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Aug 6, 2007

Last-chance saloon for Jol?

Two seasons ago it was a dodgy lasagne, last year an overly-packed fixture list; the excuses are beginning to run short for Spurs fans.

If, at the end of the 2007/8 season, Martin Jol's team have neither lifted a trophy or reached the promised land of the Champions League then White Hart Lane may soon be bidding goodbye to a previously popular Dutchman.

ENIC, the club's owners, have backed Jol with serious cash since he took over from Jacques Santini during the 2004/5 season. In each of his terms at the club, the avuncular Jol has won over fans with a team playing attacking football as well as his sense of humour.

Yet each year has ended in disappointment. Europe was narrowly missed out on at the end of that first season, the Champions League in 2005/6 and then followed a series of near misses in three cup competitions in 2006/7. All going towards making Jol something of a nearly man, a tag he must surely dismiss in 2007/8 if he is to remain at the Lane.

This summer has seen him add to his strikeforce with the £16.5million addition of Darren Bent, bought as a pacey foil to the more creative talents of Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov, leaving more than a little doubt over the future of Jermain Defoe, too often odd-man-out to consider his Spurs future secure.

Bent has proven himself in the Premier League, with goals in both his seasons at Charlton. A player who considers himself unlucky to have not played more often for England, Spurs looks a good fit for him if he can link well with Berbatov and/or Keane.

The retention of Berbatov has been a source of comfort for Tottenham fans, after the loss of Michael Carrick in the summer of 2006 was seen to have derailed the team's development as one to challenge the big four. The Bulgarian's class was particularly evident after a period of bedding-in ended just before the Christmas period. After then, Berbatov truly glittered, and looked on a number of occasions a talent to match the hallowed abilities of the likes of Hoddle and Gascoigne.

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Another player who will be welcomed back is club captain Ledley King, whom it is hoped will steer clear of the injuries that cost him appearances in the 2005/6 run-in and much of last year too. Michael Dawson has matured into a decent stopper yet he always looks far better alongside the grace and pace of King than the likes of Ricardo Rocha and Anthony Gardner.

The defensive unit has two new recruits. In securing the signing of Gareth Bale, Jol added to Spurs' reputation as a club to blood the country's best youngsters. Welshman Bale chose Spurs over Manchester United, it is said, because of his belief that he is a left-back and not a left-winger. At just 18, perhaps too much will be expected of him, yet Bale joined in search of first-team football and not nurturing in the reserves. His dead-ball talent is such that Berbatov, Jenas and co may have to defer to a set-piece ability that has been compared to a young David Beckham.

Less heralded on British shores but perhaps as significant could be two young additions from the French league in Adel Taarabt, a Morrocan attacking midfielder compared by his agent to a young Zidane, and Younes Kaboul, a defensive player who was coveted by several other European clubs and is believed to have cost Spurs £7m.

Usually a defender by trade, France's U21 captain, Kaboul may well be competing for a midfield place with the likes of Jermaine Jenas, still yet to convince many observers, and Tom Huddlestone, a young man who possesses a superb passing range but perhaps not yet the application expected of a top player.

Didier Zokora was unable to replicate his great World Cup and will be hoping for a better second season. Kevin-Prince Boateng, a midfielder regarded as one of the best young players in the Bundesliga, joins, from Hertha Berlin, an already heavily oversubscribed midfield unit. Where Danny Murphy fits in to all this remains open...

If Spurs are to challenge the top four, with many observers seeing rivals Arsenal as the one to be picked off, then much will depend on the consistency of Aaron Lennon. Last season saw him destroy Chelsea yet, towards the end of the season, fade badly into mediocrity. This may have been borne of confusion over the switching of wings that Jol prefers though it is likely that Lennon, barely 20, was suffering the understandable drops in form common to players blooded early in their career.

In amidst a wealth of options, Jol requires a team that is able to pick up more points away from home. Spurs' home record was nearly as good as their purported rivals yet away from home and a better showing against those rivals will be needed if Jol's team are to progress. Only that win over Chelsea and a draw with Arsenal were points gained from the big four, raising questions about Jol's ability to hold his team's nerves on the big occasions.

The marathon challenge that is the modern UEFA Cup, again a distraction, may have to be cast aside if Spurs are to achieve their domestic ambitions. That quarter-final loss to Sevilla was painful, not just for those fans who suffered at the hands of Spanish police, as Spurs are hoping to recreate the days when they once were genuine contenders on the European stage.

That seems a long bygone era. And the patience of both fans and owners will run out if the pattern of narrow failure occurs. Jol will know that his appealing personality must become a winning personality.

  • Any thoughts? Email John Brewin.