Last Tuesday night in Turin, a north London born Tottenham Hotspur player fulfilled his childhood dreams and crowned his unlikely breakthrough season by pulling on an England shirt, a thought that was unthinkable at the beginning of the season.
Or rather, there were two.
While Harry Kane was rightfully the centre of much pomp and circumstance after an outstanding vein of form and his immediate impact on his England debut a mere four days earlier, Ryan Mason is potentially just as worthy of recognition. If Kane’s rise to prominence has been dazzling, Mason’s has perhaps been just as remarkable.
At the age of 23, two years older than Harry Kane, Ryan Mason could have been forgiven for thinking that his chance at breaking into the side at Spurs had been and gone. It certainly seemed that way at the start of the season. The fact that made his first team debut in a UEFA Cup game under Harry Redknapp should indicate to you just how long ago that was. It was four years before he made another appearance for Tottenham, this time in a revamped Europa League game. The intervening spell was characterised by flitting between largely unsuccessful loan spells at League One and Championship clubs. This brief return to Spurs was followed by being sent out to Lorient in Ligue 1 [where he failed to register a single appearance] before spending the next season on loan at Swindon. This loan period was at least a success this time as Mason’s performance helped Swindon to a strong season that lead to them finishing just outside the play-offs.
Mason returned to Tottenham Hotspur and managed to impressive Pochettino on a pre-season tour sufficiently to include the midfielder in Spurs’ Premier League squad for the forthcoming season. He was still frozen out of the first team until a League Cup tie with Nottingham Forest. The game was petering out into a disappointing loss for his side when Mason stepped up and smashed home a screamer to rescue the game and to grab his manager’s attention. Since then he has been a regular fixture in Pochettino’s squads.
From this brief snapshot of Ryan Mason’s career to date, it’s easy to find the parallels between himself and Harry Kane. Indeed, it seems that their destinies are intertwined to some degree: young English players who had failed to establish themselves after numerous loan spells who have seized opportunities granted to them in cup competitions this season at Spurs and have subsequently become fixtures in the first team. Mason and Kane even spent a brief spell out on loan at Millwall together in 2o12. It seems this bond extends beyond the pitch as the two are frequently the first to celebrate with each other at the final whistle or at a goal scored by either.
Mason’s achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by his teammates relentless stranglehold on the headlines and his prolific goal-scoring exploits. However, it’s not hard to see why Pochettino rates him. He has all of the attributes that characterise a typical Pochettino team: industrious in his pressing, sharp in his tackling and intelligent in possession. There remain question marks over his technical ability and as such his long term future in a Tottenham shirt but for a player to go from playing for an upper-mid-table League One side to being a first team regular in the Premier League to making his England debut, all in the space of 12 months, is little short of astonishing.
Shortly after arriving on the pitch in Italy, he marked his England debut in a way that showcased his attributes perfectly. After an England attack broke down on the edge of the opposition penalty area, the ball fell to an Italian midfielder. Before he could even look up to pick a pass, Ryan Mason was on his case, anticipating his first touch and sliding into a challenge. Mason’s tackle found Townsend who obliged by stuffing one in past Gigi Buffon. That Mason’s contribution to the goal was largely overlooked by the press in the post-match analysis only made it more representative of his game.
The story of Kane and Mason’s breakthrough has been one of redemption, of players being salvaged from the scrap heap, of having their latent potential realised. Their individual rising from the ashes has undoubtedly had an impact for both club and country and has changed perceptions about their talent. It has also had more far-reaching consequences. It has challenged the traditional framework for youth player development in this country and restored faith in the loan system.
There is a common attitude that players who haven’t broken into the first team by twenty one/ two are usually seen to have missed their opportunity, especially those who have gone out on loan to a number of different clubs and never seem to have made it properly work wherever they’ve gone. The Football League is littered with players who at one time or another were heralded as ‘the next big thing’ in a premier league youth squad but who haven’t made the grade for whatever reason. Likewise, the loan system was largely dismissed as simply a means for financially strained Football League clubs to bolster their squads without incurring costly transfer fees, with youth development a sometimes added bonus.
