How could the pre-match ritual of a night in the Marriott before a big London fixture go so terribly wrong for Tottenham? Beat West Ham the following day, and Arsenal could not overake them in the race for the last of the Champions League spots. After tucking in to a lasagne, food poisoning overcame most of the squad, and their chances of even playing the game looked doubtful. Upset in stomach and spirit, they took the field and a Yossi Benayoun strike with ten minutes left in the match consigned them to defeat. Arsenal snatched fourth.
How different things might have been in the team had just eaten anywhere else that night…
May 6 2006 — The squad assembles at the Marriott hotel. As they move to the restaurant for dinner, Edgar Davids stops to address the team. “Do you know what?” he says, “It’s been so long since I had a good curry. Who fancies a chicken balti?” Martin Jol looks unsure, but Michael Carrick sways him: “Let’s live a little, boys. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I might get sold for a seemingly exorbitant sum to Manchester United before you know it!” Everyone laughs, and the curry is a triumph of team-building on the eve of the big game.
May 7 2006 — The team wake up and prepare as they have done for every other game of the year. West Ham, with little to play for in the league and an FA Cup final on the weekend, duly surrender to a 2-0 defeat, which comes through goals from Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe. In a buoyant press conference after the game, Martin Jol confuses those in attendance. “Wow, this is so great. I’m just relieved that we didn’t get food poisoning from that curry. Could you imagine? I’d hate to see the looks on the boys’ faces if something silly like that had ruined everything.”
May 17 2006 — Tottenham announce the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov, but there’s further good news when Michael Carrick declares that he would like to stay at the club, since he can fulfil his ambition of Champions League football at White Hart Lane.
July 2006 — With the promise of extra Champions League money, Spurs spend again. This time the man in is Fernando Torres, signing for an initial £20m. Torres says “I was interested in Liverpool but they said they needed to save up for a year to afford me, and now Spurs are in the big four and have silly money to throw around I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?”
One man leaving the Premiership is Arsenal’s Thierry Henry. After months of deliberation, the prospect of a year without Champions League football proves unbearable, and Arsenal pocket £30m from Barcelona. Arsene Wenger arranges that the money be put in a savings account until he has found the twenty most promising 16 year old footballers from around the world and signed them.
August 2006: Finding himself increasingly isolated with Torres and Berbatov striking an instant rapport with each other and the fans, and Defoe reveling in his role as super sub, Keane hands in a transfer request the week before transfer deadline day. “Mister Tottenham files for divorce!” graces the back page of the Sun.
Benitez spies a bargain, snapping up Keane for £6m on deadline day and salivates at the “big man-little man” partnership he could forge with Peter Crouch. Keane immediately repays the faith of Benitez, latching on to 3 Crouch flick-ons and nod-downs for a debut hat trick at Old Trafford. “I didn’t realise how good he was,” noted Benitez, “but me and Keano could be made for each other.” Keane agrees, telling the press he’ll share his man-of-the-match champagne with Benitez over dinner at his house that evening, and states his belief that “I couldn’t take Jol seriously with his comical carefree Dutch ways. I think the Spanish accent will get the best out of me.”
May 2007: Jol wins the title on the final day for Tottenham, cementing his place in the fans hearts. Berbatov pledges his future to Tottenham, claiming “This is even better than I imagine playing for Manchester United would probably feel. Ronaldo is a great player but with Torres by my side I never get frustrated with my team mates and have no need to sulk for long periods of time.”
Reflecting on their quarter final exit in the Champions League to Real Madrid, Jol says it is unreasonable to expect them to compete with Europe’s top four teams and the resources at their disposal. Daniel Levy shocks fans and the media by sacking Jol, reasoning that “the aim for this season was to break into Europe’s Big Four and gain membership to the G14, which is the future of elite European football. This year we have only made the top eight and we need a coach with a proven track record. Ultimately, we want to be like Real Madrid.”
June 2007: Jol is replaced with Fabio Capello, who is sacked by Real Madrid after failing to add the Champions League to his La Liga title after Keane’s late double brought Benitez his first major trophy. Capello says “Making Spurs Champions of Europe will be my final challenge in football before I retire, unless I get offered a ridiculous salary by a national football association desperate for credibility after a hugely botched appointment and humiliating failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.”
Beckham joins Spurs on a free transfer and is made captain after Ledley King signs for Milan. Ancelotti sees him as the natural heir to Maldini, and having played every minute of every game in the 2006-7 season Milan have high hopes that he will play into his late 30s.
September 2007 — Arsenal, having endured a slow and largely unsuccessful period of rebuilding, finally decide that Arsene Wenger is no longer the man to manage the side. He leaves with the respect of all Arsenal fans, who reluctantly feel a change is required. The replacement is Juande Ramos. His arrival coincides with the surge in form of Wenger’s youngsters, inspired particularly by a core of Spanish-speaking players led by Fabregas, Almunia and Vela.
Jose Mourinho battles manfully on at Chelsea despite suspicions that Roman Abramovich has been trying to make decisions on footballing matters. “There’ve been times when I thought about resigning,” he admits, “But now my opponents are Capello, Ferguson, Ramos and Benitez, how can I miss this season?”
May 2008 — The season goes down to the final weekend, with five teams mathematically capable of winning the title. Chelsea are held by relegation-threatened Bolton, and it is Mourinho’s last game in charge. Arsenal too play out a frustrating draw with West Ham, but their eventual third place with a young team bolstered by the big name signings of David Bentley and Yaya Toure in January is heralded as a turning point in the club’s fortunes. “There was all this money just lying around,” Ramos says to an interpreter, “and when I asked Peter Hill-Wood he said it was Arsene’s rainy day fund. So I asked if I could spend it and he thought about it and said ‘Why not?’“. The fixture of the day sees Keane strike twice against his former employers as Liverpool push into contention for the Premiership title at Spurs’ expense. Capello’s Spurs side, looking to repeat the bonding session of 2006, go out for a curry the night before the game, and most players spend the night vomiting and unable to play to their potential the following day. As Keane is busy expressing his delight in one interview, he is interrupted, by news that Manchester United have found a way through Wigan, and thereby regain their Premiership crown.
June 2008 — The English FA, having kept the manager’s job open for several months following Steve McClaren’s failure, offer the post to Martin Jol.
November 2010 — Martin Jol is sacked from England manager’s role after a failure to qualify for South Africa. In their weekly column, two writers ponder what might have been had Spurs’ players not got food-poisoning on that fateful day in May 2008. It’s messed up.
Mark is one of the founders of www.sportwithoutspin.com. This week they’ve been working out the origins of those ridiculous Nicklas Bendtner comments came from, wondering how it took the press so long to link Hiddink to a Russian player despite having no intention of staying long enough to sign players, and being wowed by Madin Mohammed, who by our reckoning is at least the seventh person to be called the new Zidane…