Just the spur as Dawson grows into a higher role

Tottenham v Villa: Jol's gamble on youth pays off with a centre-back of rising stature

Like anyone raised in the dales of North Yorkshire, Michael Dawson takes a lot in his stride. But it's just as well that he's a rangy 6ft 3in - for even he admits there has been a "wow" factor to his baptism at Tottenham Hotspur.

Like anyone raised in the dales of North Yorkshire, Michael Dawson takes a lot in his stride. But it's just as well that he's a rangy 6ft 3in - for even he admits there has been a "wow" factor to his baptism at Tottenham Hotspur.

It was there when he watched his first match for his new club. "I remember it was against Portsmouth and Ledley King was just fantastic," Dawson recalls. "And now to be playing alongside him means I'm just lucky." The central defender, still only 21, could be excused if he was also left open-mouthed by his own, injury-delayed debut. It came just two weeks ago. Away to Liverpool. The team he supported as a boy back in Wensleydale. "I wasn't nervous or scared," Dawson contends. "It wasn't a case of that at all. I was just excited."

Dawson hadn't even made an appearance for the reserves at Spurs after recovering from the stress fracture to a shin that he picked up before he signed from Nottingham Forest on the final day of the January transfer window in an £8m deal along with Andy Reid. Fortunately for him the injury was only detected after a bone scan following his late move.

But such was the belief in Dawson that the head coach, Martin Jol, had no doubt he could cope. "I'd travelled up to Liverpool with the team and was due to play in the reserves on Monday against Arsenal. That was pencilled in as my first match," Dawson explains. "But the gaffer told me at 1pm that I was playing. Exciting times."

Exciting indeed, especially as Dawson excelled in the 2-2 draw. It was his kind of game. Spurs had to dig in. Their point was hard-earned, and he was one of the principal reasons they earned it. "I was fit but not match-fit. But the gaffer had faith and chucked me in," Dawson says.

A second appearance quickly followed, with the draw against West Bromwich Albion, and then it was away to Arsenal. "To play Liverpool and Arsenal in my first three games. It doesn't get much bigger than that," Dawson says.

Although he claims the Championship is a "tough" league, he readily admits there has been a big "step-up" now. "It showed on Monday night against Arsenal," Dawson says. "You don't play against many teams like that in the Championship. But then again you don't play against many teams like that in the Premiership, either. It's why they're near the top." It was also his first taste of defeat as a Spurs player and he struggled, to start with, against the pace and movement of Arsenal's attack before eventually steadying himself.

"It's all a learning experience for me," Dawson says. "It's been like that since minute one of coming here. Just playing with the players here. It's a great place to learn and to try and make myself a better player." Just how good a player Michael Dawson can become has been a topic of debate for some time. After all, two years ago, the day after his 19th birthday, he was called up to the full England squad by Sven Goran Eriksson.

"That was a great experience," he says. "I was away with the Under-21s and it was when David Platt was their manager. He called me and said the senior squad had a training session the next day and I would be with them. You can imagine - from playing in the First Division, as it was then, to go and train with the Premiership players."

There was a practice match also, at Aylesbury. Dawson partnered Ugo Ehiogu. They were up against Michael Owen and Emile Heskey.

Dawson was unfazed. But then it must be rem-embered that he has had an exceptional tutoring. On joining Forest, at 16, even though his association with the club stretches 11 years, his mentor and youth-team coach was Paul Hart, who made 600 League appearances as a central defender. When he later broke into the first team, when Hart was manager, Dawson's partner was Des Walker. That first season, Forest reached the play-offs. Their fall has been equally as dramatic. "I love the club," says Dawson. "It's just sad to see the state they are in - but hopefully they can still get the points to avoid relegation. I hope they stay up, it's a great club and it will be sad if they don't." (Alas, they were relegated yesterday.)

The reception when Forest visited Spurs in the FA Cup was poor. "It was a funny one," says Dawson. "The fans don't want their best players to leave, it's as simple as that. Myself and Reidy gave everything we could while we were there. The chance to get into the Premiership is a great one, and I think anyone in our shoes would have taken it. I'm a Spurs player now, but I will always look out for Forest."

Dawson, who is from Northallerton, played cricket for North Yorkshire at Under-15 level, where he was a more-than- useful all-rounder. But he comes from a football family. Both his brothers - Andy (now at Hull City) and Kevin (now at Chesterfield) - also started at Forest's youth academy, and all three played for Northallerton Town, a useful non-League club. All three are also defenders. Their father, Stuart, was a promising striker who joined Manchester United at 15 but broke his leg badly a year later.

Michael has also had his share of injuries and illnesses, which probably delayed his promotion to the Premiership. "I had glandular fever a couple of years ago and that was hard to handle after my first season at Forest. It took quite a lot out of me," Dawson says. "And then when I came back I had a hamstring injury that kept recurring. But these are things you have to cope with." He doesn't even mention the double-hernia operation.

A lot of his setbacks have been due to simply growing. He is now a lot bigger, for example, than when he was called up by England, and will only continue to fill out. Physically, and in terms of his leadership qualities, he has already been likened to Tony Adams, while he has a natural cheerfulness which has won many admirers at Spurs.

Other international opportunities may follow, but then Dawson, who was linked to virtually half the Premiership clubs before joining Spurs - including Liverpool, Newcastle United, Charlton Athletic and today's opponents, Aston Villa - is used to that. "It's always nice when people write good things about you," he says. "But all you can do as a young lad is get your head down and work and everything else will look after itself. There was a lot of speculation for a long while, but luckily enough for me Tottenham bought me."

There is already, of course, the incentive of a European campaign next season. Seventh place will secure a Uefa Cup entry and, after Villa, Spurs play Middlesbrough, their other main rivals for the spot. "They'll be tough, tough games and ones we need to win," Dawson says. "Europe is a nice bonus, and if we take the six points that will make a difference."

There is no attempt to downplay the significance. "We are that close that you can't hide from the situation now," Dawson admits. "A few more wins and, yes, it could be Europe." With his natural Yorkshire grit, it is a challenge Spurs, and Dawson, are equipped to face.