Interviewed by ‘FourFourTwo’ in May 2018, Rafael van der Vaart remarked, “I shouldn’t have left Tottenham, but AVB wasn’t the right coach for me.” Despite the recent progress now being enjoyed under Jose Mourinho, it’s a sentiment that so many Spurs fans would sympathise with, as when van der Vaart was at Spurs, Dutch magic lived at White Hart Lane.
A maverick player is often idolised by fans and that was certainly the case with van der Vaart at Tottenham. As with so many transfers that prove to be successful, the move from Real Madrid to White Hart Lane, for so many fans, came out of the blue. At the time, Jose Mourinho was at the helm of Los Blancos and had told the Dutchman that, with Mesut Özil being his preferred choice for the ‘number ten’ role, there was little chance of much game time and a move may suit all parties. As the clock ticked away on deadline day though, no news of any move had reached the player and a season on the bench, at best, beckoned.
Late in the afternoon, however, a call from his lawyer talked of an open door at Spurs, but it would need a quick decision. The player agreed and the deal was completed. Spurs paid Madrid some £8 million for a midfielder who, over two years with the club, would score 28 goals across all competitions, an exceptional strike rate for a midfield player, who would also contribute to so many more goals with his assists.
At the time, the club was under the managership of Harry Redknapp, a man van der Vaart had wholesome praise for, “a magical guy – a father figure,” he revealed in the same interview. The Dutchman certainly initially responded with magic of his own on the field. Sometimes a flying start to a new club career can be deceiving, but not in this case.
Three goals across four Premier League games, plus a strike and an assist in a pair of Champions League encounters quickly convinced Spurs fans that the club had acquired a player of outstanding quality. It was an assessment van der Vaart would continue to underscore.
Frustratingly though, an injury meant a few weeks out of the game as autumn turned to winter, but returning to the fray on Boxing Day, he netted both goals in a 1-2 victory at Villa Park to emphasise his importance to a team already containing the mercurial midfield qualities of Luka Modric. Another brace in April was even more valuable to the White Hart Lane fans as they were scored against North London rivals Arsenal in a 3-3 draw. Strikingly, for a midfield player new to the rigours of Premier League football, he would end the season as the club’s top marksman having netted 13 goals. He also added a further nine assists. Arguably, the Dutchman’s outstanding contribution to the cause were the prime reason for Spurs gaining a place in the Europa League.
As the new term started, he was quick to prove that his debut season had been no fluke. Again he set off at a gallop. Scoring the second goal in a 3-1 victory against QPR, he had netted six goals in just five league games and scored in five consecutive games, equalling the club record of Teddy Sheringham. All this, of course, was from a midfield player.
More goals and success would follow, as well as some magical displays, with the Dutchman having that ability to often perform at his best when the opponents offered the sternest test. It drove the club forward but, equally, the growing reputation meant that other clubs had noticed and were paying close attention to the situation. At the same time, a strange disquiet was also growing around the future of the manager, and despite their early promise, Spurs faded in the tail-end of the season as any title aspirations slipped away.
With rumours abounding of a possible summer move, van der Vaart attempted to quash such conjecture by declaring his happiness to stay in North London. Circumstances would take a hand though. In the summer, after having taken the club to a fourth-place finish in the league – the second in three seasons – a spot that would normally mean Champions League football, the club missed out as Chelsea denied them access by lifting the trophy with the big ears, and compelling their London rivals to compete in the Europa League instead.
Although entirely unrelated to events at the club, few would argue that unfortunate relegation of Spurs to the lesser tournament as a side effect of Chelsea’s triumph had no influence on the subsequent events at White Hart Lane. In June Redknapp left the club after failing to agree terms on a new deal, and the club brought in André Villas-Boas. New signings Mousa Dembélé and Clint Dempsey arrived from Fulham and Gylfi Sigurðsson was acquired from Swansea. It took little imagination to see that there was now a surfeit of options in midfield and that the new man had new ideas.
Van der Vaart had enjoyed an excellent relationship with Redknapp, but under Villas-Boas there was never the same connection. Matters weren’t helped when the new manager told the Dutchman that the Icelander would be his preferred choice for the number ten role van der Vaart had excelled in during the previous season. It was the second time a manager had delivered such news and from that point, a parting of the ways seemed inevitable to him.
Sure enough, despite the outstandingly successful two years with the club, the opening game of the new season saw van der Vaart on the bench, with Sigurðsson in his role. The writing was on the wall in big bold letters. An offer to go back to former club Hamburg appeared the ideal solution, and the Dutchman packed his bags for the Bundesliga.
It seemed a sad departure for a player that had excelled and excited in equal measure, and many would question whether the loss of Redknapp and van der Vaart for the supposed upgrade of Villas-Boas and Sigurðsson was really anything of the sort. Certainly, for many Spurs fans, there was a sad lament for the days when Dutch magic lived at White Hart Lane.