A LITTLE under six years have passed since Tom Ince marked his Wembley debut with a goal only to suffer defeat in the Championship play-off final.
He can still vividly recall the sense of utter desolation at the final whistle as Blackpool missed out on a place in the Premier League.
Fast-forward to his return with Huddersfield Town and the 26-year-old came mighty close to finding the net again under the Arch, only the agility of Hugo Lloris in the Tottenham Hotspur goal this time keeping out a wickedly swerving 20-yard effort.
The French international’s save was followed, less than a minute later, by Heung-Min Son doubling the home side’s lead with his second of the afternoon.
Ince was on the losing side at the national stadium again but his mood, fuelled by Town’s battling display in the capital, could not have been more contrasting with that first visit.
“We lost to a better team with better quality,” the summer signing from Derby County told The Yorkshire Post. “Sometimes, you just have to hold your hands up and accept that. Spurs have hundreds of millions of pounds of talent on the pitch.
“But we can take positives from the game. No matter what the result, we have to believe we belong here (at Wembley) and we belong at this level – and against this calibre of players.”
Defeat against a team with such a ruthless streak against newly promoted teams – this was Tottenham’s 32nd triumph in an unbeaten run of 34 games – was hardly a surprise.
For a start, the bookmakers had an away win priced as high as 20-1. Mauricio Pochettino also selected his strongest starting XI, despite a crucial Champions League round of 16 second leg against Serie A champions Juventus being just five days away.
The bonus for Town came via not only a second half in which the home backline was stretched but also results elsewhere. David Wagner’s side slipped just a place in the table to 15th and remain three points clear of trouble, albeit with third-bottom Crystal Palace in action tonight at home to Manchester United.
With Spurs now out of the way, a season-defining run of five games against clubs embroiled in the relegation scrap kicks-off next Saturday with the visit of Swansea City.
Crystal Palace and Watford also head to the John Smith’s Stadium over the next six weeks in a schedule also featuring trips to Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion.
“Things are so tight,” added Ince, whose introduction from the bench helped pep up Town’s attacking play. “Crazy, really. Results from other teams are important. The focus is on us, yes. But other results matter as well.
“They went for us a little bit (on Saturday) because no-one expected us to get anything at Wembley.
“We now have two massive home games in front of us. With the crowd behind us, we believe.
“To me, 39 or 40 points will be enough (to survive). A team can finish the season 10th or 16th or 17th, just a few points will be the difference. That is really crazy but we have a fighting chance and that is a fantastic achievement in itself. Now, we have to capitalise.”
At the end of a week in which the ‘Beast from the East’ had caused chaos and destruction across the country, the men from the West Riding were unable to put so much as a dent in Tottenham’s increasingly impressive record at their temporary Wembley base.
Pochettino’s men have taken 32 points from their last 12 ‘home’ league games and even champions-elect Manchester City will have to be at their best in north-west London if next month’s trip is not to be a fruitless one.
Son, the game’s outstanding performer, put Spurs ahead on 27 minutes. Latching on to a splendid pass from Dele Alli, the South Korea international skipped round Lossl before firing beyond Christopher Schindler on the line.
His second arrived nine minutes after the restart and was equally clinical, Son heading in after an exquisite cross from Harry Kane, earlier denied twice by wonderful saves from Lossl, had sat up beautifully on the first bounce.
Moments earlier, Ince had been denied by a flying save from Lloris to underline the fine margins that can exist even in games as one-sided as an encounter that also saw Christian Eriksen’s free-kick diverted on to a post by Collin Quaner.
“It did feel a little bit strange to be at Wembley for a normal league game,” said Ince, whose goal in the 2012 Championship play-off final was not enough to deny West Ham a 2-1 triumph under the Arch.
“You expect Cup semi-finals or finals, or the play-offs, to be here. But the experience was still fantastic. A lot of the boys had not played here before, especially the foreign boys.
“Plus, we have positives to take out of this defeat into these next five games that will decide our season. There is enough belief and ability in that dressing room to make sure we get those points and extend this journey in the Premier League.”