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May 7, 2006

Spurs sickened at the last

West Ham United 2 - 1 Tottenham

Football doesn't often dip its toe into the murky world of conspiracies and poisoning, yet it did just that at Upton Park on the final day of the Premiership season.

After ten of Tottenham's first team players were floored by what the North London club fear was a deliberately contaminated pre-match meal, their efforts to get this game postponed fell on deaf ears. The Premier League's offer of a delayed, 5pm kick-off was considered insufficient to make any difference to their group of wilting players, so they battled on in a bid to secure a win that would have given them fourth spot and possible Champions League football for next season.

News that the police had been called in to investigate whether their efforts had been sabotaged moved the story into a new area of intrigue and while some in the press room beforehand questioned whether the issue was as serious as Spurs claimed, the pre-match warm-up was telling.

Michael Dawson, is generally a pale faced individual, yet he looked close to collapsing on a couple of occasions. Trying to stretch out his hamstring, the centre-back collapsed head first into the pitch at one point and with Spurs officials desperately trying to administer bottles of fluid to their stricken stars, it was clear that this was no scare story. From the moment referee Chris Foy blew his whistle for the first time, their efforts their biggest league game in almost 30 years were doomed.

'I have never experienced anything like this in my career before,' stated Jol after the game. 'We have ended up finishing fifth, but this cannot be considered a fair situation. The Premier League said we could delay kick-off, but I wanted this match to be played on Monday. By then, the food poisoning would have been out of our system and we could have tried properly, but it wasn't to be.

'What could we do with a couple of hours extra to play this match? Maybe we could have sent them to bed and got them to the ground a bit later, but unfortunately, we couldn't get food and fluids inside us and it was a major problem for us. We did the warm-up and decided to try and play. We had no option really.

'I personally don't think there is any foul play involved, but the police are investigating and it's up to them what happens from here. It was a buffet dinner we had with chicken and steak and everything so I wonder whether they will find what the problem is, though we have our suspicions.'

Hard though they tried to drain every ounce out of their depleted bodies, the likes of Robbie Keane, Michael Carrick and the heroic Dawson couldn't reach anywhere near their normal levels of performance. Against a West Ham side who were up for the game as if their lives depended on it just a week before their FA Cup Final date with Liverpool, Tottenham had no chance.

As Carl Fletcher lashed home a 25-yard ninth minute shot, the air of inevitability appeared to be confirmed. As the Hammers created chances at will in the opening 20 minutes, the words 'damage limitation' were muttered around the packed press box.

West Ham fans traditional hatred for Tottenham meant there was little sympathy at Upton Park for Jol's men and not even news that Wigan were leading at Highbury or Defoe's equaliser 11 minutes before the break could convinced the Spurs sceptics that this could be their day.

The sight of seven players desperately rushing to the touchline to take fluids on board seconds before the break was harrowing for the visiting fans and as the frail-looking Tottenham players made their way off at half-time, they did not look as if they could raise themselves for one last effort.

As for West Ham, they could not allow the woes of the side chasing fourth place to derail their efforts. While Arsenal fans need not have worried about the Hammers commitment in this game, those who feared Pardew's men would not take this game would not have been warmed by the news that the Hammers training ground tea-lady was giving the players a pre-match briefing instead of manager, Alan Pardew.

Apparently, the old dear had won a season-long predictions competition with the Hammers boss and this last day treat was her prize. She proved to be an inspiration as the home side flew out of the blocks and while she can take some of the credit on this occasion, the chorus of approval for Pardew at the end was proof that his reincarnation at this club is now complete. Few doubt he deserves to be named 'Manager of the Year' after a sterling first season in the Premiership.

A missed penalty from Teddy Sheringham gave Tottenham hope, but Yossi Benayoun's winner 11 minutes from time sealed their fate and by then, many of their stars had been drained of all their resources. Carrick, Tottenham's most influential player in the last few weeks, asked to be taken off due to his unstable condition 28 minutes from time, while Dawson deserves a medal for getting through 90 minutes even though he was out on his feet from the start.

'I'm proud of my players for going out there and trying to get through,' added Jol. 'I won't say that this problem has cost us a place in the Champions League, but the frustration and anger will kick in over the next few days. To finish with 65 points is fantastic, but we wanted more and we wanted fourth. It wasn't to be.'

Seeing the West Ham supporters celebrating Arsenal's qualification for the Champions League as if they had won a huge prize was perhaps ironic and Pardew had these words of consolation for his opponents. 'You could see that some of their players were not at full strength and it's a real shame that the biggest day of their season has ended like this.' he said.

'We had to focus on our job and my players for fantastic today. Tottenham would have had problems against us even if they were fully fit and I cannot praise my players enough.'

Had Tottenham been able to field a fit and healthy side for this final game of the season, coming second best in the race for a Champions League place would not have been so devastating. As it is, their pain and discomfort couldn't be more acute.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Bobby Zamora

Never given a chance to show his Premiership credentials during a spell at Spurs, Zamora turned in a sterling performance against them in this game. He was a man with plenty to prove.

PARDEW v DAVIDS: The West Ham boss took offence to Edgar Davids extravagant reaction to Shaun Newton second-half challenge, which resulted in a booking and a shouting match between the Dutchman and the Hammers boss.

UNDER THE HAMMER: Tottenham's Michael Carrick was given a fine ovation from his former fans, yet another ex-Hammer, Jermain Defoe was jeered and booed at every opportunity. The unsavoury manner of Defoe's departure has clearly not been forgotten by the West Ham faithful.

INFLATABLE CONFUSION: The vendors outside Upton Park were selling off the blow up replicas Premiership trophy they failed to flog at Chelsea last week and just to prove many football fans are stupid, visually impaired Hammers fans were snapping them up in the belief that they were, in fact, FA Cup inflatables.

INSIDER VERDICT: The idea that Tottenham's players were deliberately poisoned is little far fetched, but it only needed one Arsenal or West Ham fan in the kitchen at the Canary Warf hotel they stayed in to dabble in the dark side. If that individual does exist, he may just have changed the face of the English game for some time to come and ensured Thierry Henry stays at Arsenal to boot.


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