Leo Moynihan speaks to Spurs' rising midfield star about temporary stints, Mauricio Pochettino and a breakthrough year in the Premier League...
You’ve been one of Tottenham’s standout players this season and even made your England debut. But what were your hopes walking into training for the first day back in July?
Things felt fresh. We had a new manager and so I was eager to get in and impress. I didn't think it would go this well if I’m honest, but the first couple of weeks in pre-season went great and I thought I was one of the best trainers. We then went out to America and the manager seemed to be playing me quite a bit. From there I thought I'd get some good game time this season.
Your route to the first team was interesting. The loan system is often maligned when people see a club like Chelsea sending out their kids en masse, but how beneficial has it been for you?
It's been good. It certainly toughens you up and gets you into that first-team environment. The change from reserve football or under-21s to the first team is massive, so at a young age I think it's important to get out and experience all that. At a Premier League club you’re pampered, so to go to league football and graft that bit harder on your own is important. What is vital, though, is having a manager at your parent club who sees you are doing well away and then gives you the opportunities.
At a Premier League club you’re pampered, so to go to League football and graft that bit harder on your own is important
Were there times when you weren’t so keen on being out on loan? Did you fear for your future at Tottenham?
Of course. As a loan player you don't get the treatment a full-time player would, but that's only normal. There were times when I was away seeing other players getting a chance at Tottenham in the UEFA Cup, and I was thinking that if I'd stuck around then I might be doing the same. I'd made that decision, though, and I was keen to play as much as I could, not every now and then. I think it's stood me in good stead.
You had a four-year gap between first-team games. Is there too much of an onus on players being boy wonders aged 18?
Definitely. My academy manager John McDermott said that players find their way at 21 or 22, and while I’m at the end of that spectrum I think I’ve benefited from a lack of pressure and expectation. You get the odd one-off like Wayne Rooney who is physically mature aged 18, but with others it's vital to be patient, let them grow into their bodies and learn their trade.
You also went to France on loan. Was the move to Lorient a good one for you?
I was massively wary to move away, but at the time the manager [Andre Villas-Boas] thought it would be good for me to gain experience out there. Ligue 1 is a top league in Europe and while it didn't work out for me, it was interesting. The biggest thing I took from it was how much I just wanted to play and enjoy my football. There were times in France I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to training, and that's no good. I knew how much I wanted to be happy playing, and came home very focused on achieving that.
There were times in France I didn’t want to get out of bed and go to training, and that's no good
How much has Mauricio Pochettino helped you achieve that?
He’s been great because he’s given the lads a chance when they deserve it. I scored in the League Cup and played well in the UEFA Cup, and so I got starts in the Premier League. Harry Kane has been the same. You feel very trusted by the manager so you put so much in on the training pitch, and we have a manager who gives you credit for that. It’s been amazing.
We hear that Harry Kane is “one of our own” every week but the same can be said of you...
Yeah, I’ve been at the club since I was seven. I’m from north London and so, yes, the club is very much a part of my childhood. At first the football is just fun but as you progress it becomes a dream to try to reach the first team. From the age of about 14 you want to walk out at White Hart Lane on a Premier League matchday. I had to wait a very long time for my chance but it was worth it, and maybe the wait made it sweeter.
Is there also something extra special about playing with guys you grew up with through the ranks at Tottenham?
It’s a lot of fun and gives the whole club a lift. Players who are currently playing at all the youth levels see so many of us making progress. We’ve all played in front of 100 people together and so to play in the Premier League week in, week out, and at Wembley too, is just a dream.
I had to wait a very long time for my chance but it was worth it, and maybe the wait made it sweeter
You look a very fit team. How hard did the new manager work you all in the summer?
Not just the summer! If we get the rare week where we have no game, he'll work us very hard, including double sessions. The team work in the gym together and I think it's paid off – look at the amount of late goals we've managed. I also think he’s worked us very hard mentally and that's working too.
How much have you enjoyed the Premier League?
I love it. There are some fantastic players in this league and you have to be on it. Some teams will try hard to disrupt your rhythm and you have to dig deep. I think I've been able to gain strength from my time in the lower leagues on loan and be up for those kinds of battles.