When you watch the traffic stop for Tom Huddlestone as he has his photograph taken on a side road off Regent Street in the West End of London, it is mind-boggling to learn the grounds on which he was rejected by Nottingham Forest. The Tottenham midfielder, a giant at 6ft 3in with an exquisite touch on the ball, can still recall the line in the Football Association form he was handed aged 12 with the official reason for his release. "Not strong enough."
Now just turned 20, with 133 senior appearances to his name, Huddlestone has been proving them wrong ever since. He has been the revelation of Tottenham's season, a cultured midfielder who has taken on Michael Carrick's role in central midfield with style, and is now also in Steve McClaren's thoughts as a new addition to the England squad for next month's friendly with Spain. The boy might be big, but there is a lot more to his game than broad shoulders at such a young age.
The last four months of his life have seen Huddlestone included at last among those who represent the generation of English football beyond the big names in the current senior team. When I last met Huddlestone, almost exactly one year ago, he was reflecting on a successful loan spell at Wolves and the prospect of returning to Tottenham to fight his way into a senior team for whom, at that time, he had not yet played. From a hotel off the M6 to the West End in one year, he made the Spurs team in October and has been a regular fixture ever since.
With a name that sounds like it has been borrowed from a Dickens novel and a softly spoken Nottingham accent that belies his imposing presence, Huddlestone is a thoughtful, analytical character. He talks with authority about the way he has developed as a player since he was first selected as a substitute for Derby County at the age of 15, to shooting practice with Edgar Davids - and he also knows his football well enough to tell you how many international caps the famous old Dutchman has won.
When Carrick was sold to Manchester United this summer for that extraordinary £18m fee, Huddlestone might have been forgiven for thinking his chance had arrived at last. It had been a long time coming. Bought by Tottenham from Derby at a snip in January 2005, he was left at Pride Park for the rest of that season. Last season he played on loan at Wolverhampton Wanderers until January before finally getting four Tottenham games before the end of the campaign.
"Carrick moving in the summer was a big thing but, having said that, I wasn't playing at the start of this season either," Huddlestone says. "It was always going to be a good chance, but Didier Zokora was brought in, Steed Malbranque and a few other players who can play in my position. So it was still a case of fighting for my place. But the games I played early on, the manager obviously took a liking to what he saw."
What Huddlestone gives is somewhat similar to Carrick, a graceful holding midfielder who can pass the ball and read the game. With goals against Port Vale (two) and Manchester City, Huddlestone has already surpassed his predecessor's goalscoring tally at Tottenham. He made his first start in September in a Uefa Cup away win at Slavia Prague and his second in a victory in Istanbul over Besiktas. Martin Jol realised then that it was the patient teenager who was the answer for Tottenham post-Carrick.
Huddlestone's eyes widen as he describes the "phenomenal" atmosphere in Turkey that coincided with his coming of age as a Spurs player. "The ground didn't hold that many people but the amount of noise they made, led by a guy with a Tannoy, was deafening. It was probably our best performance as a team. Having won 2-0, it was a fitting tribute that the whole stadium applauded us off. I don't think you get that too many times in England."
He had waited a long time for a place in the first XI but even barely 20, Huddlestone cannot be dismissed as inexperienced. He has played 133 senior games already, 22 for Tottenham, and, in a struggling Derby team, played 22 games before he was 17, more than Wayne Rooney at Everton, and 98 in his entire time there. The debate has been more about his strengths. Was the England Under-21 international best suited to centre-back or midfield? Did his size mean people immediately assumed he would be slow?
"Before I'd say I was a holding midfielder but over the last five or six games I've got forward more. I scored a couple against Port Vale [in the Carling Cup] and one against City," he says. "I have been working on my shooting in training so I feel more comfortable. The manager encourages us to express ourselves. In your first three or four games you are a bit nervous that you might not be in the team the next game but once you get a little run you feel more confident.
"People do look at my size first but when you are a tall player at maybe 10 or 11, your touch and technique is the main thing you work on, because physically you can cope. I wouldn't say my size is the main part of my game, the main part is technique and passing. Now I am playing more games people are getting used to that."
He hit 6ft around the age of 11 and had been with Forest since the age of eight. As a child he was taken to training, and to watch his uncle play for semi-pro team Hucknall Rolls Royce, by his grandfather Frank and he was kept in line by his mother Maxine, whom he cites as the greatest influence on his career.
It is Maxine Huddlestone who, her son says, can also take great credit for one of the most impressive set of GCSE results in Premiership history: three B grades and six C grades. Incredibly, he did not get an A in PE. Maxine refused Derby's request to take him out of school at 15 and made sure he stayed on despite making it into their first team. However, they are still not the best grades in the Under-21s. "James Milner got the best of the lot," Huddlestone says with genuine admiration. "A's and A stars."
