The Game is The Game

March 12, 2011 — by John Lally1

The Baltimore Waterway
So that's where you keep the sugar

**WARNING** – This article – teased a long time ago here – contains spoilers for all 5 seasons of The Wire. If you haven’t watched The Wire yet, go to; buy the complete set, watch all 60 hours, then read this. You’ll thank me for it (probably more for having seen The Wire than for this article, but still).

Non-Spurs Fan: “If you know they’re going to end up disappointing and frustrating you, why do you keep supporting them?

Me: “Got to. This Tottenham, man

As my wife would attest, I have a special way of watching Tottenham’s games – leaned forward, literally on the edge of my seat, with a nervous look on my face and the occasional nail being bitten – similar to how I used to sit in  the Paxton Road end of White Hart Lane, now transferred to our sofa in Brooklyn.  The only other thing that has brought me to this viewing position, this physical display of angst, nervousness and sense of impending doom, was the greatest television show ever made, The Wire.

Each season of The Wire is set up very much like one for Tottenham Hotspur: first you have to get used to a new cast of characters and squad members; the story of the season then unfolds with various highs and lows; the penulitmate act brings some type of heartbreak and you then lick your wounds, wrap up and look to see where it will go next year.

Ever Expanding/Changing Cast

The Wire was unique in the way it approached it’s story telling with such a large number of characters – introducing many new ones through the years and trusting that the audience would keep up. In the same way, many a time I’d arrive at White Hart Lane one January and have to try and figure out who the Japanese player wearing number 4 in our midfield was (turns out it was Kazuyuki Toda…no, I have no idea what happened to him either).   Take a look at the major characters introduced through the five years of The Wire (listed as when they became involved in the plots not based on first appearance, cf. Prop Joe is in Season 1 but his significance becomes more apparent from Season 3 onwards), and the players who signed for Tottenham in that same time period (2002-2008)

Tottenham: (2002) Redknapp, Acimovic, Blondel, Ricketts, Hirschfield, Keane. (2003) Toda, Postiga, Zamora, Mabizela, Kanoute, Dalmat, Konchesky. (2004) Brown, Defoe, Robinson, Fulop, Defendi, Mendes, Sean Davis, Leigh Mills, Reto Ziegler, Erik Edman, Timothee Atouba, Naybet, Edson Silva, Pamarot, Carrick, Davenport.  (2005) Mido, Hallfredsson, El Hamadaoui, Radek Cerny, Dawson, Andy Reid, Stalteri, Lennon, Huddlestone, Tainio, Routledge, Young-Pyo Lee, Rasiak, Jenas, Davids.  (2006) Danny Murphy, Ghaly, Berbatov, Assou-Ekotto, Zakora, Dervitte, Malbranque, Chimbonda. (2007) Rocha, Alnwick, Bale, Taarabt, Bent, Kaboul, Rose, Boateng, Gunter. (2008) Woodgate, Hutton, Gilberto, Modric, Dos Santos, Gomes, Bostock, Bentley, Pavlyuchenko, Corluka.

The Wire: (Season 1) McNulty, Bunk, Omar, Stringer, Bubbles, Avon, D’Angelo, Daniels, Kima, Lester, Burrell, Rawls,  Herc, Carver, Prez, Sydnor, Landsman, Maurice Levy, Wee-Bey, Bodie, Poot, Wallace, Pearlman. (Season 2) Frank, Nick & Ziggy Sobotka, Beadie, Valchek, Vondas, The Greek, Brother Mouzone, Butchie, Cheese. (Season 3) Marlo, Carcetti, Bunny, Prop Joe, Slim Charles, Cutty, Johnny, Clay Davis. (Season 4) Dukie, Randy, Namond, Michael, Chris, Snoop, Kenard, Sherrod, Norman Wilson. (Season 5) Gus, Templeton, Alma, Walon, McNutty.

So, more than 50 memorable characters from five seasons of The Wire and more than 70 players signed by Tottenham during those 6 years.  The big difference would be that, while The Wire put this huge cast together into fabulously well woven plots showing that everything and everyone in Baltimore is connected, Spurs have often looked like McNulty trying to put together his Ikea furniture – knowing all the pieces are there but not being able to figure out how to assemble them into something functional.  I imagine Hoddle must have been reaching for the Jamesons as he tried to fit Bunjecevic, a defender, into a holding midfield role (thinking that he was Tottenham’s answer to Arsenal’s then captain, Patrick Vieira – spoiler alert -that didn’t turn out so well). There’s also something about seeing former stars of either The Wire or Spurs turn up in another place – seeing Stringer Bell turn up as Luther or in The Big C, Bunk and Lester in Treme, Pedro Mendes scoring a cracker for Porto or Andy Reid waddling around for Blackpool – it’s like seeing an old friend and catching up with what they’ve been up to since you last saw them.   The one exception to this is when a player had left Spurs when they would have wanted to keep him but the player forced his way out (for example Berbatov, Campbell, Sheringham the first time).  In those cases, there’s a danger that they may get booed upon their return to White Hart Lane.


