Harry Winks – The Interview

The 20-year-old midfielder burst into the first team this year after sticking with his boyhood club over a difficult year when opportunities were limited.

Harry Winks will never forget the first moment he met Mauricio Pochettino. It was July 2014 and Winks, aged 18, was signing his first professional deal at White Hart Lane. He was with his father Gary, his agent, Tottenham academy chief John McDermott and football secretary Rebecca Britain. Then Pochettino walked in.

“He came in and shook my hand,” Winks tells the story. “And he said, and I don’t know if he was being truthful or not, ‘I have seen your videos, and I told John to sign you up straightaway.’ I was gobsmacked at the gaffer just saying that.”

Two and a half years on and Winks is a regular part of Pochettino’s first team, providing more balance and control in midfield than anyone else. He will make eighth senior start on Saturday, against Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup. The further Spurs’ three-front season progresses, the more chances Winks will get.

It is a vindication for 15 years of effort from Winks and also of Pochettino’s own work to bring him through. They say at Tottenham that Pochettino has a plan for every player, but does not always tell the player exactly what that plan is. McDermott, whose academy prepares youngsters for the first team, is the conduit between Pochettino and the youngsters. Winks just had to trust his manager that he would end up in the Spurs first team, where he had wanted to be since his dad took him to White Hart Lane at the age of six.


Just because Winks’ emergence has been so long in the making does not mean that it was inevitable. There were moments last season, when Winks was training with the first team but never playing for them, when he felt anxious about his future and lack of games. He was left wondering whether Pochettino did in fact have the right idea for him.

“It was very stressful, I’ll be honest,” Winks says, in the first major interview of his career. “I had a whole season just in the squad, travelling, being left out, travelling, being left out, and it was difficult. The manager knew that, it was part of his plan, and you’ve got to be patient.”

Winks’ first three Spurs appearances were against Partizan Belgrade, FK Qarabag and Fiorentina, for a combined total of 20 minutes. “You come up to 20 years old and you’ve only played three times,” he says. “You see other boys who are playing regularly in the Premier League or in the Championship. And you’re thinking ‘I’ve only played three times, no starts, they’ve all been five minutes here and there.’

Most young players in Winks’ position would go on loan to play. But Pochettino would not allow it. He does not like other coaches getting their hands on his youngsters. He wants to improve them himself.

“[Pochettino] always told John [McDermott] that I would be in the first-team squad, training regularly,” Winks says. Again, McDermott and Winks’ agent were the go-betweens. “The manager never spoke to me directly about it, he would never pull me in. He would just let me get on with it, working hard every day. There was never a direct thing from the manager.”

Winks had to take it on trust what Pochettino wanted for him. “The manager wanted me in and around it, moulding me with the first team, getting into his way of thinking,” he says, with remarkable candour and perspective about what was not an easy time for him. “A loan got mentioned once but he said ‘no, he’s not going’. I knew the fact that manager didn’t loan me out was a massive sign I was in his plans. But at the same time, I just wanted to play matches. So do I annoy the manager and try and push for a loan? Or do I just keep working hard and trust him?”

That was the dilemma, that trade-off between development and playing time, that Winks faced at the end of last season. He did not want this year to be like last one. He knew that if he wanted a loan there were plenty of teams, in the Championship and abroad, who would take him. Brighton wanted him and it is not hard to envisage him being very successful there.

But Winks only ever wanted to play for Spurs. When he sat down with his dad and agent at the end of last season, that was the only goal they discussed. He did not want to push for a loan. He wanted to believe in Pochettino. Which meant giving it one big push last summer. “It was all or nothing,” Winks looks back. “My mindset was ‘forget about the loan, push to play for Tottenham.’ I was going to give it all in pre-season. If it works, it works.”

So Winks worked as hard as he could to get as fit as possible for pre-season. “I made myself come back in really, really good condition because I wanted to make a point of hitting the ground running,” he says. “I remember the first day I came back, I really put myself through my paces.”


