Interviews

Ryan Mason: “I have 14 metal plates in my skull, with 28 screws holding them in place, and 45 staples. And I was a lucky boy”

Ryan Mason

Ryan Mason was part of the same Tottenham academy generation as Harry Kane, but after representing his boyhood team and his country, his life took a different turn – one which left him lucky to be alive at all

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Illustration: Tim McDonagh

When you’re a professional footballer, it’s easy to lose sight of what the game’s actually about – you forget why you love it. You see it at clubs all the time: guys training, but not enjoying it, not playing with a smile, not making the most of it.

When you’re a kid, you don’t think of anything else – you just play football. When I was younger, I’d rush home from school, get straight out in the garden and play football until it was time to go in for my dinner. After that, I’d get straight back out to play some more. It’s more than a hobby. It’s an addiction.

One of my first memories is kicking a ball against a little wall in my nan and grandad’s garden – my mum and dad used to say I always had a football with me wherever I went. I grew up in Cheshunt, just outside of London, and joined my first club, East Herts FC in Turnford, when I was six. I was only there for six months.

That’s when Tottenham first spotted me. Micky Hazard watched me at a soccer school in the summer and invited me along to Tottenham. I still remember the moment my dad got the call and told me – I was running round the living room, cheering. It was everything I'd ever wanted.

Being at Spurs was a dream come true. At seven or eight you’re not really thinking about making it as a pro, but even then, pulling on that kit on a Saturday morning gives you a real buzz. Matches against Arsenal are still big games, even at that age. It was still about having fun with mates – it was just doing it while playing for Tottenham.

A few of the lads I played with back then are in the Premier League now. I played with Adam Smith from the age of seven, and Andros Townsend from the age of eight. Later on, guys like Harry Kane and Steven Caulker, who are a little younger, played with us too. I think probably 80% of the lads in our group are now playing league football, and there’s a photograph that shows four of us who went on to play for England.

That group probably isn’t talked about as much as it should be, but it was an incredible period for the club’s academy. It’s funny, because when we were young, it was the age group above us that was seen as the special generation, rather than us. I think that was actually something that motivated us, in a way – we were always hungrier. The atmosphere was great, we were all trying to be so professional and I think we all had the right personality.

One season I scored 42 goals for the under-18s and was starting to think I was ready for my chance in the first team. I remember having a conversation with academy manager John McDermott and him telling me he didn’t expect me to be playing in the Premier League until I was 22, because of the way my body was developing. Some boys are physically mature at 16, but with me that wasn’t the case.

The cream always rises

I always felt it was my destiny to play for Tottenham. Even if they’d tried to sell me, I would’ve stayed – I firmly believed I was going to make it at Spurs, and I felt I deserved it. John would keep saying to me, ‘the cream always rises’, reminding me that it was just a case of being patient and sticking at it.

I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments, for example when I was sat on the bench while on loan at Doncaster, that I didn’t have doubts, but the thought of finally getting the chance to play for Spurs always kept me going.

I was a bit unfortunate when Tim Sherwood took over in December 2013. He told me that I would definitely be in his plans, but I’d signed a season-long loan contract at Swindon and couldn’t go back.

I still remember watching his first league game in charge against Southampton, and seeing Nabil Bentaleb coming on to play in the centre of midfield for the last 40 minutes. It was painful. I'd always got on well with Nabil, and I was happy for him, but I was absolutely gutted – I was thinking I could have missed my big chance.

Then Mauricio Pochettino arrived. One of the first conversations I had with the gaffer was during our tour of the United States that summer, while we were in the queue at an airport waiting for a connecting flight. It became clear very quickly that we both had a similar outlook on life and approach to football.

We were talking for about 25 minutes – before then I probably hadn’t had a conversation with a Tottenham manager that had lasted longer than 25 seconds. For the whole flight, all I could think was, ‘Wow, this might just be my chance’. We clicked straight away: we had a connection I’d never had with anyone in football before.

The big moment came in September. We were losing 1-0 at home to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup. We hadn’t started the league season well and the atmosphere was tense. The manager put Harry on and soon after I went on after 65 minutes, which I think probably raised a few eyebrows. Within seven minutes I’d scored my first goal for Spurs. Harry scored too, and we won 3-1. I think it was a turning point for him at the club.

A few days later, I started my first Premier League match – away to Arsenal. From there everything suddenly seemed to come quickly. I played in 17 or 18 league games in a row.

Lions calling

In February, I played in the League Cup final at Wembley and the following month I made my senior England debut away to Italy. A year before that I’d been playing in League One, and to make that transition so fast was a real whirlwind. I felt I deserved to be playing at that level – I thought my ability justified that. It was a case of being ready for the opportunity when it came. And I was.

For the first five or six games of 2015/16, I really felt like I'd been Spurs’ best player. I got another England call-up in the September, although I didn’t play, but then I got an injury scoring the winning goal at Sunderland and suddenly I was sidelined for a few weeks.

I was so eager to get back I forced it a bit too much. I broke down in a rehab session which set me back for several more weeks.

I was training with an injury, and it was so bad I couldn’t have a hot bath – if I did, the knee would swell right up. I eventually got back in for a few matches, but then we played Chelsea, I rolled my ankle and was out for another two months. When I got fit, I couldn’t force my way back into the team. By then, the lads were in a title race and Mousa Dembele was in unbelievable form. The starting XI picked itself, and I could have no arguments about being on the bench.

Early that summer, a handful of clubs came in for me, but I turned them all down because I was determined to fight for my place at Tottenham. The gaffer said I would get my chance, and he wanted me to stay. But then I came back for pre-season and a few things happened – the kind of things that happen in football, nothing to do with the manager – that I couldn’t really accept or move past.

When I didn’t play in the opening three matches of the season, I talked to my agent and decided that, at 25, I really needed to be playing regularly. I fully expected to go to Hull for the season and then get a move elsewhere – maybe even back to Tottenham. That was just my way of thinking. It’s a short career and sometimes you need to be a bit selfish.

Hull was very different to Spurs. I had moved from a side that were always so positive, always looking to press and win back the ball, to a side that were a lot more cautious and conservative. It didn’t suit the way I play. I’d been told I'd play as a No.10, but after the first two games I was moved back into a deeper role. It took a while to adapt, but as soon as Marco Silva came in, everything changed.

We were playing the way I’d been expecting to play and the way I want to play. The four games I played under him were probably my four best matches for Hull. I was starting to feel like I’d be able to prove myself again. I was very optimistic about my future.

We followed the normal routine for an away game. It was a Sunday afternoon game, so we travelled down on the Saturday and spent the night before the match at a hotel near the stadium. In the morning, we went for a walk along the Thames to loosen up a bit, then had our pre-match meal, a little rest, and got ready to go to Stamford Bridge.

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