When you’re a professional footballer, it’s easy to lose sight of what the game’s actually about – you forget why you love it. You see it at clubs all the time: guys training, but not enjoying it, not playing with a smile, not making the most of it.
When you’re a kid, you don’t think of anything else – you just play football. When I was younger, I’d rush home from school, get straight out in the garden and play football until it was time to go in for my dinner. After that, I’d get straight back out to play some more. It’s more than a hobby. It’s an addiction.
One of my first memories is kicking a ball against a little wall in my nan and grandad’s garden – my mum and dad used to say I always had a football with me wherever I went. I grew up in Cheshunt, just outside of London, and joined my first club, East Herts FC in Turnford, when I was six. I was only there for six months.
That’s when Tottenham first spotted me. Micky Hazard watched me at a soccer school in the summer and invited me along to Tottenham. I still remember the moment my dad got the call and told me – I was running round the living room, cheering. It was everything I'd ever wanted.
Being at Spurs was a dream come true. At seven or eight you’re not really thinking about making it as a pro, but even then, pulling on that kit on a Saturday morning gives you a real buzz. Matches against Arsenal are still big games, even at that age. It was still about having fun with mates – it was just doing it while playing for Tottenham.
A few of the lads I played with back then are in the Premier League now. I played with Adam Smith from the age of seven, and Andros Townsend from the age of eight. Later on, guys like Harry Kane and Steven Caulker, who are a little younger, played with us too. I think probably 80% of the lads in our group are now playing league football, and there’s a photograph that shows four of us who went on to play for England.
That group probably isn’t talked about as much as it should be, but it was an incredible period for the club’s academy. It’s funny, because when we were young, it was the age group above us that was seen as the special generation, rather than us. I think that was actually something that motivated us, in a way – we were always hungrier. The atmosphere was great, we were all trying to be so professional and I think we all had the right personality.
One season I scored 42 goals for the under-18s and was starting to think I was ready for my chance in the first team. I remember having a conversation with academy manager John McDermott and him telling me he didn’t expect me to be playing in the Premier League until I was 22, because of the way my body was developing. Some boys are physically mature at 16, but with me that wasn’t the case.
I always felt it was my destiny to play for Tottenham. Even if they’d tried to sell me, I would’ve stayed – I firmly believed I was going to make it at Spurs, and I felt I deserved it. John would keep saying to me, ‘the cream always rises’, reminding me that it was just a case of being patient and sticking at it.
I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments, for example when I was sat on the bench while on loan at Doncaster, that I didn’t have doubts, but the thought of finally getting the chance to play for Spurs always kept me going.
I was a bit unfortunate when Tim Sherwood took over in December 2013. He told me that I would definitely be in his plans, but I’d signed a season-long loan contract at Swindon and couldn’t go back.
I still remember watching his first league game in charge against Southampton, and seeing Nabil Bentaleb coming on to play in the centre of midfield for the last 40 minutes. It was painful. I'd always got on well with Nabil, and I was happy for him, but I was absolutely gutted – I was thinking I could have missed my big chance.
Then Mauricio Pochettino arrived. One of the first conversations I had with the gaffer was during our tour of the United States that summer, while we were in the queue at an airport waiting for a connecting flight. It became clear very quickly that we both had a similar outlook on life and approach to football.
We were talking for about 25 minutes – before then I probably hadn’t had a conversation with a Tottenham manager that had lasted longer than 25 seconds. For the whole flight, all I could think was, ‘Wow, this might just be my chance’. We clicked straight away: we had a connection I’d never had with anyone in football before.
The big moment came in September. We were losing 1-0 at home to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup. We hadn’t started the league season well and the atmosphere was tense. The manager put Harry on and soon after I went on after 65 minutes, which I think probably raised a few eyebrows. Within seven minutes I’d scored my first goal for Spurs. Harry scored too, and we won 3-1. I think it was a turning point for him at the club.
A few days later, I started my first Premier League match – away to Arsenal. From there everything suddenly seemed to come quickly. I played in 17 or 18 league games in a row.
In February, I played in the League Cup final at Wembley and the following month I made my senior England debut away to Italy. A year before that I’d been playing in League One, and to make that transition so fast was a real whirlwind. I felt I deserved to be playing at that level – I thought my ability justified that. It was a case of being ready for the opportunity when it came. And I was.
For the first five or six games of 2015/16, I really felt like I'd been Spurs’ best player. I got another England call-up in the September, although I didn’t play, but then I got an injury scoring the winning goal at Sunderland and suddenly I was sidelined for a few weeks.
I was so eager to get back I forced it a bit too much. I broke down in a rehab session which set me back for several more weeks.