Pochettino’s favourite pre-season drill is the ‘Gacon Test’. He learned it at Paris Saint Germain, where it was instituted by Georges Gacon, the fitness coach who left PSG just before Pochettino signed from Espanyol in 2001. Players run for 45 seconds then rest for 15 seconds, with each 45-second run, starting at 100m, 6.25metres longer than the last. The more tired the players get, the further and faster they have to run.

“It’s a killer,” says Winks, “an absolute killer. You can imagine, after 13 or so runs, you get knackered. You get two warnings, if you miss the time, then you’re out. But I did really well, I was one of the last to finish. I think I got to level 20. I really pushed myself to the limit and luckily enough I did well.”

Pochettino noticed and Winks was on the plane to Australia pre-season. He impressed against Atletico Madrid and Juventus. Pochettino and assistant Jesus Perez congratulated him. So did McDermott. When Winks was on the bench for the season opener at Goodison Park on 13 August, he sensed that this season might be different, and that Pochettino was right.

On 16 September Winks signed a new five-year deal at White Hart Lane. Five days later he made his first ever start, against Gillingham in the EFL Cup. Hearing the pre-match music from the tunnel was a lifelong ambition fulfilled. “My dad and I used to get hairs on our necks when it came on,” Winks says. “So being in the tunnel, about to walk out to it, I can’t describe it.”

It was against West Ham United on 19 November that Winks’ greatest moment came. He started, scored his first senior goal, and just as he was about to get into the shower after the 3-2 win he got called into Pochettino’s office. The manager was enjoying a celebratory glass of wine with Jesus Perez and Toni Jimenez.

“The manager said ‘well done Harry, I’m really pleased for you’, and gave me a cuddle,” Winks remembers. “He was basically saying well done for all your hard work. He understood how difficult last season was for me, he knew it was hard travelling and not playing. He said he was proud of me. I said thank you for the opportunity, and that my goal was a thank-you to him.” The plan had been utterly vindicated.

Winks is speaking at his old school, Cavendish, in Hemel Hempstead, where he took his GCSEs less than five years ago. To hear him speak about Pochettino is to understand why every young player who has played for him, from Espanyol to Southampton to Spurs, is in awe of him.

Winks, 21 next Thursday, is too young to remember Pochettino’s playing days but knows that having played in a World Cup gives him special credit with the players. “When you have someone who’s been there and done it at the highest level, at a World Cup, you have to respect him,” Winks says. “You think, ‘if he’s done it at a World Cup finals, he must be right.’ He gives you a different element of thinking when you’re around him.”

Pochettino still likes to get involved with training and even injured himself jumping for a 50-50 in an 8v8 game one morning. “One of the player was injured so the gaffer stepped in,” Winks recalls, trying and failing not to laugh. “The ball went up in the air, and you knew something was going to happen, someone was going to get injured. The gaffer went for it, someone else went for it, either Cam Carter-Vickers or Ben Davies. He whacked his back, he’s hobbling to the physio. They were a bit nervous, ‘I’ve just injured the gaffer here.’”

Pochettino also gets involved in the boxes, which make up the basis of his training every morning. Boxes involves eight or so players on the edge of a tight space, with two in the middle, focusing on keeping the ball. As hard as the Spurs players are worked, they like to have fun too.

“If you get nutmegged three times, during one box, you have to sing on an away trip,” Winks says. “A couple of the boys have been nutmegged three times but they are fighting their corner and refusing to sing. Eric Dier and Josh Onomah haven’t sung. There is a bit of a debate over whether their leg was up, or down for a proper nutmeg.” Spurs usually have one English box and one foreign box, and this week have been playing English against foreign training games. At the time of this interview on Thursday evening, the score was 1-1.

To hear Winks describe life at Tottenham is to hear a player wholly at home and comfortable in his environment. He has been training at Spurs since the age of five, when academy coach Ross Kemp invited him to Spurs’ St Albans development centre after seeing him impress at a summer soccer school. He signed with the academy at six and remembers the thrill of getting his own Kappa training gear for the first time.

But that was a long time ago now and plenty of local boys sign up and then fall away. Winks is one of the very few who has stayed in the system and made it to the top. It took hard work, time, a plan and trust.

(The Independent)

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