"That was a Gross injustice!" Even in defeat, Everton boss Howard Kendall couldn't resist making a joke in relation to Tottenham's new Swiss coach.
Indeed, the appointment of Christian Gross by Spurs in November 1997 raised a smile from his very first press conference, this being a time when foreign top-flight managers were still something of a novelty.
Dr Jozef Venglos had briefly blazed a trail, for one season with Aston Villa at the start of the decade. Ossie Ardiles followed, taking Swindon up before later spending an unsuccessful year and a bit at the Tottenham helm. They both flopped, but in summer 1996, Chelsea made Ruud Gullit player-manager and celebrated an FA Cup triumph the following May. Then Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal early in the 1996-97 campaign and only missed out on Champions League qualification in his first season on goal difference (he's made sure of a spot among Europe's elite every season since). And when Gullit was given the chop, despite securing Chelsea their first major trophy in 26 years, it was Gianluca Vialli who inherited the Blues job.
London clubs, in particular, were embracing this new cosmopolitan way of thinking (Crystal Palace would even promote Attilio Lombardo, just 31, later on that season) so maybe it was unsurprising that Sir Alan Sugar should turn his gaze abroad after Gerry Francis' resignation. Francis had been in charge of Spurs for three years and three days, and when he chose to quit, mid-table mediocrity was at risk of turning into relegation. Only Bolton had scored less goals in the Premiership; there was very little swash to Spurs' buckle.
Sugar didn't want Francis to go, and initially blamed the media for creating such a miserable mood at White Hart Lane. He then turned his ire on the players. Speaking to a group of Cambridge University students, Sugar accused the squad of "a lack of team spirit" and that certain players were not worthy of wearing the shirt. "It's the people who are purchased, brought in as so-called superstars, that need to be scrutinised over their commitment to the club," he said.
His choice of Gross as successor may seem strange on reflection, but at the time the 43-year-old Swiss was regarded as one of European football's most promising young coaches, and a strict disciplinarian to boot. His Grasshoppers Zurich side had beaten all three of their Champions League group-stage opponents the previous season, and the LMA (no longer so keen to see home-grown managers missing out on the top jobs) welcomed his appointment.
Ramon Vega had won two Swiss titles under Gross before leaving for Cagliari, but the centre-back only spent half a season in Serie A before heading to Spurs in January 1997 for £3.5million. He certainly wasn't expecting a reunion with his former coach in north London. He recalls: "One day, I got a call from Alan Sugar asking me questions about Christian, without any reflection that he would be joining Spurs. Then the next day, pretty much, I heard that he was joining us. It was a surprise, but I was pre-warned if you like."
Spurs needed a disciplinarian, and there was certainly something of the parade-ground sergeant major about Gross. But although he may have looked a by-the-book type, his methods were somewhat unusual. He often relied on imagery to get a response: famously, at his introductory press call, he waved the Tube ticket which had got him from Heathrow to Seven Sisters and proclaimed "I want this to be the ticket to my dreams!" He even suggested £6million summer-signing Les Ferdinand - who had scored just three goals for the club by that stage - embrace the warrior spirit of Harry Hotspur, the medieval knight who inspired Tottenham's name (brush up your Shakespeare if you don't know that particular story).
"Christian was always trying to encourage positive thinking," Vega told Sky Sports. "The Matterhorn was a favourite symbol of his. It's very tough to climb, so it was a scenario he liked to refer to - to get up there, and not slip all the way down. This was a different approach for the English players, and completely new." Gross liked to have a photo of the Alpine peak in his office, and would later show his squad pictures of the "marvellous" stadia which would be hosting World Cup fixtures at France 98, in an attempt to encourage them to get there by performing well for their club.
Mentality mattered; Spurs needed to find their togetherness again. "When everything goes wrong, then you know what the relationship is all about," adds Vega. "When you're winning, it's very superficial - everybody's happy. But once it starts to go below par and you have to fight, then you start to realise whether the spirit is great or not.
"The discipline was sadly gone somewhere - that was tough for the English players to change. And from there, Christian tried to build up the spirit."
