Harry Winks exclusive: "The last time Spurs played Real Madrid? I was a flag-bearer..."
Harry Winks's eyes light up as he casts his mind back six years to April 2011, when he was just another young Tottenham fan dreaming of one day pulling on the famous white shirt.
“I remember when I was in my scholarship, my first year, we were in the Champions League against [Real] Madrid at the Lane,” he tells FFT, just hours after Spurs were drawn alongside los Blancos, Borussia Dortmund and APOEL in the group stage of this year’s tournament.
“I was actually one of the flag-bearers on the pitch, on the halfway line. It was a great moment, you know… just to see Cristiano Ronaldo, 10 yards away from me while I was waving the flag. It was very special for me.”
Living the dream
Whenever I go out on the pitch I give it my all, because I’m a fan but also it’s just the way I am as a player
Now the 21-year-old will be hoping to get even closer to Madrid’s Portuguese superstar. The fact he may soon be facing the reigning European champions rams home how far he's come in the last few years, but Winks remains grounded and says he still feels the same way about representing Spurs as he did on his debut.
“I always have that excitement when I play for Tottenham,” he says, at the launch of the Call of Duty WWII beta. “Whenever I go out on the pitch I give it my all, because I’m a fan but also it’s just the way I am as a player. I try to give 100% in every session and match I play, especially for the team I support. You want to do really well, you want to help out. It’s a club I’ll always enjoy playing for when I get the opportunity.”
Such an attitude is testament to Winks’s character, which along with his natural ability has helped him cement a place in Spurs’ first-team squad. The England Under-21 international, who first joined the club when he was only six years old – “I’m due a testimonial soon,” he jokes – made 33 appearances under Mauricio Pochettino last term and is ready to take the next step this season.
Harry Kane and Dele Alli have grown enormously under the Tottenham boss, but Winks is perhaps the best example of Pochettino’s willingness to give young players a chance. The midfielder signed his first professional contract on the same day the Argentine was being shown around the building after completing his move from Southampton in summer 2014. Winks remembers it well.
“He walked in, shook my hand, said hello and introduced himself,” he recalls. “He said he’d seen my clips, which was nice to hear, and he said some positive things. That was my first memory of actually meeting the manager.”
"I've got nothing but admiration for him"
I know it’s difficult nowadays for a manager to give young players an opportunity, especially in the Premier League
Pochettino later ruled out a loan move for Winks, insisting he remain at White Hart Lane to learn from the coaching staff and compete for a place in the team. It was a decision that gave the youngster confidence as he strived to establish himself at his boyhood club.
“Every player just wants to play games," Winks shrugs. "Ideally you want to play for the team you support, the team you’ve grown up playing for. My ambition has always been to play for Tottenham, so when the manager came in and told me that his ambition for me was to stay at the club, to train and fight for my position, it was a great thing to hear.
“I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me, in terms of giving me an opportunity. I know it’s difficult nowadays for a manager to give young players an opportunity, especially in the Premier League – such a cut-throat industry – so it’s tough to give trust to young players. For the manager to give you an opportunity like he has… I’ve got nothing but admiration for him.”
Winks impressed with his touch, composure and range of passing last season, attributes which were evident in his game even from a young age. But Pochettino has added something else to his repertoire that's much more instinctive.
“I think my aggression off the ball [has improved], just in terms of pressing," Winks reveals. "He likes us to press and have a high-energy game. He’s taught me in training to play with that real intensity and make it difficult for your opponent. I’ve always found that the higher the intensity of my game, the better I play.”