Keeping Gareth Bale, signing Paulinho and learning from last season's heartache has filled club captain with belief
Tottenham Hotspur held their new kit launch at a trendy Shoreditch venue this week, the event all strobe lighting and thumping house music as a quartet of players, club captain and star performer among them, burst through a mock brick wall sporting the snazzy new shirts. Yet, even through the metronomic nightclub din, the message from those involved came across loud and clear. "We had a great squad already, and keeping Gareth [Bale] is massive," said Michael Dawson. "A little bit of tweaking and strengthening, and we'll have improved again. Now we have to earn the right to finish in the top four."
Spurs have been scarred by local rivals in the last two seasons. Twice, Arsenal have chased them down over the run-in, overturning deficits that once yawned between the Champions League places and the apparent also-rans to leave those at White Hart Lane deflated. Arsène Wenger's side dropped only four points in their last 10 matches last term to ensure their defeat at Tottenham in the first week of March, a result that had felt so critical at the time, ultimately counted for nothing. André Villas-Boas's players lost only twice in the same period but their own haul of 18 points left them fifth. A club record haul in the modern era was not enough.
It ended up feeling like failure, with life outside Europe's elite inevitably provoking concern over Bale's immediate future and Spurs' ability to compete for the best. Their manager, too, was coveted by Paris Saint-Germain – one of the world's richest and most ambitious clubs – and yet, as they prepare for a pre-season that will take them from Swindon to Monaco via Hong Kong, theirs is a sense of optimism.
Bale appears eager to remain for at least another campaign. Villas-Boas, a manager who is reinventing his reputation on these shores after his brief and unhappy time at Chelsea, is retained and committed. Paulinho, the Brazil midfielder courted by Real Madrid and Internazionale, is a £17m Spurs player with more eye-catching arrivals still expected to come. The sense is this team will be stronger as he seek to make amends.
"There's no hiding that the end of last season was a massive disappointment," said Dawson. "To have finished with 72 points, a Tottenham record, and yet missed out on the Champions League, our target back at the start of the season … But we go again. I'm always positive going into a new campaign. What Arsenal did in the run-in last year was amazing, and there you go. What can you do? We have to learn from what happened, where one or two bad results ended up costing us, but also keep doing what we were doing last year, performing well on a regular basis, getting points when the going is tough, and playing that football with the same style. People loved watching us. And, while everyone says the other teams at the top are improving, so are we.
"We definitely come back stronger. The signing of Paulinho over the weekend was a big statement. I saw him in the Confederations Cup this summer and he'd been strongly linked with various clubs, so it's nice for us to get our hands on him. Then there's keeping Gaz, too. I've been lucky enough to play with some top players here, like Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov and Luka Modric, and seen them move on. So to keep hold of Gareth, a world-class player who had such an incredible season last year, while also bringing others in will only stand us in good stead. It changes the whole mood around the place. The hope is that, in a year's time, we're sitting here looking forward to a Champions League campaign. Now we have to go and earn that right."
Tottenham, inevitably, will remain active in the market until the transfer deadline on 2 September. They have missed out on David Villa, apparently lost interest in Leandro Damião, but Belgium's Christian Benteke and the striker's compatriot, Nacer Chadli, could yet be secured. There is a vibrancy to the squad that will not be dimmed by last season's near-miss for long, and keeping Villas-Boas out of PSG's clutches felt pivotal.
"He has certainly shown what he can do," said Dawson. "We all know what happened at Chelsea, but you have to remember he won the Europa League with Porto. He is a young manager and he is like all of us: we all want to win things. He is ambitious and knows what he wants to achieve. He's proved his quality."
For the club captain to reserve such praise of the Portuguese is notable if only because, a year ago, the new manager was willing to allow the 29-year-old to leave. With others ahead of him in the pecking order at centre-half, a fee was even agreed with Queens Park Rangers to take Dawson across the capital only for the player to opt to stay and fight for a first-team place. By the end of the campaign he was a mainstay again with his manager won over. "I believed I could get back into the team and never doubted my own ability. Thankfully, he gave me my chance and I took it," Dawson added. "But, even so, you have to stay on your toes. There's always someone else ready to play.
"We've got Jan [Vertonghen], Younès (Kaboul) and Steven Caulker, all top players, all here hoping to get games, so there's always work to be done. That competition helps. Ideally, I'd like to stay at this club for the rest of my career, but the reality is as long as the manager and the chairman want me, I'll be here. But that is all for another day. I've been here a long time now, over eight years, and I'd love to be finishing this campaign by lifting a trophy or getting us back in that top four, where we all want to be. That is the target."
This club's ambition remains intact. The hope is they will emerge stronger for last year's disappointment.
Under Armour is the Official Technical Partner of Tottenham Hotspur. For more information and to pre-order the new 2013-14 home and away kits, please visit www.tottenhamhotspur.com