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The death and birth of Tottenham Hotspur: Chapter XI

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FC Hotspur faces Tottenham Hotspur for the first time.

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September, 2022

"So, why did you want to have lunch with me?" Ledley King had, for a laugh, decided to take Donald Trump up on his offer the day before FC Hotspur faced the association football arm of Sporting Tottenham Hotspur.

"Well, I'm quite impressed with the way you've managed to build up that little community team," said Trump, "I know our business relationship didn't end in the friendliest fashion, but I'm willing to call you walking out on us water under the bridge." King successfully held back laughter.

"I think we can help each other," Trump continued. "Peter's told me that you guys could benefit from taking some of our young players on loan. You already sign a lot of the players we let go, so I'm sure it would help you out a lot to get some of our guys that are good enough for us to actually give contracts to."

"I'm sure we could, but I know that's not why you invited me out," King replied. "What do you think we have to offer Tottenham Hotspur, besides playing time for kids?"

"Oh come on Ledley, you're not stupid. And you're a businessman in your own right now. You know exactly how you can help us."

"Why don't you tell me anyway."

"You know, community outreach stuff. Joint charity events, cross-promotion, our merchandise in your store, a preseason game. Those kinds of things. We're not enemies, we should be allies. We can help each other."

Trump wasn't wrong, but King didn't see football or business the same way. "I know that we'd benefit, but I'm not going to let FC Hotspur get turned into a marketing scheme for you. You want to make it look like you support the small local club and get praised for it, and at the same time, get us to speak to all the disillusioned supporters who think the game has lost its way and give them permission to give their money to Sporting. I'm not going to do that."

"Come on Ledley, think about this," Trump replied in his signature arrogant whine. "Don't you want to do what's best for your organization, to give them the best chance of succeeding?"

"We exist to be an alternative," King replied. "It's not that I hate Tottenham Hotspur, or that I think there's a right and a wrong way for sport to operate. But there has to be more than one way. If we're not different from you, and separate from you, then we have no reason to exist."

"Look, I just wanted to do you a favor. If you don't want to take it, and you want to toil away, never getting anywhere, it's no skin off my back," said Trump.

And in that moment, the usually reserved and level-headed King started to feel a bit more like his much more passionate and outburst-prone partner Ryan Mason. He stood up.

"Don, you're a f--king parasite."

King put a £20 note on the table and left.

★★★

Mason had trouble sleeping the night before his team was to take the pitch at StubHub Stadium at White Hart Lane. At 6 a.m., he gave up on trying to get to bed, walked to his back porch with a small step-ladder and jumped up onto his roof. From there, he could watch the sun rise over Tottenham Hotspur's new stadium. He hated it. And for the first time on this Saturday, he'd be stepping inside it.

He wondered if this game held any significance for Spurs' players. He still talked to Harry Kane, but never about football. There was never any resolution between them not to talk about work, but they had an understanding that it wasn't something either of them wanted to discuss. They talked about music, movies, their wives, their families, but Ryan had no idea how Harry felt about the match.

And what about his teammates, especially the ones released by Spurs? Were they excited? Angry? Afraid? He tried to handle training over the last week looking at this match like it was any other against a top side, talking about Tottenham Hotspur in emotionless, robotic terms. He didn't know if he should bring it up before the match, if the boys would fight harder if he told them this was a game about showing up a team that didn't believe in their ability.

Most of all, he had to figure out how to show strength and conviction. Because deep down, Ryan Mason was terrified.

★★★

No one said a word at King Park. All of the players, coaches and staff sat silent, waiting for the bus to arrive for the short trip to the infamously named StubHub Stadium at White Hart Lane. No one spoke on the bus either, and their silence continued as they stepped off the bus and walked into the dressing room. Some players looked scared, some excited and some emotionless, but none of them had anything to say.

After all, there wasn't much to say. Every player who would take the pitch to face Tottenham Hotspur knew that this was the biggest match of their professional lives. They also knew that their best performance wouldn't be enough for a victory. They'd need to play the game of their lives, plus catch Spurs on a bad day or get some lucky bounces. Mason didn't have to make his players understand the reality of their situation. They understood perfectly.

So what, exactly, was there for Mason to say at all? Ultimately, he didn't know, and if the silence was bad for anyone, it was him.

"Should I tell them to just enjoy this match because they'll never have another one like it? Do I pump them up and tell them to make it a nasty match? Do I even have an inspiring speech in me? Do I need one?" Mason couldn't stop thinking about what he was supposed to say in this situation. These were the European Champions. They'd beaten Barcelona. Their reserve team would have no problem winning promotion from the Championship, much less League Two.

