Spurs were a mess in the 90s, and although Jurgen wasn’t a long-term cure, his glorious season at the Lane certainly made my childhood better. Then the swine snapped my little heart in two…
I can’t remember birthdays, jokes or my Facebook password, but I’ll never forget the day Jurgen Klinsmann broke my heart.
I was sitting my lounge at home at home, just gone 11 years old. Neighbours had finished, mum was sitting on the couch, me on the beanbag leaning over to flick the wobbly grey switch of my SNES. The news started and they were running through the headlines. “Hang on a minute,” she said as Peter Sissons started on. Pffft. I need to get on Mario Kart.
I clock watched through the first few announcements, already mentally pinging bananas at Bowser on Donut Plains, until the final headline put the skids right under my daydreams.
“Klinsmann says…Auf weidersehen, White Hart Lane.”
I didn’t know any German at the time, but there was something in Sisson’s delivery that meant bad news. I l ooked across at my mum who’d gone wide-eyed and two shades whiter with a mother’s love. I didn’t need to ask her what it meant.
Klinsmann’s signing felt surreal, coming in the aftermath of the 1994 World Cup. By their standards Germany had performed poorly- knocked out in the quarters by Stoichkov’s Bulgaria- but he scored five goals and his international reputation had never been better.
Despite this, the UK press greeted his singing with a mixture of surprise and antipathy. The ‘dive bomber’ as they proclaimed him: a jingoistic, World War-harking nickname that would be the subject of a furious Twitter trend were it to be coined today. The Guardian published an infamous piece called ‘Why I Hate Jurgen Klinsmann’ ( two months later they printed an article by the same writer, titled ‘Why I Love Jurgen Klinsmann’).
Spurs’ season before had been a train wreck. We had a clutch of exciting players: Darren Anderton, Nicky Barmby, Teddy Sheringham, and a babyfaced Sulzeer Campbell coming through under Gary Mabbutt’s evergreen stewardship. Ossie Ardiles was at the helm, and when he arrived summer ’93 it was supposed to be the start of something. Another fresh start.
We finished 15th, three points above relegation and Ossie kept his job by the unenviable girth of a gnat’s knacker.
But someone started spiking Alan Sugar’s Bovril, and he went relatively wild in the transfer market, bringing in Jurgen for £2 million, as well as Illie Dumitrescu and Gheorghe Popescu. The latter two had starred at the World Cup for Romania, and when Ossie proclaimed that he would play all the new signings – with a five-man forward line of Klinsmann, Sheringham, Dumitrescu, Barmby and Anderton – Spurs fans started quietly humming that ‘glory glory’ song once more.
By the final whistle of our first game, that chant was ringing round Hillsborough’s away end: a 4-3 victory over Sheffield Wednesday had us purring, believing those fusty old sentiments.
Although Jurgen scored a goal, the team’s fourth, the game of course is most famous for his celebration in the aftermath. Being chased from the goal by an ecstatic Teddy et al, Jurgen spread his arms and belly flopped to the turf, followed gamely by the rest of the teammates.
Football is ninety minutes and full of many moments, so relatively few ring across generations. For every Spurs fan watching MOTD that evening, this felt like a hash mark moment. It didn’t just show that we could play, could score, could entertain, but there was something deeper going on. It seems hyperbolic, but for a team so twinned to their Jewish heritage, to have a natty, unpopular, German superstar leading the line was affirmation of our place in the ambi-cultural, post Premiership, post-internet world. It showed the world we were an alright place to be. It put us on the map.
By the time the next game came round, at home against Everton, I had ‘Klinsmann’ and the iconic 18 printed on the back of my shirt, and a swagger as I took a seat next to my dad in South Stand Lower. He scored both goals that night. The first, a bounding right-footed overhead kick not thirty yards from my face, was my great live football moment of the pre-Bale era. It showed me what football could do, of its power- for only a few seconds- to distort reality into something transformative. You could believe in it. It was over 20 years ago but it’s giving me tingles just writing about it.
The scoreboards at the Lane scrolled ‘Wunderbar Wunderbar Jurgen’ the first of many times, and thousands of Spurs fans’ trips back to Essex, or Kent, or Milton Keynes, were soundtracked by nervous talk of an unlikely title punt. Despite a 1-0 loss to Manchester United in the next game, hopes maintained and we then beat Ipswich 3-1, with two more goals from JK. That meant four in five for him. A team that had been so abject the season before were flying, with him as our captain in all but name.
