The announcement that Ryan Mason has joined Hull City brings an end to the midfielder’s 17-year association with Spurs. Mason is player I have immense affection for, and I’ve rarely felt such pride as a Spurs fan as I did when seeing him step onto the pitch at Juventus Stadium in March 2015 in an England shirt.
Of all the prospects to have emerged from the academy in recent years, Mason’s development as a player has been the most surprising, and most inspiring. That he needs to move on from Spurs to find regular football at the age of 25 isn’t a mark of failure, but rather a success story that should be celebrated by the club and fans.
Young footballers face an extraordinarily rocky road, and few capture the randomness that awaits once a player signs a professional contract as Mason. In the past seven years, Mason has been an academy prospect and loan traveller, fringe talent and midfield mainstay, England international and rarely-used squad player.
Aged 23, after mixed loan spells in which he flashed both talent and susceptibility to injury, Mason found himself back at Hotspur Way in the summer of 2014, but firmly in the departure lounge. He’d made just five first-team appearances in a Spurs shirt, in the Europa League and League Cup, and this was surely destined to be his limit. The arrival of Mauricio Pochettino offered one final chance to impress.
Mason did enough on the pre-season tour of North America to secure a place in the first-team squad, but remained an afterthought for everybody, with the exception of the head coach. In late September, with Pochettino already growing exasperated by the expensive but underperforming midfield options such as Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, Spurs found themselves a goal down to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup third round with an hour played. The Argentine sent on first Harry Kane, and a minute later Mason, and the impact was almost immediate. Within eight minutes Mason had slammed home the equaliser, and Kane would tap in the third to wrap up the win.
“It’s a cliché,” Mason told the Telegraph. “But I had dreamt of that. I had always dreamt of scoring at White Hart Lane and to score a screamer…”
Such was the paucity of options, that cameo was enough to persuade Pochettino to give Mason a chance in the league. It was a daunting first assignment — away at the Emirates — but Mason performed with immense credit.
“It was weird,” he said about making his debut. “But, in my head, I’ve always felt I deserved a chance. I’d done well, I’d done well in training and I scored that goal. Still I think 90-95 percent of managers would not have put me in, they would have shied away from it and gone for someone with a lot more experience. But he showed faith in me.”
Mason went on to play 37 times for Spurs in 2014/15, and on March 31 he made his debut for England. In total, he played 70 times for Spurs, scoring four times.
But as much as his appearances, Mason was a symbol of what was changing at Spurs off the pitch.
Along with Nabil Bentaleb, Kane, Andros Townsend, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Mason was part of a core of young players that were creating a new feeling of togetherness at the club. It was, so the story goes, Mason and Kane who faced down the “Kaboul cabal” after the dismal home defeat to Stoke in the autumn of 2014, creating a new spirit of unity and commitment that would allow Pochettino to begin to implement his methods and changes without resistance.
The “one of own” chant is sung for Kane, but Mason was every bit as important in reconnecting fans and players. There is nothing more satisfying as a fan than seeing local boys out there on the pitch. It scratches that itch we all feel — that part of our support that rests on the fantasy that it might be (or at least could have been) us out there. Mason was out there living our dream, and the fact he’d got there as much through perseverance as God-given talent made it resonate even more.
Of the group that emerged under Pochettino, Walker and Bentaleb were the only ones who had previously shown the talent levels required to become regular starters for Spurs. Like Rose, Mason was having to adapt to a new position and more defensive responsibilities, but instead of having a year to mature at Sunderland, Mason had to learn on the fly, starting at the Emirates. The ability of Mason to adapt to both a new position, and a new system, is a testament to his footballing intelligence and Pochettino’s coaching ability. The Bentaleb-Mason midfield partnership wasn’t pretty, but it proved — just — sufficient for Pochettino to emerge unscathed from his first season in charge.
The third of Mason’s four career goals for Spurs came against Sunderland at the start of the 2015/16 season. Spurs had failed to win the first four games before the international break, and the failure to bring in players in the summer window meant the fanbase was simmering with frustration.