There are four words that scared me more than any others when watching The Wire – seeing “Written by George Pelecanos” in the opening titles.  Don’t get me wrong, Pelecanos is a fabulous writer and his novels are well worth checking out – but he was David Simon’s axe man, writing the second to last (and most heart wrenching) episode of each of the five seasons.  Any hope or connection you had built up through the season was on the line in those penultimate episodes, one way or another, you were going to end up devastated by something.  The first year it was Poot and Bodie being forced to carry out the execution of their friend, Wallace – a death that was so brutal to the viewer not just because of the victim but also the killers; mere kids who knew they faced a similar fate if they did not follow orders.

The final part of the second season saw Frank Sobotka backed into a corner and forced to agree to help the investigation into The Greeks in return for leniency for his son and nephew, Ziggy and Nick. This decision turns out to be fatal for Frank, and Pelecanos teaches us, before even David Chase did with Tony Soprano, that you don’t have to see the blood to know someone’s dead – we know his fate as he walks along the pier to meet Vondas at the climax of the last but one episode.

Season 3 brought us the disintegration of the Avon & Stringer partnership, as both men saw different futures for their “organisation”.  The disagreement led to each of them betraying the other, Stringer ratting out Avon to Bunny Colvin, while Barksdale gives up his old friend to Omar and Brother Mouzone – a ruthless pairing who kill Russell “Stringer” Bell in the very property development he believed would be his path to being a legitimate businessman.  While he was not exactly a good guy, Stringer was a fun anti-hero and his involvement in The Wire ending three-fifths of the way through was a massive shock and loss for the viewer.

In the final season, our hearts are moved by Michael and Dukie’s last conversation, where Michael does not even remember the summer of the previous year, events so fresh in the memories of viewers.  Dukie, destined for a life of addiction and residing with the street vendors; Michael, a loner who is forced to take out Snoop before she could do the same to him; we know their paths and we fear for them.

The eventual despair, where there was once hope, the gut-wrenching endings, the sheer frustration as you wish it had turned out differently even though you deep-down knew it never would – these emotions are very familiar to Tottenham fans.  In 2002, Spurs had a fantastic run in the League Cup, culminating in a 5-1 thrashing of London rivals Chelsea in the semi-finals. But, while that night at the Lane brought much anticipation, the season ended on a down note as we lost the final to Blackburn and then had three straight 4-0 defeats, once from Manchester United and twice from that same Chelsea team, knocking us out of the FA Cup and ensuring Spurs would not qualify for Europe through the league.

If David Simon had been writing the story for the 2002/3 Tottenham season, he would have handed over the reigns to George Pelecanos at a very specific moment – half time in the FA Cup Fourth Round Replay between Spurs and Manchester City at White Hart Lane.  The home side were up 3-0 and City were down to 10 men after Joey Barton was sent off at the interval for dissent, but then over the loud speaker they announced that “if we win – ha ha” tickets for the next round at Old Trafford would be available after the game. I really should have left at that point, as what followed was as inevitable as it was frustrating – 4 goals saw the away team turn it around and win.  The season petered out following that defeat and Tottenham ended up in a lowly 14th place in the league.

Over the next three seasons, there was more Cup disappointment to endure for Spurs fans. Defeat on penalties to Boro, a 1-0 undeserved loss up at Newcastle (just the 650 mile round trip drive that day…) going out of competitions to Grimsby and Leicester in 2004/5, throwing away a two goal lead in the latter tie.  Then there was a noble aggregate loss to Sevilla in our first UEFA Cup adventure in almost a decade, coupled with losses to Arsenal and Chelsea in cup ties despite having been ahead against both.  There was also disappointment in player sales – oftentimes just when it looked like we might progress to the next level, a key player would leave and rebuilding would be forced upon Spurs once more.  Sheringham went to win trophies at Manchester United back in 1997; Campbell left for free to our arch-rivals Arsenal back in 2001; Carrick was sold for a hefy profit to United in 2006 and Berbatov went the same way in 2008. While the last two may have represented good business, it left us with obvious gaps in the squad which it took a while to fill, if we managed at all.  At some point in the 2006/7 season, when the Tottenham midfield was unable to get a grip on games, I was forced to embrace my inner D’Angelo, asking incredulously “Where’s Carrick at? Where’s the boy, Jol? Where’s Carrick? That’s all I want to know.”

