PL25: Lasagna (2005/06)

The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. Tottenham Hotspur were going great guns in the 2005/06 season under Martin Jol, and headed into the final game knowing a win would guarantee Champions League qualification. Then a taste of Italy ruined their chances of taking a place at Europe’s top table.

After the disastrous Christian Gross experiment of ’97 Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar and his successor Daniel Levy went back to basics for the following six seasons, employing British managers with experience of managing in England’s top league. The controversial appointment of George Graham brought three seasons of mid-table consolidation, as well as a league cup, a welcome relief compared to the relegation scrap endured under Gross. In 2001, Graham was relieved of his duties for breach of contract and Sugar went looking for the perfect candidate – who else but Tottenham legend Glenn Hoddle? The former Spurs and Monaco playmaker had been out of work since conflating his distain for disabled people with his belief of a man in the sky, but his work on the pitch with England had earned him a legion of admirers. Once the heat died down he seemed the obvious choice, and fans were excited to see a more expansive, attacking Spurs side after the dour defensiveness of Graham’s reign. As it happened, Hoddle’s spell was underwhelming – another two midtable finishes and a League Cup final were hardly the leaps of progress many expected at White Hart Lane, and after a poor start to the 2003/04 season Hoddle was sacked and David Pleat was wheeled out of his cupboard to take charge for the season. Levy decided it was time to turn continental again, and appointed Jacques Santini as manager, along with Dynamite Dane Frank Arnesen as Sporting Director, and Martin Jol as Assistant Manager. Santini had recently left his post as manager of the France national team after a poor showing at Euro 2004, though had built a strong reputation in his home country after spells in charge of Lille and Lyon. He lasted twelve games at White Hart Lane. A 3-2 home loss to Charlton Athletic was the final straw, and Jol was named as his replacement. The Dutchman had built his reputation in the lower reaches of the Eredivisie, and Arnesen had earmarked him as a talented up-and-coming coach. His spells at West Brom and Coventry in the early 80s also meant that Jol was at least slightly familiar with the English game, however much it had moved on in the intervening years. Jol guided Spurs to 9th, a success given the disarray he inherited, and ahead of the following season Levy was buoyed by the prospect of real progress.

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Jol laid down his mission statement in the summer transfer window recruiting an array of talented youngsters to bolster his squad, with Tom Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon, Wayne Routledge, Teemu Tainio and Jermaine Jenas captured for a total of £12m, while international experience was added with the sensational capture of Edgar Davids on a free transfer. With Paul Robinson in goal, Ledley King and Michael Dawson in central defence, Michael Carrick anchoring the midfield and Jermain Defoe up front (alongside Robbie Keane), Spurs had an exciting spine of English players aged 25 or under, and their new additions would only enhance the options available further. Suddenly, they looked a force. Comparative to previous seasons, they flew out of the traps. Back-to-back wins away at Portsmouth and home to Middlesbrough gave Spurs the perfect start to the season, and despite going the next four games without a win, Spurs were sat in third and enjoying their best ever start to a Premier League season by the end of October. Another excellent run followed, losing only twice in ten games, to leave Spurs sitting in the heights of fourth heading into 2006, and crucially opening up a six point gap from rivals Arsenal. A sticky patch was always bound to arrive, and conceding crucial late goals during their next eight matches would allow Arsenal to close in on their North London neighbours. First, Carlos Bocanegra headed a winner for Fulham at Craven Cottage, then Daryl Murphy’s 89th minute equaliser for Sunderland snatched two points away from Jol’s side. Finally William Gallas, who would go on to represent both Arsenal and Tottenham, headed a stoppage time winner for Chelsea in another London derby, to leave Spurs with nine points from eight games – back to mid-table form. The defeat at Stamford Bridge allowed Arsenal to close the gap to two points, with a crucial derby on the horizon in April. Four wins in their next five fixtures left Tottenham four points clear heading into the final month of the season. Defeat at home to Manchester United looked to hand the intiative to Arsenal, as they closed the gap to one point ahead of the derby, but Spurs were minutes away from securing Champions League qualification at Highbury. Robbie Keane had given the visitors the lead, before Thierry Henry equalised six minutes from time to keep Arsenal in the hunt. Jol knew two more wins were all his side needed, and Lennon’s solitary goal at home to Bolton put the finishing line in sight. If they could win at Upton Park on the final day, against a West Ham side safe from relegation and looking forward to the FA Cup final, then a Champions League place was theirs.

