Why do we watch football?
I apologise for beginning with such a loaded question but how we answer it defines what we would call “success” for the teams we support.
At the top level, what defines “success” is ever-changing.
It used to be all about the silverware. A team who won titles and trophies was a successful team. There was tangible proof of a team that conquered all.
However, in recent years, we’ve seen the significance of trophies played down for intangible, symbolic success. For example, the infamous “top four trophy” and obsession with qualifying for the Champions League.
Tottenham Hotspur are a fine example of this in action.
They’re a team that has improved dramatically in the last four years and have frequently been labelled one of the best teams in the division, if not the best.
People have been so impressed by their football, their title challenges, and the way they’ve improved players that the fact that they haven’t won a trophy is rarely seen as a bad thing. For Tottenham, a club that’s not been among the trophies in the last two decades, this is a hugely successful period.
That context is important because it shapes the perception of them as a club. We give more leeway to teams for who we have little expectation for, as opposed to the Manchester Uniteds, Chelseas and Arsenals of the world, who always come with massive expectation regardless of what shape they’re in.
For a club like Tottenham, the progress they’re making and the potential of what they could become is what excites people.
It’s what prompts a writer such as Jonathan Wilson to claim in the Guardian that Spurs had done everything they could possibly do to be successful – and that if they can’t win anything, who else but the state-funded clubs can?
There is a contradiction here, wherein clubs who do win trophies – for example, Arsenal’s three recent FA Cups – are not as celebrated. It’s success, but it’s not good enough. There’s a standard they have to live up to that doesn’t exist for certain other clubs.
I totally get that. There’s a need to celebrate Spurs for what they have done, brought about by a weariness towards the lavish spending. Just as Leicester became the darlings of English football for a year, people want a team like Spurs to overcome the established order. More than that, there’s always an innate desire to see the underdogs win.
Hence, I believe that what defines success changes to suit that desire. Upcoming teams no longer need to win anything to be considered exciting teams because we’re forever enticed by the possibility, not the outcome.
This is also a result of greater financial reward trumping the so-called honour and glory of winning, say, the FA Cup.
For years, managers played up the importance of qualifying for the Champions League. The riches that comes with it enable them to attract the best talent in Europe. In doing so, they become a stronger team capable of challenging for the major honours.
Again, it’s all about progress and potential. It’s all about the process, not the outcome.
The number of teams who can win a Premier League or a Champions League is dwindling. Unless you are part of this exclusive club which sets a high bar for resources and standards, it’s unrealistic to expect to win these competitions. The chances of doing so are too small.
To that end, there has to be something else we can judge our teams on; either a tangible measurement from point A to B, or an intangible emotion.
We can measure a team’s progress in terms of points, league placing and goals. We can also measure it in how proud and joyful we feel as supporters.
As an Arsenal supporter, I want my team to win the Premier League, but where we are now, I would be infinitely happier with being an attractive, competent team again. Our league placing might not improve, but a season that demonstrates that to me would be a success in my mind.
When I watch football, I want to be entertained and satisfied that things are going in a positive direction. That’s not limited to just winning games and trophies, though the two are undoubtedly important.
Moreover, I want to have happy memories.
The joy of success is not found in the trophies, it’s in the memory. It’s looking back on a period and remembering what a fun time you had as a supporter.
I imagine that Spurs fans, regardless of how many trophies are won, will look back on this period with great fondness. They’ve gone from nationwide mockery to beating the likes of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, finishing above Arsenal in the league and having one of the world’s best strikers.
From that perspective, they’ve been successful – successful at enriching the experiences of its fanbase.
One could argue that those who downplay trophies are those who never win them.
And that is true. Typically, the ones who say they don’t need to win competitions are the ones who can’t win them. I should know, because Arsene Wenger became a master of doing that.
I truly feel, though, that it’s not a bad thing. Trophies are great, but they’re not the be-all-end-all of football. There are other successes worth celebrating.