Although perhaps over-emphasised to fill the international week vacuum, reports claim that Tottenham’s contract negotiations with Hugo Lloris and Harry Kane aren’t going as they might have hoped. Or, depending on who you believe, they aren’t really “going” at all: in each case, the club and player are supposedly some distance apart and there is no resolution imminent.
So, it begins.
Contract stand-offs always sound an alarm to supporters. They imagine tables being thumped, crockery being hurled at walls, and vital first-team players storming out of boardrooms while giving the manager and chairman the finger. When these kind of discussions stall or encounter turbulence the drum beat of a transfer-request sounds ominously in the distance.
This isn’t that. Or, at least, there is no real suggestion that either player has any desire to actually leave White Hart Lane, only that they feel underpaid.
And they probably are. Daniel Levy is notoriously frugal and has remained so while wages have rocked skywards. Lloris and Kane are, in their respective positions, among the very best players in the Premier League and, yet, are nowhere near being the best paid. This is an age in which even ordinary talent can bank six figures a week and players – and their representatives – are entitled to be rewarded at market value.
Their recent winless run aside, all has been going well at Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino has led a young squad on a charge up the table and, having finished third last season, they look capable of mounting some form of challenge again this year. But, rather than just Levy’s dusty wallet, now they are battling enforced financial realities which make sustaining progress a high-wire act.
In a way, this is nothing new. Because of the place Spurs have occupied in the food chain, they have often been left exposed to the vultures. When performances have peaked, stars have typically been stolen away. One of the reasons why they spent much of the last decade banging their head on the glass ceiling between fourth and fifth place is because, for them and other upper mid-level sides, it has been incredibly difficult to improve without becoming vulnerable. The moment a side flickers with promise, the fax machine rumbles and the predatory bids arrive.
Tottenham have been a bigger victim of that reality than any other modern top-flight team. Michael Carrick left at a crucial moment, Dimitar Berbatov was sold to Manchester United, and Luke Modric and Gareth Bale were, of course, plucked like low-hanging fruit by Real Madrid. In each case, it was galling: Levy followed his familiar “not for sale, not for sale, sold” pattern and the team was sent spiralling back into another transitional phase.
Now, the realities are more rigid. The skeleton of the club’s new 61,000 stadium is rising out of the ground and will soon loom over White Hart Lane. “Loom” is the right word, too, because – while it also signifies grand future ambition and a new day of economic liberty – it presents a significant threat to the current trajectory. The ground needs to be financed and built, but the team and the players need to be serviced and placated if Spurs are to move into their new home with any momentum. It’s a perilous balance.
For fans, not so much. Antagonised by the mention of wage-structures and financial responsibility, many perceive their club’s reluctance to pay its stars as an act of obstinance or evidence of a lack of ambition. In Tottenham’s case, however, this stand-off (or mild disagreement) is really a battle of two different sorts of aspiration: short and long-term. The bittersweet irony, is that Spurs have built a side worthy of playing in front of 61,000 fans, but have done so three or four years ahead of schedule. Superficially that’s good news, but it actually creates problems: with improvement, title challenges, and Champions League football comes a new flurry of phone calls from agents and background one-upmanship. Choose to extend one player’s contract and secure his future and, almost certainly, one of his teammates will want to know why he isn’t worth the same. Breaking a wage structure for the sake of appeasement is dangerous, as much because of what it can breed as the monetary strain it can cause. If a chairman makes an exception once, he’ll likely be compelled to make it three or four times 0r, worse, to sanction disruptive sales.
This will be a fascinating period in Spurs’ history. Terrifying, too, and probably occasionally maddening, but still interesting. If Levy is able to lead them into new White Hart Lane (The Starbucks/Uber Dome?) with their current side intact and their progress unchecked, it will comfortably be the most impressive spell of his chairmanship.