Tottenham’s Europa League tie against Olympique Lyonnais reacquainted the White Hart Lane club with a less pleasant side of European football. Since Spurs’ return to European competitions in 2006 under Martin Jol, on the pitch, the majority of the Tottenham matches have been played in a fiercely competitive but amicable and friendly manner. Even the Champions League games in 2010-11 were played within the spirit of the game, including three of the four epic encounters against the two Italian clubs from Milan. The exception was the San Siro match against AC Milan when former Arsenal player, Mathieu Flamini lunged two-footed at Vedran Corluka and the later incident involving the Milan captain, Gattuso, and Joe Jordan. Off the pitch, however, supporters have had to cope with incidents in both Spain and Italy during that period.
Some of he actions of Lyon players at White Hart Lane, however, were a throw back to the less pleasant events which were a regular feature of playing in Europe in the 1960s and ’70s.
Thursday’s match didn’t have the excess of violence that Bill Nicholson raged against after the two clubs’ first encounter in France in 1967. Jim Duggan’s The Glory of Spurs book recounts some of the events of that game as does the The Glory Glory Nights by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley. Duggan describes the sending off of Alan Mullery,
‘In an explosive incident against Lyon, Mullery was kicked in the face and knocked unconscious by Lyon player Andre Guy. As the Spurs players converged to help the stricken player, a full-scale free-for-all occurred that also included Lyon supporters who’d taken part in a pitch invasion. At the end of the melee, a cowardly bit of refereeing saw both aggressor and blood-spatted victim sent off.’
Cloake and Powley add further detail with the memories of Mullery who admitted to punching Guy after the incident. The trouble didn’t end on the pitch with a fight breaking out in the tunnel as the players went off at half-time. Mullery recalls,
‘He went off first, dashed around the corner and hid. He then pounced and laid into me. Bill Nicholson had to pull us apart……I’ve never experienced anything like it, and Bill Nicholson was furious….’
The Lyon game was followed in the early 1970s with the UEFA Cup ‘Battle of Bucharest’ and the Barcelona match in 1982 at Tottenham which one newspaper headline described as a ‘Bloodbath’.
Europa League – February, 2013
It may have been Valentine’s Day but Lyon showed no love for the niceties of the game at White Hart Lane. The two-legged nature of the most recent Europa League match may have changed the opposition’s approach to the game. The Lyon defenders were not averse to the over-robust tackle/foul when ensuring they stopped the progress of Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker but the visitors showed themselves to be a skilful team, capable of causing problems when going forward. In the second half, however, having fallen a goal behind to Gareth Bale’s free-kick special, they displayed a desire to get back into the game by whatever means necessary.Before the interval, the Portuguese referee had tended to wave play on but in the second half as Lyon players threw themselves to the ground at the slightest contact he was drawn into their web. The theatrical ‘diving’ of the Lyon players infuriated and frustrated Tottenham. Early in the second half, Kyle Walker was booked after one incident with Umtiti when it was questionable whether there had been contact. Brad Friedel was apoplectic with rage after a Lyon forward went down in the area with both players being spoken to by the referee.
Having drawn level, Lyon showed considerable threat but as the game progressed their focus became one of ensuring hey achieved the draw. Their theatricals continued with time wasting stretched to its optimum with every fall requiring lengthy attention and the summoning of the stretcher bearers. Once they had ambled, three-quarters of the way across White Hart Lane, as if out for a Sunday afternoon stroll, the player managed to struggle to his feet and was back playing in a matter of seconds. Such tactics along with the introduction of substitutes, designed to disrupt and infuriate were working a treat as the game passed into a mere three minutes of additional time.
It seems somewhat appropriate then, that both Tottenham goals came from free-kicks. And even more so, after Lyon having wasted so much time that the winner came in the final seconds of added time through Gareth Bale’s second of the night.
Welcome back to the real world of European football, Tottenham. It wasn’t all about free-flowing ,attacking football but about doing what was needed to secure a result. Tottenham can expect a hostile reception at Lyon next week and more of the same as Lyon do whatever will be necessary to progress to defeat Tottenham. It’ll not be about the ‘beautiful game’ but about progressing to the last-16. Spurs will need to show a steel, determination and application similar to that displayed in the Olympic Stadium in Rome against Lazio earlier in the season.