Baltimore Orioles' stadium - Camden Yards - a place that's actually seen fewer titles than the Lane

You will notice that I skipped the anguish from Season Four of The Wire, but that is because it receives it’s own place with a special level of Tottenham misery – a place that for Spurs fans is something akin to Dante’s ninth circle of hell.  It’s almost too painful to go into details, but Bubbles trying to take care of the man who’s bullying him and in the process inadvertently causing the death of his young friend Sherrod, was the most devastating of all of the tragic events that took place on The Wire. To Spurs fans, this is the equivalent of the 5-3 defeat to reigning champions Manchester United back in 2001, when we had been 3-0 up at half-time; the treachery of Sol Campbell to cross the North London divide; the Cup final defeats. But the biggest of them all, the last weekend of the 2004/5 season.

Spurs had been in a close race for the fourth and final Champions League place all season with the relocated team from South London, Arsenal, and they had actually been ahead of them for the majority of the season.  The third-to-last game had seen the two teams go up against each other at Highbury, a match that ended in a credible draw and, following a home win the next week over Bolton, Spurs needed a win in their last game at West Ham to guarantee Champions League football.  But then, hours before that game kicked off, news reports came through that the Tottenham squad was suffering from food poisoining, apparently from some lasagne that had been eaten at the hotel in Canary Wharf the team had been staying in prior to the game.  This threw up more questions than an average game of Jeopardy: why would they risk eating something not cooked by Tottenham’s own chefs the night before a game of such importance? Why did they stay in a hotel when the game was against a fellow London team? How did Arsene Wenger get into the kitchen to poison the food? (No, but really, people were suggesting foul play).  But whatever the answers to those questions, a rather green looking Tottenham team lost 2-1 to West Ham and Arsenal triumphed over Wigan – ensuring they pipped us to the fourth Champions League berth and carrying on their run of finishing above Spurs – taking it to around 426 straight years.  It really was an ending you could not have made up – well, if you were going to make it up, you would get George Pelecanos to write the script.

Wasted Opportunities

Throughout The Wire, there are countless examples of waste, in many forms.  There are people who have incredible talents but are only able to use them in the world of drug slinging.  Stringer Bell understands good business practices and theories, explaining to his troops the difference between elastic and inelastic products.  Bubbles displays an incredible empathy and understanding of people, from teaching Sherrod how to run his small business out of a shopping cart, to explaining to Sydnor why he could not pass for a drug user hanging around the West Side Projects.  There are the kids who Wallace and Poot are looking after, one of whom is struggling with a mathematical problem and is only able to solve it when Wallace puts it into the context of The Count (keeping track of how much product is left in the stash and when a re-up would be needed).  When Lester Freamon shows us within a few episodes that he is natural pOlice – it makes you angry at the Baltimore PD for wasting his talents in the Pawnshop for thirteen years (and four months).  The most obvious cases of people who will never fulfill their potential are the kids we meet in season four; Dukie, Michael and Randy.  I think these are the hardest for us to accept because we see them for the first time at a point where it would be possible for them to get out and have a different life, but, by series end, Dukie is following Bubbs’ path, Michael is the new Omar, and Randy is in a care facility where he is facing constant beatings from other boys.

The one exception to this is Namond, who is given an opportunity by Bunny Colvin to join a class where there is no chance for suspension, so acting badly will not get the children out of class, and the teachers there actually listen to the kids and focus on social and emotional learning as much as academia.  The success is resounding as we see Namond at the end of the series participating in a school debate team and is clearly the one kid, out of the four we met the year before, who has a bright future ahead of him.  At the same time, even a teacher who cares as much as Prez does, is unable to help his students much as he is forced to “teach to the test” – all the focus is on passing the federally and state mandated exams rather than true learning.

It’s not just the education system that is shown to be drowning in a sea of statistics, the police department too is so focused on murder rates and is tied so closely to the election campaigns for the city and state politicians, that truly sorting out the problems in Baltimore is never the main focus.  Bunny Colvin attempts a radical plan to decrease murder rates in season three, essentially legalising drugs in an area dubbed “Hamsterdam” – but when this is discovered by those higher up, instead of provoking a discussion about why a police officer with as much experience would feel the need to do this, or indeed the merits of such a plan, he is summarily dispatched and replaced.  While plenty of caveats would have to be acknowledged in the supporting of such a measure, the death of the little boy in Season Two, for instance, when he was killed by a stray round in a fight for territory between rival gangs, would not have happened in Hamsterdam as citizens were no longer in the neighbourhood. If they kept the murder rate below 400 per year, the Police Captains survived; do anything to effect true change in a city known as Bodymore, Murderland; they risked being shown the door, with their pensions at risk.  Wasted opportunities, wasted talents, wasted time.

