My cat Thea has a wound on her side. It probably started in an altercation with one of the other cats in our household (we have several), and it’s at a place where she can turn her head and reach it with her tongue. She’s been compulsively licking it for a while now, and the wound has never had a chance to heal — there’s a big bald spot on her flank, red and angry.
It looks awful, but her obsessive cat nature means that Thea won’t leave it alone. It’s a constant reminder of damage, and without intervention, i.e. a “cone of shame” and likely physical separation from the other household animals, it won’t heal anytime soon.
The metaphor is a bit obvious, I know.
I can’t remember a time when the Tottenham Hotspur fan base has been so divided and angry. There are multiple factors over a long period of time that has led to this, of course, and the past 72 hours have brought to the foreground and laid bare not only the fierce passion that Spurs fans have for their club, but also how much Tottenham and football are inextricably connected to many supporters’ sense of identity.
The appointment and, it must be said, ultimately disastrous tenure of Jose Mourinho is the most visible manifestation of this, but there have been others. Go back a few years and the decision not to back Mauricio Pochettino and instead become the first Premier League club not to purchase a player for a calendar year was the first, setting the platform for what was to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic put an undue amount of stress on the club’s infrastructure, but Spurs’ decision to attempt to furlough club staff during the first shutdown went down like a lead balloon with supporters.
And then — the Super League. While you can make a cogent argument (and some, including myself, have) that Levy’s decision to join forces with the rest of the Big Six clubs as founding members of the breakaway competition was a very, very wrong decision made for what he believed was for the right reasons, it nonetheless put Levy on the wrong side of the issue with the vast majority of football fans, including Spurs fans. Levy and Tottenham were correctly pilloried from all corners, and while Spurs eventually made the decision to back out of their commitment along with the rest of the English contingent, in many ways the damage was already done, and was entirely self-inflicted.
Tottenham’s attempts to assuage concerns by doing good work in the community — opening up the stadium for the NHS as a food distribution and medical center during the pandemic, partnering with several charitable organizations over the past few years, etc. — has done little to stem the dissatisfaction. Levy has done himself and the club real harm over the past few years, and some of the damage may be too great for some supporters to bear. The small protests outside of the stadium yesterday before Ryan Mason’s first match as manager were but a small manifestation of that — those were just the fans who were motivated enough to do something about it. There are likely far, far more who have simply checked out and may never return.
The wounds at this club and within the fanbase are real. They are red and angry.
If there’s one thing that Levy has gotten right in the past week, however, it’s the appointment of Mason to serve as interim manager until the end of the season. He’s certainly not the most qualified person to take control of the team — that’s Chris Powell, head of youth development and an actual coach with real managerial experience. Even Ledley King, a genuine club legend and the only one of Mourinho’s assistants not to be fired on Monday, might have been a more logical choice for interim manager.
But what Mason brings to Spurs is the opportunity to come together. Say what you will about Ryan’s tenure as a first team player at Spurs (we certainly have!), he is Tottenham to his core. How many in the club’s history, aside from Ledley, can say that they have spent almost their entire life and career at one club? Mason’s path is compelling and heart-rending — a local lad who was a Spurs schoolboy and who rose through the ranks to the first team, only to suffer a tragic injury at Hull that cut his playing career short. Mauricio Pochettino gave him a chance to return to the club he loves as a neophyte coach with the academy in which he played, and he is now leading the first team onto the pitch as interim head coach.
It’s quite a story. There are few Spurs fans who can hand-wave this kind of thing away. Movies are made about this stuff.
And while Mason’s appointment is likely a calculated move by Levy — of course he’s aware of Ryan’s popularity within and without the club — it’s also a very good one. What Tottenham needs right now is something to hang their dreams on, a symbol of unity. What the fanbase needs right now is hope.
It would be a touch naive to suggest Mason is the metaphorical cone that we can put over the heads of Tottenham fandom to prevent licking this wound. What works for cats doesn’t work for humans, and the wounds in the fan base are ones that need to be actively examined and worked at, not ignored or distracted away. Even so, there is a big opportunity here now. Mourinho is gone. The Super League is dead. Levy remains, but is chastened, with his future somewhat uncertain. Righteous anger only gets you so far.
Mason can’t fix the club on his own — that isn’t fair to him. He’ll be in charge for a cup final and an additional six Premier League matches and then by all accounts he’ll return to the U18s and continue to work towards his coaching badges. What he can do, however, is give something, anything, for disaffected Spurs fans to reach for and embrace, even while we acknowledge that there is systemic damage inflicted that will take time to scab over. Symbols are important, even small ones.
There will be plenty of time to address issues, so long as we don’t let the wound become infected. Sometimes, though, the best way to heal is to let the wound get a little air first.