Spurs headed to Goodison for Gross' first game in charge on a losing streak of four games. Everton were on a similarly bleak run, and sat bottom of the table. Tottenham hadn't been out of the top-flight since 1978, while Everton's last Second Division season was 24 years before that. As Christmas approached, both sets of supporters were getting jittery at the prospect of their clubs losing their seats at the top table.
But if there was an uneasy mood at Spurs, the atmosphere was bordering on poisonous on the blue half of Merseyside. Toffees fans were calling for the head of chairman Peter Johnson, who they blamed for failing to provide Kendall with much-needed transfer funds. "Free the Goodison 30,000" T-shirts were being worn, and leaflets calling for change distributed.
Gross began his reign by making five changes, which included restoring Vega to the starting line-up. Clive Wilson had to be alert to clear Duncan Ferguson's header from a Nicky Barmby corner off the line after just 40 seconds, and Barmby went close himself when he clipped the bar shortly before half-time.
Vega missed a great chance on 57 minutes - John Scales diverting a David Ginola corner before Vega nodded the ball over - but he then scored with a diving header. Andy Sinton's cross, back-headed on by Ruel Fox to Vega, was stuck away by the Swiss on 72 minutes. Shortly afterwards, Ginola dribbled down the left channel, evading Goodison debutant Mitch Ward, and unleashed a fierce shot which beat Neville Southall on his 750th appearance for Everton all ends up.
Nearly 2000 Toffees fans stayed in their seats to vent fury at Johnson, and 500 later gathered outside the stadium's main entrance to berate him. But for Spurs and Vega, it was a fresh start. "It was a relief for the team first of all, but as a player, whenever a new manager comes in, you want to show him that you deserve to be in the team week in, week out," he recalls.
However, any renewed hope from that Goodison result soon evaporated as Spurs were hammered 6-1 at home by Chelsea and then 4-0 at Coventry. Meanwhile, a major blow for their Swiss coach was the club's failure to secure a work permit for his trusted fitness trainer Fritz Schmid (Switzerland not being a member of the EU).
But Gross did receive a welcome Christmas present when Jurgen Klinsmann returned to Spurs on loan from Sampdoria. The Germany striker scored the winner against West Ham in January, and netted against Liverpool and Palace too, but only really made an impact in the final three games, going into which Spurs still sat perilously close to the drop zone. A 2-0 home win over Newcastle was backed up by an emphatic 6-2 triumph away to Wimbledon, in which Klinsmann scored four. A 1-1 draw at home to Southampton on the final day ensured Tottenham finished 14th, four points above the drop zone.
Everton also stayed up, but only on goal difference from Bolton - a scenario that ultimately hinged on a meeting between the two clubs all the way back on 1 September, when Gerry Taggart controversially had a goal disallowed for Wanderers.
Although Gross achieved his one real target - keeping Spurs in the Premiership - his tenure didn't last much longer. The 1998-99 campaign began with defeats to Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday and despite winning at Everton once again in the third game of the season, he was sacked by Sugar in the international break and replaced by George Graham.
"I wouldn't pick any single reason why it didn't work out," adds Vega. "Christian maybe came at the wrong moment, in a period when Spurs were going through bad times. It was tough for a good year, and I don't think that many managers would have kept us up. So from that point of view, you need to give him credit.
"George Graham was also very disciplined. But he was already well known, and had a track record from his work at Arsenal. He was more acceptable than Christian, who had no experience in English football to start with."
Landing silverware early on always cements your position, and that's exactly what Graham achieved. Vega would help Spurs win the Worthington Cup the following March, playing on with a fractured ankle in the Wembley final after making a heavy last-ditch tackle on Emile Heskey. That made him a cult hero in the eyes of the Tottenham fanbase, who are sometimes hard to impress - as current boss Andre Villas-Boas has recently discovered.
"Some managers do struggle to integrate," admits Vega, who founded his own asset management business five years ago and also runs a real estate company. "Consider the whole Spurs supporter philosophy... the fans are great, but they know what they want!
"Spurs have bought a lot of new players. This is their first season, so they need to mould them together. I think AVB's doing a good job - they're playing great football - and they have a good chance to win at Everton again."
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