Lasagne-gate: When pasta cost Tottenham a spot in Europe
Tottenham have been accused of bottling a lot of big games.
They finished third in a two-horse race in 2015/16. They fluffed their lines in the 2016/17 Champions League and then succumbed to Genk in the Europa League. Giorgio Chiellini famously said it's the history of Tottenham (add your own Italian accent) after watching them collapse against his Juventus side in 2018. 'Spursy' is literally a word to describe someone who bottles something.
Their mentality has been a huge problem in the past, but in the top-four race of 2005/06, it was actually a sketchy batch of pasta which saw Spurs crumble to the ground.
Heading into the final day of the season, Spurs looked to have a spot in the top four in the bag. They had survived their last real test - a 1-1 draw with fifth-placed Arsenal - and needed to simply match the Gunners' result against Wigan to confirm their spot in the Champions League for the first time ever.
Martin Jol took his side to West Ham feeling good. He'd just welcomed striker Robbie Keane and midfielder Michael Carrick back from injury and were facing a Hammers side who were planning to rest a handful of stars in preparation for their upcoming FA Cup final against Liverpool. What could go wrong?
The night before the game, Jol ordered his side to stay at the Marriott West India Quay hotel, attempting to give the occasion the kind of big-game feel it deserved. The players, who had been expecting to stay at home that night as normal, went along with it.
It was all a bit hectic, so the hotel staff put on a buffet for the squad, featuring some nice, tasty lasagne...or poison.
At around 1am, Spurs players started to call in sick. Reports suggested as many as ten of the first-team squad were vomiting their guts out all night long, but Jol later revealed it was far worse.
"I can sum up the players who were not sick," Jol said (via The Guardian). "There was Paul Robinson, Stephen Kelly, Anthony Gardner and Jermain Defoe and the rest were sick. So we had to call for some reserve players."
Immediately after the extent of the vomit spree became apparent, Spurs chief Daniel Levy contacted the Premier League to request a postponement, but was swiftly shot down. Spurs were invited not to turn up, but their absence would face an investigation which could see them docked points, as had happened to Middlesbrough in 1996/97 when the Teesiders decided a bug was too serious for them to play.
Perhaps a compromise was in order? Jol was happy to play on that day but wanted the game pushed back from 3pm to 7pm, but he was knocked back by the police. Fans had been flooding into local pubs as soon as they opened their doors, and the police decided it was not safe to delay the game. It had to be 3pm. Spurs had to play.
"A lot of the lads were running on empty - literally," recalled Jermaine Jenas in a column for Yahoo. "Even while the gaffer Martin Jol was giving his team talk before the game, players were being sick in the toilets. Once the game started players were literally running off the pitch. It was carnage.
Spurs were a broken side before kick-off, and they were under pressure early on as Arsenal took an eighth-minute lead against Wigan. Two minutes later, they were trailing themselves as Carl Fletcher fired home a wonderful opener for West Ham.
Defoe tied things up heading into the break, and with Arsenal drawing as well, there was a feeling that Spurs might have dodged a bullet. Unfortunately, a second-half brace from Thierry Henry meant Spurs had to win, and they did not.
In the 80th minute, Yossi Benayoun weaved his way past Michael Dawson before firing home the kill-shot. Spurs sunk to the ground out of both emotional and physical exhaustion. They could not take one more second of this.
"By the end of it we felt so horrific that the fact we had just lost out on the Champions League, on the last day of the season, to Arsenal, with West Ham in the next room having the biggest party ever, was almost of secondary importance," Jenas recalled.
The fallout from the scandal was chaos. Spurs had the police and Trading Standards involved amid accusations that somebody at West Ham had intentionally poisoned them, but no foul play was ever discovered. The food itself was cleared and the final verdict was that the Spurs squad had been struck down by a virus - a ruling literally nobody believed.
Spurs ate a batch of dodgy pasta, and it cost them a spot in the Champions League.