Gower's day of destiny with Spurs arrives
Cruelly denied a first-team chance at the Lane, the Swansea man hopes at last to face his old club in the top flight, he tells James Corrigan
Since he signed professional forms at White Hart Lane 16 years ago, Mark Gower has hankered for the day he runs out with Tottenham in the Premier League.
Today, in circumstances which would have staggered that talented teenager, he will finally realise his dream. Unless, that is, Brendan Rodgers does his finest impersonation of George Graham.
Of course, the Swansea manager has rather more aspects to weigh up than the dusty demons festering within his midfielder's psyche. At the Liberty Stadium, the Welshmen will be looking for just their second victory from their last nine games as their top-flight adventure intensifies. Yet Rodgers would not be the humane soul he is if he overlooked how much this match matters to Gower. "It would mean everything," the 33-year-old says.
For three years either side of 2000, Gower waited and waited. On a couple of occasions, the lad even stripped off and waited for the fourth official's board to announce his arrival on the big stage. Alas, it wasn't to be.
"I was on the bench 25 times for Spurs and never got on in the Premier League," he says. "It felt like a 100 times. I would be given the nod to go on, but then Graham would change his mind at the final second. There was one game where we were 4-0 up against Watford. It was something like the 12th or 13th week in succession I'd been on the bench and he still resisted giving me my run. I think he was taking the piss out of me."
It is fair to suggest Gower is not Graham's biggest admirer; but then he has happened to be a Spurs supporter since he was old enough to bear a grudge against all that is red in north London.
"The fact that man was the manager when my Spurs career ended makes my memories of that time even more bitter," Gower says. "It grates on me because Graham's got Arsenal blood. He's Mr Highbury. He probably had his reasons, but it still hurts that he sort of pushed me out the door. That's why it would mean everything to play against them in the Premier League."
To understand why, one must see where Gower went next. A few years earlier he was being acclaimed as England's new Paul Gascoigne, but found himself fearing for his limbs in the Conference. "It's weird how things work out," he recalls. "At 15, I was being touted as the next best thing, but then it didn't happen for me at Spurs and then I found myself at Barnet. That's football. Nobody has a right to make it and nobody has a right not to make it. When I was 14, Rio Ferdinand couldn't get in our county team."
In truth, Gower was happy to be playing meaningful football at Barnet, even if it meant being depicted as the underachiever at Underhill. "I'd gotten sick of reserve-team football," he says. "Whatever anyone says, the reserve team is meaningless as nobody really cares about the result. It's soul-destroying for a young player, year in, year out. So I made the decision to go to Barnet, because although it was low down, at least the games mattered. It was a bad move. It was horrible. In the Conference, there are people just waiting to break your leg, especially if you've got a little bit of history at a big club. It wasn't far off thuggery, really. Even your own team-mates would kick you in training if it meant them getting in the team before you.
"It was a massive shock. It took me six months to come around. But it toughened me up and made me put my nut down and say to myself, 'I don't want to be here, I want to be back where I was'. I had never doubted my ability to play the top level, but then when you're down there you think 'well, I must be down here for a reason, I can't be as good as I think I am'."
Fortunately for Gower, Martin Allen took over at Barnet. Now at Notts County, his nickname may be "Mad Dog" but he has a soft, cultured side and when Southend came in he told Gower to pack his bags. "Martin told me I was too good to be playing in the Conference and let me go for not much money," Gower says. "Suddenly the breaks I'd never had before started happening."
Five years at Southend brought two promotions to the Championship and three seasons with Swansea brought two promotions to the Premier League. For Gower, this most circular of football journeys has been worth it. "The way pre-season worked out I thought 'hang on, I ain't getting a game here'," he says. "I'm not one to pick up the pay-cheque and not play so yeah, I considered leaving. But then, people close to me said, 'you've worked so hard to make it back to the Prem, don't turn your back on it now you're there'. And I was thinking, 'I just want to play once in the Premier League and I'll be happy'."
The worry for all the sentimentalists is that on Tuesday, Rodgers dropped Gower from the line-up for the first time in nine League matches and replaced him with the impressive Dutchman Kemy Agustien. It has put Gower's date of Premier League destiny with Spurs in the balance. "I was lucky enough to play two cup games against them when I was at Southend," he says. "But to actually play in the same league, on level par with them, would mean an awful lot.
"Tottenham Hotspur are a huge thing in my family. My brothers go every week as do so many other friends and family. It was a big upheaval to leave Spurs. All I wanted to do was play for them in the Premier League, but to play against them in the Premier League would be the next best thing."
So all he can do is hope and, perhaps, pray that the nod which never came from Graham comes from Rodgers. This last week members of his family have been staying with him in Swansea with this encounter in mind. The topic of discussion will have been obvious. "We've been talking about it and we all say we can see Tottenham challenging for the title," Gower says. "This Spurs squad is the best since I've been alive. They've just got quality all over the pitch, goals all over the pitch. But that doesn't mean we can't take all three points against them. And me being a massive Spurs fan won't make any difference to my will to win."
Indeed, he might even have a little score to settle. If only Mr Graham cared.
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