I wrote a book. It was about some things that happened. As books tend to be. I never imagined the fuss it would cause.
The reaction in some quarters to One Step from Glory, a book built around Tottenham Hotspur’s 2018-19 Champions League run, that I wrote alongside Alex Fynn, a respected and experienced observer of the game, has been extraordinary. It has drawn attention to a number of issues that have grown along with the use of social media, such as the amplification of ill-informed, plain ignorant and malicious comment, raised the issue of whether reasoned discussion of the game we all love is even possible in many quarters, and severely tempted me to sign up to full-blown misanthropy.
Alex and I have known each other for years. We don’t always agree with each other’s reading of events, but we respect each other and we get on despite being very different people – and just a little because we are too. We’ve discussed writing something about Spurs for some years, partly as a follow up to a book called Dream On that Alex wrote in 1996 along with H Davidson, a mutual friend still remembered fondly who died far too young.
As Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure at Spurs unfolded, it was clear there was a story to be told about the club punching above its weight in football’s modern order. The run to the 2019 Champions League final gave that story some focus, and the spine of an idea to build a book around. We decided to try to create something that was both a tribute to the team and to a book called Spurs Supreme by Ralph L Finn, Alex’s uncle. Spurs Supreme is a classic title, a love letter to the 1961 Double team, written by a fan and utilising newspaper accounts of the matches.
The newspaper reports device is something I’ve used before in a book called The Glory Glory Nights, an official club publication telling the complete story of the club’s European exploits. I’d first seen it used in the original version of The Glory Glory Nights, and those reports painted pictures with words in an age before wall-to-wall TV coverage negated the need for newspaper reporters to do so. They still provide a sense of time and place, but now also some of the event narrative and context that we expand on in the book.
With the Champions League run providing the spine, we wrapped the body of the book around it. A discussion of the style of football the club is associated with at its best and whether this is a part of the club’s character or an affectation, some thoughts on why European competition is so important to Spurs, an assessment of Mauricio Pochettino’s impact, and then some final chapters on whether Spurs have moved up in football’s pecking order and what the future holds now the new stadium is complete.
We discussed whether the fact that the club ultimately didn’t win the trophy invalidated the story we wanted to tell. Publisher Pitch Publishing didn’t think so, and nor did we. This was not an exercise in rushing out a commemorative volume on a single competition. The story of the cup run was in fact a story that ran over a number of years, and our idea was to show the scale of what the club had achieved and place it in some historical context. The tale of how Pochettino had made a whole far greater than the sum of the parts he had seemed to us to be a fascinating one.
The book was published to coincide with the start of this season’s Champions League campaign, and we had some initial favourable reviews. Then the madness kicked in.
A number of Arsenal fan accounts on Twitter decided to engage in some hilarious banter – a word that invariably signals the onset of moronic nonsense. The general tenor pushed by these comedy geniuses was that ‘Spurs have written a book about not winning a trophy’. Spice was added by referencing a rather clumsy official THFC marketing campaign from years back that over-enthusiastically pushed a video of a thumping demolition of Arsenal in a League Cup semi-final in 2008. This prompted quips, and again you’ll need to prepare yourself for the sheer power of the comedy genius on display, of ‘Will you make a DVD?’ whenever Spurs won a key game. Something that also ignored the point that most clubs in the Premier League regularly released DVDs of most games.
The banter gathered pace, in the tiresome way these things do on Twitter, before taking a new direction. Enterprising masters of banter took to leaving one-star reviews of the book on Amazon. These ranged from one-word observations such as ‘bottlers’ to minor masterpieces constructed as faux reviews of “a tragic-comic tale of a small Middlesex-based club’s failure”. Some were evidently so inspirational that others followed up with their own laboured attempts at repeating exactly the same gag.
By now, new branches of madness were sprouting apace. Seeing the comments, some people started genuinely believing the club had published a celebration of not winning a cup. This showed what an “embarrassment” the club was, apparently. The fact that it was not a club publication and was not as described in the original witty banter did not seem to register. Something completely incorrect had now been established as The Truth. And yes, I struggle here to find a suitable current affairs analogy.
By now, some Spurs fans were joining in. Apparently the book was “an embarrassment” that “made us look stupid”. While it’s true some people were being made to look stupid, it was clear they needed no help from our book.
Things got increasingly heated. The book was ‘a sign of our weak mentality’, and was the reason why the team was performing poorly on the pitch. You read that right. People actually believed that the performance of a professional footballer depended on what two people they didn’t know wrote in a book they were unlikely to read. The outrage was even more ridiculous because the thing that was supposed to have this negative effect, a so-called ‘celebration of failure’, didn’t actually exist.
I was now the subject of direct angry tweets accusing me of embarrassing the club and contributing to its bad run of form. As usual, some people had to go further. Apparently I was ‘attempting to cash in on failure’ and abusing my position as co-chair of the club’s Supporters’ Trust. I’ve always kept my Trust activities and my writing separate, and I’ve been a published author since well before any active involvement in supporter politics. But once again, the fact-free world of much modern debate had little time for such detail. And another depressing feature of modern discourse was also rearing its head. The view that no opinion is genuine, that everything is done because of some agenda or because someone is on the make. It is not possible, it seems, to simply hold a well-informed and reasoned point of view.
