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
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"
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.”
Remembering his roots
Pochettino isn’t the only person responsible for Winks’s development, though. Having spent so long in the club’s youth ranks and worked with a number of different coaches in the last 15 years, he is truly a product of the Tottenham academy. Winks, himself now seen as a role model for many of the teenagers on Spurs’ books, also credits one particular senior player with helping him improve.
“I still stay in touch with them regularly,” Winks says of the academy staff. “John McDermott, for example, the academy manager – he’s still there now and I still speak to him as and when I see him. The academy’s been such a massive part of my life as well as my career, so it’s something I’ll never neglect.
“Back when I was a scholar, I always used to look up to Scott Parker,” he adds. “He’s a player who I see myself as quite similar to in stature and physique. I used to look up to him in the sense he was a real leader, a top player.
“He was coming towards the end of his career and he did a few one-on-one sessions with me. He took me under his wing and helped me out, which was nice. After a few sessions he’d take me to a room and show me certain clips; things he thought would be of benefit to me.”
Parker, who’s now back at Spurs as a club ambassador and under-18 coach, isn’t the only midfielder Winks has learned from. The 21-year-old believes that training alongside Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama every day can only be beneficial as he seeks to become an even more rounded player.
“You don’t expect anything less from a club like Tottenham,” Winks remarks of the competition for places in midfield. “Mousa Dembele is just world class… he’s Mousa, everyone knows how good he is. And Eric and Victor are two top, top players. They’re at the top of their game at the moment and doing really, really well. We’re lucky to have such a strong midfield.
“I like to draw techniques and responsibility from every player. Each player has an individual quality in their game that you can take and you can look at. Mousa, his whole game is something you can model your own game on and try to learn from. I try to pick up as much as I possibly can from every player in the team and take it for my own game.”
Winks may have now made it into the first-team picture at Spurs, but there’s still one more rung on the ladder he’s yet to reach. Having played for England from every age group since the under-17s, the Tottenham man is desperate to represent the senior side – particularly with the 2018 World Cup on the horizon.
“Of course,” he replies when asked whether he ever thinks about going to Russia. “I’ve played for England since under-17 [level], so the dream to play for England is always there. [But] I don’t think too much into the future. I take it game by game and just see where it takes me.”
For now, then, his focus is on Tottenham – and the possibility of facing Madrid and Dortmund early on in Europe’s biggest tournament.
“It’ll be great to go to these places and just play,” Winks says. “The Bernabeu itself is going to be incredible. It’s the Champions League, so every team in the Champions League is going to be tough, but it’s going to be good. If you want to go far you have to beat the best teams.
“I remember when we were in the Champions League a few years ago as a fan... I was watching it. To be a part of it now as a team and to be sitting here knowing I’ve got an opportunity to actually play in it… incredible.”
Harry Winks was speaking at the Call of Duty: World War II BETA, which is available for anyone who has pre-ordered the game on PS4 or XB1. For more information visit www.callofduty.com/beta
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