Go to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and the famous homilies greet you wherever you turn. ‘The game is about glory’, they tell you. And ‘audere est facere’.
Generous Spurs fans sitting through the football served up by Antonio Conte may have shaken their heads ruefully at those words that are now mere marketing slogans. Others may have scorned them as a sick joke while they watched adventurous players, hidebound by caution, become tentative plodders, the atmosphere flat, the team unable to control a game.
Jose Mourinho and Conte were serial winners and the Italian, finally dismissed on Sunday, may well be again. But neither was ever the right fit for Tottenham. It has been 62 years since their last league title and what has sustained them and maintained a scale of support not at all commensurate with their success has been an idea, a tradition, hope and identity.
Daniel Levy’s appointment of Antonio Conte was an attempt to replay the failed Mourinho gambit. He thought that a Serie A and Premier League winner would galvanise a talented squad. But his manager did not share his high opinion of the resources he inherited. Levy is famous for playing hardball but the prices he places on his players are not the same as value and Conte held some recent recruits in contempt.
Fans may have been placated by a trophy for a while. But most attempts to change a club’s culture will founder unless they are progressive, like their neighbours’ transition from George Graham to Arsene Wenger and Leeds’ embrace of Marcelo Bielsa – rather than reductive, such as Graham at Spurs and Mourinho at Manchester United.
When pragmatism fails, the fallout is more noxious than it is when an idealist comes a cropper. Because a pragmatist has forced us to compromise and we feel foolish for selling out our principles for something that has not worked.
Ultimately Conte had no constituency left, not the chairman he belittled, the players he blamed nor the fans he bored to tears. Cristian Stellini has a lot of pieces to pick up this week. He could start by reading some of the mottoes festooning the stadium and giving Spurs people what they want: audacity.
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