The chant was quiet at first, but ears around the stadium immediately pricked up. Then it got a bit louder. “Daniel Levy, get out of our club,” they sang.
For the first time since football stadiums had returned to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic-enforced lockouts, Tottenham supporters were making an audible statement against the club’s owners.
A few days later, across town at Selhurst Park, the game wasn’t even 30 seconds old when the away end told us all, “We want Levy out.” Spurs cantered to a 4-0 victory in that match, but the same chant was sporadically heard throughout the match.
To the outsider, it may be a surprising thing to hear.
Owner ENIC Group and club chairman Daniel Levy have, in recent years, overseen the construction of one of the finest football stadiums in the world, hired a head coach in Antonio Conte who many thought unattainable, and last summer made an equity injection of £150million ($182.3m) into the club, substantial financing transfers such as Richardson, Christian Romero and Yves Bissouma in a change of approach from previous years when net spend was much lower or, in some cases, didn’t exist.
Last summer, the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust (THST extension) ran a survey of 6,000 fans. One of the questions centered around how they viewed the ownership – only three per cent of respondents didn’t want ENIC in charge of the club.
While the views of those 6,000 fans may not be an entirely accurate representation of the whole fanbase, it is nonetheless probably safe to say the dial has moved since then. So what has changed? And why does there appear to be a growing number – not just on social media, but also in the stands – who want new owners at the helm?
These questions are not simple to answer but there is clearly more to it than just the last few performances and results.
Spurs’ season may not have gone totally to plan so far but they are fifth in the Premier Leaguethrough to the last 16 of the Champions League and, with Preston North End of the Championship to come in the last 32, will fancy an FA Cup run as they bid to end a 15-year wait for silverware. They have done this despite suffering unfortunate injuries, particularly to Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevskiand despite the struggles of last season’s Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min.
But it’s more than that.
Whether fans are ‘Levy in’ or ‘Levy out’, many will have some kind of grievance from any given point during his 22 years as chairman, be it sacking Martin Jol, the farcical managerial search in the summer of 2021 that ended with the hiring of Nuno Espirito Santo, failed big-money signings including Roberto Soldado and Tanguy Ndombele , the stadium rebuild dragging into a second season, meaning months as tenants at a vacant and half-empty Wembley, flirting with moving across London from Tottenham to the Olympic Stadium site in Stratford 12 years ago, or that ill-fated dalliance with the failed Super League project.
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There’s a lot of historical context there.
There will also be envious eyes directed at clubs with similar or smaller fanbases who are enjoying more success, sometimes due to being bankrolled by overseas owners with bottomless pockets. Some Tottenham supporters will see that and want it. Arch-rivals arsenal are top of the table too, which doesn’t help. Newcastle are above Spurs in third, despite not spending what you’d call silly money yet, and there’s the prospect of much more to come. Perhaps the fans fear Tottenham will be left behind if change doesn’t come.
And then there’s that trophy drunk.
Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, Leicester City and Swansea City have all won major domestic silverware since Spurs beat Chelsea at Wembley to lift the League Cup in February 2008. But Tottenham have reached a Champions League final and qualified for European football’s blue-riband competition on six occasions in those intervening years — an achievement the vast majority of English clubs would be envious of.
So yep, it’s complicated.
“What fans want to know is: ‘What is the strategy?’,” Steve Cavalier, co-chair of THST and a Spurs fan for five decades, tells The Athletic. “And then, how do you measure success against that strategy? And does that fit in with what Antonio Conte’s saying?”
“A trophy is a huge factor. Qualifying for the Champions League last season was a tremendous achievement, credit for that and we want to be in the Champions League; the AC Milan game (their round of 16 ties, starting at San Siro on February 14) is the one you want, but 2008 is far too long.
“Trophies are important. Yes, we’ll remember finishing in the top four, that Ajax semi-final, but ultimately as a fan what you remember is the times your captain lifts a trophy, and we’ve been missing that for far too long. It wouldn’t solve everything, but players and managers go into the game to win trophies.”
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There’s been a notable shift in mood recently and judging on what you hear at matches, not just what you read on social media, support is, from the vocal minority at least, against ENIC and Levy and very much in support of Conte.
It’s generally viewed that if Conte is given what he wants – ie, hefty backing in the transfer market to sign players around whom he can build a team to compete for major honors on a consistent basis – Spurs can thrive.
They have the foundations in the form of an incredible stadium, a world-class training ground and an impressive academy (albeit one which could do with producing more first-team players for the club). It’s just the final touch, the hardest bit, that’s lacking. And with Conte’s contract expiring next summer, the situation will soon come to a head.
