LONDON — It may be a meaningless statistic in terms of promotion or relegation, but Tottenham Hotspur has earned fewer points — 36 — than any other club in the Premiership during 2003.

Christopher Davies

The unofficial title of being the worst team of the year underlines the alarming decline over the past 12 months. For Tottenham read Rottenham.

Spurs ended the year in the bottom three — their lowest top flight standing on New Year’s Day since 1910 — and while relegation still seems an unlikely eventuality, caretaker manager David Pleat said: “We are aware of the danger signs.”

Of the five Premiership games Spurs have won, the last three have come against Leicester, Aston Villa and Wolves, all of whom were in the relegation zone at the time. Their other two victories were against Leeds and Everton. Leeds is now in the bottom three, while Everton is only just above the safety level. In other words, Tottenham has not beaten a side of any Premiership significance this season.

Tottenham sacked Glenn Hoddle in September, but despite an initial improvement when Pleat took over, four consecutive defeats have seen Spurs dragged into a relegation dogfight.

News photoGuus Hiddink

It was not that long ago that Tottenham boasted players such as Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne and Jurgen Klinsmann. These days it is Ledley King, Bobby Zamora, Helder Postiga, Stephane Dalmat and Goran Bunjevcevic — a far cry from the sort of talented individuals the White Hart Lane faithful have been used to.

While Arsenal has consistently challenged for (and won) honors, Tottenham is a pretender, not a contender, looking for a decent cup run to rescue another season of underachievement.

Tottenham supporters go to White Hart Lane more in hope than expectancy these days and after just about every match the lines to the football phone-ins are on overload with frustrated Spurs fans.

Perhaps surprisingly, fans are not sure whom to blame. Sir Alan Sugar was forced to step down as chairman three years ago, in the wake of continued criticism, because he was the man who had appointed George Graham as manager.

Graham was never accepted by many Spurs followers, because of his Arsenal connections, so when Sugar left and new chairman Daniel Levy made Hoddle manager in March 2001, the white half of north London was happy.

Hoddle, a Tottenham supporter and one of the club’s truly great players, was coming back to White Hart Lane. It seemed a shrewd move football-wise and PR-wise, but Hoddle’s return as manager proved less successful than his career as a player.

He and director of football David Pleat never saw eye-to-eye and Hoddle’s departure paved the way for a public airing of dirty laundry, which was great for the tabloids but harmful for morale within a club that has lost its way.

Jimmy Greaves, the former Tottenham striker, points the finger at Pleat for the club’s demise.

“The only solution to the appalling mess they have landed themselves in is a mass clearout and the first man to be shown the door should be David Pleat,” he said.

“No half decent manager in his right mind will go near the place while Pleat is sticking his oar in. If Daniel Levy really believes Alan Curbishley or Martin O’Neill would jack in their current job to work under a bloke like Pleat, he is even more stupid that I thought.”

Hoddle, who would no doubt agree with Greaves’ assessment of Pleat, is probably a fine coach, but his man-management skills have earned him much criticism, his arrogance and unwillingness to listen to anybody else speeding his downfall.

At the end of last season, the Spurs board was split on whether Hoddle should stay and Levy used his casting vote in his manager’s favor. The warning lights were flashing, but Levy sanctioned a £12 million summer spending spree that was second only to Chelsea, admittedly about £100 million behind the Blues’ outlay.

Zamora, Helder Postiga and Freddie Kanoute — three strikers — were recruited, but with the squad clearly not behind Hoddle the run of poor results continued.

Defeat by his former club Southampton in September proved to be the end for Hoddle, so six games into the new season with £12 million worth of new talent still finding its way, Levy belatedly axed the manager. During Hoddle’s two and a half years in charge, Spurs spent £35 million on 16 players, recouping just under £7 million in sales.

For Southampton, it was too good to be true — a 3-1 win and the man they called Judas, after he walked out on them, dismissed.

There was a brief increase in commitment and some encouraging results under caretaker-manager David Pleat, which was more of a reaction to Hoddle’s departure than anything else.

But normal service was soon resumed and Spurs ended 2003 facing a relegation battle after four consecutive league defeats.

The £500,000 signing of Sheffield United midfielder Michael Brown is hardly likely to placate the White Hart Lane faithful, who are fed up with journeymen and unknown foreigners who make fortunes for giving very little.

Postiga cost Spurs £6.25 million from FC Porto, rising to £8.25 million after a certain number of appearances. As the Portuguese striker, who looks a million miles from being Premiership standard, has not been a regular, Spurs seem unlikely to have to cough up too much of the extra £2 million. His 14 appearances have yet to produce a goal.

Zamora scored a hatful of goals for Brighton in the lower leagues — 70 in 119 league appearances — but has yet to find the back of the net in 14 Premiership outings.

Other Hoddle buys such as Bunjevcevic, Japan’s Kazuyuki Toda and Milenko Acimovic, have made little impression in the Premiership and his long-term successor faces an uphill struggle to even make Spurs competitive.

Levy said the board has identified the new chief coach, who will be responsible only for team matters, with a director of football running the business side.

This columnist understands that man is Guus Hiddink, coach of PSV Eindhoven who led South Korea to an unlikely fourth-place finish at the 2002 World Cup finals.

Hiddink has previously worked at Valencia and Real Madrid, plus the Holland national team, and his two-year contract with PSV ends this summer.

The first job of the new man will be to raise morale, because there is an atmosphere of almost resigned acceptance to mediocrity within the club right now.

Around 100 fans protested in the parking lot after last Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat by Charlton, rounding on players such as Kanoute and Robbie Keane as they left the ground.

Kanoute, French-born of Malian parents, has decided to play for Mali, which means the striker could miss around a month of domestic football if he is away on international duty at the African Nations Cup in January and February.

Pleat wants the team’s leading goalscorer to put club before country but said: “I don’t think there is any way we can stop him going (to Tunisia for the finals). We’ll have to see how the situation develops, but obviously it’s not in Freddie’s or the club’s interests for him to go.”

More immediately, Tottenham plays Crystal Palace in the F.A. Cup on Saturday and defeat would see a much bigger public display of dissatisfaction at White Hart Lane.

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