"It's magnificent to be in Europe, and this club - a club like Tottenham Hotspur - if we're not in Europe...we're nothing. We're nothing." - Bill Nicholson
The legendary Bill Nicholson once defined this club's very existence by its participation in continental competition, but most Spurs supporters today couldn't care less about our European Thursday nights. In 2006, banners at White Hart Lane proudly heralded "We're All Going on a European Tour" as soon as we clinched our first European campaign of the Premier League era.
But fast forward a mere six years and you'll find fans deriding Andre Villas-Boas for daring to field a full strength lineup for the kickoff of this season's Europa League, pining for the days when Harry Redknapp treated Europe as a training ground for our youth team.
Have we forgotten our identity? Has the lure of Champions League dollars corrupted the soul of the club? Or are we just recognizing a shift in the landscape of modern football and rolling with the punches?
Our first European tour came the year following our historic Double-winning season. We dazzled and fought our way to the semi-final of the European Cup (the precursor to the modern Champions League) where the dream finally came to an end against the eventual champions. A Eusebio-inspired Benfica edged Spurs out by a single goal and sent the Tottenham faithful home empty-handed.
We wouldn't return to Europe's top club competition for almost 50 years. So what did Bill Nick mean when he uttered those famous words? Have we been nothing for 50 years?
Our FA Cup win that year earned us a berth in the Cup winners Cup (which, along with the UEFA Cup, now exists in the modern day as the Europa League.) In a move that may shock today's readers, we took the competition seriously and blazed our way to the final, where we came up against defending champions Atletico Madrid. Undaunted, the boys from White Hart Lane brushed them aside, stomping the Rojiblancos 5-1 and lifting the first European trophy won by a British team ever.
Let that sink in for a minute. Tottenham Hotspur was the first British team to ever succeed in Europe. Sure, it was the second tier competition, but this was still a very big deal. We achieved a level of greatness never before seen anywhere in England (or even Scotland for that matter, back when Celtic was still relevant). We made history.
The '71-'72 season brought with it the inaugural edition of the UEFA Cup, open to the highest placed teams who didn't qualify for either the European Cup or the Cup Winners Cup. Third tier competition? Perhaps. But we went ahead and won it anyway. And we became the first UEFA Cup winners ever and the first British side to win two different major European trophies.
Ok, no, we weren't sitting at the top table winning the biggest trophies. But we were winning trophies. We were competing against great teams across Europe, winning trophies, and making history. And we were proud of it. This is a competition we successfully competed in regularly for 30 years. European nights at White Hart Lane mattered to people, and what didn't matter was if were were playing IBK Keflavic or Barcelona.
But when the Premier League era began, qualifying for Europe became only a whisper of a hope of a dream. We were bad. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Tottenham Hotspur. Europe? Please. Until Martin Jol, we only finished in the top half of the table three times. Three times!
As far as Bill Nicholson was concerned, we were finally nothing. That should piss you off.
Martin Jol finally brought back those glory, glory European nights to White Hart Lane and even though we were a lasagna away from the Champions League, people were still excited about returning to the competition we'd missed out on for the entire modern era of football.
So why don't we care anymore?
The shrill cry of the Champions League theme song and Heineken ads wormed their way into our brains, and suddenly it became the only Europe that mattered.
A few years back in second-rate Europe after fifteen years of mid-table mediocrity, and suddenly we deserved better. A couple of Champions League near-misses meant what we had wasn't good enough. Who do we think we are? We did fuck-all for a decade and a half and you think we're too good for the Europa League?
I've got bad news for you. The Tottenham of the Premier League era is largely a Tottenham who was not good enough for this competition. We were not good enough for the Europa League. And now that we've been back for a few years, we look down our noses at it? Of course we all want Champions League football, there's nothing wrong with striving for more, but let's not forget who we are.
We've played over 150 matches of European football and only 20 of them were in the top tournament. As much as we don't like to admit it, Bill Nicholson's Europe is the Europa League. The proud history of Tottenham Hotspur was forged in the fires of this very competition.
"If you don't win anything, you have had a bad season." - Bill Nicholson
By that metric, we have had many bad seasons in the past 20 years. Since the dawn of the Premier League we have only won two trophies. Arsenal has won fifteen. That should piss you off too.
One of the few bragging rights we have over our North London neighbors is that they haven't won a trophy in the past seven years and we have. Let's keep that going.
Winning a trophy matters, whether it's the Premier League or the FA Cup or the Capital One Cup. The Europa League is no different.
The two trophies we've won lately? Both of them were the League Cup, arguably the least important trophy in the known universe. Would you trade them in? I know I wouldn't. Remembering how it felt to absolutely obliterate Arsenal 5-1 in the semi-finals before squeezing past Chelsea to lift that trophy was an amazing moment for the club. We won our first trophy in nine years and we had every right to be proud of it, however insignificant other teams may claim it is.
Look at this picture. If that doesn't prompt a visceral reaction deep in your gut, you're dead inside. We are in no position to treat tournaments as unimportant. We need to narrow that gap.
There are a lot of problems with the Europa League and most everyone laughs at it. But winning it gets you a trophy, and we could use a few more trophies.
And for all its faults, it's an incredibly difficult trophy to win. We're one of only three English teams ever to win it. In 2001, Liverpool became the only English side to lift the trophy since our triumph in '84. And it's not just because the English sides in the tournament are second-rate. Last year Manchester United embarrassed themselves against Athletic Bilbao. Manchester City flopped too. Arsenal choked in the final in 2000.
Winning the Europa League is hard, and if we managed it, it would be something very much to be proud of.
"It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high that even failure will have in it an echo of glory." - Bill Nicholson
Many people don't want to commit our resources towards a second rate tournament because they fear it could have an adverse effect on our quest for a return to the Champions League. And it's a fair point, the Champions League is an important goal. But it's not the only goal.
We could deliberately tank the Europa League, the FA Cup, and the League Cup, and maximize our players' freshness and ensure that our players play the fewest games possible so they can focus on the league and claim fourth place.
And that would be embarrassing and shameful.
We are Tottenham Hotspur. To dare is to do. And it's about doing things in style. there is nothing daring or stylish about throwing away matches. The game is about glory, remember? It's not about suckling at the moneyed teat of the Champions League's international television revenue.
I understand the concern of player burn out. But teams have been competing effectively on multiple fronts forever. Manchester United won a Champions League and Premier League double just a few years ago. We almost managed a return to the Champions League in 2011, despite playing a full season in the Champions League, and this with Peter Crouch as our main striker no less. We're better now. We can handle the challenge.
AVB has successfully won a treble, going undefeated in the league and winning the dreaded, taxing, Europa League. He knows how to handle multiple fronts. Hell, Tottenham Hotspur invented the Double. Success in multiple competitions is part of who we are.
Why are we willing to settle? Finishing fourth is the only objective of our season and everything else is irrelevant? Why do we have to limit ourselves? Set your sights higher. We are Tottenham Hotspur. We do things in style. We do not give up on matches before we even take the field. Let's go for it, and fail gloriously if we have to.
If we're going to fail, let's fail in a giant ball of flames. Casual, annual acceptance of inferiority is for the other side of North London.