Player, Tottenham, 2002-2008 & 2009-2011
White Hart Lane had always been one of my favourite stadiums.
It was so compact. The fans are right on top of you. You can hear everything the ones at the front are shouting.
I scored a goal there for Coventry against Spurs in 1999. We lost 3-2, but the atmosphere really stayed with me.
I’d always liked watching Tottenham play when I was growing up, too, so when I heard they were interested in me, I was very happy.
I was at Leeds at the time, and we had a great team. A lot of young players: me, Rio Ferdinand, Alan Smith, Harry Kewell.
We had enough to do really well if we had been able to stay together for a few more years, but then Rio, who I was close pals with at the time, heard that the club was in financial trouble. They needed to sell players.
Spurs came in for me, and when I spoke to them they made me feel at home straight away. After I signed, when I came out on the pitch in my brown suit at half-time to be introduced to the crowd (above), it just felt completely right.
Glenn Hoddle was the manager at the time – one of the game’s great midfield players – and he was a real draw, too.
Glenn was way ahead of his time with his coaching and his tactics. The detail he would go into, the information he would give us; little things that people on the outside wouldn’t see.
“A great deal of what made me the player I became, I learned off Teddy”
He knew his football. When I first arrived, we were discussing different systems, and that was what got me – his knowledge of how to play the game and how he wanted his team to change their system quickly. That really drew me in.
Sometimes, as a young player, what he asked of us was really challenging, but it meant that some of the football we played was brilliant. For me, at a young age, that was really, really beneficial.
Jamie Redknapp was captain at the time, and he took me under his wing. On the day I signed, I actually stopped at his house for some food.
We had a great set of lads, so it was quite easy to settle in, but Jamie was a huge help.
As a young player, you feed off that. You see how these senior players act when young players come into the dressing room, how much they make you feel like part of the group. I really took that with me when I later became a captain myself.
Teddy Sheringham (above) was another senior player who helped me out a lot. I learned so much from him in such a short space of time. A great deal of what made me the player I became, I learned off Teddy.
He was nowhere near the fastest, but his brain was quicker than almost anyone he came up against. His movement and link play were incredible.
He used to always say there was no point running for the sake of it. Players these days are obsessed with their numbers, but for Teddy it was always about moving with purpose.
I remember one game, I was running from one side of the pitch to the other and back again, chasing the ball. I was young and enthusiastic. Teddy stopped me dead. “Robbie, sometimes just stand still,” he said. “Everybody else around you is moving. Just stand in an area where you see space and where you want the ball.”
He didn’t mean stand still with your hands on your hips. Rather, move around in a five-yard space while everyone else was using up their energy chasing the ball.
The amount he got the ball was amazing, and he always looked like he had so much time. I didn’t play with him for long, but I became known for my movement later in my career – and a large part of that is down to Teddy.
I was fortunate that whether I was playing for Glenn, who played three at the back, or Harry Redknapp, who played 4-4-2, or Martin Jol, who tended to play 4-4-2 as well, I played in teams that played with two up front.
When you’re younger, you just want to play. You don’t care what system you’re told to play in. But the fact I played in those systems meant I was able to build some great partnerships throughout my Tottenham career.
My favourite was Dimitar Berbatov (below). We just clicked. We only actually played together for two years, but we just worked so well together from the start.
“Neither of us was selfish. Whether he scored or I scored, we’d be equally happy”
What was interesting with us was that we both liked to come looking for the ball. We both played a kind of nine-and-a-half role – a bit like Teddy had done – and we swapped positions a lot.
Martin wanted an extra body in midfield, so one of me or Dimitar would drop in to be that extra man. The other knew that, when that happened, it was their job to run in behind. We could both do both jobs.
I understood the role of a midfield player because so much of what I did in that role came in deeper positions. But then I also had to understand about making runs in behind.
That worked really well for me and Dimitar. He wrote in his book about how much he enjoyed playing with me, and the feeling was definitely mutual. We had a great relationship.
The most important thing with us was that neither of us was selfish. Whether he scored or I scored, we’d be equally happy for the other one. There was no shooting when the other one could have a tap-in.
I also got his personality, even though I didn’t really know him. I could tell there were times when he just needed to be left alone because he was quite quiet, and quite withdrawn a lot of the time.
But I also knew it was important to make sure he was included. If there was a team dinner or night out, I’d always make sure he was there.
That was part of my job as vice-captain and later captain at Spurs. I always try to make sure everyone is involved in those team-building exercises. That bond was key to the Ireland teams I played in – it gave us belief and a desire to fight for each other – and we had that at Tottenham, too.
“Looking back, I felt sorry for Juande Ramos”
The team we had under Martin (below) was brilliant. He would play an extra central midfielder on the left side of midfield – with Aaron Lennon on the right – because he liked to overload the centre of the pitch. That was often Edgar Davids or Teemu Tainio, who were central midfielders really, but they were both so clever and tactically astute.
