Four years on from their Champions League final, what do Tottenham have to show for it?

When all of the Tottenham Hotspur players, staff and officials finally returned to their team hotel after losing the Champions League final, the last thing they wanted to do was party. They were exhausted, devastated, and struggling to come to terms with the shattering of their dreams. Some just slunk back to their hotel rooms. Others — including one player — drowned their sorrows so deeply that they were unable to make their flights back to London the next day.

When all of the Tottenham Hotspur players, staff and officials finally returned to their team hotel after losing the Champions League final, the last thing they wanted to do was party. They were exhausted, devastated, and struggling to come to terms with the shattering of their dreams. Some just slunk back to their hotel rooms. Others — including one player — drowned their sorrows so deeply that they were unable to make their flights back to London the next day.

But at the sad late-night party at the Eurostars Suites Mirasierra hotel, there was one question in the air: was this the start of something, or the end of the road?

Four years on from that moment when Tottenham felt like they were the centre of the football universe, it is still a question that the whole club is trying to answer. Everything that has happened since has been a reaction to that; an attempt to interpret the meaning of it and to learn its lessons.

And yet the sad fact is that, four years on, Tottenham have next to nothing to show for it. All they have achieved since Madrid, since the weekend when they were on the brink of immortality, is one League Cup final in April 2021, which they lost to Manchester City. And one fourth-placed finish, achieved last year, which led to eight unremarkable Champions League games this season. And that is it.

Now they find themselves with no manager, no director of football, reflecting on an eighth-place finish in the Premier League (their worst since 2008-09), their worst defensive record for almost 50 years, and preparing for a season with not just no Champions League football but no European football of any sort. It makes you wonder whether any lessons have been learnt

The question is whether it was inevitable that Tottenham would decline like they have in the four years since Madrid. And while some may say they saw this coming, that was not the only view at the time. Even in the aftermath of defeat, there were still some optimists at the club, people who thought that reaching this final was the moment when Tottenham had finally made it into the big time.

Who can blame anyone for feeling this way? Spurs, remember, had not reached a European final since 1984, back when they beat Anderlecht on penalties to win the UEFA Cup. This was only their fourth season in the Champions League (they only had one season in the old European Cup, in 1961-62). The previous season felt like a lesson in how much Tottenham still had to learn in this competition: 3-2 up on aggregate against Juventus at home with 30 minutes left, they conceded twice and went out. Giorgio Chiellini explained it as “the history of Tottenham” and nobody could disagree.

But in 2018-19, it felt like the history of Tottenham had been turned on its head. First, they blew away Borussia Dortmund with a 3-0 home win that Mauricio Pochettino has always felt never quite got enough credit because of what came next. Then they faced Manchester City, the best team in Europe at this point, outplayed them at home and then scraped through on away goals after a second leg that remains one of the most thrilling games the competition has ever produced. Then, to top it all off, they recovered from 3-0 down on aggregate at Ajax, clinching their place in the final with the very last kick of the game.

So simply, being in the final was a huge achievement in itself. Ever since ENIC bought Tottenham in 2000, the challenge was to try to force Spurs into the elite, which was hard enough back then and became even harder after the takeovers of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich in 2003 and Manchester City by Abu Dhabi in 2008. But by this point, Chelsea had only been to two Champions League finals and City had never reached one. Spurs being in Madrid felt like proof that they could force their way onto the top table, even without benefactor billions behind them.

Of course, everyone wanted Spurs to win in Madrid but, in another sense, Tottenham had already won so much simply by being there. It was already a huge commercial boost to the club to be in the final. Spurs received £108.4million ($134.6m) in gate receipts and prize money from their Champions League run that season, almost one-quarter of their total revenue for the season (£460.7million). And, of course, the visibility of playing in the biggest club game on the planet was invaluable when it came to building the brand of the club around the world.

Inseparable from all of this was the fact that, two months before the final, Spurs had finally opened their glistening new £1.2billion stadium. This was the culmination of almost a decade of hard work, the pain of knocking down the old White Hart Lane, and the exile of almost two seasons of ‘home’ games 12 miles away in Wembley. When Spurs flew out to Madrid, the new stadium had only hosted seven Spurs games. But its impact was instant: it immediately made Tottenham Hotspur feel modern, cutting-edge, ahead of all of their London rivals and some further afield too. It promised to make the club hundreds of millions of pounds and, of course, no one knew then that the COVID-19 pandemic was just around the corner.

So there was a lot to be said for this view at the time, that reaching the final marked Tottenham’s arrival into the elite. It was a perfectly natural thing to think. But it was not the only viewpoint that night in Madrid, as Spurs came to terms with their defeat. There was also what you might call the pessimistic (or maybe ‘realistic’) view: that this team had reached the end of their cycle, that there could be no repeat of what they had achieved that season, and that their only option that night was to win.

At the time, the Ajax and City wins felt miraculous, and fans will understandably remember them for the rest of their lives. But in truth, they were even unlikelier than they felt back then because the cold reality of Tottenham’s 2018-19 season is that this was a team in decline. The proof was in their league form: they won three of their last 12 league games, all of them at home against lesser opposition. They did not win a single away league game after 20 January.

