A long time ago, in a transitional season far, far away, Frank Arnesen was our saviour. In the insular world of English football, where the words ‘Director of Football’ merely conjured images of David Pleat trawling the streets of Peterborough in his Saab, trying to pick up a stray Simon Davies or grab a startled Matthew Etherington before he bolted, Arnesen was a seductive proposition for Spurs fans – a Danish beacon of light at the end of a dark tunnel of failed recruitment. He was the DoF recast as guru and given a dash of hipster chic: a multilingual continental with an encyclopaedic knowledge of players, who was into Ronaldo before it was cool and would give you his report on the Czech U-17 wing-back he’d been scouting, but you probably wouldn’t like him because, you know, he’s pretty obscure. So exotic was Arnesen that he even brought a new name for the role with him – the decidedly vague ‘Sporting Director’.
Ultimately, like all our new dawns, it went tits up. After a novel eighteen months, where deficiencies in the playing squad were actually being addressed in the transfer market, ‘Funtime’ Frankie decided that his love of plucking Cape Verdian youth internationals from the Dutch reserve league was second to his love of plucking Rubles from the pockets of the morally bereft, and unsportingly directed himself to Stamford Bridge. Not, though, before leaving us with one final present…
Paul Stalteri’s transfer to Tottenham Hotspur on a Bosman free transfer was announced on 16th May 2005. Stalteri, a right-back capped over 50 times by his native Canada, arrived via Germany, where he had helped Werder Bremen win the double, prompting their fans to hold up ‘Danke Paul’ placards en masse during his final game for the club. With a granite jawline and eyebrows you could lose yourself in, ‘Diesel’ looked every inch the man to add some testicular fortitude to a young Spurs team. Furthermore, in an age before social media, it was mildly exciting that Stalteri had his own charmingly basic-looking personal website, where one could while away the hours enjoying candid pictures of Paul relaxing at home with his implausibly handsome Alaskan Malamute dog, Melly, and his implausibly beautiful wife, Christina.
The standards set at full-back at Spurs in the modern era were not particularly high, thanks to a charitable programme run by the club throughout the 1990s which offered lower-league full-backs the opportunity to experience what it would be like to be a top-tier footballer. A well-meaning endeavour that backfired badly when those bumbling cloggers ended up sticking around long enough to earn testimonials. Stalteri arrived to find the incumbent in his favoured right-back slot was one Noé Pamarot, an entity who had valiantly overcome being born 92% thigh to forge a career as professional footballer, albeit one whose posture and facial expression resembled a man troubled by severe constipation whenever he was asked to cross the halfway line. The bar, in other words, had not been set very high.
In his first season, Stalteri slotted straight in at right-back in Martin Jol’s lopsided 4-4-2 system; tasked with dropping into a back three in possession to allow Aaron Lennon, with whom he formed a decent understanding, and left-back Lee Young-pyo to advance unencumbered and provide width. However, misunderstanding about the nature of his role, or a rather harsh judgment on his functional, unspectacular skill set, soon led to entirely uncharacteristic grumbling and rush-to-judgment from the Spurs fanbase. Stalteri was criticised for a lack of attacking flair, a perceived propensity for defensive errors and his general Canadian-ness. Midway through the season, Jol relented to fan pressure and Stalteri lost his place to academy graduate Stephen Kelly, raising the possibility that his first year in North London may also be his last. Kelly was an inoffensive but limited alternative, who excelled at little besides being repeatedly beaten to the ball at the far post. After a short spell which demonstrated that the grass isn’t always greener, Stalteri returned to the starting eleven against Manchester City at White Hart Lane and had an immediate impact – inexplicably turning up in the box to single-mindedly barge his way past Mido and tuck away Robbie Keane’s parried shot. The Spurs fans were elated and placated. The Canadian was here to stay, thanks to a surely one-off piece of penalty box poaching.
However, the respite was brief, and Stalteri ended the 2005-2006 season being harshly blamed for the Thierry Henry goal that denied us a win over Arsenal in the last ever North London Derby at Highbury. Things went from bad to worse that summer, when Jol brought in ‘attacking’ full-back and all-round charmer Pascal Chimbonda as an ‘upgrade’ in the right-back position. As one would expect from such an exemplary pro, Stalteri took it in his stride, talking of ‘competition being good for the team’, but his ability to challenge for his spot was disrupted by a string of injuries in the first half of the season. By March, though, he was fit and took his place on the bench as Spurs travelled to Upton Park for a crucial London derby.
West Ham’s season had begun with a flood of hyperbole. Talk was of the financial might of the entire Icelandic nation being funnelled into the club via the conduit of their new chairman – nominative determinism’s Eggert Magnússon, whose head notably retained perfect symmetry through a 180-degree rotation. Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano were high profile arrivals, prompting an insufferably smug Alan Pardew to threaten to smash the ‘Big Four’ monopoly. By the second half of the season, Pardew had been sacked and the only thing the Hammers were threatening was to relegate themselves.
The script was written – avenge ‘Lasagne-gate’ and send West Ham down – but it was quickly torn up as the home side cruised to a 2-0 lead before half-time. A Jermain Defoe penalty just after the interval offered hope, and Martin Jol, in a seemingly bizarre tactical move, decided to bring on Stalteri for Jermaine Jenas, shifting Chimbonda to right midfield and Aaron Lennon to the left. The switch brought an immediate dividend – Teemu Tainio equalising with a sweet volley after Lennon’s clever flick from a Dimitar Berbatov cross. Desperate to take the three points, Alan Curbishley threw the kitchen sink at Spurs, bringing on two more strikers, and with five minutes left of the ninety Bobby Zamora scored what looked like the winner that could keep West Ham up. Jol responded with his own wildcard, Adel Taarabt, whose meandering run won a free kick that Berbatov nonchalantly despatched to tie the game at 3-3 with one minute of the ninety to go.
West Ham were unbowed, and flooded forward to try and find a winner. In the fifth minute of injury time Tevez’s corner was scrambled half clear, and Lee Young-pyo’s block tackle fell to Stalteri. The break was on, and Ontario’s finest advanced at pace, then slipped the ball to Defoe and continued charging forward like a man possessed, overtaking Lennon on the way. Defoe weaved away from Paul Konchesky but his shot was weak, though not as weak as Rob Green’s parry back into the danger area where our Canadian put a boot on the ball to tap it into the gaping net. ‘Oh no,’ sighed Alan Parry in the TV commentary at the hammer blow, as Stalteri ran into the arms of the delirious Spurs fans and the camera cut to a distraught West Ham chairman, his forehead, or possibly his chin, in his hands.
In one single, beautiful moment the previously maligned Paul Stalteri became a legend. The Spurs faithful, making their way home from Upton Park, proclaimed him the love of their lives, granted him permission to engage in carnal relations with their spouses and indicated a desire to gain Canadian citizenship. Sentiments that are harder to fit on a placard than ‘Danke Paul’, but no less heartfelt.
[An edited version of this piece appeared on The Tottenham Way website in December 2015 as part of their ‘advent calendar’.]