Tottenham Academy, 2018–
Giving up football was tough. Really, really tough.
My last game as a professional was at 25. I was still coming into my peak. At 28, 29, 30 years of age, I should be playing the best football of my career.
Unfortunately, I had that taken away from me when my career was ended after I suffered a serious head injury playing for Hull.
But as I settled into life out of football, I started to enjoy it.
I was quite enjoying not really having a lot of structure in my life. I was doing a bit of media, playing a lot of golf, seeing my family a lot. I felt quite free.
But then John McDermott – who had been one of my best coaches as a youngster coming through the ranks at Tottenham – called me up. He suggested I came down to the training ground.
I live 10 minutes away from the new training ground – funnily enough, it is actually built on the site of the pitches where I was first spotted by a Spurs scout – so it was easy for me to pop down.
John told me to come along whenever I wanted to help out and get involved in the coaching side of things. Mauricio Pochettino was in charge then; I spoke to him a few times about coming back in an official capacity, too.
The more I came, the more emotionally involved I became. I started to build relationships with the players. I started thinking about what they needed and how I could help them when I was at home. It quickly became almost like an addiction for me.
If I’m honest, I fought it for quite a while because I didn’t feel ready to jump into it full-time; to fully accept my playing days were behind me.
But there comes a point where you can’t resist the pull any longer. I was hooked.
Even if it did come a lot sooner than I’d anticipated, I had always thought I would come back to Tottenham as a coach.
I’d fallen in love with the club at seven years old.
My family has split loyalties. My grandad was brought up in Battersea, so him and my dad are both Chelsea fans – both were season-ticket holders.
But I joined Spurs at seven, and I’d get to go to every single game at White Hart Lane. We used to train in this little court by the ground, and afterwards we’d go up to this tearoom for some biscuits. On the way there, I’d sneak into the stadium to have a look around. That was when it hit me just how massive a club it was.
It didn’t make my dad a Tottenham fan before I was playing for them, but he could sense my love for it and how much I wanted to play at White Hart Lane.
“For a split second I just froze. I stood completely still and thought: ‘Has that really just happened?’”
There were 16 years between me joining Spurs and properly breaking through into the first team. But I genuinely always believed I would play for Tottenham. If I hadn’t had that belief the whole time, I would have left.
I had opportunities to go elsewhere, and at the age of 23, having gone on loan on six separate occasions, others might have doubted themselves. I took it as a positive that I was still there.
I was really highly rated as a youngster. I scored 65 goals in two seasons in the youth team and made my debut at 17 under Harry Redknapp. Then I had a few chances under André Villas-Boas in the cups, but I never got a look-in in the league.
I got a great education in the youth team from coaches like John McDermott, Alex Inglethorpe, Tim Sherwood and Chris Ramsey. They were the ones who spent the most time with me, and the fact they were all so different meant I got an incredible learning experience.
I trained with the first team quite a lot, and I’d always compare myself to the senior players. I’d think: “How far ahead of me are they?”
I believed I was ready long before I got my opportunity, but that’s just the way football goes. You just have to be ready when that chance is given to you. Luckily, I took mine.
It was September 2014. Mauricio Pochettino (above) hadn’t long been in the job as Spurs manager, and he threw me on in the League Cup third round. We were 1-0 down to Nottingham Forest, and the gaffer brought me on with 25 minutes to go.
“Mauricio gave you an incredible feeling when you were on the pitch. It was complete freedom”
I’d dreamed of scoring at White Hart Lane so many times – I’d been there hundreds of times and I just loved the stadium so much.
Then, seven minutes after coming on, I lined up a shot from 25 yards and sent a screamer into the top corner. For a split second I just froze. I stood completely still and thought: “Has that really just happened?”
There are moments in football when the emotion is just overwhelming. Some people might have thought I should have gone to collect the ball because we had 18 minutes left to go and win the game, but the adrenaline took over. I ran to the corner and celebrated it properly. It meant absolutely everything to me.
We went on to win 3-1, and three days later I started in the north London derby away to Arsenal. I never looked back from there.
I played 37 games that season under Mauricio. I’d shown him I was ready by competing in training every day. My passion for the club, my energy and my drive all helped me convince him I should be in a team to play the way he wanted to play.
He gave you an incredible feeling when you were on the pitch. It was complete freedom to act instinctively, not to think too much on the pitch. I’ve certainly taken that into my coaching.
“I went from thinking I was the best player in the academy to worrying if the club rated me”
One of the most important things in looking for a good, young player is what’s happening between the ears. Working in the Tottenham academy, you get so many talented, technically gifted players, but you need to be able to handle the game’s toughest moments. Football is a ruthless world.
