Wayne Routledge: Rebirth of the winger thanks to new Wayne with old tricks

After all the false dawns, Tottenham fans can see a bright star on the horizon. Jason Burt meets a wideboy who is a throwback to an aesthetic game
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"I can't jump seven foot in the air or beat people for a header," Routledge adds with a shrug. "So the fact that Tottenham play football and play a lot of football is only going to be good for me. That is what I am about. I like playing football. So it was inevitable, the choice to come here."

Playing an aesthetically pleasing game has always been the Tottenham way, of course. But it has also been a shield to hide behind and mitigate against the years of frustration, underachievement and plain poor performances. That, more than just those at Spurs tentatively believe, may be about to change.

They have been here before. Spurs are, after all, the club who have had so many false dawns, and there is a reluctance to trumpet what can be done this season under the confident, affable but also hardened approach of Jol. "We've talked about it and it really is just a case of pushing on and doing better than last season," Routledge offers cautiously. "The squad have improved. There are new players, new talent. So really there's no reason why we cannot do better than last year's position."

Then, Spurs finished ninth. Given the upheaval - from the radical squad rebuilding which took them from having the oldest to the youngest in the Premiership through the ill-fated regime of Jacques Santini and Jol's takeover - it was a credible enough result. It was also their joint highest since 1996, but was not good enough to win that final Uefa Cup place which, maddeningly, slipped through their fingers at the last.

"I've come here to a club who are at the stage of building and expanding and hopefully getting into Europe, which is where a club of this nature should be," Routledge says. But what about the Champions' League? Surely if Everton can... Routledge, known for his reserved, wary nature, doesn't even respond to that one. He doesn't want to be seen to bang the drum, only for Spurs to fall flat on their face, as they have done before.

Routledge will be charged with much of the responsibility for that not happening. Given that he is not 21 until January and is embarking on only his second season in the Premiership, it is much to expect. Indeed Routledge, something of a throwback with his natural winger's trickery, creativity and desire to beat a man, may have played his first season at Spurs also had not Crystal Palace turned down an offer last summer and two more in January.

Spurs never, though, gave up the hunt. It is easy to see why. Routledge is a young player whom former Palace team-mate Michael Hughes, a thoughtful footballer, likened to Cristiano Ronaldo. His manager at Palace, Iain Dowie, rates him second only to that other Wayne, Rooney, in terms of exciting, young English talent.

That is a commodity which, for the past two years, Spurs have assiduously tried to acquire. Routledge, the 29th of 34 signings since July 2003, has been joined this summer by the 18-year-olds Aaron Lennon and Tom Huddlestone, while the average age of the rest of the squad just nudges over 23. The youthful outlook has helped Routledge settle. "I've played with Tom at England under-age levels before and I knew some of the other players from playing against them for years at youth-team level," says Routledge, who has been rooming with the 22-year-old Jermain Defoe.

Routledge would love to follow Defoe into the England squad, although, as a right-winger, he knows the competition is fierce, with a certain David Beckham, and then Chelsea's £21m Shaun Wright-Phillips, already ahead of him. "But this is such a big club," Routledge says. "It's always expanding and the players they have got in are all international class, all international quality, and that is really what I'm aspiring to be. So being with these players will hopefully mean that I can pick up things and keep on learning and become one of them."

Next year's World Cup may come too soon, but Routledge's ability to make an impact should not be underestimated. Just 55 seconds into his full League debut for Palace, having appeared as a substitute the year before when he was only 16, he scored a goal, and quickly became an ever-present, reaching 100 appearances before he was out of his teens.

For Spurs he has also made an impressive start, as the club won the pre-season Peace Cup tournament in South Korea. It didn't just mean a £1.2m prize for Spurs, it also boosted the confidence of players such as Routledge and helped dispel the doubts following the shock departure of the sporting director Frank Arnesen. "We were out there for two weeks and it was a good time to bond and get to know everyone and how they play, as well as what they are like on and off the pitch," Routledge says. "That can only be a good experience for the new players and for the rest of the squad as well. There's a good mix. There are no groups. No cliques. The team spirit is good.

"It also helped that we did well. It was a great boost to win because we were up against teams of Champions' League quality - Lyon and PSV [Eindhoven]. It was not like a little tournament. It was a big, big tournament and there were millions of people watching."

During that competition Jol was true to his word and played with two wingers: Routledge and Andy Reid, on the left flank. With Lennon also a winger and with Jol signalling his intent by also trying to sign, unsuccessfully in the end, Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing, Spurs' style of play is clear, as is Routledge's place in it. After all, this is a player whose hero is John Barnes and who, as a Liverpool fan (his mother hails from the city) queued up outside the Melwood training ground for the international winger's autograph.

Nevertheless, a player not joining Routledge at Spurs - despite the club's interest - is his former Palace team-mate and friend Andy Johnson, who, surprisingly, signed a new deal at Selhurst Park last week. That was something Routledge refused to do, and there is no escaping the fact that his departure was acrimonious, with the player at one stage throwing his shirt to the ground after being barracked by the Palace fans. He eventually apologised last week for his gesture.

"In a way it was hard to leave," Routledge says when asked about his determination to get away from the club he joined as a schoolboy, "because I had been there all my life and it was everything I had ever known. This was the first move that I have made. But I felt at the time, and for my career, it was necessary for me to try and get a fresh start and experience what new players had to offer. Coming here can only help my game." The implication is clear. He would have left Palace even if they had not been relegated, and despite the accusations of betrayal. "I want to do the best I can, just like everyone else," Routledge says. "From the top athlete to someone playing in the amateur leagues. I'm no different. I'm just like that too."

Having refused - standing up to the anger and imploring of the Palace chairman, Simon Jordan - to sign a new contract, Routledge also showed his steely nature. In the end he left out of contract, with a fee of £1.5m, plus £500,000 dependent on appear-ances, being paid only because he was a former trainee and still under 24, so Palace were entitled to receive compensation.

Routledge's unfazed demeanour was also evident in his unimpressed reaction when he saw Johnson and the Palace mid-fielder Ben Watson so eagerly ask for the shirts of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira after playing Arsenal last season. There is, though, a sense of excitement with the arrival of Spurs' sixth summer signing, Edgar Davids. Not least because Routledge, who is known by the nickname "Laptop" because he is constantly seen with his portable computer (a tag which does not quite have with the same ring to it as Davids' "Pitbull"), has revealed that the Dutch midfielder has long featured in the team he selects for his Sony PlayStation football games.

"He's been everywhere, played on different continents and in every kind of tournament, from the World Cups and so on," Routledge says of the 32-year-old. "So anything he has to offer can only be good for this club. It is a really good signing."

Spurs believe that, in Routledge, they have acquired another, of course. Does he feel the air of expectancy? "I wouldn't really know about the pressure yet," Routledge says. "But obviously, to be fair, a club of this stature and with the players we have should be challenging for honours and trophies. This squad should help us to aim higher, aiming to win things."

BIOGRAPHY

Wayne Routledge

Born: 7 January 1985 in Sidcup, Kent.

Nickname: Laptop.

Former club: Crystal Palace (joined as a trainee). Debut aged 16 in October 2001; went on to make 123 appearances, scoring 11 goals. Joined Tottenham Hotspur in July 2005 for a fee of £1.5m plus £500,000 dependent on appearances.

England honours: Under-17, 18, 19, 20 and 21. Helped England Under-21s to reach third place in this summer's Toulon tournament.

Club honours: Promotion to the Premiership with Palace via the play-offs in 2004. Palace's young player of the year in 2003 and 2004.

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