Twenty-seven years ago this week, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis journeyed to London to pursue ambitious project: write about English soccer, sometimes with local flavor, other times with a U.S. twist. He wound up attending seven matches over 12 days in all four professional leagues. He wrote the stories for Soccer New York, a print publication, in January 1996.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – The saying goes something like this: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
So, when former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mohammed Amar, best known to the international soccer community as Nayim, showed up for the Dec. 26 match at White Hart Lane, his arrival was put on the huge TV screen, much to the delight of the fans.
The crowd wasn’t just cheering for the past exploits of the ex-Tottenham player, they also were applauding the man who been arch enemy Arsenal in the European Cup Winners Cup final in May 1995. It was Nayim who floated that famous 45-yard lob over goalkeeper David Seaman to give Real Zaragoza of Spain a 2-1 victory.
You see, an Arsenal loss is just as important, sometimes more important than a Tottenham win to these north London fans, it seems.
So, when Tottenham was manhandling Manchester United en route to a 4-1 triumph on New Year’s night, the home crowd of 38,852 reminded their foes how well they were doing.
“Are you watching? Are you watching? Are you watching, Arsenal? the crowd changed several times.
Not only were Arsenal fans watching, but the entire football nation was as well. At least those who had satellite TV as the Tottenham-Manchester match was the Sky Sports game of Jan. 1.
What they saw essentially was a mismatch between a hungry Tottenham side and an ailing Manchester team that used a makeshift backline.
But ManU manager Alex Ferguson gave no excuses for his team’s worst defeat since Queens Park Rangers won by the same score Jan. 1, 1992. “It was a terribly disappointing result for us,” he told reporters afterwards.
Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel tarted the match despite incurring a calf injury during pregame warmups. He was in the net for Tottenham’s first two goals in the opening half before giving way to rarely used backup Kevin Pilkington for the final 45 minutes.
The United backline also was in disarray. Veteran Steve Bruce has been sidelined by a leg injury. Add other injuries to Gary Pallister, David May and Denis Irwin and this wasn’t the same United team that had struck fear into the hearts of its opponents the past three season. United brought in French defender William Prunier on a two-week tryout, but he was more spectator than performer on this New Year’s Night.
“The gods are conspiring against us,” Ferguson said.
“You cannot take away from Tottenham [on] what they achieved tonight,” he added. “They have got injuries, too, and they managed to look more stable at the back than us. It’s quite some achievement of organization.”
United, which still had a good portion of its attack with Frenchman Eric Cantona (he was booed every time he touched the ball), Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole, the one-time Newcastle United scoring star who has looked like he was ready to do the same on a consistent basis for United in recent games.
On this night, Tottenham struck first. Teddy Sheringham, trying to shake off a leg injury, beat Schmeichel off a low cross from the right wing by Dean Austin in the 34th minute.
That’s when the fans did their Arsenal chant.
Only a minute later, the visitors took advantage of Tottenham’s lack of concentration as Cole scored in his fourth consecutive match off a Philip Neville feed from the left side. Seconds before halftime Tottenham took the lead for good (those Arsenal chants again) as Sol Campbell knocked in a header from the penalty spot.
The home team, particularly Chris Armstrong, gave the fans a chance to ask Arsenal supporters if they were watching not once, but twice in the second half. The first came off a diving header two minutes after the interval, the second, minutes after Cole had hooked a shot barely past the post, heading i a chip shot from Sheringham in the 66th minute.
The victory pushed fourth-place Tottenham (10-4-8 38 points) within seven points of league-leading Newcastle United (14-3-3, 45), creating an intriguing scenario and a dilemma for Tottenham fans the next night. Newcastle was to host sixth-place Arsenal (9-5-7, 34).
Who would the supporters root for? An Arsenal victory would help Tottenham’s title aspirations. A Newcastle win would vanquish the hated Gunners.
“That’s tough,” one fan said. “If it helped us in the long run, Arsenal can win, as long as they lose their next four or five matches.”
“I don’t care,” said another. “Arsenal has to lose.”
A third fan said, “I would like to see a draw, so only two points [teams get one point for a tie and three points for a win] would be used.”
Hmmm. Even sometimes your staunchest enemy has to become your friend, just for 90 minutes.