This trait, of wasting opportunities and talent, is one that Tottenham also display far too often.  There are the players – the ones who the fans know could be really good if they were just given more of an opportunity (for we know more than any trained coach or manager, of course).  Giovanni Dos Santos showed his skills to the world playing for Mexico in South Africa last year, but has been little more than a bit-part player for Spurs since he joined and is likely to leave the club this summer.  For years we heard about Lee Barnard, first in the youth system and then goal-scorer extraordinaire in the reserve team – around the stadium we would talk about how he just needed the chance to play and who knew how well he might do. Ledley King is a prime example of a Tottenham player who has a tonne of talent, but it is wasted – in this case because of a chronic knee problem which has limited his playing time for several seasons.  On his day, King has been one of the best centre backs I have ever seen play, sadly, his days have not come often enough.  Other players through the years have come in and shown great ability, but have been unable to hold down a place in the team or fulfill their promise or potential. Performances from the likes of Dean Marney, who scored twice in a 5-2 win over Everton on New Year’s Day 2005 (including this stunning shot from 25 yards) and Hossam Ghaly, in a 3-3 draw away at Chelsea in the FA Cup back in 2007, looked like he would grace any midfield in the Premiership.  Even last year, Danny Rose scored his first goal for the club on his league debut against Arsenal with a fantastic volley, but has spent the season at Bristol City as he is unable to break into the first team.

All of these are individual examples, but there is one thing that all Spurs fans know about our team – Tottenham will always waste an opportunity to progress.  The worst thing you can say to us before a game is “You know, Spurs will go third if they win today” – or – “hey we’ve avoided the big names in the next round of the cup draw, great chance to progress”.  Whenever this happens, Tottenham throw it away – as they did recently in a league game away at Blackpool where a win would have taken them up to 3rd in the league, but a 3-1 defeat left us fighting to get back into the Champions League qualification places.  When the draw is made next week for the quarter finals of this season’s Champions League – it will go one of two ways: Spurs will avoid the hardest draws and get a team like Schalke 04 – giving us a “good chance” of making the semi-finals, and we will lose; or, we get drawn against Barcelona, acquit ourselves fantastically well in the first game and then waste our opportunity by capitulating in the second leg.  That might sound pessimistic, indeed it may not happen like that (it could be the first leg that we get thrashed in and then have a brave fight-back and just miss out in the second leg, I’m not ruling it out) but my fellow Spurs supporting Dad and I have had so many conversations through the years when we will look back on the season and say “If only we had not lost that silly game at home to Stoke/Wigan/Wolves/Coventry”.  On their day, Tottenham can be a fantastic team and beat anyone that is put in front of them; tell them in advance that this could be their day and the opportunity is likely to be wasted.

The true star of The Wire - Baltimore, MD


The real star of The Wire is not any one character, but Baltimore itself – and one of the key themes running through the series is how those most in need in the city are let down by institutions and individuals acting in self-interest and primarily motivated by greed.  The show acts as a direct counterpoint to the “greed is good” capitalism that has swept through America in the last 30 years, portraying the effect it has on real people.  Institutions such as the education system, the police department and the political offices held in Baltimore are all interested in displaying good results, in the stats going in the right direction, rather than in truly helping people.  Carcetti is in the Mayoral race with genuinely good intentions and a desire to change the city, but within just a few weeks of his election his eyes are on Annapolis and the position of Governor of Maryland.  Stringer wanted to have the best product and business practices in order to make the most money to use on housing developments to make even more profit, sacrificing his partnership with Avon when he felt his friend was no longer of benefit to him or fit his long term strategy.  Conversely, Barksdale wanted the power and the reputation and when Bell’s actions opposed this, he was willing to give up his life-long buddy and sent him to his death.  The Greek represented the purest form of capitalism in the show, he would sell anything or anyone in order to make money, regardless of the consequences to those lower down the food chain.  Marlo is power-hungry and ruthless, stopping at nothing to protect his name on the streets and eliminate any competition or perceived threat to himself or his reputation.  McNulty wants to be the smartest, Clay Davis the richest, Rawls and Burrell want to beat each other to the top job, Valchek wants a window in a church and so starts an investigation into Frank Sobotka that will ultimately cost the Union Chief his life.  It goes on and on – and policies such as No Child Left Behind and the political drive to reduce crime statistics (rather than save people’s lives) mean that even those who are not motivated solely by self-interest, are institutionalised and end up caught in the self-perpetuating cycle.  Thus, those like Dukie, Bubbs, Johnny, D’Angelo, Wallace, Bodie and countless more are victims of the system they find themselves in.

