It feels like the first day of spring in Spurs Lodge, Tottenham’s palatial training center in the Essex countryside, to the east of London. Outside the sun is peeking out and inside, the desks in the press lounge are replete with leaflets showing artist impressions of plans to improve the Lodge (and of the club’s proposed new stadium development at Northumberland Park). The shoots of regeneration are everywhere, literally and metaphorically.
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Ahead of Sunday’s north London derby at Arsenal, there is a growing swell of feeling that the power balance has tipped. Walking in from the adjoining pitches with a cheerful gait, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart exude a measured assurance, free of arrogance but glowing with the belief of being in the midst of something special.
“Nobody thought we were going to be where we are now at the start of the season,” Bale tells FOX Soccer, “so we’ve probably exceeded expectations so far. We’re a close group and we get on well, and just the fact that we’re playing good football and enjoying ourselves helps us a lot.”
Van der Vaart transmits a similar zeal. “We enjoy our game,” he beams. “We have a lot of big players, but they’re not egos or anything. We have a real team. We want to win and to fight for each other. This next month is really important.”
Next week’s White Hart Lane meeting with Premier League champion Manchester United can, however, wait. For now. On Sunday, Tottenham travels to the Emirates 10 points ahead of the Gunners and can all but cut Arsène Wenger’s side adrift with a win. Spurs and their fans have waited too long to enjoy ruling the local roost to let this derby be dismissed as a mere entrée. So is there an unusual feeling in the locker room to taking on Arsenal as favorite?
“Not really,” van der Vaart says bluntly. “They lost a lot of good players. They have some good young talents, but when you play in the Premier League, you also need some experienced players.” He has no intention of writing Wenger’s out-of-form men off, though. “It’s also dangerous,” he says, “because they can’t play worse than when they lost in Milan and then in Sunderland. Maybe they’ll play their best game against us – you never know.
"But of course we feel good and we’re going there to win the game. Maybe in the past we’d go to Arsenal hoping to win, and now we think we can win, and that’s the main difference.”
Bale places the swing of power in the context of Spurs’ own progress. “The gap’s become a lot smaller now,” the Welshman says. “We’ve shown this season that we’re capable of being right up there challenging for the title. Arsenal have sold a few players this season which has been hard for them, but we’ve shown our character and desire to climb up the table and be real contenders.”
Nobody is calling the engraver to get Tottenham’s name etched on the Premier League trophy just yet, but the feeling of quiet confidence is inescapable. “There’s a belief that we’re good enough,” Bale admits. “We’re not too fussed about thinking too far ahead though. We’re not at the top, so there’s no pressure on us – and no-one expects us to be where we are.”
The players may not be outwardly full of bravado, but the confidence instilled within the locker room by Harry Redknapp is clear. “He always says to us that when we play our game, nobody’s better,” van der Vaart says. “It gives us confidence that he thinks like that and gives us real belief on the pitch. He gives you confidence from the moment he walks in. He makes us feel as if we’re the best players in the world.”
Having come close to a surprise Bundesliga title win with Hamburg in 2006, the experienced van der Vaart is, however, keen to avoid getting ahead of himself and preaches the benefits of tunnel vision. “We were close,” he remembers, “but it’s about the details. Everybody says seven points is a lot, but if they (City and United) lose once, the confidence can drop, so we have to win our games and see what happens, not think about other teams.
"When I played at Hamburg, we were looking at Bayern Munich too much, and we drew a lot of games. So it’s about enjoying the moment, playing our game and then we’ll see.”
Playing its game is exactly what Tottenham intends to do in the heat of the derby. “I think it’s about belief,” suggests Bale, “and being brave enough to play your football when you go to grounds like that.” After an astonishing comeback from a two-goal deficit at halftime in the corresponding fixture last year, Spurs’ mental strength is hardly in question. “In the first half, we hardly even touched the ball,” van der Vaart emphasizes, “then came back to win.”
Both Bale and van der Vaart have made their presences felt in previous derbies and are intrinsic parts of Spurs fighting toe-to-toe with the old enemy. Since his 2010 arrival, van der Vaart has scored four times in three games. “It’s something special,” the Dutchman smiles. “I played a lot of derbies and in this one, you really feel it. When you look in the stands and see people crying, you see what it means to people.”
Bale’s own emergence as one of Tottenham’s – and the Premier League’s – leading lights can be traced back to April 2010, when goals in successive home wins over Arsenal and Chelsea set up a maiden Champions League qualification. “I’m not sure if it made me,” he shrugs, “but it obviously helped people change their minds on me after a period where I hadn’t been playing too much and I was just coming back into the team. And it was vitally important that we won those two games to qualify for the Champions League.”
A return to Europe’s premier competition remains the priority, but Tottenham is daring to dream bigger, with a team at last befitting of the club’s famous motto, Audere est facere (‘to dare is to do’).
“In the first few days after I came here, I saw we had great quality,” van der Vaart reflects, “and that we could have a great season, which we did. Maybe in my first year, we were still missing a few players, but we’ve got them now in (Emmanuel) Adebayor and Scotty Parker.” It says plenty for Tottenham’s renewed stature that the derby is now a step on the road, rather than the ultimate destination.