Tottenham 3 Morecambe 1
The reaction of Harry Winks said it all. The Tottenham midfielder had bent a free kick from wide on the left towards the far post, more in the hope that a teammate could touch it home, only for it drift over the Morecambe goalkeeper, Trevor Carson, and fly in.
Winks looked to the heavens in relief and was barely able to muster a smile. It was the 74th minute and he and Spurs knew that they would be spared an FA Cup upset.
Antonio Conte had heavily rotated his team, offering opportunities to a string of fringe players, and he watched them labour, particularly during a dismal first-half performance when Morecambe deserved to lead through their captain Anthony O’Connor who was excellent.
Conte could be disappointed with his understudies, particularly Tanguy Ndombele, Dele Alli and Bryan Gil, all of whom he took off in the 69th minute. Only then did Spurs break Morecambe’s resistance. Ndombele was jeered as he left the field.
On came Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and Oliver Skipp and, finally, Spurs got the job done. It was a terrible lapse by Ryan McLaughlin that allowed Lucas to steal the ball, streak clear and finish – the Morecambe defender was distraught – while Kane got Spurs’ third towards the very end.
Morecambe’s priority is to remain in League One following their promotion last season, and it has come to feel edgy as they sit 21st out of 24th. But this was an opportunity for their fans to embrace a little escapism, to travel in numbers. It was only their third FA Cup tie against Premier League opposition and they had not been allowed to attend Stamford Bridge last season for the 4-0 defeat against Chelsea because of Covid. They lost 3-0 at Ipswich in 2001.
Conte’s changes were playing to impress him and show that they have a future under him at the club – and it has to be said, that is debatable. Joe Rodon was also poor, although to single him out in a defence that lacked assurance would be unfair.
It had been plain from the eighth minute, when O’Connor thundered through Gil and got away without a yellow card, that the visitors would not want for commitment or organisation in their 5-3-2 system. McLaughlin had wobbled for the first time in the first minute, miscontrolling to allow Ndombele in – he would be closed down – and, from the corner, Ben Davies flashed a header just over.
But Spurs lacked tempo and incision during the first half, their passing sloppy and predictable. Morecambe grew in belief, measuring their progress in tackles, blocks, a nutmeg on Gil and flickers in the final third. They could tell there was nothing to be frightened about.
It was no surprise when Morecambe went ahead. Rodon had left a backpass a little short in the 12th minute only for Pierluigi Gollini to get out and clear ahead of Cole Stockton. Now Rodon waited for the goalkeeper as he tried to deal with a long ball ahead of Stockton and, when Gollini did not come, he was forced to concede the corner. Alfie McCalmont, the Leeds loanee, took it and O’Connor ran around Japhet Tanganga into a large seam of space in front of goal to sidefoot home on the volley.
Spurs needed the interval to reset because they had offered next to nothing as an attacking force. Matt Doherty hit the outside of the post from an impossible angle following a corner and Giovani Lo Celso had a shot blocked after a good run by Ryan Sessegnon, but that was about it.
Conte started in the 3-5-2 system that many fans want to see although, with Kane on the bench and Son Heung-min injured, it shone a light on one of the imbalances in the squad that the manager played not one but two false nines – Alli and Gil.
Kane, Lucas and Skipp went out to warm up just after half-time and the thought was not whether Conte would need them but when. Apart from Winks, who was busy in front of the defence, Spurs lacked spark. Alli worked Carson with a clever flick from a corner, Sessegnon dragged wide when he should have done better and Lo Celso saw a shot blocked by O’Connor. Who else?
Conte had seen enough and his call for the cavalry was marked by the home crowd turning on Ndombele as he sauntered off at low speed.
Spurs belatedly had a bit of conviction, even if the equaliser was a soft one from a Morecambe perspective. At that point, the shock felt off. It became more about when Spurs could find the winner as they took up residence in the Morecambe half.
Kane blew an easy header and Lo Celso was denied by Carson before Lucas punished McLauglin and Kane put some gloss on the scoreline after another substitute, Emerson Royal, had robbed Greg Leigh.