Spurs’ perspective, they hired Conte to change the status quo, to become successful again. It didn’t work and was probably destined to fail. Conte will move on, but will his comments and manner of his departure affect the hiring of a new contender? Has Conte alerted the management world that the Spurs job comes with major challenges over and above managing a team? And if Arsenal end up winning the Premier, that task will have been made just that little bit more difficult.