Ryan Mason was at his lowest ebb, stricken in a hospital bed after emergency surgery to repair a fractured skull, when he received a visit from his former Tottenham manager, Mauricio Pochettino. Immediately, the lights went on. “Hey, gaffer, I was there,” Mason said. “In the right position.”
Mason was at Hull in January 2017 when the accident happened, a sickening clash of heads with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill after he had dropped into the space to make a defensive challenge – just as Pochettino had instructed him over and over again.
On this occasion, the Fates were against Mason. Right position, wrong time. His life had hung in the balance and the damage to his head was so extreme that he would be forced to retire as a player a little over a year later, at 26. Yet what struck Pochettino that day – and not for the first time – was the strength of Mason’s focus, the dedication to his craft. “You go to hospital to visit a guy and you don’t expect to speak about tactics,” Pochettino later told friends.
Football is all that Mason knows. He has said so many times. It has consumed him since he joined Spurs as a seven-year-old and, if there is one thing it has taught him, it is that everything can change in a heartbeat.
When Mason reported to Spurs’ training centre on Monday morning, it was to work with the club’s academy players in his capacity as the head of development for the under-17s to the under-23s. He oversaw the session. But then José Mourinho was sacked and Daniel Levy, the chairman, asked Mason to take first-team training. And, after that, Levy had another conversation with him, in which he offered him the role of interim manager for the final seven games of the season. Right position, right time.
Mason held his first media conference in the job on Tuesday lunchtime. “It’s crazy,” were his first words. As he spoke, he could see the under-18 team filing past a window for their game against West Ham. “I would have been involved in that,” Mason said.
Instead, he is preparing for Wednesday’s Premier League fixture at home to Southampton when, at 29, he will become the competition’s youngest manager. And, after that, comes Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Manchester City. Could he ever have imagined being the manager with the chance to end the club’s 13-year trophy drought?
“I thought I’d still be playing football – I’m probably in my prime of footballing ability,” Mason replied. “But football is a crazy, crazy sport. It’s bizarre. I had to deal with so much as a player … having the serious injury, fighting for my life, coming back, having to retire, coming back to this great football club [as a youth coach in April 2018]. It’s football and anyone involved knows that you have to be prepared.”
Mason has had next to no time to work with the squad, many of whom he played with under Pochettino up to his departure for Hull in August 2016. He will likely be without the injured Harry Kane; the hope, he suggested, would be that the striker is fit for the final against City. Everything is moving at breakneck pace and yet Mason is no rabbit in the headlights. As he pointed out, he was a fighter long before the trauma of his skull injury.
“I had to deal with a moment of health, where there were a lot of difficulties, but to play in the Premier League, to represent England [as he did against Italy in March 2015] … it takes a lot,” Mason said. “My whole life, I’ve been preparing for moments and you can only know how you’re going to react once you’re in them.
“All the moments I’ve had in the last 10, 15 years as a player have maybe shaped me to where I am today. But the way I live my life, the way I think … I want to be positive, happy, to have experiences that I can look back on. I feel good, comfortable, in a good place and, hopefully, that can transmit to the players.”
Mason has inherited a team that have won only seven of their past 21 league games, in which some players were burned by Mourinho’s uncompromising man-management. “Listen, I don’t know what went on before,” Mason said. “I wasn’t involved. Is there a clean slate? Of course.”
So what does Mason want his Spurs team to look like? “I’d hope to think it’s what a Tottenham Hotspur side would historically look like,” he said. “I want us to be brave and aggressive, to play like Tottenham Hotspur. I want a team to make our fans proud.
“Football, for a lot of people, is everything they have in life. I want the fans to be invested and I want the players to feel that energy, as well.
“Obviously, they are not in the stadium now but when they do come back in, this football club needs to feel that energy.”
Mason, famously, provided the Pochettino era with an early spark, scoring a crucial equaliser in their 3-1 League Cup victory over Nottingham Forest at a time when the chips were down. More contentiously, in November 2014, he got Christian Benteke sent off in a pivotal game at Aston Villa. At 1-0 down, Pochettino feared the sack but, against 10 men, Spurs recovered to win 2-1.
Mason intends to embrace the challenge of firing another upturn.