Timothée Atouba made only 18 Premier League appearances in just one season at Tottenham, yet he will forever be remembered by those that watched him play – although not necessarily for the right reasons.
The summer of 2004 was a landmark one for the Premier League.
Chelsea and Liverpool appointed Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, who would go on to become club legends, and Spurs too looked to Europe in search of success, appointing Jacques Santini.
He had just overseen France’s Euro 2004 campaign in which they exited at the quarter-final stage at the hands of eventual winners Greece.
Martin Jol came in as the Frenchman’s assistant and would eventually take charge in November as Santini departed citing personal reasons, but 2004 was ground zero as far as Spurs are concerned.
It was the year that kickstarted the upturn in fortunes, even if it was a drawn-out affair.
Paul Robinson arrived from Leeds and went on to become England number one, Pedro Mendes joined from FC Porto, fresh from their Champions League triumph under Mourinho, while Sean Davis and Michael Carrick made the short trips across the capital from Fulham and West Ham, respectively.
At the back, Noureddine Naybet – an underrated free capture from Deportivo – Noe Pamarot and Erik Edman all joined the ranks as Spurs assembled key components for a functional squad.
The issue here, however, is that these players lacked the flair to really lift fans from their seats. Spurs were effective to an extent in Santini’s short spell in the capital, but in his 11 games, just 14 goals were scored both for and against his team.
For context, Arsenal fans saw 43 goals scored in their games over the same period.
Still, though it was neither pretty nor exciting, Spurs had the necessary defensive mentality that had been lacking for some time, in part due to a blossoming centre-back partnership between Naybet and young Ledley King.
Yet as functional as the team was, Spurs fans were still pulling their hair out at any sign of danger, in no small part due to the erratic defensive displays of the club’s other summer signing, Timothée Atouba.
He was part of the Cameroon side knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations and was a regular for FC Basel before his switch to England, but he lasted just a solitary season at White Hart Lane.
He made just 18 appearances, but they were so memorable – for both the right and wrong reasons – that Atouba is something of a cult hero among fans.
Whereas Edman, his rival for a starting spot, would keep things simple – a 7/10 left-back, if you will – Atouba went to great lengths to make things as difficult for his defensive team-mates as humanly possible.
While nowadays, fans strive to see full-backs carry the ball forward and overlap where possible to stretch opponents, Atouba moved to the Premier League at a time when a simple hoof upfield would suffice.
But the Cameroonian would much rather dribble his way out of danger – often at the expense of supporters’ health.
Feints and Cruyff turns were the order of the day for Atouba – which is no bad thing. His decision to carry out these tricks 20 yards from his own goal when under pressure from opponents undoubtedly made games more exciting.
He was always one stepover away from being caught short at the back yet by some miracle would bring possession forward to start attacks away from his goal. At a time when Spurs lacked flair, the left-back brought this in abundance.
When he tricked his way out of danger, Atouba was a difficult player to stop. His power on the ball meant opposing defenders struggled to halt him once he gained a head of steam. As such, the only threat to Atouba was Atouba himself.
He could get so far upfield and help to punch a hole in an opponents’ defence that he’d momentarily forget how to work his feet, trip over himself, and an attack would break down as quickly as he’d elected to Cruyff turn his way out of danger.
His team-mates, of course, were left constantly fretting over Atouba’s unique approach to defending, but would that stop him? Absolutely not. After all, why try to deny greatness?
He had his moments of magic, sure – his curling winner in a 1-0 victory at Newcastle a stand out – and though he was about as ‘Spursy’ a defender as Spurs could get, ultimately, it was a shame he lasted just 12 months at White Hart Lane before his move to Hamburg.
Well, for neutrals and fans of Schadenfreude.
For Spurs fans, though, the sight of gold boots, short socks and shinpads on show is enough to give them nightmares.
Atouba did at least continue his knack for defensive showboating in the Bundesliga, with a prime example coming in Hamburg’s 2-0 home win over Bayern Munich in 2005.
In the opening 30 seconds, pressured by Hasan Salihamidzic, Atouba proceeded to carry the ball across the defensive line, before feinting left and then nutmegging the Bosnian to trick his way to safety.
He later misjudged a header more than any player in the history of football. It was vintage Atouba and what made him so appealing to the neutrals.
Nevertheless, though, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he wasn’t a complete success at Hamburg, with the fans turning on him after some less than impressive defending cost them in the Champions League.
He reacted to jeers by giving supporters the middle finger and was asked to be subbed off before being sold to Ajax in 2009.
He was last seen with Las Palmas in 2014 but was close to a move to Newcastle in 2008, only to baffle Hamburg staff by turning up for training on the same day he was due for a medical with the Magpies. The Premier League was sadly denied another stint of the entertainment.
Still, he will always be remembered for brightening up the 2004-05 season, and for that we must be thankful.
By Ben McAleer