What has Daniel Levy built at Tottenham?

Words by Ben Gilbert Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 14, 2018
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Like a rain-lashed pitch, social media is a great leveller. Once you get beyond the near hysterical and fully threatening, there is footballing wit and eloquence to be found swirling in the vortex. “I worry that today is the day they killed our club”, “No other top three club in any league in the world behaves like we have”, “We helped you build this, Levy”, “There used to be a football club over there.” These statements have all accompanied a reliably turbulent six months for Tottenham Hotspur. Except one.

The final comment can be attributed to former boss Keith Burkinshaw, who resigned in the aftermath of 1984’s UEFA Cup win. What followed – the Irving Scholar era, a dalliance with mostly everything except sporting success, financial oblivion – highlights an underlying, creeping truth. In April, shortly after ending their Chelsea hex with an ecstatic 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge, Spurs revealed record revenue of £300m as work continued on their new stadium. They then announced that season tickets at the new White Hart Lane would rise by up to 70%.

The news was met with widespread dismay. Supporters feel “disgusted, betrayed, exploited”, said Martin Cloake, co-chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust (THST), a view shared by Alan Fisher, author of A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur. “It comes to something when your faith is challenged not from within but by the object of your devotion,” he commented.

A Spurs fan for more than 35 years, I have a personal stake in all this. I saw wonders. Against the odds, my father and I watched us lose to Coventry City and then beat Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup Final. I watched Hoddle, Gazza and King come of age. I saw Maradona (and Timothée Atouba) in a Spurs shirt. I drunkenly confronted the defected/defective Sol Campbell on a night out in the Tate Modern. I saw Gareth Bale poleaxe the chain-smoking Inter tifosi. I saw my club reborn.

A member since 2000, I also saw my position on the season ticket waiting list tick down in anticipation of the new stadium opening and watched amazed as the club overlooked anyone unwilling to be strong-armed into a season at Wembley, their dead-eyed desire to fill the venue even extending to my two-year-old son.

On the pitch, these remain rarefied times. Mauricio Pochettino’s team have begun the new campaign brightly, beating Manchester United at Old Trafford and drawing Barcelona in the Champions League. However, off the pitch, there is enduring disquiet at chairman Daniel Levy’s financial model. This sense of marginalisation has been heightened by a barren transfer window and delays to the new stadium.

Few football fans have travelled to Wembley quite so grumpily as the Spurs supporters who attended August’s Premier League game against Fulham. But can the current phase of the team’s history really be deemed as anything other than a triumph? Once completed, the new stadium will house 62,062 supporters in a glass and steel sporting coliseum, the capital’s biggest to host London’s sole qualifier in the Champions League. Moreover, this promises additional regeneration to a perennially deprived area clearly emerging from 2011’s troubling riots.

As the THST confirm, fans have been priced out. Levy says the new stadium will “redefine sports and entertainment experiences”, involving many plush details that distance the club further from its roots, with every aspect of the build plugged into The Tottenham Experience and the seduction of big business. Premium areas feature heated seats, access to a cheese room and an all-glass tunnel, where the players can be observed like pre-race stallions. Elsewhere, fans can enjoy refreshments from the club’s in-house bakery and microbrewery.

But there is more to consider than the basic, if highfalutin, mechanics of the design. Famously, Levy has struck a deal with the NFL to stage matches and incorporated a single-tier stand for 17,500 fans to replicate Borussia Dortmund’s intimidating “yellow wall”. When delays to the new stadium were announced, the club seemed far more conscious of the impact on the NFL than the fans who had bought season tickets. Meanwhile, the new Park Lane already seems flawed, given the prominent 1882 section, supposedly to celebrate the club’s formation, where tickets cost £2,200. The spectre of Club Wembley looms.

“There are worries about all of this”, Cloake told Tifo. “The talk of ‘North London’s premier entertainment destination’, the ground share with the NFL, the emphasis on top end, corporate tickets. Fans get the realities of the modern game, but they want to be acknowledged, be part of the picture, not just a part of the product. There’s a strong feeling the board doesn’t really understand or appreciate the traditional fanbase, and a feeling among some that they actively want to get rid of it. People have been priced out, and that was avoidable,” he explained.

What’s the current view among fans? “There’s a strong sense of disenchantment because of the delays with the new stadium, the high ticket prices and a perception that the club doesn’t really communicate properly with the fans or care about them beyond as a source of income,” explained Cloake. He bemoans the handling of recent events as a “slow drip drip of bad news rather than the club appearing to level with its fans, fans who this time around have paid substantial amounts of money for something they have not had and don’t know when they will be getting.”

Ostensibly, Levy runs the club like a personal fiefdom, weighting matters in favour of ENIC, the company he part owns with billionaire Joe Lewis. The highest-paid chairman in British football has achieved remarkable economic results for Spurs, now among world football’s 10 richest clubs, and ENIC, charging the league’s highest season ticket prices despite a net spend of just £50m during Pochettino’s reign and a wage bill closer to Burnley than Arsenal. But who does this benefit? Not the fans, it seems. What about the manager? The team?

It’s important to take a nuanced view on players challenging the club’s ambition but Spurs have already dispensed with Kyle Walker’s undoubted skills. Rumours persist about Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld, who has been unable to agree a new deal despite being perhaps the league’s best defender. In May, Pochettino commanded his chairman to “be brave and take risks”. Levy reacted by reportedly offering £3m plus Josh Onomah for Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish in an elongated and familiar pursuit, played out most laughably in 2016 with a £12m bid for Wilfried Zaha.

Cloake continues: “The issues this time are about why the manager said we needed to do our business early and then we didn’t, and also whether it’s really plausible that, alone among every club in all of Europe’s top five leagues, Spurs couldn’t identify and secure a single player that could improve the squad. Part of the new stadium sell has always been that it would enable Spurs to compete in fees and wages, so with the huge price rises for tickets, questions will obviously be asked.”

Pochettino, who has clearly excelled, was shaking hands with the UK director of Audi at the Spurs training ground when he might have been welcoming new players and felt compelled to apologise to fans when the window shut. Meanwhile, the club unveiled their “official timing partner”, IWC Schaffhaus, two days after delays at the new stadium emerged, praising their “precision engineering” and “meticulous attention to detail”. The first time Tottenham fans witness their new stadium is expected to be via the FIFA 19 video game.

This has, understandably, left many to wonder: Does Levy really care about anything other than his top line? Does he care about Tottenham Hotspur? How could he so aggressively pursue a move to Stratford that threated the club’s very identity? Does he care about the area? Why has he created, to quote local MP David Lammy, “an ivory tower inaccessible to the very people who have helped to make the club what it is today”? Why has he built a US-inspired pleasuredome designed for maximum matchday expenditure, bending fan rituals to his will at the expense of existing businesses? Does he care about the team? Then why sign Louis Saha and Ryan Nelson in 2012 with the team so close to claiming their first Premier League title? Why fail to invest in the best Spurs side for 30 years?

Or is he simply fulfilling Burkinshaw’s prediction and, ultimately, reframing the cultural identity of what it is to be a football supporter, a process triggered by the 1992 formation of the Premier League? “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory,” said former Spurs captain Danny Blanchflower. No longer. It’s about wall-to-wall matches, multiple TV subscriptions, inane marketing inventions like the UEFA Nations League and the promise of borderless superbrand clubs competing across continents. On social media, Blanchflower’s famous phrase has been endlessly modded to reflect Levy’s mindset. “The game is about cheese”, observes one. “The game is about profit”, notes another. Where is the glory in that?

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