Two people in particular can be seen to stand out from these systemic failures portrayed in The Wire – those who are not contributing to the inevitable circular nature of things, where one dope fiend getting clean will just be replaced by another one.  Bunny Colvin, as mentioned before, was part of the two most radical policy attempts in the series, creating Hamsterdam and working with a few children and focusing on all round education not just teaching to an arbitrary test standard.  The other prime example of someone outside of any institution, is the legendary Omar Little.  His philosophy on things was completely different from others who were involved in “The Game”.  He knew his position and what he was, someone who robbed drug dealers, but he lived by a code and resented when others, such as Maury Levy, could not accept they were a part of it too – the only difference being, Omar had the shotgun, Avon’s lawyer had the briefcase.  Omar’s view on wealth was not aligned with those around him, in fact when he robs Marlo at a poker game he explains to him that “Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders”.  Although when the body count is rising, even Omar needs a dressing down from the all round good guy Detective Bunk, in general he is much more interested in the theatre of his role than in any kind of personal wealth or power.

The parallels here with Tottenham are again significant.  The institutional greed in this case comes from the Directors; the recent attempts to move the club into the Olympic Stadium were based purely on the desire to make the club a bigger cash machine and generate more revenue for the owners.  I covered this in more detail here, but this push, coupled with other frustrations for season ticket holders through the years, gives the impression that the major focus is not where it should be – on the fans.  The majority of fans would settle for less success and staying in Tottenham rather than moving to East London and being in the Champions League each season or winning any number of trophies.  While progress is desired, it should not be pursued at all costs – in the same way that I always want Spurs to win the right way, namely playing good football and without succumbing to the theatrics or foul play that mars many top flight games nowadays.  I have seen Tottenham lose some rough matches, scorelines such as 3-4 or even 4-5 (against Arsenal of all people) are definitely hard to take, but given the choice between that or the club moving to Leyton and winning 1-0 every week in a ground out bore-fest – there is no contest.

The other aspect of greed in modern football resides in the players, managers and referees – gone are the days of club loyalty or any pride in wearing the shirt.  Managers and referees now want to be part of the celebrity of football, from Sir Alex Ferguson and his spats with the media, to Jose Mourinho with his supposedly deep philosophical musings (he’s not a philosopher, he’s a great manager who can bore even a world-class team like Barcelona into submission).  Referees want to be noticed now, and strut around the park for the cameras flashing their yellow and red cards dramatically before putting a friendly arm around the shoulder of Wayne Rooney (not mentioning Mark Clattenburg by name, but you can guess who I mean).  The examples of loyal club servants are few and far between in recent years: Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville at Manchester United; Dario Gradi, who was manager of Crewe Alexandra for 24 years (which says a lot about the club as well as him); and Matt Le Tissier, who spent all of his career at Southampton despite other clubs showing interest, are noticeable exceptions.

As for Tottenham, our Omar could be seen as David Ginola, a maverick of the game who did not play by anyone else’s rules but always wanted to entertian (often succeeding, like here, here and here) We also had our own Bunk, a loyal and hard-working man who gave his all for the good of the team, in Gary Mabbutt, who played in over 600 games for Spurs in a 16 year period.   And us fans? Well, a year ago I thought we were most like Bubbs, constantly failing in our attempts to make it up those stairs, until finally last year, we made it to the Champions League and got to sit at our proverbial sister’s dinner table.  But I was wrong.

Tottenham fans will love David Simon’s Russian-Novel-for-TV because being a Spurs supporter is most akin to being a viewer of The Wire.  The road is hard and any successes tend to be very small, but they take so long to achieve that the satisfaction of getting there makes them all the more sweet.  Reaching the top European competition is like Bubbs getting clean, or Namond getting out of the projects, it feels much more like it was earned after all the trials and tribulations you went through to get there.  Bubbs had a harder route of course, but lasagne-gate and 4-0 thrashings and an inability to finish above Arsenal take their toll.  Well, as I write this, Tottenham have outlasted their long-term rivals in the Champions League – a small success – but a well earned one.  We just have to remember – somewhere, the football equivalent of Kenard is waiting, and could end it all far too abruptly.

Tottenham Hotspur – the team that makes you say sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit

One comment

  • ryan

    March 15, 2011 at 6:07 PM

    Sheeeeeeeeeeeeetttttt …. that was a good piece ….

Comments are closed.