Michael Dawson: 'I knew Harry believed in me, even when I was out of the side'
The Brian Viner Interview: The Tottenham defender on making the leap from Spurs fringe player to World Cup contender
Wednesday 05 May 2010
It is not because he has just been voted Tottenham Hotspur's player of the year that Michael Dawson walks into the interview at the Spurs training ground beaming sufficiently to light up the nearby M11 at midnight. Nor is it because Spurs are about to play Manchester City in what amounts to a play-off for Champions League football next season.
No, Dawson is wreathed in smiles because, according to those who work with him every day, that's just the way he is. You'll never find a nicer, more modest or more generous-spirited lad, they say, all of which is lovely to hear in this era of footballers behaving badly, but makes me as an interviewer just a little apprehensive. I don't need him to dish any dirt, but I do want him to open up about himself.
As for that huge generosity of spirit, tell it to his wife Anna the next time he's crocked – "I'm really hard to live with when I'm out injured," he says, with a merry laugh – but more significantly, tell the opposition strikers who have had next to no change out of Dawson for months.
It was Martin Jol who bought him from Nottingham Forest in 2005 but it is Harry Redknapp who gave Dawson the captain's armband earlier this year, and who has benefited most from his tireless work-rate and ever-burgeoning defensive nous. Would Spurs lie fourth with two games to play had Dawson not been in such commanding form this season? Spurs fans will tell you that it is doubtful. Indeed, with the imperious Ledley King alongside him, and with John Terry in slightly shaky form of late, and Rio Ferdinand not as fit as he might be, one could argue that Tottenham's first-choice central defensive pairing is currently better than England's. On which subject, Fabio Capello is known to be a great admirer of King, but he must also be weighing up the benefits of taking Dawson to South Africa.
First things first, though. Should Tottenham come away from Manchester with all three points tonight, the gates will open to the hallowed Champions League. "Yeah, it's a massive game," says Dawson. "We know just how hard it is to break into that top four, so if at the start of the season someone had said it would be in our own hands with two games to play..."
And what if someone at the start of the season, when he was out with Achilles tendon problems, had said that he would end up not just gunning for Champions League football and a place in the World Cup squad, but also as the club's player of the year? The cab driver who delivered me from Chigwell tube station, I add, had positively rhapsodised about Dawson's performances.
"Well, I don't like to talk about myself. I'm happy with my season. It took me time to break into the team but I got my chance, against Wigan at home in the 9-1 game, and I've only missed one game since. But it's not about me. There are a lot of players in that dressing-room who've had fantastic seasons." Indeed, yet they are largely the same players who under-achieved under Juande Ramos. What difference has Redknapp made? "He's a big believer in his players. Even when I wasn't playing I knew he still had a lot of belief in me."
Dawson has spent his life surrounded by people who believed in his talent. He grew up in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, the youngest of three football-mad brothers, all of whom went on to play professionally, encouraged by their football-mad father, who had been on Manchester United's books until he broke his leg, aged 16.
"Dad ended up playing for Leyburn. I think he played in every position – towards the end he was even in goal – and we used to go and watch him every weekend. My brother Andy [currently at Hull City] is five years older than me, and Kev [once of Chesterfield Town] is two and a half years older, so there were three of us under five, all playing football in the garden or the street whenever we could." A broad grin. "It must have been carnage for my mum."
As a kid, Dawson supported Liverpool, but that changed when Forest scouted Andy, and came courting. "They were really keen on signing him, so they looked after us as a family, putting us up in hotels, introducing us to the players, and Brian Clough. I'd never been to a football match before, but as soon as I went to the City Ground I became a Forest fan. And when Andy signed for them at 16, that was all I wanted to do. Which I did. I signed schoolboy forms at 14, and moved down there at 16. Kev did the same at 16, and was in the game until he was 23, when he was released by Chesterfield. He plays semi-pro now." For a split-second a cloud passes across Dawson's sunny face. "So the family has seen both sides of football."
The youngest Dawson flourished at Forest, under the gimlet eye of youth team coach Paul Hart, later the manager. Nor did it hurt his development to have the veteran Des Walker alongside him in his inaugural season in the first team. "Des never stopped talking on the field or off. I roomed with him and he never stopped talking there either. He's a top guy and he did a lot to help me, to give me confidence. He used to put his arm around me, while Paul gave out the rollockings."
But with Forest in freefall through the divisions, a move became inevitable. Dawson would go home to Leyburn after games on the Saturday, and listen to his dad at the Sunday morning breakfast table reading out the names of the latest Premier League clubs to be linked with him. In the end it was Spurs who pounced, offering him the prospect of teaming up with another great centre-half, in the formidable shape of King.
"The first game I watched, we played Portsmouth at White Hart Lane. And I remember thinking, 'wow, he's just unbelievable'. Leds is just world-class. And I knew that if I was going to play it would either be alongside him, or I'd have to knock him out the team."
Maybe, too, it will boil down to King or Dawson for England, not a topic that the younger man wants to dwell on, though he was chuffed as little mint balls, as they rather peculiarly say in his native Yorkshire, to hear the White Hart Lane faithful pressing his case in front of Capello. "Against Chelsea they never stopped singing my name in the last 10 minutes and what a feeling it was, the whole ground singing your name with Mr Capello there."
Dawson is still uncapped at senior level, but surely not for long, whether he goes to the World Cup or not. If he does, it will be a dream fulfilled, and for now he's content with the idea simply of rubbing shoulders with Terry and Ferdinand, rather than replacing them.
"When I started watching Forest, my favourite player was always Stuart Pearce. I loved the way he'd go to the Trent End and get them wound up before the start of the game. But from the age of about 15, it was Rio and JT. I really looked up to them two."
Dawson knows most central defenders tend to peak around the age that Ferdinand and Terry are now, between 29 and 31, which in theory gives him four years or so to get even better. "Until the day I retire I will always believe I can improve," he says.
In the meantime, one dimension of his game he thinks could be improved is his goal-scoring ratio. On the other hand, his first goal for Spurs was the opener in a 2-1 win against Chelsea on 5 November, 2006, as good a reason as any to remember, remember the fifth of November. If he happens to bag one at Eastlands tonight, it could be even more memorable. But I fancy that Redknapp, and the travelling Spurs fans, will be more than content for him to do the business at the other end of the pitch, as he has been doing, so reliably, all season.
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