By comparison, the traditional model for players who do succeed is that of the ‘wunderkind’, a player of prodigious talent who bursts onto the scene and immediately becomes a significant first team player, drawing a great deal of media attention and praise for their performances during the formative years of their career and, as a result of this meteoric rise to the forefront of the collective imagination, they are often catapulted into the reckoning for the national side. You need only look at the likes of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, and to a lesser extent Theo Walcott, James Milner and Raheem Sterling, all of whom achieved a lot at a very early age and became established names at fledgling stages of their career.
This led us to believe that their narrative was the only one that could ensure success at the top level. That those who don’t burn bright early are unlikely to ever burn at all. That those who haven’t developed by the time they turn twenty and have to be farmed out on loan to aid that development are destined for the scrap heap. But the emergence of Kane and Mason have helped shift us away from that myopic view and have opened the door for a change in the dominant narrative.
Whilst they have opened the door for this change in perception this season, the first signs of change emerged last year. They emerged with the player who scored England’s goal in Turin.
Andros Townsend in many ways is emblematic of the ways the door has been opened for players who seemed to have missed their window of opportunity. He fits the Kane and Mason mould: a player who had been sent out on loan all over the country and had never seemed to really make an impression anywhere he went. That is, except for his last spell at QPR which allowed him to show abilities many didn’t think he was in possession of. This prompted his recall to Tottenham and meant he was able to break into the first team [and the England squad] given this second opportunity. He’s another player with considerable question marks still lingering over him but, at least in an England shirt, you can’t deny that he seems to be taking the opportunities presented to him in a way that he hadn’t previously. How fitting it was then that it was he who scored the equaliser against Italy and that the first two players celebrate with him were his Tottenham teammates.
It may seem a bit of stretch to declare that the endeavours of three players at one club represent a paradigm shift in our attitudes to how players develop. However, they are not the only ones. You need only take a short trip across North London to see how another late bloomer is challenging our notions of player improvement and the efficacy of sending players out on loan.
Step forward Francis Coquelin.
In the midst of a midfield injury crisis, Coquelin was recalled from a loan spell at Charlton Athletic and thrown into the first team for Arsenal.
His watershed moment was a tenacious display at the Etihad against Manchester City where he added the steel to the centre of midfield that Arsenal had so sorely been lacking. Since then, Coquelin has gone from strength to strength, establishing himself a vital lynchpin in the starting eleven. He has been so impressive that there have been suggestions that he might even be the long term answer to that long-standing question over a destructive anchoring midfielder for his side His story is yet another example of a player pulling themselves off the scrapheap and establishing themselves as a big player when it seemed their chance had ebbed away. Coquelin is a slightly different beast than Mason and Kane though as he had previously been given a chance to impress but had failed to take it.
Although he had made sporadic appearances in cup competitions for Arsenal, his league debut came in his side’s infamous 8-2 collapse at Old Trafford against United. It was an insipid performance by the away side and Coquelin himself put in a performance that was as limp as a vicar’s handshake. There is perhaps a feeling that this game tarnished his reputation slightly and despite making a handful of appearances throughout the rest of that season [and the following one] he could never established himself as an essential member of the first team squad. As a result he was farmed out to Freiburg in what turned out to be a largely unhappy spell [partly due to the fact that he was predominantly played out of his favoured position]. However, despite not fully grasping these opportunities when they came around the first time, it seems that he is making the most of this chance at a revival.
The emergence of these players this season have been individually impressive but if they manage to further challenge the popular consensus of how players grow and improve, their impact will be much more lasting. Hopefully their examples can restore some faith in our academy systems and perhaps breed some patience amongst fans, the media and clubs when it comes to young men breaking into first teams. They have taught us that not everyone develops at the same rate and that some players may be better off slowly building their experience rather than bursting onto the scene in a blaze of glory. Sometimes it is better to let players dip their toes in the pool before throwing them in at the deep end.