It was a very different thing to be a Tottenham Hotspur supporter back in 2014. Spurs had gotten a taste of Champions League football a couple of seasons prior, but due to a variety of circumstances, including Chelsea beating Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, had never gotten back there. It’d had been all Europa League since those glory, glory European nights at the San Siro and White Hart Lane in 2012. That 2013-14 season was supposed to be the year Spurs finally got over the hump, with Gareth Bale still at the peak of his powers and Tottenham playing under a proper Champions League-winning manager.
The enduring image from that campaign was this screencap of... well, let’s call it a “generously bearded” young Tottenham fan outside White Hart Lane early in the season, declaring to anyone who could see (and it turned out to be a lot) that “top four’s our everything.”
I don’t recall the context in which that screencap was taken, but it was no doubt earnestly delivered. Unfortunately, and with all sincere apologies to our bearded buddy, this image quickly got memed into infamy, especially by fans of Arsenal and other top clubs who turned Neckbeard McTottenpants here into the very embodiment of Spursy hubris.
You see, Tottenham were not a Champions League club. They were the also-rans, the “nearly club,” Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. Oh, they could “put the pressure on,” but the idea that Spurs would celebrate just getting top four was a genuine source of derision to fans of the clubs that ACTUALLY made top four. And yet! Spurs fans really did manage their expectations in those years to simply qualify for the Champions League because, with a new stadium still in the planning process and a wage bill miles behind the likes of the Manchesters, City, Liverpool, and Arsenal, Spurs were desperate for any seat at the table to prove that they really could be a so-called “big club.”
That didn’t happen in 2013-14. Spurs sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, went off the rails, and finished sixth. Along the way, that early unbridled enthusiasm quickly turned to poor form, resigned disappointment, an Andre Villas-Boas pink slip, and a couple of increasingly hallucinogenic final months under Tim Sherwood.
But our friend Neckbeard endured. You still see that image popping up every so often, mostly now used by Spurs supporters trying for a little ironic banter. That’s probably why the image took on a new meaning, for me at least, this season.
Spurs have been to the mountaintop, or at least within spitting distance of it, since ol’ Necky thrust his finger to the heavens on camera. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs finished in the top four in four consecutive seasons, including finishing second behind Chelsea in 2017. Along the way, they built and opened a state of the art new stadium, played in a Champions League final, and established themselves as a genuine destination club, even within the context of a league saturated with petrobucks and sovereign wealth fund investment. Their backslide over the past few seasons has been difficult to endure, for sure, and ironically despite all of their investment, Spurs seemingly found themselves right back where they were back in 2013-14 — on the outside, looking in.
I’ve thought about that image a lot over the past six months. You’d be hard pressed to say that Tottenham have anything close to the most talented team in the league, but watching this squad regain their belief in themselves under Antonio Conte has been magnificent to watch. Along the way, I’ve rediscovered my affection for Tottenham Hotspur, something which had taken a beating under Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo. It’s a tough thing, watching players seemingly go through the motions under a manager they don’t respect and a system that they don’t respond to. Writing about Tottenham Hotspur began feeling like a job, rather than a passion project.
Conte’s schtick is tiresome, as his his constant angling to bolt out the door at the earliest possible moment, but his enthusiasm for football is positively infectious. He connected with the players in a way I haven’t seen since Mauricio Pochettino, even though the styles are completely different. As this team grew and improved, so did my appreciation for it grow, along with the the players, and for football in general.
Think about it — back in February, fivethirtyeight.com gave Spurs a 20% chance of finishing fourth place. They smashed through those odds like a Harry Kane penalty kick. They were the only side in the Premier League not to lose to either Manchester City or Liverpool this season, taking six points from this year’s league champions. Son Heung-Min emerged from Harry Kane’s shadow to lead Tottenham — and all of football — with 23 goals this season, and none from the penalty spot. Conte took a notoriously creaky Spurs back line, added in Cristian Romero, and turned it into one of the stoutest defenses in the league in the back half of the season. Juventus imports Dejan Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur revitalized a Spurs offense that was already decently good, and made them great.
Nobody thought Tottenham could finish top four. But Conte did. The Spurs players did with time. And eventually, Spurs drew Liverpool away, ran Arsenal out of the building on a rail, and even the most dour of Spurs fans, doom-scrolling through social media, began to wonder.
Top four is not a trophy. Spurs’ rivals will be emphatically clear on that point. But for this particular squad, coming from so far behind to finish... dare I say it... comfortably? is the moment where Spurs finally realized their potential. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less nervous about a Spurs team’s ability to see out a match than I did ahead of Sunday’s final game against Norwich at Carrow Road. This was not the Spursy sides of old — this Tottenham played with the loose freedom of a team that believed in itself and what it could do.
With the added prestige of Champions League football next season (along with the money to go with it), Spurs have the wind at their backs, a motivated manager, and an incredible opportunity to push even further and become something really, truly special.
This result was important because of where Spurs started, how they finished, and the immense promise of what they can yet do. You saw it etched in jubilation on Sonny’s face after his second goal, in Conte’s frantic sideline celebrations, and in the songs of the traveling Spurs supporters. Spurs have finished top four before. But this one feels different. It means more. It’s not a continuation of the past, but the start of a new journey that could be positively transformational for the club. It’s the culmination of a special season, one that I will remember fondly for a long time.
And Neckbeard McTottenpants? Well, he finally gets his redemption story as well, along with a new set of superpowers. Because this season, he was right. Top four was Tottenham Hotspur’s everything. And this year, it meant even more to see it realized.