I was training with an injury, and it was so bad I couldn’t have a hot bath – if I did, the knee would swell right up. I eventually got back in for a few matches, but then we played Chelsea, I rolled my ankle and was out for another two months. When I got fit, I couldn’t force my way back into the team. By then, the lads were in a title race and Mousa Dembele was in unbelievable form. The starting XI picked itself, and I could have no arguments about being on the bench.
Early that summer, a handful of clubs came in for me, but I turned them all down because I was determined to fight for my place at Tottenham. The gaffer said I would get my chance, and he wanted me to stay. But then I came back for pre-season and a few things happened – the kind of things that happen in football, nothing to do with the manager – that I couldn’t really accept or move past.
When I didn’t play in the opening three matches of the season, I talked to my agent and decided that, at 25, I really needed to be playing regularly. I fully expected to go to Hull for the season and then get a move elsewhere – maybe even back to Tottenham. That was just my way of thinking. It’s a short career and sometimes you need to be a bit selfish.
Hull was very different to Spurs. I had moved from a side that were always so positive, always looking to press and win back the ball, to a side that were a lot more cautious and conservative. It didn’t suit the way I play. I’d been told I'd play as a No.10, but after the first two games I was moved back into a deeper role. It took a while to adapt, but as soon as Marco Silva came in, everything changed.
We were playing the way I’d been expecting to play and the way I want to play. The four games I played under him were probably my four best matches for Hull. I was starting to feel like I’d be able to prove myself again. I was very optimistic about my future.
We followed the normal routine for an away game. It was a Sunday afternoon game, so we travelled down on the Saturday and spent the night before the match at a hotel near the stadium. In the morning, we went for a walk along the Thames to loosen up a bit, then had our pre-match meal, a little rest, and got ready to go to Stamford Bridge.
I made sure I left two tickets for my mum and dad at the ticket office. I remember looking at the tickets, seeing that they were in the front row of the Hull end, and thinking that it would be amazing to run over there if I scored.
The game started positively for us. I was up against N’Golo Kante and it was a good battle. There were a few crunching tackles, 50-50s, but nothing over the top. Then after 13 minutes, it happened.
They had a corner. The ball came in, I jumped to head it clear, and suddenly I felt this force crashing through my skull. It was the worst pain imaginable.
People assume I won’t remember it, but I do. I can remember the doctor running on, the immense pain, going through all the standard checks after any head injury. Your body goes into a natural state of panic and self-preservation when you get badly hurt – it knows when there’s something massively wrong. The pain was unbearable; it was like a bomb going off in my head, right on the temple.
Our club doctor Mark Waller made some big decisions that shaped my recovery. He knew straight away I’d fractured my skull and there was potential for brain damage, because the whole right side of my face had dropped and was paralysed. The ambulance driver wanted to go to the nearest hospital, but the doctor said we needed to go to St Mary’s – we actually drove past two other hospitals to get there.
That decision probably saved my life. If we had gone to one of the nearer hospitals, I'd have probably had a scan and then been referred to St Mary’s, which would have wasted valuable time.
It was when I was in the CT scanner that I first went unresponsive, and within a few minutes I was in surgery. Had I been anywhere else, things could have ended very differently. I was being operated on 61 minutes after the injury.
The next thing I remember is being woken up. Everything was a bit of a blur. I remember feeling a lot of pain. There was so much noise they had to move me into a private room – I couldn’t handle it. I had to sit in complete silence because any little noise was just too much. Even nurses whispering out in the hallways felt like screaming straight into my ear, I was so sensitive to noise.
I was sleeping for probably 20-22 hours a day. They would wake me up to do a few tests, check my blood pressure and so on, but most of the time I just had to sleep. Recovering from that kind of injury is hard work for the body. You need to pace yourself.
I knew I had staples and metal plates in my head, though it wasn’t really until about six months later that the doctors sat me down to explain exactly what they had done. It was all so severe, they tried to avoid overwhelming me. I’m not sure if I could have taken that all in.
In total, I have 14 metal plates in my skull, with 28 screws to hold them in place. There were 45 staples and a six-inch scar across my head, too. Picking the staples out definitely wasn’t pleasant.
Even now I can feel it all there. I’m aware of it all the time. If others could feel what I feel they’d say, ‘Cor, I’ve got a really bad headache’, but it’s what I’m having to learn to live with constantly. The best way I can explain the feeling is to compare it to that headrush you get when you’ve sat watching television for three hours, then jump up to answer the door. Imagine that, but for every minute of every day. When I get a headache now, the pain is excruciating. If I lean over, I feel a rush of pressure to that side of my head. It’s not something I can forget about for very long.