Brought up in the Sneinton area of Nottingham, he was rejected by the Forest coach Nick Marshall on the astonishing grounds of lacking strength, the reason cited on his official release form. He was immediately snapped up by Derby and was in their first team within three years. "Watching games, people could see that I would have played the same if I was two feet shorter, because it was on the ball l that was my main strength," Huddlestone says.
"The criticism that in the past I was not aggressive enough was fair but this season I have been more aggressive. That was the main thing the manager [Jol] said to me about getting in the team and I feel I have done that. I have been told to be more aggressive since I was 10 years old. It's not really natural for me but I have definitely been involving it in my game more."
Jol is, by habit, not a manager who favours individual praise so for him to say recently he would not swap Huddlestone "for anyone in England" was praise indeed. Huddlestone arches an eyebrow at that quote and, although he cuts a very laid-back figure, it is not hard to see it means a lot to him.
"It shows great confidence from the manager in my ability and it's a great compliment," he says. "But you can't get carried away with that. Aren't most managers going to say that about their players?"
He has worked this season with Ricardo Moniz, Tottenham's new Dutch skills coach, who Huddlestone says, tell the players that he has "96 ways to beat a defender". Moniz has innovative ways of teaching the players to improve their shooting, which appear to have made an impression on Huddlestone. As has Davids, who might, by reputation, seem like an unlikely mentor for young players.
"Davids keeps himself 100 per cent off the pitch, he's always doing weights which - as a young player - you just have to admire. That's why he is still playing at 33," Huddlestone says. "Maybe the way he plays he doesn't seem approachable but he often says to the young players, 'If you need any advice, speak to me'. We speak quite a lot. You have to learn from people when you can and he has 74 caps for Holland in a great era for that team."
His best friend at Tottenham is Aaron Lennon, who is moving from the apartment block in Essex where they both have flats next week. Huddlestone says that in the weeks leading up to his team-mate's surprise inclusion in the England World Cup finals squad in May, he always believed Lennon would make it. He watched England's games on holiday in Greece with his schoolfriends from Nottingham and was back home for the quarter-final demise against Portugal.
Huddlestone recalls the World Cup with the enthusiasm of a fan - "there were a few grown men in tears, which shows just how much they look forward to it" - but he has taken a giant step closer to the England team since then. In December, McClaren revealed he had a list of 50 players, from established stars to young hopefuls, who could yet play a role in the Euro 2008 qualification campaign. The list has not been divulged but it is sure to include Huddlestone, who has captained the Under-21s in their qualification campaign for June's European Championship.
"The way we [Under-21s] are playing there are a lot of players in the squad who should be pushing for the senior squad," he says. "Micah Richards and Aaron are in that squad now and might be getting regular games but the quality in the senior squad is frightening. They have two or three of the best central defenders in the world, same in centre midfield so it will be difficult for us in the Under-21s, but Steve McClaren has shown he will not be afraid to put youngsters in."
The spotlight will fall upon the Under-21s in the Netherlands this summer, when they have the Czech Republic, Serbia and Italy in their group. Huddlestone has played international football at schoolboy levels and knows his way around the best young players in Europe. He picks out Jurado, a Real Madrid midfielder currently on loan at their neighbours Atletico, and Chelsea's forgotten Frenchman Lassana Diarra as the best he has played against.
As a product of the modern academy system, Huddlestone's take on the difference between young English players and their foreign counterparts is instructive. He admits that the "French are maybe technically slightly ahead of us but in a game situation it is fairly even". With his Under-21s team he has won away in Germany and the Netherlands and he expects this summer's tournament to be so competitive that players will be brought back from the senior teams to play for the Under-21s.
Before then he has a Carling Cup semi-final against Arsenal and, while he makes no assumptions about being in the side, it will be an opportunity for Tottenham's youngsters to show that their rivals are not the only side with good young players. "The first leg is at White Hart Lane and we feel confident against anyone there," Huddlestone says. "I've seen a few of them [Arsenal youngsters] play, their manager seems to bring them out of nowhere and they turn out to be world-class players. It will be a difficult game, although I thought against Liverpool the game was fairly even - even though Arsenal scored six goals."
He also hopes to be in the team for the visit of Manchester United next month and the chance to measure himself against Carrick. "It will be weird playing against Michael because he is still quite close to a lot of the lads, but we know what we've got to do," he says. "He's done very well. People don't realise how many interceptions he makes. His passing is there for everyone to see, but off the ball people don't give him as much credit as he deserves."
It is Steven Gerrard whom he admires the most - they faced each other in Liverpool's win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane last month, one of only two defeats for Tottenham in the 18 games Huddlestone has started this season. He is effusive about Gerrard's talents - "in my eyes he is the best" - but he also shyly points out that a bad foul on him by the England man "looked a lot worse than it actually was".
Gerrard may be the gold standard, but with five years in professional football at the age of 20, there is nothing that intimidates Tottenham's gentle midfield giant.Reuse content