How Harry Winks trusted Mauricio Pochettino to arrive as the 'perfect midfielder' for Tottenham
Ahead of Real Madrid's visit to Tottenham in the Champions League, Sky Sports looks at the rise of the youngster who shone in the Bernabeu...
By Lyall Thomas
Last Updated: 01/11/17 10:10pm
If the saying 'good things come to those who wait' rings true, then Tottenham's Harry Winks is an excellent example.
This season has seen the 21-year-old academy graduate break into the first-team on a full-time basis, impressing against some of the biggest teams in the world, and making his senior England debut.
He has been central to Spurs' excellent start to the season, pulling the strings from midfield against Real Madrid in the Champions League and the thrashing of Liverpool, and he is thriving on the confidence given to him by Mauricio Pochettino and his staff.
But it has not always been this good for Winks. There were times of deep frustration and he has had to remain very patient. So how has he got here? What is it about Winks that saw him through?
Aside from the mandatory hard work, it is his temperament. Interview him and it is clear Winks is articulate. Ask anyone that knows him and they will say he is an intelligent guy. His decision to trust the word of the manager from the beginning, and listen to the advice of his support base, appears to be a clever one.
When Pochettino arrived in 2014, Winks was one of a number of academy players identified with potential to make the first team. The manager watched videos of his academy performances and wanted him signed up to a new contract immediately. Like the rest, he was told to trust Pochettino's master plan and that, if he put in the work and did what he was asked, he would get his chance.
But although he made his debut just a few months later, it would be another two years until he was fully in the team. Winks spent a long-time in limbo; the 2015/16 season a particularly frustrating one after travelling with the first team on the post and pre-season tours. Out of the first-team picture, not allowed to leave on loan, his temperament was tested to the limit.
Back in January this year, Winks recounted the time as "very stressful". He said: "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."
Danny Allen, Winks' PE teacher from Cavendish Secondary School in Hemel Hempstead, described his pupil as 'bright, well behaved, not cocky or arrogant' and 'very grounded' in an interview with Sky Sports back in March. It is to these traits that Winks has stayed true, and they have seen him through.
Many youngsters might have kicked up a fuss or followed bad advice in the same position, but Winks found solace in his close-knit family and support base together with the advice of academy boss John McDermott. While they helped him stay grounded, Winks challenged himself by reading more and beginning to learn Spanish, which he continues to do with the aim of keeping his mind as sharp as possible.
And it worked. Whether it was all part of the master plan or not, the manager could only overlook this commitment for so long. Winks had improved aspects of his game in training and gradually his first-team minutes were increased last season. He made three Premier League starts, 18 appearances as a sub, and started in all four FA Cup ties, before his rise was cruelly cut short by an ankle ligament injury in April.
Again, such a setback might faze a youngster but Winks had already learned the patience to see him through his recovery, and Pochettino hailed the arrival of 'the perfect midfielder' in September. "He has the quality and capacity to play and use the demand of the game, and read it," he said. "He's so clever and we are so happy because he provides qualities to the team that we don't have."
Passing accuracy: Real Madrid 1-1 Tottenham
Those qualities on the field have been stark. Mousa Dembele may have been injured but it is likely Winks would be playing over him anyway. In the Bernabeu, Winks' passing accuracy was 91 per cent - better than any other Spurs player, better than Luka Modric and Isco, and behind only the outstanding Toni Kroos.
But it is the maturity and calmness in which he has taken on these challenges that has been most impressive. "Modric was someone I looked up to coming through the academy," he said after the game. "He and Kroos are world-class players and it is easy to get a bit daunted, but I tried to treat it as any normal game and approach them as I would any other player."
Winks said he took the same approach to his England debut as he stood relaxed and smiling in an interview with Sky Sports News in Lithuania, and it was then that he thanked Pochettino for his hand in a rise that is fast becoming as interesting as Harry Kane's.
"Not only does he give us the opportunity but he gives us advice when we need it," Winks said. "I suppose it's about me paying him back." Perhaps the saying 'good things happen to good people' is a more fitting one for Harry Winks.