Each time it seemed the point of maximum nonsense had been reached, new standards were set. Some commenters began arguing that books about football should only be written if the subject was winning. No, really. So one of the greatest of modern football books, All Played Out, Pete Davies’s account of England at Italia 90, should never have been written because England went out in the semi-final. The Football Man, Arthur Hopcraft’s classic that is widely acknowledged as one of the finest football books ever written, is expunged from history because it isn’t specifically about someone winning something.
Let’s remember that these are not isolated comments, but many different people working themselves into a lather on the basis of an entirely inaccurate initial assumption and then spinning off into increasingly illogical and nonsensical indignation. It’s like a Darwin Awards gala event writ large.
Then ESPN got in in the act. Someone who no doubt claims to be a proper journalist took the time to mock up a graphic of the book cover alongside a picture of Harry Kane clutching his forehead with the caption ‘A 224-page book has been published documenting Tottenham’s run to the Champions League final’. It was posted on the official ESPN account with the tweet ‘Spursy’.
Consider that. An organisation that once deservedly had the reputation of producing quality journalism had taken the time to promote some ‘bantz’ based on a falsehood, had not bothered with basics such as checking facts or reading a book before commenting on its contents, and instead contributed to the attempted trashing of someone else’s work. I called them out in public. They did not respond, indicating they are happy their activity is a fair representation of the level of professionalism with which they wish to be associated. As far as I’m concerned they have relinquished the right to be taken seriously.
So is all this just a writer moaning that people don’t like his book? I guess if I’ve learned anything it is that there is absolutely no way it is possible to imagine the rubbish people will cook up. All I can do is say why I wanted to write this down.
People can agree or disagree with an idea, they can rate or not rate a piece of work. But the day we don’t require those things to be done on the basis of facts and reason we’re in deep trouble. And the fact is we are some way along that particular highway to hell.
We are engaged in a battle to preserve reason, logic, and the basic ability to interact as human beings. Many will blame social media, but technology is not the problem. The way people use technology is. The difference between fact and opinion, between truth and lies, is being blurred, often wilfully. People are allowed to hurl abuse, threats, to slander and defame, to maliciously undermine, all in the name of free speech. And when people stand up and challenge such behaviour, they are told they have no right to and the perpetrators cry ‘we’re being victimised’.
The danger is that people will stop analysing, questioning, debating. Because the sheer weight of abuse and misrepresentation will make doing so too much of an effort and, in some cases, too much of a risk. What will be left will be the bland pronouncements of official PR, the very thing many of those who work themselves up into states of righteous indignation about books that aren’t about winning things claim to abhor. And that can lead to some very dark places, as can be witnessed by the monstering dished out to football journalists and writers who question the sportwashing currently being carried out by the United Arab Emirates through Manchester City.
There is also a simpler but arguably more vital reason for writing this. The idea that winning is the only thing of any worth at all in sport is one that has to be challenged. To be clear, that is not to say that winning is not important. The point of sport is to win. As we say in the book, that old Danny Blanchflower quote about the game being about glory is so often misinterpreted – especially when it’s used to show Spurs are just fancy Dans with no steel. Blanchflower didn’t just talk about glory, he talked about winning. Winning with style. He argued, and believed, that one without the other was the mark of falling short. But he also once infuriated TV producers in his short career as a TV pundit by answering the question “who do you think will win?” by saying “I don’t know, that’s why they’re playing the game”.
To argue that winning is not the be all and end all of sport is not to display weakness or to misunderstand sport. Quite the opposite. Winning is so valuable, so glorious, because it’s not guaranteed. By definition, it doesn’t happen to most competitors. But it is also valuable, treasured, revered all the more when the joy of the journey is acknowledged. Sport, lest we forget, is entertainment. We watch it to feel good, to have pride, to share in achievement. Those that think they are being worldly wise by arguing that only winning matters are falling victim to the mentality of those who see football as a business, where investment must be rewarded and success guaranteed. Football is a business these days, certainly at the top levels, but it is a successful business because it is a business like no other. We do business for most of our waking hours. We know how it works. We watch sport for joy and inspiration. In business, we strive to eliminate doubt and guarantee outcomes. Sport is our release, our entertainment, our emotional sustenance – because of the element of doubt.
We yearn to win but we can also value the journey. A football season lasts last nine months, and only at the end of it do we know the winners. If we can’t enjoy the nine months, what are we doing?
The great irony is that many of those I’ve seen angrily arguing that talking of anything but winning is killing the game are exactly the same people who argue that big money is killing the game. And yet they share an ambition with the big money moguls who run most of our clubs. They want guaranteed success. They see only the destination and not the journey as worthwhile. They reduce the great joy of sport to a mere transaction. I want a refund because my team didn’t win. One of the most depressing calls in modern football.
So we make no apologies for celebrating a magical journey, for taking a moment in time and putting it in its context. Tottenham Hotspur’s run to the 2019 Champions League final is an extraordinary story, especially in the context of modern football. And now that Tottenham Hotspur and Pochettino have parted company, the book stands as the only complete analysis of the manager’s time at the club and what he achieved.
You may read the book and disagree with the observations in it. You may think that Alex and I could have marshalled our arguments better. You would be perfectly entitled to your opinion. And hopefully perfectly prepared to discuss it. But don’t dismiss something because someone else has said something about it, don’t comment without a factual basis, and most of all don’t lose sight of the joy of sport.