Harry Winks is the local lad impressing at Tottenham, but what makes him such a special player? And why is Mauricio Pochettino so certain of his potential? From his school days to the Spurs academy, Nick Wright tells the story of a first-team breakthrough a long time in the making.
Not many young players are handed three new contracts in under a year, but Harry Winks is special to Tottenham.
The academy product signed until 2019 last March, he penned another new deal until 2021 after his Premier League debut in August, and he committed until 2022 in February. Each one was another show of faith. Another arm-around-the-shoulder photo opportunity with a smiling Mauricio Pochettino.
All the while, Winks has made the jump from exciting young prospect to important first-teamer. Only 10 of his 29 appearances this season have come from the start, but his consistently impressive performances have earned the trust of his manager. At 21, his composure belies his years. Whether it's against Manchester City or Monaco, the midfielder never looks out of place.
Pochettino has nurtured Winks carefully, and their passionate touchline celebration after his first goal for the club against West Ham in November showed the strength of their bond. "It was an emotional moment for him and for us," said Pochettino afterwards. "After two-and-a-half years working here, we believe in him and it's fantastic. Today, he paid it all back."
Winks is now seen as Tottenham's next big thing after Harry Kane, but his road to the first team began long before his current manager's arrival. In fact, Pochettino was still a centre-back at PSG when a six-year-old Winks first started playing for Tottenham's junior teams. Danny Allen, his PE teacher at Cavendish secondary school in Hemel Hempstead, first met him a few years after that.
"Harry joined us in Year 7, so he would have been 11 or 12," he tells Sky Sports. "He came from one of our main feeder primary schools just across the road. He was already at Spurs and we were already aware of him. A couple of our students knew him from the previous school year, so we'd had conversations about him."
Harry Winks played against fellow Cavendish school alumnus Lee Grant in Tottenham’s 4-0 win over Stoke City last Sunday.
Winks was a gifted young footballer from a Spurs-supporting family who dreamt of representing his boyhood club. But as Allen remembers, he was also a bright student who didn't let his academy commitments get in the way of his school work - or his participation in the school team.
"He was just a nice kid really," says Allen. "I wouldn't say he was quiet but he wasn't cocky or arrogant at all. He was very grounded, he was bright and he was well behaved. If he didn't have Spurs, he probably would have stayed on and done A-levels after his GCSEs. He did well in school."
Football, though, was always the priority. "He represented the school at every opportunity," says Allen. "He played competitive games for us - district cups, county cups, things like that. The only times he couldn't play was when we had Saturday morning friendlies and he was with Spurs. But he always wanted to play and Spurs never stopped him. They were really good with him and with us."
Winks was a popular figure both at Cavendish and at Tottenham's academy, where he played in the same youth team as Josh Onomah and Nathan Oduwa. Winks emerged as one of their brightest young stars, striking up a particularly close friendship with winger Emmanuel Sonupe.
"Harry has always been Tottenham through and through," Sonupe tells Sky Sports. "He just always wanted to play for Tottenham, and he's doing that now so he's buzzing. I'm so happy for him because we've always known he's good enough. It was just about getting that chance. He's got it now and he's just taking it."
Harry has always been Tottenham through and through. He just always wanted to play for Tottenham, and he's doing that now so he's buzzing.
Their careers have taken different paths since then, with Sonupe now on the books at Northampton Town having left Spurs at the end of last season, but they still see each other regularly. Along with Will Miller, another graduate from Tottenham's academy, they even went on holiday together to Mexico last summer.
"That youth team was really good," adds Sonupe. "We had loads of talented players, but we knew Harry was a bit special. He wasn't the biggest, but technically he was always up there as one of the best in the team - if not the best. At a team like Tottenham, that's always going to work."
So it has proved. Winks is not always an eye-catching presence on the pitch, but he is comfortable in a variety of midfield roles and he is the kind of player who exudes calm on the ball. Pochettino uses him from the bench when he wants to establish control late in a game. The stats indicate why.
Tottenham passing comparison - Premier League 2016/17
|Player||Minutes played||Passes per 90 mins|
Winks averages more passes per 90 minutes than any of his team-mates. In his four Champions League appearances this season, he posted a higher passing accuracy (93.9 per cent) than Bayern Munich's Thiago Alcantara and Barcelona's Sergio Busquets. Not bad for a lad from Hemel Hempstead.
"Harry was always a really good passer," says Sonupe. "He had good ball retention and you can see that now..." He tails off, chuckling to himself. "I'm always telling him this, but the way he plays now is the way he used to play in the youth team. His game hasn't changed much at all. He literally just does the same things. He keeps it moving, he sprays a few passes here and there, he drives with the ball sometimes. It's just the same Harry, really."
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If there were ever any doubts about Winks' development, they related to his size. The youngster has filled out under Pochettino's rigorous training regime, but he has always had a relatively slight frame. Even at Cavendish, Allen recalls him being overshadowed by physically stronger players.
"We've had a lot of good players come through the school and Harry was a bit different in the sense that he was smaller," he says. "He was a good but small player at the time. Often at secondary school level the bigger, more powerful kids are the ones who stand out more. Harry was smaller and more technical."
It was a similar story in the academy, although Sonupe insists Winks wasn't the only one. "When we were really young, we just used to get destroyed by other teams because we were all small to be honest," he says. "Luckily, the coaching staff just used to say that we would grow into our bodies soon enough. By the time we were 18 and young men, it kind of evened out."
That patience was invaluable for Winks, but that's not to say it was an easy ride.
"The academy manager John McDermott was a big part of things," says Sonupe. "John was tough. He was a nice guy, but he was tough. If he saw something in you, he was relentless with it. He kept pushing you. Sometimes it might have looked a bit much, but for someone like Harry it has obviously worked."
It toughened Winks up, and turned him into the determined, combative player he is today. The England youth international fits Pochettino's high-intensity playing style perfectly. Indeed, in both of the Premier League games in which he has completed the 90 minutes this season, he has ranked among their top three players for distance covered and sprints.
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Winks is mentally resilient, too. Last season he had to watch as many of his academy team-mates were sent out on loan to gain first-team experience, but Pochettino ordered him to stay with the first-team squad despite only using him twice across the whole of the campaign. For a young player desperate to prove himself, it was frustrating.
"When you're young and you're getting to that age when you need games, it can be hard," says Sonupe. "You're probably getting offers from everywhere. At the back of your mind you know that you think you're good enough to play at that club, and that's where you want to play, but it can be hard to remember that.
"Harry's a little bit of a moaner, to be honest," Sonupe adds, chuckling again. "When we were in Mexico and he hadn't been playing much, you could tell he was frustrated at training every day but not playing. He always wants to be at the top doing the best. I think all good players have a little bit of that in them. Now he's doing that. He stayed and it's paid off."
Sonupe couldn't be happier for his old friend and neither could those who knew him at Cavendish, where his younger sister is still a student and he recently returned to launch a sixth-form sports coaching programme in partnership with Spurs. "All the staff who taught him here are pleased to see him doing so well," says Allen. "He was a nice kid and a good student."
For Spurs, he's turning into an important player with a thrilling future. Winks is one of their own, a local lad who seemed destined to play for his boyhood club from the start. "He just fits that template for what a Tottenham player should be," says Sonupe. "He's a bit of a moaner, OK, but he's a good guy and a great player." In the years ahead, there could be a few more of those photo opportunities with Pochettino to come.