For the longest time, the talent Tottenham produced through their academy would follow an almost identical career trajectory. Having played well in the academy and at reserve grade, their hype would almost immediately outstrip their ability, and the result was - more often than not - a complete and utter disappointment. While there were some outliers, such as noted man of the people Sol Campbell and genuine hero Ledley King, most youth team graduates would briefly flirt with first team football before quickly being found out, ultimately finding home in the lower league’s and forging out a career for themselves out of the limelight.
In recent years, however, that’s been turned on its head. With a transfer policy under Daniel Levy more miss than hit, restructuring and increasing investment in their player development efforts has been a large part of how Spurs have engineered their slow progression up the Premier League, with their concentration having shifted from buying discounted stars to making their own. A point no better illustrated by how many former Tottenham academy players are now regular first teamers at other clubs inside the top flight and towards the sharp end of the Championship. The club is now reliably producing talent of a level high enough to either improve their own on field operations, or sell on at a premium to help fund the next class of academy graduates.
A process accelerated by the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino, there’s now a real feeling at Spurs that transferring players in to the club has become second to creating their own tailor made talent for the manager’s needs, which has proven successful in motivating those within touching distance of the first team to push themselves further in to contention. Although the likes of Jake Livermore, Thomas Carroll, Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason have been allowed to leave the club, these are footballers of a fantastic standard, with many of them showing their very best in smaller market teams, having been valued members of the Tottenham squad before becoming surplus to requirement.
A level above those names, however, and a player creating the type of buzz and excitement Harry Kane did when he first began to find his scoring feet is young Harry Winks, a midfielder who’s drawn comparisons with both Scott Parker and Luka Modric, which more than justifies his status as one of Mauricio Pochettino’s favourites. So impressed was he by mere footage of Winks in fact, one of the Argentinian’s first actions when he became Spurs boss was to sanction a first professional contract for Winks, setting in motion his eventual rise in to first team contention.
To look at Winks, he doesn’t seem like much. With the frame of a boy and the face of the kid who got in to trouble at school for kissing too many girls on the cheek, it’s easy to underestimate him - and that’s something he’s used to his advantage. Unafraid of mucking in defensively, while cultured enough on the ball to both move it with purpose and carry it forwards with confidence, it’s not rocket science to see where the Luka Modric comparisons have come from. Despite the slight cloud under which he left the club, the now Real Madrid playmaker is still seen as one of the finest natural talents to ever grace the field at White Hart Lane, so it’s not a parallel that’s been drawn without weight, or reason.
However, it’s the loss of Nabil Bentaleb - rather than Modric - that Winks will help cushion the blow of more. Having departed on the back of multiple contract disputes and the apparent failure to wholly invest in what Pochettino wants from his players, Bentaleb was one of Spurs’ highest hopes before Schalke came calling. He was an excellent two-way player, able to read the opposition beyond his years, interrupt their attacks and, without hesitation, launch one of his own. If there is to be a silver lining to his departure, it’s that the path for Winks from the academy to the first team became far less crowded than it had been previously, increasing the exposure the he’d have to both first team training and one-on-one coaching from Pochettino sooner than most had expected him to.
Walking the tightrope between promise and ability, Winks is currently in the same position as a new act is when they’ve released a bonafide hit on debut, with few people aware of whether or not they can back it up. There’s a fine line between one hit wonder and next big thing, and while we’re all now well aware that Harry Winks has an I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor up his sleeve, it’s still too soon to know if he’s going to be able to back that up with an album to match, or the discography that follows. For all we know, Winks might be more of a Twisted Wheel, with all the hope and ringing endorsements following early success, and a similarly flat trajectory following that.
Given the way the club have invested in him, though, with multiple contract extensions and an increasing presence in the first team, it’s hard to see where Winks begins to struggle. While there’ll be the odd inevitable bad game or temporary dip in form, the mutual trust Pochettino has created is allowing him to come on and effect matches when they’re at their most delicate. Winks can impose his will on proceedings without having to worry about the consequences of making mistakes, which are exactly the type of safety nets a player needs to thrive at such an impressionable age. In lesser hands, you might worry about Winks allowing the praise to go to his head and the work rate suffering as a result, but under this regime, that seems like the last possible plot twist.
Surrounded by similar success stories in Dele Alli and Harry Kane, there’s no doubt that Harry Winks is in the perfect environment to push his potential ceiling to be as high as humanly possible, with the correct incentives and rewards in place to motivate him along the way. Unlike players like Tom Carroll and Ryan Mason, there isn’t the need for Pochettino to fix fundamental elements of Winks’ game, and he has far more time on his hands than players who were fast approaching their mid-20s and well beyond the parameters of being seen as development players. Right now, Winks is at a stage where his ability and approach to the game can be moulded and designed in any which way to maximise impact and potential, and if their track record in recent years is anything to go by, there’s no better combination of both club and management team for him to explore that period of his career under.