Tottenham legend Gary Stevens hopes 2016 side can learn from 1985
Tottenham Hotspur are daring to dream about winning their first English title in more than 50 years, and former Spurs star Gary Stevens sees parallels between the 2016 side and his 1985 team that came so close to domestic glory.
Thirty-one years ago, Stevens was a young and pacey utility player who would go on to represent England at the 1986 World Cup. Now an Asia-based coach, he sits in a Kuala Lumpur cafe hoping that Mauricio Pochettino's side can avoid the disappointment of 1985.
"We were in an almost identical situation," Stevens told ESPN FC. "Coming into the last third of the season, sitting in second, playing great football, defending well and scoring goals, with a talented squad of confident players."
Having won the previous season's UEFA Cup, Tottenham closed the gap at the top to two points behind Everton after a 1-0 victory at Stoke City on March 2. But 10 days later, as Spurs lost 2-1 at home to Manchester United, Stevens suffered a season-ending knee injury and watched from the sideline as his teammates faded to finish third behind Everton and Liverpool.
"Although the team went to Anfield and won, many Spurs followers of that time blame the team's decline in the last two months of the season on my absence," he said.
Stevens was working as a television pundit for Astro SuperSport in Malaysia when Spurs pulled off a late 2-1 victory at Manchester City last Sunday, which some see as a watershed result. He credits Pochettino in bringing the best out of the squad.
"Pochettino has fostered a togetherness and built a work ethic that is second to none in the Premier League," he said. "The team is well drilled to the extent that every player knows his role, yet they have a level of freedom that allows them to express themselves.
"Our 1985 team also had that mix of experience and characters that blended well. We knew our respective roles and what we were each capable of."
Stevens was 22 when Spurs lifted the 1984 UEFA Cup after a penalty shootout victory over Anderlecht in the final and when the club made their subsequent domestic title run.
Although he'd moved from Brighton the season before as a central defender, he'd been switched to midfield by manager Peter Shreeves, in a role not dissimilar to 22-year-old Eric Dier in the current team. Glenn Hoddle, Gary Mabbutt and Garth Crooks were among the other stars of the 1985 team.
Spurs host Crystal Palace in an all-Premier League FA Cup tie on Sunday. Stevens says that it could be difficult for the North Londoners, already into the knockout stages in Europe, to challenge on multiple fronts.
"The current Spurs side is certainly capable of competing into the latter stages of the Europa League, but I am not sure if it will help their league ambitions because of the additional workload of travelling abroad and two games per round," he said.
Stevens played 147 league games over seven seasons at White Hart Lane. He'd started his career as an associate schoolboy at his hometown side, Ipswich Town, and it was the club's former manager, Bobby Robson, who picked him for England.
But Stevens was forced to retire before his 30th birthday after never properly recovering from a serious knee injury suffered in a league game against Vinnie Jones' Wimbledon in Nov. 1988.
Turning 54 next month and having had major surgery on both hips, Stevens' aging body is a reminder that three decades and a generation have passed since the club's 1980s resurgence. He also played in the 1987 FA Cup final, which Spurs surprisingly lost to Coventry City in one of the biggest upsets of the decade.
Stevens walks with a limp, but is otherwise trim and fit and hopes to return to coaching after recent stints in charge of Army United FC and Port FC in the Thai Premier League.
"I had the Birmingham Hip Resurfacing procedure on my right hip last November, having had my left hip done 13 years earlier. The revolutionary operation is designed for younger and more athletic people," he said. "I'm hoping that within six to eight months I will be back on the training pitch because I'd like to continue my coaching career here in Asia."
As for whether Spurs can emulate Bill Nicholson's triumphant 1961 league-winning side and go a step further than his 1985 team, Stevens seemed hopeful, yet not overly confident.
"I can't say with certainty that Spurs will win the league, but they can do it. They have all the components required, as do all of the current top four clubs. The winning team will need to stay clear of injuries and suspensions to key players. Lady Luck will undoubtedly play her part."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.