By the second half of this season, it was clear that Spurs had very little left in the tank. The failure to sign a single player during the summer 2018 or January 2019 windows had caught up with them. Pochettino had wanted a clear-out for years, getting rid of players who he knew would get tired of his methods, replacing them with new, hungry players who would willingly buy-in.

At the end of the 2017-18 season, Pochettino had publicly urged the club to “be brave and take risks”. But Levy never wanted Spurs to be a selling club and so, with the exception of Kyle Walker, who was sold to Manchester City in 2017, the players stayed put. Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose and the rest were all still there. And there was no space — or money — for anyone to come in to replace them.

By the start of Pochettino’s fifth season in charge, there was a feeling of staleness around the club. The energy levels, which had been so high on and off the pitch in the first few years, were dropping. Everyone’s tolerance levels for each other were wearing off. Things which the players used to buy into — like the lack of days off — became a source of irritation or even resentment.

So despite Pochettino signing a new five-year contract in May 2018, and despite the new stadium opening in April 2019, beneath the surface it was starting to feel like something was coming to an end. But as Spurs kept winning in Europe — in increasingly unlikely circumstances with Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks and Victor Wanyama in midfield — an idea started to take root: that it was Tottenham’s destiny to win the Champions League.

Pochettino certainly believed it. He has always been a believer in ‘energia universal’: a ‘superior energy’ which, if you can open your mind to and connect with, can make you feel ‘invincible’. Some people will be sceptical about this but it was an integral part of how he saw the world. His job, after the joyous send-off from the fans in their final home game against Everton, was to convince his players that they could feel invincible too.

There were three weeks between the end of the league season and the final in Madrid. And the number one priority was to make the players believe. Clearly, Liverpool were a better team that season, they finished 26 points ahead of Spurs and beat them home and away. But Pochettino needed to convince his players that they would win this one-off game, and claim their destiny to be champions of Europe. “All these strategies,” Pochettino told a selected group of reporters just before the final, “were to try to help us, the team, connect with this energy.”

Pochettino brought in his old friend Xesco Espar, the handball coach turned motivational speaker, who taught the players to walk across hot coals (Pochettino went first) and to snap a wooden arrow with their neck. The goal was to teach players how to believe and conquer their fears. Espar taught them how they can create their own emotional state with their posture, their movements, their focus and their inner dialogue. “The emotional state you needed to go through the coals,” Espar later told me, “was the state you needed to go through the final.”

While Liverpool were sunning themselves in Marbella before the final, Pochettino was trying to get inside his players’ heads. Every morning before training there was another 45 minutes dedicated to mental coaching. And by the time Spurs flew out to Madrid, the players were convinced. They all believed, with an almost religious conviction, that Spurs were going to win.

Tottenham would have been the most unlikely, the most romantic European champions for a generation. Maybe since Liverpool in 2005, maybe since Porto in 2004, maybe even since Red Star Belgrade in 1991. Pochettino said before the final that Spurs winning it would be “a massive example for football, forever”, and talked up comparisons to Che Guevara. And if they did it, Pochettino and his staff could resign in glory, leaving with their heads held high, leaving the “painful rebuild” (as Pochettino called it) to someone else. Everything was aligned; everyone was convinced. Spurs just had to win.

Which is why, when Liverpool were awarded a penalty after just 24 seconds for a Sissoko handball, it felt like the sky had caved in. This was not how the night was meant to go. Tottenham never truly recovered, struggling to chase the game in the oppressive heat against a team with the best goalkeeper and best centre-back in the world. Pochettino gambled on the sharpness of Harry Kane, who had been out for two months, but it did not work out. In the end, it was a dreadful final, and Liverpool deservedly won 2-0.

No one was quite as devastated as Pochettino. He believed that Tottenham would win, drawing his five-year cycle to a glorious close. And he knew that Tottenham needed to win because there was nowhere left for this team to go. Rather than flying back to London with the players, he returned to his home in Barcelona and went off-grid as he tried to process what had happened, the death of his dream.

Everyone knows what happened next. The four years since have seen those two theories of the final, those two impulses, compete for explanatory power. It has certainly felt that the optimistic view — that Spurs had arrived in the elite — has held sway at the club.

So much of what Tottenham have done since Madrid has felt influenced by this sense that 2019 marked Spurs’ ascension into the top tier of clubs. And that now they are, they have to act like they belong. Bringing in the Amazon cameras, appointing Jose Mourinho to be their reality TV star, bringing back Gareth Bale on loan, signing up to the Super League, creating a big new job for Fabio Paratici, appointing Antonio Conte; all of it can be traced back to the idea that 2019 marked a change in Spurs’ status, and they had to act accordingly. And its results, in four wasted years, are there for all to see.

The other view, that 2019 was the end of a cycle, has up to now largely been ignored. Tottenham have just tried and tried again with the same players but different managers, without ever going back to think about what made 2014 to 2019 such a unique time. The fact that so many fans were so keen for Pochettino to come back this summer — before he went to Chelsea — shows how desperate so many are for closure, or at least a different resolution, to what happened in Madrid.

This summer, four years on, the club is finally talking about appointing a coach who can bring back what they used to have. Maybe if they can start afresh with a new voice and new ideas then the players and the fans can buy in again. Maybe it will launch a new cycle at the club, and in five years’ time, there will be new stories and memories to talk about, instead of constantly circling back around the pain of the past.