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Tottenham Hotspur book review: “One Step from Glory” by Alex Fynn & Martin Cloake

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Tottenham’s magical run to the Champions League final, in book form.

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Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur has had many “glory, glory nights” in European competition over the decades, but the 2018-19 season will be one that will live in the memories of Spurs fans for time immemorial. Tottenham’s improbable run from near elimination in the group stages all the way to the Champions League final in Madrid captured the imagination of the footballing world like few other campaigns have: it was a magical series of matches that included a draw against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, a VAR-assisted aggregate win over a Manchester City side that would go on to win the treble, and last but not certainly least Lucas Moura’s “Miracle of Amsterdam” goal against Ajax that sent them to Madrid.

While the final itself was by almost every metric a let-down (except to Liverpool supporters), the journey was the stuff that dreams are made of. This incredible Champions League campaign has now been chronicled in text by Martin Cloake and Alex Fynn in their new book One Step from Glory: The Story of Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League Campaign 2018/19, released on Wednesday, September 17.

Many Tottenham fans are familiar with Cloake, a noted author of several books on Spurs’ history and co-chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporter’s Trust — his last book, A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, was reviewed on Cartilage Free Captain in 2016. Fynn is a former advertising executive who has advised the Football Association on marketing issues for football clubs, and has written on both Spurs and Arsenal, including his book Arsénal: the Making of a Modern Superclub (Vision Sports Pub., 2016). Together, they have compiled a match-by-match accounting of Spurs’ Champions League campaign, starting with the opening match against Internazionale in Milan and culminating with the final at the Wanda Metropolitano.

One Step from Glory starts, unsurprisingly, with a brief summary of Tottenham’s history going back to the club’s founding in 1882 under a High Road streetlamp. This begins with an explanation of “the Tottenham Way” of high-tempo attractive football, proceeding through the era of Arthur Rowe’s “push-and-run” philosophy and the European heyday of Bill Nicholson, and even touches on the fallow years of the 1990s. Naturally, the emphasis is on Spurs’ participation in European competition, including the Cup Winners’ Cup title of 1963 and UEFA Cup titles of 1972 and 1984. There is also careful attention paid to Tottenham’s first ever Champions League campaign under Harry Redknapp in 2010-11, another surprising run that took Tottenham to the quarterfinals before they crashed out against Real Madrid.

The opening chapters are important context, setting the stage for the arrival of Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino from Southampton in 2014, and his transformation of the team into regular competitors in Europe. Pochettino gets his own chapter, detailing how he went about trying to change the culture at the club, his focus on developing young talent from within Tottenham’s academy, and catching lightning in a bottle in the emergence of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and the youthful core of Spurs’ first team.

All that is prelude to the start of the 2018-19 Champions League season, which is naturally and chronologically detailed, with each match having its own chapter. The chapters, from the group stage all the way to the final, use post-match reports from English newspapers The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, and The Independent as framing devices. These reports serve as blow-by-blow reports on what happened during the game, but also provide context from the football journalists who were in attendance to report on what was happening.

The book ends with two chapters that attempt to put the entire Champions League run into a broader context that touches on the crossroads that Tottenham now find themselves, both regarding the completion of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium but also the uncertain future of sport-as-business and how it appears to be leaving the working class fans who built it behind. Mauricio Pochettino’s future is also speculated upon, building on his pre-final comments about possibly leaving the club on a high had Spurs won the competition.

The irony of a book about the 2018-19 Champions League run is that it almost feels TOO recent. With the final taking place just three and a half months prior to the release of the book, the memories of that magical run are still fresh in the minds of the supporters. While there’s value to getting everything down while the memories are still fresh, One Step from Glory sometimes feels like you’re reading the newspaper.

There’s a reason for that. A not-insignificant part of the text is the verbatim reprinting of the aforementioned match reports by football journalists. In some ways this is a natural choice — who better to report on what happened than the professionals who were there and whose job it was to do so? On another level, it doesn’t always feel like there’s much new here — Tottenham supporters will be familiar with the match reports in the text as they almost certainly read them when they were released over the course of the season. Reading these reports again so soon after they happened makes it feel more like I’ve wandered out from the book and onto an archival page on the Telegraph’s website. A more personal recounting of the individual matches, or even a bespoke summary of the match action to a Guardian report, might have been preferable, with segments of the newspaper reports inserted for additional context.

That said, Cloake and Fynn wisely augment the reports at the beginning and end of each chapter with additional information. These often take the form of insights into fan opinion preceding each match, or anecdotes and stories taken from supporters who attended the matches. These are insightful and interesting additions to the nuts-and-bolts of the match action. It was interesting to get close accounts of fan mistreatment at the hands of Nou Camp security in Barcelona, for example, which wasn’t necessarily reported in the media, or anecdotes of interactions with visiting, rambunctious Dutch fans while Ajax was in town.

As much as the present sometimes intrudes as one reads the book in September of 2019, One Step from Glory is a book that is written for the future. Time passes, memory fades. As the years go by, some of the details currently seared into the brains of Tottenham supporters, whether they were in the stadia or watching along at home or in the pub, will begin to slip away. That is the value of a book such as this. One suspects that, while already a very good read, as a Spurs supporter this book will be even more enjoyable to re-read in ensuing years and decades.

For fans who will come to One Step from Glory years down the road it is a fine summary of one of the most exciting seasons in Tottenham’s history. It should be among the recommended texts for future Spurs fans who want a better understanding of the club’s history during the Pochettino era.

But for fans that were there, it is an indelible vessel for nostalgia. This book is a ship in a bottle, a fly trapped in amber, a collection of memories. It’s a means of reliving, even for a moment, that feeling you had when the third Lucas Moura goal went in the back of the net in Amsterdam, or the resigned frustration that fell like a wave after just 26 seconds in Madrid.

There are, especially in the book’s denouement, subtle references to the changing nature of football into a corporate behemoth and away from the past-time of the British proletariat worker class. These reflect the authors’ deeply-felt opinions but may not always directly speak to the concerns of readers who weren’t regulars in the Shelf during the 1970s and ‘80s. But this is a minor concern. The prose itself is tight and the context drawn from the stories and anecdotes sprinkled through the text are enough to keep readers engaged. Cloake in particular knows how to write from the perspective of a supporter, as is evident in his previous book A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur. His unique voice comes through clearly, and it is welcome.

This is a book that Spurs fans will want to own for themselves, to keep on the coffee table for when their football agnostic friends or United-loving grandchildren stop by, or on the bookshelf close to eye level. It’s a paperback that for true Spurs fans will eventually end up dog-eared and frayed from being picked up and leafed through in order to relive those special “glory, glory nights” of 2018-19. It’s a trip back in time, and there’s value in that kind of nostalgic recollection. I have no doubt that it will be a book that will be appreciated even more with the passage of years.


One Step from Glory: The Story of Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League Campaign 2018/19
Alex Flynn & Martin Cloake (© 2019 Pitch Publishing, released September 17, 2019)
ISBN 978-1-78531-598-5
224 pages; $14.75 (Amazon.com), £8.79 (Amazon.co.uk)

Postscript: I was provided a complimentary pre-release copy of this book by the publisher for purposes of review.