Some of his teammates had talked their way into believing that they belonged on the same field as Spurs, especially the ones who hadn't ever played for them, but Mason knew better. He had been on the same field as these players, and they were better than him. There was no mystery. He could not surprise them. He knew and they knew that he got his shot and couldn't hack it.

But in that moment, he decided to lie. As Mason walked up in front of his team and looked up at him, he only uttered one sentence.

"Show them you belong on that pitch."

★★★

Spurs' superstars didn't play. The FC Hotspur players didn't get a chance to lock eyes or shake hands with the likes of Kane, Morgan Schneiderlin, Emerson Hyndman or Jordan Morris, who were all sitting in the stands. Instead, standing across from them were the reserve and academy players that would soon find more opportunities to play at lower-tier Premier League and Championship sides. Mauricio Pochettino had no reason to treat the game like an important local derby. It was just an early League Cup match against a fourth-tier side.

This provided an instant boost of confidence to the likes of Michael Woodburn, Kenny McEvoy, Shaq Coulthirst and Grant Ward. Maybe they couldn't play with the European Champions, but they could play with these guys. They'd proven it. Maybe not consistently, but they'd outplayed players like the Spurs' second unit before, at one point in their careers.

Playing two up top away to a Premier League side was a risk, but Mason decided that he couldn't justify leaving one of his top players -- and one of the ones that would be motivated to perform against the club that released them as well -- on the bench. As emotionally unprepared as he was for this match, he'd have to turn in a spectacular midfield performance to make up for his decision.

And for a while, that decision looked like a smart one. Once kickoff happened, Mason didn't have any brainpower left for fear. He settled into the game, taking away space for Spurs to move into, spraying the ball down the flanks for his wingers to run into when he got it. Spurs struggled to establish their predicted dominance.

FC Hotspur created a great chance for Coulthirst from inside the box just eight minutes in. Saved. Woodburn took a rip from 20 yards four minutes later. Inches wide. Dominic Ball got his head to a corner in the 20th minute and directed it on target. Cleared off the line.

The underdogs' confidence didn't grow with each successive chance, but diminished. They started to wonder if their big opportunity had passed. Spurs' started to get more and more possession, with FC Hotspur struggling to win the ball back and launch counters. They camped in their attacking half. And in first half stoppage time, a shot by Andre Dozzell took a double deflection off two FC Hotspur defenders, beat goalkeeper Jonathan Miles and dribbled into the back of the net to give Spurs a 1-0 lead just before halftime.

Mason covered his face. The other FC Hotspur players put their heads down like they'd just conceded in the 90th minute, not the 45th. The cheer from the Tottenham fans was less of a roar and more of a golf clap. Dozzell didn't celebrate much, and just gave a couple of his teammates high fives before jogging back to the center circle. The referee blew for halftime seconds after kickoff.

FC Hotspur looked to Mason for guidance in the dressing room, but he didn't have any. In that moment, the problem with having a player-manager became immediately apparent. Mason, on the pitch for the goal and therefore, some portion at fault for it, didn't have the right words to say. "It's just one goal, we were the better side in that half, I know we can score one and get back in this match," Mason said to his team, but with a detectable amount of insincerity. He was just as devastated by the goal as they were.

And with that, there was no way back for FC Hotspur. Dozzell scored again in the second half, as did Ryan Gauld. Jack Grealish came off the bench to add a fourth. With each goal, the Tottenham faithful applauded politely. The away fans sang that they loved their team in response to the first goal, couldn't find the energy to do it after the second half goals, but then realized how badly they were needed when the scoreboard showed 4-0 at full time.

The FC Hotspur fans sang for each one of the former Spurs on the pitch for them. "We will never turn our backs on you, RYAN MASON! We will never turn our backs on you, SHAQ COULTHIRST," and so on, until they'd named them all.

At the final whistle, the FC Hotspur players went to applaud their supporters, and they were followed. Harry Kane, dressed in a suit, walked down onto the pitch. Just after the FCHT players had turned around and started walking towards the tunnel, Kane walked to where they'd been standing, in front of their supporters, and he applauded them as well. And in turn, the Tottenham supporters cheered too, though it wasn't obvious whether it was for their fellow fans in the away end or for Kane. The FC Hotspur players turned around, confused, and proceeded to walk down the tunnel once they decided they wouldn't be able to figure out what was going on.

Ledley King left the second the final whistle blew and witnessed none of it. Peter Crouch had no idea what to make of it. Donald Trump, Aubrey Graham, Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik couldn't be bothered to attend the match at all.

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