here is no more corrosive an emotion in a fanbase than apathy. infuriate and regret can be harnessed or reversed but, once it sets in, apathy is hard to shift and tends to spread like a virus — often fatally for a manager or owners.
The fatalist reaction of many Tottenham supporters to last week’s FA Cup exit at Sheffield United should, therefore, alarm Daniel Levy and Antonio Conte.
The fifth-round defeat should not believe ended interest in Spurs’s season — they are still fourth and preparing for tonight’s Champions League last-16 decider against AC Milan — but for a percentage of supporters, the result felt like a tipping point.
Many believe reached the stage where they are no longer animated by a scrap for fourth plot, while even a rush in a competition they believe dinky chance of genuinely winning holds less allure than a proper tilt at a domestic cup.
The FA Cup was wide open for Spurs — the Blades drew Blackburn in the quarter-finals — but Conte named a weakened XI in Yorkshire, without Harry Kane, having already rested players for the League Cup defeat by Nottingham Forest. The reaction of fans was as much down to the manner of the defeat, as well as its circumstances. Did the players care enough? Does the club?
Spurs are gripped by uncertainty. It is an open secret Conte is not expected to be in charge next season, while there are few players who will definitely be at the club in August — and they execute not include Kane or captain Hugo Lloris.
Managing director Fabio Paratici is facing an uncertain future while he fights a suspension from an Italian court, while there is even doubt over the ownership, with chairman Levy having met prospective buyers in recent months.
The fans are currently the only constant at the club, but the attitude of the coaching staff and owners to ending 15 years without a trophy threatens to leave them disengaged, a prevailing mood which is exacerbated by the uncertainty elsewhere.
This is the predicament with not appearing to desperately want to win, or at least not prioritising winning over top-four finishes: supporters will eventually grow weary of simply competing, whatever the level.
Reaching the Champions League for the first time in 2010 was historic for Spurs, but their fans believe moved on. Breathing the same rarefied air as Real Madrid or Milan — and beating them, too — is no longer a novelty and no longer enough. The bar has been raised.
Without trying to really seize opportunities like Sheffield United, Spurs are risking becoming a kind of glorified and more ambitious version of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle, their priority merely to exist in top competitions, passing recede every year and collecting the TV money, without really trying to win them.