A point to cherish, a result to savour, and an individual performance that will be remembered forever. This was a good afternoon to be a City fan, and an even better one to be Boaz Myhill.
One omen before kick-off was promising: it was raining. Heavily. Leaden skies drenched anyone outdoors in the couple of hours before kick-off, rather as they did before last season’s successful trip to White Hart Lane. It ceased shortly before kick-off, but it made the Tottenham greensward pleasingly slick.
Lining up on it for the Tigers were: Myhill; McShane, Gardner (c), Zayatte, Dawson; Garcia, Boateng, Barmby, Geovanni, Hunt; Fagan. 4-5-1 notionally, though with Barmby and Geovanni also included it was easily adaptable to 4-3-3, on the infrequent occasions when City figured as an attacking outfit.
The home side were dauntingly strong. Missing Aaron Lennon, tellingly as it transpired, they were still able to summon: Gomes; Corluka, Dawson, Bassong, Bale; Modric, Palacios, Huddlestone, Kranjcar; Keane, Defoe.
An imposing line-up, and before the game memories of the 5-1 shoeing we’d suffered at home surfaced more than once. That was arguably the single finest team performance we’ve witnessed in the Premier League, and with Wigan’s annihilation in North London a recent occurrence, it was tough not to fear the worst.
The opening minutes provided some comfort. Spurs burst out of the traps, but their opening moves were calmly and efficiently smothered. City grew in confidence from this, and although forays into Spurs territory were relatively uncommon, the match had a pleasing tempo to it and was an intriguing contest.
Not always an entirely wholesome one, it must be conceded. City were taking time over restarting from play, and the delays cannot always have been inadvertent. Martin Atkinson, last seen when dishing out generous awards to the Tigers during the victory over Everton, was unimpressed. He issued one warning, then flashed a yellow card at Nick Barmby minutes later when he dithered over a throw-in. Hard to argue with, in truth.
It’s far from certain that such low manoeuvres were actually needed, however. Tottenham were dominating the game in terms of possession, but City were rarely being carved open. However, on the first occasion we were – with the game more than thirty minutes old – we saw the first of many stunning interventions from Boaz Myhill.
Palacios whacked a shot from distance that flew between a few players and required Myhill to make a smart stop low to his right. He must surely have seen the ball late but still did well enough to parry the ball – however it fell to the lurking Keane, who blatted it back goalwards. Somehow, Myhill had already regained his feet and produced a world-class flying save to tip the ball over the bar. Stunning stuff. Keane held his head in hands. Huddled in a corner of White Hart Lane, we gaped in wonder. It was not to be the first time.
Spurs were now totally dominant, and the Tigers were clinging on a little at this stage. However, just when it seemed we’d limped our way to half-time, a moment of horror. Modric sent a pass through that was dummied cleverly through to Defoe, clear on goal and with no defender within five yards. Myhill raced from his line and Defoe’s shot deflected from the City keeper and span wide. A poor miss, a great save. The referee called a halt shortly afterwards.
A good half for the Tigers. Spurs had wasted half an hour displaying far too little urgency, allowing City to comfortably hold them at bay. Of course, once they increased the pace we struggled – they’re a fine side, but suddenly, a point was a realistic possibility. Naturally, once the game ceased being a shot to nothing, nerves began to fray. Tottenham elected not to serve soothing alcohol at the break. How utterly pathetic. Whatever happened to treating adults like adults? Nanny-state bollocks.
Harry Redknapp’s been in the news this week. This was his 500th Premier League match as a manager, but was overshadowed somewhat by his recent charge of tax fraud. This caused some merriment in the City end – “we pay our tax on time” being a common refrain – and we shall refrain from lurid gossip about his finances, but the way his side tore into us at the start of the second suggested that he was successfully focussing on the task at hand.
Again though, City held firm. Boateng was erratic in possession, but his watchful presence in front of the back four formed a barrier that the home side were struggling to get through, and without the pacey menace of Lennon, we were looking fairly secure on the flanks.
The primary source of panic during this time when a huge cry for handball went up. It was unclear just what’d happened – a City defender seemed to have stumbled and fallen onto the ball with his arm – but Mr Atkinson was not impressed by these slightly anxious entreaties.
53 minutes was the first point at which this scribe looked up and realised that, having survived the opening spell of the second half, there was genuinely a chance of keeping Spurs out for the whole afternoon. Just as these giddying thoughts were forming themselves, Myhill brought off two more dazzling saves within three seconds of each other.
A shot from the edge of the area by Modric necessitated an agile save low to his left – he got a strong enough palm to the ball to stop it going in but once more Keane was first to the rebound, which was thumped towards goal, only to strike the City keeper as he scrambled back to his feet and got enough of a block to send the ball behind. Even from our distance, some 150 yards from away, it looked brilliant. The big screen above the end opposite ours quickly confirmed this. The first rendition of “Myhill, in the middle of our goal” pealed into the chill air.
