Tottenham should be wary of being burned by the allure of an old flame | Jonathan Liew

Spurs have stagnated since the departure of Mauricio Pochettino but must resist the temptation to reappoint him

Fill the bowl of lemons. Dust off the old purple tracksuit. Someone drive down to Big Yellow and get Danny Rose out of storage. Lay palm leaves across Hotspur Way, let the bells ring out across Enfield, make a small summer transfer budget available and prepare for the return of the chosen.

Perhaps it really will be that simple. The great travel writer Bill Bryson once observed that there were three things you can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company. You can’t get a waiter to see you until he’s ready to see you. And you can’t go home again. For the past few months – and very possibly the next few as well – Tottenham fans have been vocally challenging the wisdom of number three.

You could hear it in the concourses of Molineux as they slunk out after another dispiriting away defeat. “He’s magic, you know, Mauricio Pochettino,” they sang: an aspirin of the past to soothe the migraines of the present. For a few stirring minutes on the outskirts of Wolverhampton Spurs fans were no longer troubled by their gummed-up 3-4-3 or their curious inability to win second balls in their own penalty area. They were dreaming again.

And, on the face of it, has a prospective appointment ever felt more intrinsically right? Pochettino has been out of work since being sacked by Paris Saint‑Germain last summer and still has a house in north London. Spurs are drifting away on a tide of apathy, inertia and hopeful punts up the touchline. Antonio Conte has become so disillusioned with the job that even his gall bladder is telling him to get out of there. There will almost certainly be a vacancy in the summer and an acute shortage of suitable candidates. Chairman Daniel Levy wants to build bridges with the fanbase. Everything here points in one direction. Call the lawyers. This thing is as good as done.

At which point, and with apologies, it is necessary to take a breath, sit down and have a proper think about this: 2 Poch 2 Tottenham, how might this movie play out in practice? Well, for starters Pochettino would be welcomed back into the building like a freed political prisoner. After the tempestuousness of the José Mourinho era, the joylessness of the Conte era, the slapstick weirdness of the Nuno Espírito Santo era, Pochettino’s return would provide an immediate infusion of vigour.

Antonio Conte.
Antonio Conte appears to have grown disillusioned with the Tottenham job he has held since November 2021. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Which is obviously a start. Perhaps the defining characteristic of Spurs of late is not so much failure or ineptitude but a kind of temple-scrunching surliness: a club that have essentially spent three and a half years in a bit of a grump. It is why they are still capable of spectacular outbursts: the win over Manchester City, the romp against Leicester, the late triumph against Marseille. But none of this is sustainable because ultimately, nobody really believes in its sustainability. Pochettino, with his energy-giving bowl of lemons, is a believer to his bones. This is a man who thought he could get Neymar to press. Lack of faith will not be an issue here.

But the problem with trying to reanimate the sensations and symbols of the past is that no two situations are ever truly comparable. The fleeting magic that Pochettino and his players conjured was the product of a particular time and a unique set of circumstances: a young and hungry team that had no body of work to defend, no reputation to protect, no expectations to meet, and who could thus write a new and thrilling page together.

What remains of that famous team beyond names and faces? Eric Dier bears the haunted melancholy of a nightwatchman guarding a deserted factory at 3am: strolling around glumly with his hands clasped behind his back, boots crunching on broken glass. Son Heung-min looks like a guy who has walked into the wrong wedding and is trying to play it casual. Hugo Lloris has reinvented himself as a surreal French mime act. Harry Kane seems to be there more out of politeness than anything. Even Pochettino is probably a different coach from the one Tottenham signed almost a decade ago: a little more weathered and crumpled, a little more pragmatic and proud, a coach for whom this job would probably be seen as a step down.

Alternatively, let’s say Levy gives Pochettino the clout and the war chest he should have given him in 2018, lets him rip things up and start again with a new group of players unscarred by the Passchendaele‑football of Mourinho and Conte. So, who? Where is the next Kane lurking in the academy? Who is the next Dele Alli waiting to be plucked from League One obscurity, and how do you keep him out of the clutches of a Newcastle or Chelsea? In short: is any of this grounded in anything more tangible than a touching nostalgia and the seductive emotional heft of a 2019 Amsterdam cosplay?

Tottenham’s biggest error over the past few years has been a tendency to keep fighting the last war: a car constantly U-turning on itself, grasping at a long-evaporated vision of the past, trying to protect what it has. The real lesson of the 2014-19 years, surely, was the value of a fresh start, fresh ideas, fresh ideals. Who is the modern equivalent of the 2014 Pochettino? At some point Levy – and Spurs fans – need to consider the possibility that it is probably not Pochettino any more.


Jonathan Liew

The GuardianTramp

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