A Love Letter to Roman Pavlyuchenko
“Pavlyuchenko, it’s not over here yet…”
As the old adage goes, it’s never advisable to sign a player purely off the back of a good performance at an international tournament and looking back, in the cold, hard, logical light of day, this probably rings true with Roman Pavlyuchenko. But being a football fan is about more than this kind of pragmatism; it’s about the moments that you’ll remember and for all Pav’s many, many shortcomings as a footballer, he certainly gave us a fair few of those.
Spurs signed Pavlyuchenko from Spartak Moscow off the back of an eye-catching five games at Euro 2008 in which he scored three crucial goals as the Russians reached the semi-finals. This wasn’t to mention the more high-profile feat, at least in English eyes, of scoring both goals as Russia downed England in qualification for the aforementioned Euros, a result which ultimately condemned the Three Lions to a humiliating failure to qualify. And so it was with a reasonable degree of excitement that we greeted his transfer in September of 2008; along with club record signing Darren Bent (Jesus Christ that’s still painful to type) as well as a host of other exciting signings, he looked set to replace most of the goals, if not the flair, of outgoing duo Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane. However, football is often a simple game and in hindsight it was ridiculous to expect anybody we could realistically sign would replace what was arguably the division’s best strike partnership at the time.
The loss of those two players was always going to have a tangible impact, but not even the most pessimistic of Spurs fans, and trust me when I say there are a lot of those, could have predicted the nightmare start we made to the 2008–09 season. Juande Ramos’s men took a measly two points from their opening eight games, with Pavlyuchenko failing to find the net in any of them, and with the board starting to panic about a relegation that was never realistically going to occur, Daniel Levy pulled the trigger and appointed Harry Redknapp as firefighter.
This is where my love affair with Pav begins. Redknapp is renowned for his ability to put his arm round the shoulder of players who are not world beaters, perhaps, but who still have something to offer and coax improved performances out of them (initially at least), and Pavlyuchenko certainly falls into this bracket. As results and the mood around the club inevitably started to pick up, so did Pav’s confidence. He scored the opener in our first win of the season, at home to Bolton, as Redknapp watched on from the stands but it is what happened in our next home game which really cemented his place in my heart. Trailing to a Liverpool side which had started the season like a train and had yet to lose, things looked bleak. We somehow dragged ourselves back into the game with 20 minutes to play before building up a head of steam for a big finish. I don’t really remember much about our winner, apart from that it was Pav who tucked it in, but it was a euphoric moment in the driving rain. Maybe it was just because of the complete turgidity of that season so far, maybe it was because I missed Keane and Berbatov and wanted someone else to cling on to, maybe it was because I was eleven years old and a last-minute winner against the league leaders was immensely exciting considering I had spent the whole of my first term at secondary school taking stick for our utter shambles of a side, but from that moment Pav was a real favourite of mine.
And this brings us back to this notion of ‘moments’ being the real reason we all watch football. Pavlyuckenko was an immensely frustrating striker to watch at times but he remains one of those players I have seen for Spurs where I look back and immediately recall a whole highlights reel of fondly-remembered moments. That winner against Liverpool, the goal at Burnley which saved us in the League Cup semi-final, the deftly-executed header at Old Trafford to give us the lead in the cup, the clincher in that exhilarating win over Inter, the screamers against Chelsea, Wolves and Birmingham; all of these goals I genuinely cherish. But there is one which stands out above all those.
It is fair to say we started the 2010/11 season in far better nick than when Pav first joined the club two years previously. Redknapp had realised how good the players he inherited actually were and had taken us into the European Cup for the first time in fifty years. But all that hard work was in serious danger of being undone in the qualifier that was supposed to be a formality. Trailing 3–0 after half an hour of the first leg away at Young Boys, a side who until we drew them I had literally never heard of, this was typical Tottenham all over: be on the brink of achieving something of note before
shooting yourself in the foot at the final hurdle. Sebastien Bassong had clawed a goal back before half-time but as we neared the end of the game a two-goal deficit against a team who had inexplicably ripped us to shreds in the first period still looked an absolute bastard to overturn in the second leg. But seven minutes from time up stepped Pav to produce one of those moments of quality he was capable of every once in a while. Collecting a cute through-ball from Robbie Keane, he held off ever so slightly before rifling an absolute missile into the roof of the net first time from an angle and a distance which had looked nearly impossible. Apart from being an extremely aesthetically-pleasing goal, it was a crucial one; two goals had looked very tricky to overcome, now it was one it somehow looked an inevitability we’d finish the job at home. From the moment it left his boot I knew we’d qualify; Pav had just scored one of the most important goals in our club’s recent history. It seems hyperbolic, even ridiculous, really, but to my mind he gave us those great moments which were to come. He gave us Bale’s hat-trick and subsequent dismantling of Maicon, he gave us Crouch’s winner in the San Siro and Gallas’ clearance off the line and the ability to say we were one of the eight best sides in Europe.
And here’s where it gets complicated. I love Pav for all those moments which he gave us but to this day I can’t work out whether it was purely because of those, whether I had a natural and random disposition towards him to begin with, or whether it was just his smiley little face and his curly blond hair which reminded me of my own. That’s the thing with being a football fan; we all have these gut feelings about the players and moments that we witness, and these are hard to shake despite the fact that half the time we have no idea why we even held them in the first place. Pav will widely be remembered as one of those Spurs players who was never quite good enough to be considered someone worth remembering that fondly and who never had quite enough about him to be considered a cult hero. But for me there was something about him, whether it be the memorable goals he scored or just an intangible feeling he gave me, which puts him next to the Malbranques, Zokoras and Huddlestones of this world. And while in all likelihood I spent most of the time I watched him screaming at him to pass it to Bale or calling him a moron after another missed chance, all that is for certain, when viewed in a light which is neither cold or hard, is that Roman Pavlyuchenko is a hero.