Minutes later came City’s best chance of the afternoon. A loose ball was fastened onto by Hunt about forty yards from goal. He cut inside and fed Barmby, whose overlapping run had seen him find space. Hunt’s ball was perfect and Barmby had a clear sight at goal about twelve yards out, but he seemed to hesitate for a split-second and his resulting shot was swished into the side-netting. A bad miss.
Jenas came on for Palacios on 55 as Redknapp sought to inject some urgency into his team, and Crouch came on shortly after to replace Keane as the match drifted a little – no bad thing from our perspective. Phil Brown responded by withdrawing Barmby, whose workrate in assisted his overworked defensive colleagues had been impressive. On came Kevin Kilbane.
Not for the first time in his career, Stephen Hunt found himself having a vivid disagreement with an opposing player – Tom Huddlestone this time being rubbed up the wrong way by the splendidly combative and definitely-not-for-sale Irishman. Huddlestone followed his team-mate Bassong into the referee’s notebook as the stopwatch laboured towards 70 minutes.
Twenty minutes to go, and it was increasingly Tottenham Hotspur v Boaz Myhill. He comfortably caught a Modric header but unveiled another beauty from his repertoire moments later when a crashing drive by (again) Modric saw him leap to his left and parry the ball over. Another astounding save, each of which were now being cheered almost like goals in the disbelieving away end.
Geovanni’s quiet afternoon ended early as the Tigers brought on Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink – a sensible move given that our attempts to clear our lines increasingly took the form of massive welts upfield.
Ten minutes to go. The home fans’ agitation hung palpably in the air, while we chewed nails and thought that surely this couldn’t go on. A highly optimistic shout for a penalty was curtly dismissed by Mr Atkinson when the ball struck Zayatte. Stephen Mouyokolo came on for Richard Garcia as City wilted a little.
In the final minute of injury time, it looked for a sickening second as though City’s efforts had been in vain. A foul was conceded on the Tottenham left, the ball was swung in by Kranjcar and Peter Crouch was unwisely left alone in the area. He his header achieved a meaty connection and flew goalwards…only for Myhill to thrust out a hand and produce a jaw-dropping reaction save. We cheered again.
Mr Atkinson decided that six minutes of injury time would suffice for a half that’d be punctuated by injuries, fouls, six substitutions and, erm, some less than rapid restarting from City. “Timewasting” is of course the wrong term, as referees just add it on and you have to negotiate those minutes anyway. “Disruption of play” is maybe better, though no less cynical.
But such deliberations were of no consequence as the fourth official’s board advertised 360 more seconds to get through. A desperate appeal for a penalty was issued as Crouch and former Spur Gardner tangled in the area, and there was still time for Myhill to pull off another brilliant save. It came when Crouch was released into space on the right, he cut in towards goal and walloped a shot at goal. It was at Myhill’s near post and his positioning was immaculate, but the attempt was hard and close and could beaten any keeper in the world. But Myhill was not for beating.
Spurs were utterly deflated by this latest denial, and the last couple of minutes sped by without incident. At full-time, City celebrated an unlikely point as Myhill’s name was incessantly sung, and despite being a modest professional, he lingered just a little at the end as thunderous acclaim washed over him.
A very good point, and largely unanticipated. Whether it’s deserved presumably depends upon your perspective. As we trooped down the ghastly North London streets in search of sustenance the sky was thick was with such dismayed nuggets as “facking Haw, parked the facking team bus”, or similar. That this mythical team bus entered footballing parlance after Spurs themselves set out to frustrate Chelsea five years ago was less remarked upon.
Sometimes though, what else can be done? Spurs are better than City, by a considerable distance. So Phil Brown’s decision to pack the midfield, to stifle and harry at the expense of attacking verve was justified by the point we’ve gained.
It was gained by a resolute performance, Spurs’ poor finishing and Boaz Myhill. Even if we briefly set aside our heroic keeper, the home side were frustrated by other means. The back four were dogged in dulling one of the Premier League’s finest attacks, while elsewhere the likes of Fagan, Hunt and Barmby sacrificed their own preference for attack in favour of firefighting at the back. All deserve credit.
But this was Boaz Myhill’s day. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the best individual goalkeeping performance I’ve ever witnessed. It called to mind Steve Wilson’s stellar display at Crystal Palace in 1997, though with a clean sheet for added kudos. And although Palace were a Premier League side twelve years ago, they’re no Tottenham circa 2010, and this was no League Cup match.
By the end, he seemed quite literally unbeatable. Everything that mattered in his game was perfect. Those who’ve contested his right to be City’s number one based upon the irrelevance of goalkeepers’ distribution are surely silenced. And though we cannot know how importance this precious point will ultimately be, we know that its acquisition is down the one of the greatest individual performances in City’s history. He really was that good, and it was a privilege to witness it.