For 80 minutes, Spurs had played well but failed to score against a highly beatable Sunderland team, and the temperature was starting to rise. But with the game drifting to a draw, Mason exchanged passes with Erik Lamela, then set off towards the box, arriving at the perfect time. He chipped the ball over Costel Pantilimon to win the game, but in the process sustained a knee injury.
By the time he returned in late October, the Spurs midfield had changed. Eric Dier had emerged as a holding midfielder par excellence, Dele Alli had emerged as a superstar in the making, and Mousa Dembele, finally, had discovered a way to harness his immense natural talent. After starting four of the first five league games, Mason started only four more the rest of the season. Talk about the vagaries of football.
Mason did little in his sporadic appearances last season to suggest he could break back into the starting XI. Particularly harrowing was the Europa League outing in Dortmund, where Mason and fellow academy graduate Tom Carroll were hopelessly exposed by a Champions League calibre German outfit. It was a clear signal that better midfield options would be needed with Champions League beckoning for Spurs in 2016/17.
As a holding midfielder, Mason lacks strength and height, meaning he will never be the defensive option Spurs need alongside Eric Dier, that Victor Wanyama now is. As a box-to-box midfielder, Mason’s finishing has never been good enough — think of that guilt-edged chance at Stamford Bridge that would have kept Tottenham’s title dreams going for another week. As a playmaker, Mason’s passing is too mechanical and pedestrian.
But, mentally, Mason is as strong as they come. His high footballing IQ enabled him to understand the system, and earn Pochettino’s trust. He is a leader, and was selected as captain against Fiorentina last season in the Europa League. He is also a fighter — his Spurs career, short at is it, should by all logic have been shorter, had he not stuck at it so doggedly.
If you watched the preseason games, you saw the Mason conundrum as clearly as crystal. Against Atletico, Juventus and Inter Milan, Mason knew exactly what he was meant to be doing, offensively and defensively, but he couldn’t always execute it. Chances were spurned, passes were missed, the pressing was not quite tight enough. Simply put, Mason isn’t quite good enough at football for a team that is aiming for the title and competing in the Champions League.
That means Mason is open to criticism by fans, and to being sold by the club. This is the Premier League, and it’s a tough environment. But when I see comments on social media like “I never want to see Mason in a Spurs shirt again”, it makes my skin crawl with embarrassment.
Mason is a homegrown player, a local boy who came good. Few players in recent Spurs history have been so visibly proud to wear Lillywhite, and he has been a pivotal part of the transformation in the club’s culture since Pochettino took over. It would be wonderful if he was a better player, but he has maximised his talent and is a symbol of so much of what is right about the club. If he was 0.1 percent better, he’d still be with us; if he was 1 percent worse he’d be playing Sunday League and watching Spurs from the stands. These are the margins. If you find yourself hating a guy like this, you fundamentally misunderstand what is happening at Tottenham. You may be happier supporting Manchester City.
If you want to know how much Spurs means to Mason, you only have to Google it. It’s clear in pretty much any interview he has given. This was to FourFourTwo:
“I’ve been at the club since I was seven. I’m from north London and so, yes, the club is very much a part of my childhood. At first the football is just fun but as you progress it becomes a dream to try to reach the first team. From the age of about 14 you want to walk out at White Hart Lane on a Premier League matchday. I had to wait a very long time for my chance but it was worth it, and maybe the wait made it sweeter.”
Few clubs match Spurs in the ability to produce footballers. The Premier League and lower divisions are littered with former Spurs youngsters who have thrived away from White Hart Lane. The club is able to raise millions through the sale of academy graduates such as Alex Pritchard, Townsend, Jake Livermore and so on. This funds future development work, and creates a virtuous circle.
The fact that Spurs have secured a large fee for Mason — believed to be around £10 million — and his place in the squad is being taken primarily by Harry Winks, another homegrown player four years his junior, shows that Spurs as a football club is working. This is what is supposed to happen.
Mason is one of our own, and always will be. While the current eight-year-olds entering the academy will dream of being Harry Kane, the example set by Ryan Mason is just as important, and arguably more realistic. Persevere, work hard, maximise your talent, and you might get to play for Spurs and England.
I hope he goes on to achieve great success at Hull and beyond. If his body holds up, I have no doubt that he will.
Godspeed, Ryan Mason.