It was around this point that everything went heroically to sheisse. An 89th minute Matt Le Tissier penalty sealed a 2-1 win for Saints, completing a comeback after we had led through a JK goal in the 6th minute. We would then win only one league game out of the next seven.
We conceded 17 goals in those games, whilst the boos following a 3-0 League Cup defeat to Division One Notts County would prove to be Ossie’s death knell. In his autobiography, Ossie’s Dream, he would refer to it as his ‘black night.’
He did actually lead them to one last 3-1 victory over West Ham in the next game, but Sugar had already lined up Gerry Francis, and another new era was finished almost as swiftly as it begun.
Things didn’t exactly get off to a vintage start- losses against Blackburn and Villa, two draws against Liverpool and Chelsea. Eventually, on the 3rd December, fired by a Sheringham hat-trick, Spurs recorded a victory. 4-2 against Newcastle; only their third league victory since the end of August.
This kick started a revival of sorts. Spurs lost one from 10 games, winning seven, including a 3-1 victory over eventual champions Blackburn. Sheringham rose to the fore in this time, taking on more of the scoring mantle. From then Spurs bounced back and forth, dipping a toe tentatively into the top 6 but not ever convincing, knowing that if we were likely to hold onto our man, our Jae, we would have to get into Europe. So the FA Cup became vitally important.
We bounced past Altrincham and Sunderland, before a draw at home to Saints took us to the The Dell.
2-0 down at half-time, we were dead and JK was on the next Lufthansa out of Stanstead. Enter substitute Ronny Rosenthal, who with three swings of his great left foot, scored a hat-trick of staggering and frankly unprecedented quality. His performance that evening cemented his place in Spurs folklore, and meant that in one tiny corner of the football world he’s famous for something other than missing an open goal.
For JK aficionados, the fourth goal was a gilded moment. Well into extra time, he ran down a ball he had no right to teach, making up 15 yards on Francis Benali, stopping dead with the ball, turning 180 and laying it off to Sheringham to round the keep and finish. It was the decisive goal, and perfect hold-up play from the perfect finisher.
And so onto Anfield for a quarter final that few right-minded Spurs fans thought we would win, with fewer still reckoning we could come back after Robbie Fowler put Liverpool 1-0 up. But Sheringham got us a goal back, and we were flying with the Mersey winds. He actually missed a sitter before the 89th minute, when Sheringham replayed the favour from The Dell, flicking a just-so through ball into the path of JK, who burst between Rob Jones and future-Spur John Scales and stroked the size 5 into the bottom right…
He got set upon so quickly that he didn’t get a chance to to reenact his famous dive, but every young Spurs fan went outside 90 seconds later and did it across the front lawn. It was an incredible moment. You’ve got to remember that for someone of my sort of age, we’d grown up lugging the ‘great cup cup team’ tag, but we’d only won one cup in a decade. Combined with the comeback against Southampton and a tasty looking semi-final against Everton, our name was on the cup. Surely. It was written. We had Jurgen.
But of course it wasn’t. We went to Elland Road and Daniel Amokachi, Daniel Amokachi, scored two and we went out 4-1. The rest of the season ran its course, neither particularly good nor particularly bad. Spurs. JK kept banging them in, but we missed out on Europe by one place.
Sometime between the Everton defeat and the last game of the season, I went with my dad and two mates to Spurs’ old training ground, Chigwell. It was in the old days when you could get right up close to the warm-up drills, kick back balls that players sent astray, and hang around after in the car park for autographs.
Obviously the one we all wanted was JK’s, and we all stood around his little blue V.W beetle, peeking inside, only leaving it to grab Colin Calderwood’s signature. Eventually, someone, a member of staff came down and got in it, and drove it through some gates into the clubhouse.
This obviously set us all off into a frenzy. “He’s coming out. He must be. He’ll surely stop for us. Surely he won’t just drive off. He couldn’t.” The only person who said otherwise was my dad. Shut up, dad.
But he did just drive off. As the gate opened, his wheels turned on the concrete and he slowed just before to meet us, a gang of 30 or so dive-bomber converts. We were waiting for him to wind down the window and do his worst with our outstretched shirts and autograph books. But he didn’t. He just waved. He also smiled. But a wave it was, a sayonara before he span off, with us chasing him down the road. “Jurgen! Jurgen! Jurgen!”
At the time it was bitterly disappointing – so close, etc – but in some ways it was a perfect microcosm of the Jurgen experience; nearly perfect, but not quite to be. Just like all the best heartbreak.