Wanyama – ‘Pochettino is like a father to me’

Victor Wanyama is casting his mind back to more innocent times — falling in love with the game as a child growing up on the outskirts of Nairobi, winning a pair of football boots — “Puma, bright yellow” — and, because he was used to playing in bare feet, finding them so unfamiliar and so heavy that initially, “I could not run”. He soon got used to them.

It was not all sweetness and light, though. “As kids, we used to see a lot of brutal things,” the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder says. “You would see thieves stealing, being chased by police, running to where we were playing, running among the kids. It was dangerous, growing up and seeing these things. Some people would look at that life and maybe admire it and join it, but we were lucky. We had some balls to play with. It kept us busy and we were grateful for that.”


Wanyama would go with his brothers and friends to a local cinema, where Premier League matches would be shown live on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Later they got a television of their own “and sometimes we could watch Premier League games at home”. They dreamed of emulating their heroes — in his case Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Paul Scholes — and, against overwhelming odds, he made it, initially following his brother, McDonald Mariga, to Helsingborg in Sweden and then forging his own path via Germinal Beerschot, in Belgium, Celtic and Southampton to Tottenham. It has, he says, been a “journey”.

The story of Wanyama’s journey to the Premier League, where no Kenyan had played before, is inspirational. “Now there are a lot of other kids watching the Premier League on TV, hoping they can be here when they grow up,” he says. “I think I’ve set a good example and shown it can happen. When I go there, I try to encourage the young kids and tell them to believe and to work hard and it might happen. Believe in yourself. Anything can be done.”

When you have defied overwhelming odds to forge a professional football career in Europe, making it all the way to the Premier League and then to one of its biggest clubs, the prospect of hunting down Chelsea in the title race is far from daunting. Chelsea need only win three of their final four matches to be champions, but Tottenham are not giving up the fight. They have won their past nine league matches, scoring 25 goals and conceding only four, and, determined to keep up the pressure, they can reduce Chelsea’s lead to a solitary point with victory away to West Ham United at the London Stadium tomorrow evening.


“If we can get it down to one point, that gives Chelsea a lot of pressure,” Wanyama says after sharing his experiences with a group of apprentices who are visiting the training ground as part of a community scheme run by the StubHub Foundation. “We just need to go there [West Ham] and work hard again to try to get the maximum points. If we do that, it will be a great feeling, finishing our game one point behind. You never know what that pressure can cost. They might slip up and we could nick it at the last minute, so we will try to continue the way we have been going, game by game. We’ll just keep on believing because you never know.”

Whether or not they succeed in overhauling Chelsea’s advantage, Wanyama is convinced that he is part of something special at Tottenham. “It is the best time to be in this team,” he says. “The players, the staff, everyone at the club is working so hard together to achieve something. We can all see where the club is heading, in a very good direction. Everyone wants to be part of it. It will be fantastic to play in the new stadium. Hopefully, in years to come, people will say, ‘That was a great Tottenham, one of the great Tottenham teams.’ ” His confidence is based, in part, on the presence of Mauricio Pochettino, the manager who signed him for Southampton from Celtic for £12.5 million in 2013 and then took him to Tottenham last summer. “He changed the mindset at Southampton,” Wanyama says, “and now he has done the same at Tottenham. At Southampton, like here, he built the team, developed young players, got good results, helped the club to grow. You can see it by the improvements he makes season by season. It’s difficult to understand how he does that, but he does. He has a magic touch.

“I have said before he is like a father figure to me. With my parents being so far away, sometimes I will need someone to talk to. He talks to me like a father does. He’s a great guy. Whenever you speak with him, you just feel warm.”

The 25-year-old credits Pochettino with transforming him as a player — mentally, physically and tactically. “The training is really hard,” he says, “but it has improved my fitness and improved my game. Mentally, he makes players focus on bigger things and we started to achieve those things. He changes your mindset. Tactically, he has taught me a lot. Before, I was just thinking, ‘I’ll just sit here and defend.’ But if you’re playing for him, it’s not only defending. You have to attack also. You have to know the right time. I have learned so much from him.”

What Tottenham really need is to develop the mentality to finish the job and to win trophies. Wanyama thinks that there was little between them and Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, which their rivals won 4-2, and now they are fighting to try to avoid a similar outcome in the Premier League title race.

“This is what I mean,” Wanyama says. “When I say about wanting to be part of something special, I mean winning trophies. This is what we all want. Hopefully it will come soon. Hopefully we can bring glory in the coming weeks and that will be just the beginning of things. If we can keep doing our job like we have been doing, game by game, you
never know.”

(The Times)

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