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Spurs’ glorious Champions League failure is the collective memory that fans needed

Tottenham need a trophy soon, but as the new season approaches, last year’s epic takes on a new significance

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

We are well past the midpoint of football’s summer vacation, and it’s been an exciting one, with a few great tournaments and Spurs’ first signing in over a year. Before casting our full attention toward the arriving Premier League season and Tottenham’s substantial potential, it felt appropriate to think back one last time to last season and offer a small testament to what Spurs’ run in the Champions League meant to fans like me. The tournament was loaded with the potential to reward a great period in Tottenham history with the greatest club trophy of them all — and the wealth and reputation that follow it — and although Spurs failed to capture the ultimate prize, they still succeeded in giving supporters a collective memory to share for seasons to come. This is not an apology for a team that really does need to earn a trophy, but rather a celebration of how the UEFA campaign brought fans together around a shared epic. The run to the final distilled the Pochettino era (to date) into a single story for fans to tell and retell, the kind of memory that this team deserves.

Like all great football campaigns, it spanned the entire season. I was away at school for most of the tournament, and my recollection of much of it is fist pumping in class, cursing under my breath, or dodging out of work to see the last ten minutes of a game. I always found a way to follow along, even when victory was most improbable, because in the back of my mind lingered the thought — rooted in Tottenham’s ethos of imagination — that all of these last-ditch efforts might slowly start to amount to something. They did. On November 4, 2018, with half of the group stage games played, FiveThirtyEight estimated an 89% probability that Tottenham would be eliminated before the next round. Over the following three games, Spurs scored four times, all in the final 15 minutes, to cheat elimination. Merely qualifying for the following round was an accomplishment, and Spurs would be up against the wall for the remainder of the tournament.

Most of the campaign from that point on felt less like a budding epic and more like impending doom, but the long odds only heightened the sense of community among Spurs supporters, who would fret and revel together in front of TVs or hurriedly recap the week’s action during chance meetings on the street. A small community of Spurs supporters began to coalesce among my peers, slowly turning the congeniality of football fans into a more serious, lasting relationship. That was one of the great contributions of this Champions League campaign: it gave Spurs fans a central narrative to orbit, something the team has lacked even in its greatest moments over the past few years. Certainly, other runs of form had potential to give us similar stories, particularly the chance at the title in 2015-16 and the second-place season the year after, but these recent glances at glory dissipated before any meaningful reward was on the horizon.

Going into the second leg against Ajax, a similar feeling of hope slipping away was in the air: Spurs had managed last-ditch victories too many times already; Ajax was a new kind of threat; the score from the first leg was against Spurs. If Tottenham had lost that game, the season would still have been a success, but a more mundane one – another rung on the ladder that the club has been slowly climbing into a new era of renown and quality. Instead, the impossible happened to Tottenham, in a good way for once. Even the most optimistic, irrational fans were on the verge of admitting defeat when, in the waning seconds of a hard-fought comeback, Lucas Moura scored the goal which will define the season. It has already carved out a permanent home in my mind: as if by divine intervention, every single moving piece on the football pitch combined. Llorente’s accidental brilliance and Dele’s creative poke, as though both players concentrated their footballing styles into a single moment, were enough to place the ball at Lucas Moura’s feet where, with fractions of a second to spare, he rolled the ball past two onrushing Ajax players and their keeper. It was a moment for which Tottenham had been waiting for years, and as the ball finally nestled against the net, fans around the world erupted.

As it turns out, there would be no further glory. That moment of pure elation was as good as it would get for the team. For all of the talk of trophies and the correct assessment that Spurs need to win one sometime soon, we can’t forget how spectacular our second-place run was. I watched the Ajax game with two new friends who I’d met by watching Spurs together that year, and we were hugging and jumping with the joy and carelessness of people who have known each other their whole lives. It’s one of the best Spurs memories I have, and footage from around the world showed the same familiarity blossoming everywhere.

That goal meant something else, too: after not seeing my family in more than six months, I would get to watch Tottenham in the Champions League final with my dad. He and I left the pub on May 26 as disappointed as anybody, but it was a matter of days before I realized that the loss could not eclipse the moments that fans had created. By refusing to give up hope for an entire season of back-against-the-wall, desperate football, we created echoes of glory that ring as we begin another season with our sights set on the stars.