Evening Standard

Up for the fight: Michael Dawson says the Spurs players are still focused on battling back into the top four as the season builds to a climax. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Michael Dawson should have little reason to smile after last week’s humbling in the Bernabeu.

Even their most fervent supporter cannot believe they will score five against Real Madrid tomorrow night and they face a fight with Manchester City to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Yet the Spurs captain fairly bounds into the Oak Room at White Hart Lane with a smile that is more than a reaction to the unexpected spring sunshine. Everybody at the club will tell you that Michael Dawson always radiates good cheer.

But now he genuinely seems to believe that the quarter-final against Real has not been settled.

“We’ll never give up dreaming. I always say that,” he tells me. “When you’re in the competition, you’ve got a chance. We know it is going to be hard. There’s no hiding that. But we’ve certainly got players who can cause them some problems. They’ll probably be saying the same about themselves but we’ll be attacking. So it’s going to be an open game.”

Tottenham have made their first Champions League odyssey a remarkable tale of open games and amazing comebacks, starting with their qualifier against Young Boys of Berne.

“Three down after 20 minutes, it certainly felt like it was all up,” he admits. “But we showed a lot of grit and determination to come back. Then, we got Inter Milan in the group, went 4-0 down and came back with the goals by Gareth [Bale]. And then what a night we had against them at White Hart Lane [winning 3-1]. And we did it against AC Milan. All that shows that we can do it, eh? Let’s hope we can do it again.”

But surely the 4-0 collapse at the Bernabeu showed that Spurs were intimidated at the home of the nine-times European champions?

“No,” retorts Dawson, no longer smiling. “I wouldn’t say the players were overawed, far from it. Going a goal down so early on didn’t help and obviously going down to 10 men with Crouchy sent off didn’t help either.”

Dawson is particularly keen to quash suggestions that any of the players were affected by the occasion, certainly not the sick Aaron Lennon, who withdrew after the warm-up, being replaced by Jermaine Jenas.

“No, not at all,” he says. “Lenny had been ill since the Sunday. He just wasn’t well enough to play and he was gutted to miss out on a night like that. We’ve all been ill in the past and had days off work before.”

Dawson was part of the Spurs side that fell sick before the infamous final match of the 2005-06 season. A win at West Ham would have taken Spurs to the Champions League but a stricken team lost and Arsenal scraped in.

“I was very ill that night,” Dawson says. “The team had achieved so much that season and, from a personal point of view, it was my first full season in the Premier League. Not to finish fourth was obviously devastating.”

Not that the 28-year old’s rise to one of the country’s top defenders has been smooth progress.

Brought up in Leyburn in North Yorkshire, the youngest of three brothers, all of whom played professionally, he had originally set his heart on being a centre-forward.

“I played as a forward until the age of 12, 13,” the England international says. “Then one of my coaches chucked me to the back and I never played centre-forward again.”

It was going to Nottingham Forest as a 16-year-old that shaped Dawson’s career as a defender. Then, in 2005, aged 22, Martin Jol took him to Spurs along with midfielder Andy Reid, of whom greater things were expected.

After his move, Dawson struggled with injury, three managers in three years and some indifferent form. At the start of the 2008-09 season he was not even in the team on a regular basis until the 9-1 victory against Wigan at home in November. Since then, not only has he led the defence but he has also been made captain.

This personal journey has also meant partnerships with three of the best defenders in the English game in the last two decades.

His first tutor at Forest was the veteran Des Walker. Dawson says: “I broke into the team at 18, and playing alongside him was a big help. Des never stopped talking, on and off the field. He was always trying to help.

“For a player coming in so young, you’re always learning each game you play. Des was a great character, a great player and helped me a lot.”

If Walker was the tutor, then Dawson was just awestruck by Ledley King.

He adds: “I was thinking, wow, what a world-class player. He’s certainly one of the best in England. Unfortunately, he’s had his injury problems, but he’s a top, top guy and a top-class player.”

This season has seen yet another great partner, William Gallas.

Dawson says: “William’s a great lad. He’s been fantastic this season. He’s got experience, played for Chelsea, Arsenal, won things as well. He won the Premier League with Chelsea. With the record and the trophy cabinet he has got, it must be nice to look at.”

A Carling Cup winner’s medal from 2008 is Dawson’s only honour and while, realistically, he has no chance of adding to that this season, he is determined to retain the prize of Champions League football next term.

“Our aim hasn’t changed since the start of the season,” he insists. “We’ve got some big important games coming up and, hopefully, we’ll get the right results and we’ll be back in. We’ll keep aiming for that fourth spot and we’ll keep believing we can do it.”

That might require repeating last season’s feat of beating Manchester City with Tottenham visiting Eastlands on May 10. City, who lost 3-0 to Liverpool last night, are three points ahead having played one game more.

Dawson, however, will not endorse a view heard in the corridors of White Hart Lane that City may again be the weakest link in the top four.

“The money they’ve spent and you look at their squad, you couldn’t say they are the weakest of the four ahead of us. You are where you are and to say there’s a weak team there, it’s unfair.”

But, if Tottenham do not secure their Champions League spot, is he not worried that the team that Harry Redknapp has built might be broken up?

There is a fear among the fans that even if the club do all they can to keep the squad together, some of the players – Bale in particular – could be lured abroad in the summer by the promise of more Champions League football.

“I certainly hope the team stay together,” Dawson says. “Gareth’s just signed a new contract, which is a big bonus. Rafa [van der Vaart] has been great this season. And Luka [Modric] is a fantastic player. He’s not the biggest but he’s strong and he just glides past players.”

Clearly, Tottenham retaining their Champions League position will be crucial as the money men look at next season’s numbers.

But what about Redknapp himself getting the call from England to replace Fabio Capello?

“The gaffer leave for England? Oh, no, what he’s achieved here is great,” Dawson says. “He came in – it was eight games and two points or something like that. You look at the squad and there are a lot of players still here, myself included. We were lacking confidence and not playing to the best of our abilities. The gaffer made us believe in ourselves. First game we went out to Bolton and won and it just seemed to turn things round. Confidence and belief is a big thing.”

Dawson then provides an insight into Redknapp’s man-management.

“The gaffer does not treat me any different to the others because I am captain. For me, it’s no different whether I’m captain or if Ledley is. You have got to go out there and do your own job and then help the team out in as many ways as possible. You’ve got to be vocal, most players out there are vocal.”

For Dawson relaxation in this high-pressure volatile game comes through his two cocker spaniels.

“They keep me nice and busy. And I like a day at the races, try and get some winners.”

He has not had many winners but he would happily exchange them all for a big win tomorrow.


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