by Jack Howes
This article is time for a confession, for me to talk to a Priest (hopefully a nice one, not those stern, scary homophobic ones) and prove I’m more Irish than Andy Townsend: I am twenty years old, heterosexual and am yet to fall in love with a female.
Yes, despite what you see on Eastenders, Corrie or those dreadful American teen dramas on Channel 4 where sexy teens, hot dads and Moms with MILF appeal can’t stop copping off with each other while going through every ‘issue’ imaginable, I’m yet to fall in love with anything other than Mars Bars, fish and chips, Tottenham Hotspur, Andre Villas-Boas, the London Underground and my Barnet side on Football Manager 2012. None of whom I can take home with me and introduce as my other half. Not without me being diagnosed with a severe mental illness anyway. Or myself and AVB becoming gay.
That’s not totally true actually. There’s one other person who I feel a deep liking for, who I’ve been missing increasingly since he left my beloved club.
Rafael Van der Vaart sadly left Spurs at the end of the August transfer window, returning to his former club Hamburg. At the time the transfer didn’t trouble me unduly. I missed him, but he was aging, quite keen to leave and with Villas-Boas building a team based around pace and power (things Rafa never had), not well suited to the new demands made of him by the new style of play.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and with Rafa that certainly is the case. Not only has he been missed as a footballer, with replacements Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson respectively out of form and playing with all the confidence of a school kid who’s just wet himself in afternoon Maths, but his on-pitch demeanour has also been missed.
Even when the team were doing badly, Rafa would give his best, demand maximum effort and concentration from teammates. He was at his best in the big games, scoring four goals in four games against Arsenal. Along with his goals he would whip the crowd into a frenzy, intimidate the opposition, leave everything out on the pitch by the hour mark (he was almost endearingly never fit enough to last a whole game). He had a self-belief that few others had, had the ‘we’re not gonna lose today no matter what’ attitude not many have. He was a leader, someone you could rely on to always give his best.
That would be to ignore his football. Van der Vaart is the brainiest player I’ve seen play for Spurs. His awareness of space, positioning on and off the ball, ability to pick a pass were second to none. He never had any pace and was usually blowing out of his arse before half time but still he would be flitting between midfield and attack, getting hold of the ball, looking for points of weakness in the opposition.
He was very Dutch (if that makes sense) in how he excelled in the more cerebral aspects of the game. David Winner’s superb book Brilliant Orange highlights the Dutch obsession with space, how for centuries the country’s lack of size had forced its people to use space intelligently. This found a way into the Dutch football psyche. Van der Vaart was a perfect example, constantly finding space, trying to get into space, trying to get other players into space.
Technically and skill-wise, only Berbatov and Luka Modric beat him out of all the players I’ve seen for Spurs. Rafa had a great first touch, wonderful control, was a superb volleyer of the ball. He was immensely gifted in every area of attacking play. All he was missing was pace and any idea of how to play defensively. Rafa tracking back was always worrying to see as a fan as it usually indicated a stupidly given away free kick or penalty for the other team was about to occur. Where with most players I’d have lambasted him for this, with Rafa I found it likable, charming almost.
When he arrived at Spurs, he was the highest calibre of player we’d signed in years. While most of Spurs best players are bought when they’re young and still developing, Rafa was almost thirty and couldn’t get into the Real Madrid team. Still, he’d played for Real Madrid. That in itself meant something. Tottenham don’t sign Real Madrid players. In the same way reasonable human beings don’t wear their previous day’s underwear, Spurs don’t sign players from Spanish giants, especially not players with almost a hundred caps for Holland.
He signed for us, was in our first team straight away and immediately became one of our best players. He scored plenty of goals, assisted plenty, played with a spark, a joie de vivre that many players, especially English ones simply don’t do. His goals were in big games too – the first against Inter at the Lane, the equalising penalty at the Emirates when we came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2, a brace in the thrilling 3-3 draw against Arsenal. And he nutmegged Jack Wilshere. Twice.
They were also of a beautifully high quality. I think of the wonderful dummy against Aston Villa which saw Richard Dunne lunge for the ball and made to look like a drunk at closing time, the slow moving volley at Liverpool, the superbly placed finishes at Villa Park, at Bolton, at Blackburn at home against Swansea, against Arsenal more than once, the way at home to QPR he gave Paddy Kenny the eyes, watched him dive one way then slotted the ball home the other. All superbly taken goals.
Off the pitch he came across as a true gent. He was polite, well spoken, had a supermodel wife (not as good looking as Rafa himself though), talked good football sense and consistently praised the fans. Not to mention making many a shirt seller on Tottenham High Road on matchdays happy through the ‘I Haart Den Vaart’ shirt that proved to be popular.
Now he’s gone, I’ve come to realise how I’ve missed him. Spurs have been sorely lacking someone to play behind the striker. Rafa could have been that guy. We’ve also simply missed someone with the skill, passion and self-belief he had and which he spread to his teammates. His infectious enthusiasm, the reason why my liking for him developed into something more than mere liking, has been absent since he left.