NO more ups and downs, he’d said. A stable team, he’d promised. No more of that Spursiness. Not on Antonio Conte’s watch.
“But, mate,” we’d all said, “this is Spurs. Don’t you remember Spurs?”
And so it came to pass. On Conte’s opening night, Tottenham were 3-0 up and cruising after half an hour but pegged back to 3-2, riddled with errors and reduced to ten men by the hour mark.
Conte is a serious operator, not a song-and-dance man.
But this is no country for straightforward, no-nonsense men. This is the nation’s favourite footballing cabaret.
And even in a low-key fixture in the third-tier Europa Conference League, here they were adding to the gaiety of the nation – dicing with disaster, flirting outrageously with embarrassment, yet holding on to sneak a win.
Conte already knew he had a serious job on his hands after agreeing to replace Nuno Esprito Santo – he even mentioned it in his programme notes.
But the way his players almost tossed away a three-goal before the late let-off of two red cards for their Dutch opponents, would have left Conte wondering whether he had winced hard enough at the small print on the contract he’d just signed.
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After Conte had selected a strong side, and been handed a warm ovation from the faithful, goals from Son Heung-Min, Lucas Moura and Harry Kane had set him up for a comfortable evening.
Yet he spent much of the next hour fretting and fidgeting as Conte’s new charges showed him why Spurs had sacked two managers in little more than six months.
Conte was characteristically restless – straight into the dugout, no sitting upstairs for this low-grade Europa Conference League fixture to ease his way in.
And it was, arguably, Tottenham’s strongest available starting XI too – a far cry from the scratch side sent out to Arnhem by Nuno last month, which sparked open dissent from Harry Winks, never the mouthiest of players.
Conte’s Premier League title-winning 3-4-3 blueprint was stamped all over his first Spurs teamsheet.
And his programme notes contained a wonderful little barb, as he noted that while his new club boasts a ‘fantastic stadium and training ground’, he needed ‘to bring the team up the same level’.
He was not wrong but few managers walk straight through the door and lob in such a grenade.
When Conte was introduced to the White Hart Lane crowd, the rapturous reception was pretty much unanimous.
There was never such unflinching support for either of the other two former Chelsea bosses appointed here in the past decade – Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas.
But then Conte is a winner and Spurs need one of them. There was certainly no weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth for the departure of the unloved Nuno.
Son almost gave his new boss an instant lift-off when he rounded the keeper but had a shot cleared off the line by Riechedly Bazoer.
Still, there were early indications of the mess Conte had inherited – Ben Davies got away with a penalty-box trip on Nikolai Baden Frederkisen, who soon dragged a shot wide after Olivier Skipp mistimed a challenge.
When Maximilian Wittek leathered one into the side-netting you started to fear for Spurs – but on 14 minutes they were in front.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, very much a Conte sort of player, burst forward and fed Moura, who turned and had a shot pushed out by Markus Schubert.
Kane got a touch on the rebound and the loose ball fell to Son, who spanked it home.
Son hit the post shortly before Spurs added a second midway through the first half – Moura exchanging passes with Kane and advancing clear on goal, nutmegging Schubert.
The third was a smart move with a scruffy finish, Reguilon surging down the left, and a Davies cross-shot met by Kane, who claimed the goal even though Jacob Rasmussen slid the ball over his own line.
All well and good, then. Job done, right?
No, because this is Spurs, not Chelsea or Juventus or Inter Milan, where Conte won his titles.
And so a very Spursy ten minutes ensued as Vitesse scored twice.
After Hugo Lloris had tipped over a long-ranger from Sondre Tronstad, Rasmussen lost Eric Dier and headed in from the corner.
Then Moura was robbed while dawdling on the touchline and Matus Bero was soon tucking a shot inside the far post.
After the break a Lois Openda shot was pushed away at full stretch by Lloris and then Romero cynically upended Openda on the halfway line and earned his second yellow, shredding Conte’s gameplan.
Vitesse piled it on – Lloris making a Hollywood save to deny Bazoer.
Crucially though, referee Marco Di Bello evened things up when he sent off skipper Danilho Doekhi when he dragged down Kane and earned a second yellow.
And then it was ten against nine – Schubert harshly penalised for handball after rushing out of his area and being whacked on the elbow by an Emerson Royal shot.
Conte is a winner and Conte won. But as for ruling out those ups and downs at Tottenham Hotspur, he’d better think again.
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