On April 17, 2010, Tottenham Hotspur played Chelsea in a massive Premier League fixture. I was certain that Spurs were going to lose, and not in the 'haha we always Spurs it up' kind of way. No, even after our win over Arsenal a week prior, I had a conviction. I was truly certain, deep down, that we would lose to Chelsea. I had no hope.
At that time, Gareth Bale was just making the transition from being a punchline to being a useful player. He was the counter to Spurs fans' jokes about Arsenal's transfer policy and the failings of their generation of young players. Yes, they had Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner and Johan Djourou and Theo Walcott, all hilarious failures, but at least they didn't spend a bunch of money on Bale, with whom Tottenham did not win a game in his first 24 league appearances.
Luka Modric was not yet the heartbeat of the Tottenham midfield and a target for Chelsea and Real Madrid, but merely a nice player who was enjoying a nice season. After struggling to adapt to Premier League football in his first season, he'd finally made it as an unorthodox creative wide midfielder who could help Spurs keep possession. He was thought to be too frail and weak defensively to start in a two-man midfield in the Premier League, but against Chelsea, he started alongside Tom Huddlestone to make room for Bale on the left wing.
England's biggest historical chokers (though Newcastle are certainly in with a shout) started arguably their biggest league fixture in over a decade to that point -- against England's biggest spenders at the time, who were on a four-game win streak -- with a center of midfield consisting of a painfully slow, overgrown Andrea Pirlo wannabe and a 5'5", 150 pound No. 10 and/or winger who looked like a small child. Their best attacking player was a 20-year-old converted left back who set a record for most Premier League games played without a win.
Jermain Defoe's penalty wasn't terribly stunning. Accidental handballs happen and fast Tottenham starts happen. I wasn't filled with any more hope than I had before the game when his spot kick went in. In fact, I probably dreaded what was coming, rueing the fact that our loss would be more painful now that we'd taken the lead.
Just before the stroke of halftime, Bale scored his second goal in as many games. Up until the Arsenal game the week prior, Bale had gone over two years without scoring. Cutting inside from the left wing, he turned Paulo Ferreira inside out before lining up a shot on his right foot and slotting a composed finish past Petr Cech at the near post from the edge of the penalty area.
I was filled with more hope after that goal, and even more when Heurelio Gomes made a spectacular stop on Frank Lampard just after the break. As the minutes went on, I started to believe more and more that a win was a genuine possibility. Then, the moment that changed my life as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur forever came.
John Terry is one of England's most widely despised players following his alleged racist abuse of Anton Ferdinand, for which he was cleared criminally but suspended for by the FA. At this time, he was not 'racist arsehole John Terry' but rather 'England's Brave John Terry'. The prefix to his name that is now a punchline was used quite seriously back then by media outlets, especially given England's high hopes for the upcoming 2010 World Cup. While opposing fans certainly bemoaned his hard tackles and the way he avoided unfavorable calls, he had the respect of just about everyone, including the referees that he was such an expert at manipulating.
In the 67th minute of this game against Tottenham, however, England's Brave John Terry was sent off. He was shown a yellow card in the 64th minute, then found himself in a situation where Bale was about to pick up a step on him and get into a dangerous position. Like he had many times before, Terry made a calculated risk in lunging in for a tackle that, under most circumstances, would earn him a yellow card. Because he had been booked three minutes prior and because he was England's Brave John Terry, he likely went into that tackle thinking that he would be harshly warned by Phil Dowd, but not sent packing. Instead, Dowd whipped out a second yellow card, and Terry was stunned.
That was the first and only red card that Terry received in the Premier League that season. In his entire career, despite the very physical nature of his play, Terry has only been sent off in three league matches, and never more than once in a season. He is not a player who gets favorable treatment from officials, per se, but merely one that does an excellent job of riding the line and making sure that he gets in as many hard challenges and shirt tugs as possible without quite doing enough to see red. Terry had made that same hard challenge while on a yellow two or three dozen times before that game, and he was regularly warned for it. On that day, the referee decided that all yellow card-worthy offenses are created equal.
Terry looked absolutely shellshocked when Dowd pulled out his cards, but I can't imagine the look on his face was any more telling than the look on mine. I was probably more stunned than Terry that Dowd made that call. I fully expected Dowd to give him a harsh warning and for Terry to avoid those types of challenges for the rest of the match, and I wouldn't have screamed that Dowd robbed us had Terry stayed on and Chelsea gone on to score twice and steal a point. But Terry was sent off, and Spurs were up by two goals and a man with just over 20 minutes to go.
That's when I knew it was going to be okay. Spurs were going to win. For once, it didn't seem like the entire world was conspiring to find any way possible to keep Tottenham down. Something had changed. They weren't the same choking Spurs of old. Modric, who was brilliant in the middle that day, wasn't a fluke. Bale was a top up-and-coming talent. Opposing defenders will get sent off if they deserve to. It's all good.
The Terry sending off was my moment of clarity. When Lampard pulled one back, I didn't flinch. I knew we would hang on, and we did. I was confident heading into the Manchester City game that we would pull it out, and we did.
We still make jokes about 'Spursing it up', but they're jokes. We crack jokes about Spurs choking in ways that other teams can't quite match, because that's what they've done for most of their history. It has a different tone than it used to, though, at least from me. Even when I say that a choke is imminent, I believe that it's very, very possible that I'm wrong and Spurs will get the job done.
Tottenham might suck today. Even worse, they could get off to a blistering start before falling apart. There's an excellent chance that Spurs will lose, finish in fifth place, and go another season without Champions League football when it was firmly within their grasp.
But there's a difference between that scenario going down now and that scenario if it would have went down in 2010. We're a different team now. A loss is indicative of one bad performance, not a culture (or aura, if that's your thing) of being perpetual screw-ups. Even if we lose and end up not achieving our goals for this season, it's going to be okay.
Three years later, in the same situation as we were in against Chelsea back in 2010, I believe that we can win. But perhaps more importantly, I don't think that a loss is not a club-shattering thing. We'll be back next year in a fight for Champions League places, whether we finish third, fourth or fifth this season.
Spurs are not the gutless, spineless chokers that they used to be, and I believe in them.