Ah, the glory glory nights for Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. The all-white kit, the floodlights, the cream of the continent put to the Tottenham sword. Blanchflower and Greaves, little Terry Dyson... Chivers and Mullers... Hoddle showing Cruyff how it’s done... Gareth Bale fetching a taxi for Maicon... Lyon in the Round of 32...
OK, the Europa League might not have the cachet of its considerably richer Champions League relation. It is a trophy that has been reduced to a shadow of its former ultra-competitive self. And Spurs would certainly have preferred to have been featuring in this month’s Champions League tussles with the likes of Real Madrid - and should have, but for the drop in form last season and Chelsea’s unfathomable good fortune in winning the bloody thing. But Europe has long been a natural fit for Spurs and there should at least be glimmers of a distinctly special atmosphere in North London tonight.
Spurs have a proud European record built on pioneering success and a catalogue of near misses and hard luck stories that have only added to the mystique of exotic adventures. This particular European union began with an unforgettable and hugely emotional run in the European Cup in 1961-62 when the Super Spurs of the Double era handed out footballing lessons to opponents cowered by the sheer din of the near-hysterical White Hart Lane crowd. The fans bellowed out ‘Glory Glory Hallelujah’, while a trio of supporters dressed as the ‘Tottenham Angels’ danced around the touchline. It got so loud and irreverent that sections of the press thought it was ‘unfair’ and a local vicar complained about ‘blasphemous’ behaviour.
Spurs just missed out on winning the European cup after a narrow semi-final defeat to a Benfica team aided by some world class dodgy refereeing. Undaunted, Tottenham became the first British side to lift a European trophy when they thrashed Atletico Madrid 5-1 in Rotterdam in 1963. Over 6,000 Spurs fans made the trip, by plane, boat and probably submarine, in another example of the club’s clear Europhile tendencies.
It was the UEFA Cup which provided other glory nights - from the inaugural win over Wolves in 1972 to the epic penalty shoot-out triumph against Anderlecht in 1984, with stand-in goalkeeper Tony Parks leaping to grab his place in Tottenham folklore. White Hart Lane shook to its foundations that muggy May evening, though it’s unlikely such an atmosphere will be replicated tonight. There just isn’t so much at stake.
Now reconfigured as a Champions League-lite mishmash of group stages and protracted knock out rounds, the Europa League is a UEFA Cup stripped of its once unique quality of pitting several sides from each country against each other. The Champions League stole those clothes long ago. Now the Europa is the sideshow that too many teams are less than enthusiastic about qualifying for and which takes a whole half-season of matches to win.
So it has been refreshing to hear Andre Villas-Boas insist he’s in it to win it. In fact, he’s been refreshing all round. Not the inexperienced, over-sensitive spreadsheet-fixated geek some critics love to portray him as, but as a confident and well-rounded modern coach who has simply got on with his job.
Spurs are in a handy run of form with just one defeat in 14 Premier League games. For all Villas Boas’ European ambitions, however, results and performances thus far in Europa games have been underwhelming. Tottenham finished second in their qualifying group and will need to play with more flair and determination if they are to animate and captivate home supporters who haven’t been overly enthused so far: none of Tottenham’s home ties has been a sell out.
For those who will attend there are some neat subtexts to the Lyon game. Former Spur Steed Malbranque makes a return to England two years after he supposedly quit the game for good. Villas-Boas made his name with Porto by winning the competition in 2011 and he wants a repeat with Spurs, starting with a convincing display against a side experienced in the Champions League and one that had dominated Ligue 1 in recent years.
Villas-Boas has spoiled one storyline however, by saying he will pick Brad Friedel in goal, thus denying the opportunity for Hugo Lloris to line up against his former teammates. Maybe Lloris is being saved for the return leg? If so it will complement the stories of Tottenham’s French connections down the years. This will be the third time the club have faced Gallic opposition in Europe. In 1963, the late Bobby Smith, who struck fear into defenders across Europe in Lilywhite colours, appeared confused as to the nationality of his opponents when he promised a warm welcome in the return leg for a particularly niggly Slovan Bratislava opponent. ‘Londres! Londres!’ Smith snarled. He duly delivered as Tottenham won 6-0 in London. The current Spurs have a lot to live up to.
Adam Powley is the co-author with Martin Cloake and Doug Cheeseman of The Glory Glory Nights, the official story of Spurs in Europe.