So, part of my philosophy is to make the players feel free on the pitch, because as much as I can help from the sideline, I’m not going to be there all the time. There’s nothing more powerful than being in the moment.
My job isn’t to help produce a team that wins the FA Youth Cup every year. It’s to produce players to have a career here, and hopefully play for the national side like I did, like Andros Townsend, like Harry Kane (below). Or go and make a career for themselves elsewhere.
So, we think about what the individual needs. We like to play in a way to test the individuals. We want them exposed to everything. That can mean quite open football at times.
Sometimes we ask our defenders to play in a way that leaves them more exposed than you would play in a first-team game. We ask our midfielders to be brave and take the ball under pressure when you probably wouldn’t in a game in front of 60,000 people. It’s all part of their development.
We have to make them into winners, though, and we do that through competition among players in the squad. I draw on my own experiences here.
“My battle with John Bostock gave me the desire to fight, to be aggressive and to want to win every day”
I was really lucky to play with so many good players. In my age group we had Andros, Jake Livermore, Adam Smith, Steven Caulker, Danny Rose. We were pushed every day to improve. But the quality of the group also led to me getting a real kick in the teeth at the age of 16.
Spurs decided to make what was a strong group even stronger by signing Dean Parrett from QPR and John Bostock from Crystal Palace. They were two highly rated players in my position, and they were both younger than me.
I went from thinking I was the best player in the academy to worrying if the club rated me.
I decided to show Spurs they were wrong to bring in other players, and it became a bit of an obsession for me. I wasn’t going to let someone else get the better of me and stop me achieving my dreams.
Looking back, it was one of those sink-or-swim moments that helped make me the player I became, so it was actually a huge positive that those other players came in. If you’re in your comfort zone at 16, you’re never going to push yourself. I’m really grateful I had that competition.
I got on with John off the pitch, even if we weren’t exactly friends on it. That battle gave me the desire to fight, to be aggressive and to want to win every day. The ones who fight and keep working every day are the ones who succeed – and that’s what I tell my players. It’s the same at first-team level, because someone always wants your shirt – so it’s a good thing to get used to.
“I’m not running around as much as I used to, but your brain is just so active when you’re coaching”
Given the injury that ended my career, I’m also really conscious of player safety when it comes to heading.
I watch loads of kids playing football and, to be honest, they just don’t know how to head the ball.
The technique hasn’t been developed, and they don’t practise it. On top of that, their skulls are still forming – the bone is still soft.
It might only be four headers a game because the ball is so rarely booted up in the air with really young kids, but we’ve all been there when you head it with the top of your head. The pain is horrible.
We don’t fully know about the long-term damage heading does. Until we do, we should definitely be more careful with kids heading the ball. Maybe that means using a softer ball to learn the technique at a young age, before progressing as they get older.
Heading is obviously a massive part of the game, so it’s important that players know how to do it properly.
That is the kind of thing that you take home with you as a coach. As a player you might go to the gym after training, but you are paid to go home and rest so you can come back the next day and perform at your best. As a coach, you don’t switch off. You can’t. It’s impossible.
“It was difficult to accept that my playing days were over. I still don’t know if I’ve fully accepted it now”
You’re dealing with stuff on the pitch, with kids growing up and going through different stages in life. You’re always thinking about how you can help them. Even at home with your own kids, your mind wanders back to it.
It’s more mental exhaustion than physical. I’m not running around as much as I used to, but your brain is just so active. You never stop.
I love it, though. I wouldn't be doing it otherwise.
I loved being a footballer, it was my life. But now my life is helping other people get a career, and I feel very passionate about that.
It was difficult to accept that my playing days were over. I still don’t know if I’ve fully accepted it now – but now I can deal with it, and deal with it in a positive way.
It’s opened up a lot of different pathways that I wouldn’t have had. I’ve got a head-start on my coaching; I’m getting a lot more experience as a coach, and I’m looking at the game from a different point of view. I’m very happy about that.
But I do miss playing football, and I don’t know when that’s going to leave me – maybe once my legs start to go and I feel like I couldn’t manage it any more. Or it might never go.
I do manage to use that in a way that drives me, though. I listened to Steven Gerrard talking on a podcast about his slip against Chelsea at the end of the 2013/14 season. He always thinks about it. It’s on his mind every day.
But it also drives him. It gives him a purpose, and more energy to work and succeed in the future.
I think about playing football every day. I can accept that that I’m never going to play again. I’m happy in my life now, and I channel any pain I have in a way that is positive and not only helps me cope, but helps develop the young players at Tottenham.
Author: Ali Tweedale