Again, it’s far more complicated than that. Actually, it’s not as simple as Conte v Levy.
Finn Thomas, who runs the @ fan account on Twitter, says the general consensus of fans he follows online is that current ownership has taken Spurs as far as it can in terms of development on the pitch.
“The stadium, facilities and links to the NFL have all directly been a result of the off-the-pitch investment,” Thomas says. “However, on the pitch, the fears of being left behind by other top six-sides, and now other clubs that are investing and progressing, are very real for a lot of Spurs fans.
“Year on year we see new managers, more recently ‘serial winners’, given the same squad of players with zero squad depth and are expected to challenge for the most prestigious competitions in Europe and fail to do so, which perhaps hints that something needs to change elsewhere for this club to ever progress.
“It comes back to that one thought: ‘How many times would Daniel Levy have sacked Daniel Levy?’.”
Progress can be judged on many factors (finishing fourth is now deemed a big achievement; winning a domestic cup doesn’t mean what it used to), but what’s undeniable is Spurs have grown substantially as a club under ENIC and Levy, certainly off the pitch but also on it, where they have become a regular fixture at the top end of the table. In the 1990s, their average league position was 10th (including two finishes of 15th and another in 14th); in the 2010s, it was fourth.
However, as Thomas says, taking that next step to becoming a club properly competing for honors is a must.
“There is an undeniable correlation between added investment and winning silverware and some may point in the direction of Conte’s previous summer window to shut down this point, but it needs to be consistent investment to achieve anything substantial,” he says.
“The rise of Newcastle has shown Spurs what added investment can bring to a football club, not only financially but also a belief, from a fans’ point of view, of a positive and exciting future for the club.
“They (Newcastle) have shown that smart investment into certain areas of the squad while buying and trusting into a manager’s philosophy can lead to instant success and, although the season is far from over, defy expectations and lead the club into uncharted territory.
“Arsenal, as another example, have shown that investment into the overall squad and trusting (manager) Mikel Arteta, even in the toughest of times over the past few years, pays off in the long term. Seeing this (Arsenal’s improvement) has definitely added fuel to the burning ‘ENIC/Levy Out’ fire, as the grass looks greener on the other side.”
Whatever the opinion on Levy, a common theme is that communication can certainly be improved.
THST has written to the board with a number of questions they say the club has indicated a willingness to answer, about the long-term strategy, player recruitment and further investment. The trust says that any concerns it has are “exacerbated by a lack of communication with supporters”.
“Clubs would do themselves a favor if they shared things with independent, democratic organizations such as a supporters’ trust, who clearly want the clubs they support to succeed,” co-chair Cavalier adds.
“Communications broke down over the Super League – the club had previously denied interest in being part of one, but we’ve had discussions with them around that and we’ve been rebuilding relationships since then.
“Our job is to best reflect the views of Spurs fans, which range from ‘ENIC out’ to people who are happy with the stewardship and asking what others are complaining about.
“I think the truth lies in the middle — that there are general concerns.”
So, if not ENIC, who? In theory, would Tottenham supporters take endless millions from anywhere if it meant competing financially with Manchester CityChelsea and Newcastle?
“Who do you get in? A change of owner is not a magic formula, you have to look at each investor with critical eyes,” Cavalier says. “Our view isn’t, ‘You take money from wherever’. It’s important who the owners and investors are.
“Our central message is we don’t call for ENIC out. We do think there are legitimate questions. We’ve asked the board a number of questions which we think need answering and we’re pleased to have a commitment to get some answers.”
Thomas believes it will be difficult for ENIC and Levy to win back those fans who are now calling for them to go.
“Investment needs to be consistent,” he says. “A potential one-off summer of investment wouldn’t take back the year Tottenham failed to sign a single player for (then-manager Mauricio) Pochettino in a summer window (2018) or the countless times managers were provided a ‘cheaper option’ to a priority target and then sacked for falling short of expectations.”
But could change be afoot? The owners of serial French champions Paris Saint-Germain, Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), want to buy a stake in a Premier League club and have held talks with Tottenham as one of several options.
QSI representatives have met Levy to discuss the possibility of investment, although the north London club denied to The Athletic that any such talks had taken place.
Would such a move ease fans’ concerns, or just create new ones?
“Judging by the reaction to that news, I think a majority of fans would be open to ownership from anywhere,” says Thomas, although he does acknowledge that other supporters are less comfortable with the idea.
Beat Arsenal on Sunday and all will seem well in the world of Spurs again, for a few hours at least.
But whatever your viewpoint, it’s clear there are underlying issues which won’t be solved by what happens on the pitch in the next few weeks.
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images, design: Sam Richardson)
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