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Legend has it that, back in the early months of 2003, when Roman Abramovich was searching for a place in the UK to deposit his stash of roubles, his early focus was on Tottenham Hotspur F.C. Frustrated at the difficulty experienced in trying to conclude a deal with the club’s owners however, when flying in his helicopter from yet another fruitless meeting, he passed over Stamford Bridge, and asked whether that club was up for sale instead. The rest, as they say, is history…
Now, of course, it’s difficult to ascertain, how much – if any – truth there is in that legendary tale so joyously repeated tirelessly by Chelsea fans. The fact, however, that the man in the chair – at least metaphorically – opposite the Russian’s discussion team was a certain Daniel Levy, who’s negotiating stance was once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as being “more painful than my hip replacement” does lend it at least some measure of credibility. Since ascending to the chair at White Hart Lane, the sometimes lugubrious and often inscrutable Daniel Levy has pursued his club remit – whatever that may be, but more of that later – with a dedication and application solely available to the most hard-nosed of businessmen.
Born in Essex in 1962, the years after Tottenham achieved the first League and Cup ‘Double’ of the post-war era, it’s little surprise that Levy was a boyhood Spurs fan, although there’s little in his history to suggest that such allegiance had any particular sway on the career path that led to him being head honcho at White Hart Lane. After university, Levy joined his family business before striking out in partnership in a property investment company, doubtlessly leaning on the First Class Honours degree in Economics and Land Management that he secured at Cambridge. Some would put his approach to transfers at Spurs as being the product of this early enterprise.
It was his move to ENIC however, the investment business owned by the reclusive Joe Lewis that pointed his direction towards the business of North London football. His corporate nous and dynamic record of success quickly saw him rise through the ranks to head up the financial empire of the Bahama’s based exile, and when ENIC added effective control of Tottenham to the list of football investments in their portfolio, Levy became chairman of the club.
It’s at this stage where we return to the matter of what Levy is charged with achieving at Spurs. Almost without exception, fans of any club would judge success by the number and perceived value of trophies won. There’s a sign that used to run around the stand of the old White Hart Lane, an apparent quote from double-winning skipper Danny Blanchflower, asserting that, “the game is about glory.” Whilst fans would concur, club owners may, to various degrees, demur. There’s a sad but inescapable reality about modern day football that owners and their acolytes judge success by brass, rather than silverware, and for all his perceived success at developing Spurs, many fans would place Levy firmly into that bracket.
Such assessment can be illustrated by Levy’s steel-hard determination to rinse the last available penny from any player sale. As mentioned above, a conviction perhaps acquired by his time dealing in property that taught him consider the club’s assets very much in the same vein when coming to sale. The quotation from Ferguson referenced above refers, for example, to the time when Manchester United were trying to sign Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov from Spurs during the 2006 summer transfer window. Ferguson grew increasingly frustrated – as perhaps the Russian oligarch may have done some years previously, as the Spurs chairman took the deal into what has increasingly become known as ‘Levy Time’ – an echo of the irascible Scot’s demand for games to continue until United score. The deal was eventually dragged over the line, kicking and screaming, but the full price had been extracted for the ‘disposal of the asset.’
That sort of unflinching financial acumen also dogged the deals that took Luka Modric and Gareth Bale from North London to Real Madrid. The latter even accumulating a world record transfer fee, no matter how hard the Spanish club tried to paint it as otherwise, in order to placate the ego of Cristiano Ronaldo. Selling at top dollar is only part of the equation however. In player purchases, Levy is known to be equally robust. Acquiring the services of Rafael van der Vaart for a mere £8 million in 2010 was a signing of breath-taking value. It goes without saying of course that it was secured on the last day of the transfer window – well into Levy Time.
Such operations however need a compliant, and pliant, accomplice in the managerial seat. It is therefore of little surprise to say that, in the 18 years or so since assuming command at Spurs, including caretakers and other temporary appointments, Levy has moved on no less than 10 managers, each of whom, for various reasons failed to hit the mark required by the demanding chairman. The appointment of Mauricio Pochettino in 2014, however, may be what Levy had been seeking. Here is a manager with the avowed intent to develop young players at the club, rather than consistently resort to demands for big money imports, whilst still making Spurs one of the most attractive teams in the country and being live contenders for trophies on a number of fronts.
So, how does Levy’s report card look? Reportedly, the highest-paid executive in English football, ENIC have amply rewarded his financial expertise. Securing the funding for the new White Hart Lane stadium, and dissuading Pochettino from any dissent in a deathly quiet transfer window was a stroke of management boasting both bravura and bravado. Such outlay being supported by a £25 million per year deal with Nike and an improved sponsorship deal with AIA.
Financially therefore, and perhaps with a quick glance at the current batch of players on the pitch, would be encouraging for Levy’s paymasters and Spurs fans in general. The future’s looking bright, but some may argue that, after 18 years at the helm, it should be as well. Perhaps the fruition of Levy Time is imminent, and the next few years may bring the “glory” and trophies desired by fans. The re-emergence of a thrusting Liverpool, a Solskjaer inspired Manchester United and the all-encompassing menace of Manchester City however suggest that may not be the case. No group of fans has ever chanted “we’ve got a better balance sheet than you” at their rivals, and although it’s quite possible that, once ensconced in their new stadium, with enhanced capacity, on more occasions than not, the White Hart Lane faithful may be able to, don’t pin your ears back awaiting that lyrical oddity.
Since 2001, Spurs have lifted a single trophy, the League Cup in 2007-08, ironically defeating the club that Abramovich eventually purchased. In the same time however, the West London club have won the Champions League, the Europa League, five Premier League titles, five FA Cups – including one League and Cup double, and the League Cup on three occasions. It may not be difficult to decide whether having one Wembley triumph and the ability to voice that ‘balance sheet’ chant or 15 trophies would be the preferred outcome of that helicopter flight. During that all-too-quiet transfer window in January, Pochettino, perhaps echoing his master’s voice, asserted that trophies only fed egos. Perhaps, but they also feed fans’ desires, especially those with a rapacious appetite induced by fallow years. “The game is about glory,” after all.