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The night before the game the Tottenham Hotspur team checked into the Marriott West India Quay in buoyant mood, and settled down to a slap-up dinner of lasagna and spaghetti bolognese.  With the carb-loading finished and bellies full, the Spurs’ players headed up to bed for an early night in preparation of making history the following afternoon. It had been ten years since Tottenham had finished above Arsenal in the Premier League, and denying them a place in the Champions League at the end of their neighbours’ last season at Highbury would be the sweetest way to end the season, and would leave Gooners across London feeling sick. But in the early hours of Sunday 7th May something was stirring or, rather, churning – mainly the stomachs of half of Tottenham’s first team. Davids, Tainio, Carrick, Dawson, Lennon and Keane were all being violently sick. Their faces pale, and barely able to stand, the chances of any of them being fit to play against West Ham were slim. Suddenly confidence, like the colour in the stricken players faces, drained. Levy took decisive action, phoning Premier League Chairman Richard Scudamore and enquiring about a potential postponement.  The Spurs supremo was told in no uncertain terms that wouldn’t be happening, and should Spurs fail to play in the fixture they would be subject to a points deduction. All six players were named in the starting lineup, more in the hope that adrenaline would push them over the line that anything else, but Jol’s pre-match team talk was regularly interrupted by the sound of one of his first team yakking up. Five minutes into the final day, Arsenal took the lead at home to Wigan, and worse was to follow as Carl Fletcher opened the scoring for West Ham. With his players clearly struggling there was little Jol could do but hope. Suddenly, a lifeline. Wigan had taken the lead at Highbury and, as it stood, Tottenham could afford to lose the game and still qualify. Better was to come – ten minutes before half-time Defoe, the former West Ham prodigy, equalised. News of an Arsenal goal did not dampen Spurs spirits, as the sides went in level at half-time Tottenham were still in fourth. It quickly became apparent to Jol that his players were dead on their feet. Michael Carrick, the worst effected, lasted until the 63rd minute, replaced with Andy Reid, by which time Teddy Sheringham had missed a penalty for West Ham. The home side were soon dominating the game, and as Arsenal took the lead again any hopes of Champions League qualification looked to be fading fast. Yossi Benayoun struck the decisive blow with ten minutes left, sidestepping Dawson and firing into the top corner. Jol and Spurs would have to settle for fifth. Suspecting foul play, Tottenham Hotspur requested a police investigation into the Marriott Hotel amid suspicions of food poisoning. The results came back negative, and after further medical tests at the club a bout of norovirus was pinned down as the culprit. The Lasagna was the innocent scapegoat.

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Tottenham would make fifth place their own over the course of the next decade, finishing just outside the top four on five occasions in ten years. In 2017 they finally finished above Arsenal. Jol remained at White Hart Lane until 2007, when a poor start to the season off the back of a £57.5m spending spree led to Levy removing him from the manager’s post. Juande Ramos was installed as his successor but lasted less than a year before Harry Redknapp and Niko Krancjar arrived at White Hart Lane. Jol went on to have mixed spells in charge of Hamburg, Ajax and Fulham, and left his most recent post at Egyptian side Al Ahly in 2016.

For the second season in a row Chelsea ran away with the Premier League title, finishing eight points ahead of Manchester United. Sunderland, West Brom and Birmingham were all condemned to relegation, as Portsmouth survived on the final day. West Ham would go on to lose the FA Cup final to Liverpool on penalties, despite leading in the dying moments. As Carl Fletcher prepared to come on and see out stoppage time his manager, Alan Pardew, whispered in his ear “I’ve just won you the FA Cup”. Seconds later Steven Gerrard would hit a rasping long range drive into the bottom corner to equalise. After the match Pardew may have suddenly realised how those Tottenham players felt on the day his team crushed their Champions League hopes.

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