All the nerves down that side of my face were damaged and they’d completely chopped through the muscle across my temple to open my skull up, so for a while the nerve endings were reconnecting and I had this tingling sensation, like pins and needles.
That muscle connects to the jaw so I had no chance of opening my mouth: for about 10 days I was being spoon-fed. It wasn’t until about 10 weeks down the line that I was able to open my mouth properly. The first time I was able to pick up a glass of orange juice, to hold it to my mouth and drink it, was a massive thing for me. The missus and I even filmed it.
My balance was badly affected, too. I couldn’t walk in a straight line – not that I was walking much anyway. For a while, every time I moved my head I started to get dizzy. I went to see a balance specialist after about 12 weeks and she really helped me to regain my balance and move more steadily.
Throughout the entire recovery process I was going up and down the country seeing specialists, having blood tests, having scans – it was stressful. One week I would see someone and they’d say, ‘No, it’s not a good idea to play football again,’ and the next someone else would say, ‘Yeah, you’ll make a full recovery.’
The first three months after the injury were by far the worst. It was just constant challenges: first it was, ‘Can I sit up in bed?’, then it was, ‘Can I walk again?’. It was a big challenge emotionally, not just for me but also for my family. My missus would be at home with no lights on and no TV for about eight or nine weeks, sitting in near-silence with me on the sofa for most of the day. If she needed a break, my mum would come round and take her place.
Of course the whole thing was difficult for me – particularly as I was used to being so active every day – but I think it was probably worse for my family because they had to see me in that state and the whole process was so slow.
In a funny way, the fact I was a footballer actually helped me to get through the process: I saw it as a challenge to overcome in the same way I had done throughout my career. It was just a case of moving forward one step at a time, and finding a way of making it all work.
By the end of May I was thinking about playing again. I travelled up to Hull to see the boys, and the physio had me kicking a ball against a wall – just like I did when I was a kid. It was the first time I’d kicked a ball in about five months.
Getting back out onto the pitch again seemed such a long way off at that point, but it’s amazing how quickly it all started coming back. I spent two weeks in Portugal that June and worked with a couple of the physios from Hull. Every day I’d be jogging up and down, and although there was still some dizziness, by the end of that holiday I was running at probably 70 or 80%, twisting, turning, kicking a ball again. That break really gave me the belief I could make it back.
By the middle of January this year, I’d convinced myself that I was a few weeks away from playing for the first team again. I thought that I could get back in the team, play a few months in the Championship, then hopefully go back to the Premier League this summer. That was where my mind was at, but I went for a scan in early February and it changed everything.
For that first year after the injury, the focus was almost entirely on my skull – there were holes that needed repairing and fractures that needed to fuse – but then that last scan I had in February showed some issues with the brain. We spoke with some neurosurgeons and specialists and they outlined the facts, making it clear what could happen if I started playing again.
They said if I went back and start heading balls for a year or even six months, there was a chance I could get dementia or epilepsy by the time I was 28 or 29. They said it was a miracle that I'd recovered as well as I had, but that playing again could do more damage.
By the time I got up to leave that meeting, I knew I was retiring. That news was devastating to hear, but we’d just had our son in December, and when I looked at him all I could think was how lucky I was and how happy I was. He’s given me something else to focus on – my life is about providing for him now.
Football is something I still love, though, and luckily I’m fit enough to have a kickabout. Unfortunately it wasn’t safe to play professionally again. I definitely think I would have achieved a lot – I certainly think I would have earned more England caps. I look at the way my career developed, and I don't think I would have hit my peak until I was 28, maybe through to 32. But when I look back, I can say I ticked all the boxes I wanted to tick as a player.
I’m not sitting here gutted I didn’t get the chance to play in the Premier League, or captain my boyhood team, or play for England. If you had asked me when I was 15 what I wanted to achieve in football, those would’ve been the three things. I can be proud of what I achieved during my short football career – I have absolutely no regrets.
If you went through something like this and it didn’t change your perspective on life, you’d be pretty foolish. When you almost die and you’re given a second chance, you find a new level of appreciation for everything you have.
As for me, it’s still hard to think too far into the future. I’ve started doing a little bit of work with the young players at Spurs and working towards my coaching badges, plus some media work, but most of all I’m enjoying myself. I’m just loving having the chance to do things like go to family birthday parties on Saturdays, when in the past I’d have to miss out because I’d have a match. Physically, I can do most things now – I can still run, I can play tennis. I’m a lucky boy, really.
As for further down the line, I just hope that I can find the thing I’m passionate about and can dedicate myself to 100% – like I always did with football.
Interview: James Maw
This feature originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!
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