They could cover for Benoît Assou-Ekotto when he bombed forward from left-back and, because they actually wanted to be in central midfield, they would move there to make it four in middle of park – Teemu or Edgar, Jermaine Jenas, Michael Carrick and then me or Berbatov.
Edgar was a great character to have in the dressing room. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind if he thought something needed saying – a bit like me, really. It’s really important to have people like that; people who will challenge their teammates. He also added extra bite to the team. He would roll his sleeves up when necessary and wasn’t afraid of anything.
I loved playing with Aaron Lennon, and built up a great understanding with him. We scored loads of goals through me dropping off to come and get the ball and play balls around the corner – between the left-back and the centre-back – for him to run on to. Once he got half a yard on a defender, there was very little stopping him.
We had a lot of variety to that team, and opponents found it really hard to play against us.
We came so close to the Champions League that season, but that infamous final-day defeat at West Ham did for us. Lasagnegate.
We suspected it was food poisoning, but we’ve still never got to the bottom of what exactly that was. All I know is that most of the squad were in a really, really bad way.
We went for a walk on the morning of game, and eight players couldn’t even get out of bed for it. Then, on the pitch, we were a shell of a team.
“Sometimes, as a player, you have a feeling about a game. We knew it was going to be our day”
The person I remember having it the worst was Michael Carrick. He just had no energy at all; he couldn’t get around the pitch like he usually did.
It’s long forgotten now, but obviously it’s still a disappointment we couldn’t get over the line.
The success we had in the League Cup a couple of years later helped make up for that disappointment a little.
Looking back, I felt sorry for Juande Ramos, who was manager by then but wasn’t there very long. He was a lovely man, really kind, friendly and thoughtful. He was very relaxed and nice to have a conversation with.
He’d won plenty with Sevilla before joining Spurs, and I really enjoyed the football he had us playing. He definitely deserves credit for the League Cup win in 2008. Thirteen years later, it’s still Tottenham’s most recent trophy.
Our run to that final was really special.
The semi final against Arsenal (above) was the best atmosphere I ever experienced playing in England.
I’d thought the atmosphere at White Hart Lane was impressive when I’d played there with Coventry, but this was something else. It was absolutely electric.
“No one had given us a chance, but we knew what we were capable of and we never stopped believing”
Sometimes, as a player, you have a feeling about a game. Arsenal were a good side then, but we believed in ourselves and you could tell from the first five minutes of the game it was going to be our day.
I couldn’t say why, but I knew we had them – and we battered them. That 5-1 win gave us a huge amount of belief going to Wembley.
Our team spirit was second to none, and we weren’t favourites for the final against Chelsea. They’d ploughed a lot of money into their team. Players like Michael Essien, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Nicolas Anelka, Frank Lampard. Lots of people didn’t even give us a chance.
But on our day, that team knew we could beat anyone.
We had quality everywhere, and energy as well – players like Didier Zokora and Jermaine Jenas in midfield. Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King at centre-back – two players who could have achieved so much more were it not for their injuries. Then me and Dimitar up front. That was a really strong spine.
We didn’t go into that game worried about the opposition. We went in to win.
After Drogba scored a free-kick five minutes before half-time, people were probably starting to think we were going to ship three or four, but we dug in and chances started to come.
“Harry Redknapp is probably the all-time greatest man-manager. He gives you complete confidence”
Zokora missed a huge chance – he was a really fantastic player who could carry the ball brilliantly and was really highly rated in the squad, but finishing was never his biggest strength – but eventually we got a penalty and Jonathan Woodgate popped up with the winner in extra-time.
No one had given us a chance, but we knew what we were capable of and we never stopped believing.
It was a wonderful day, and it’s lovely to have been able to crown my time at Spurs with a trophy.
In total, I played under six different managers at Spurs: Glenn Hoddle, David Pleat, Jacques Santini, Martin Jol, Juande Ramos and Harry Redknapp. The variety they provided gave me a really broad picture of the different coaching styles out there.
Martin was the kind of manager who would put his arm around you, have a laugh and a joke. But he also brought real genius, in that he wanted us playing out from the back, keeping the ball, playing on the front foot wherever possible.
Harry is probably the all-time greatest man-manager. He’s brilliant around people, a great character, gives you complete confidence – and he knows his football, too.
They were all very different characters. They had different ideas about what they wanted from the team – and now, as I look to establish myself as a coach, the variety of experience I got at Tottenham will really help me.
I’m really lucky to be able to take ideas from so many experienced managers. Just like I learned from my strike partners and teammates at Tottenham, I will take bits of all my Spurs managers into my coaching.
Author: Ali Tweedale