Lewis Holtby: ‘I loved my time at Tottenham and I had the quality, but I felt I deserved more chances’

Exclusive interview: Once one of Europe's most prodigious midfield talents, Holtby is now in a promotional brawl with Hamburg in the German second tier

Tom Kershaw
Tuesday 05 March 2019 09:50
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Remember Lewis Holtby? It’s been little over four years since one of Europe’s most prodigious midfield talents left Tottenham with an air of resignation and an uncompromising urgency to play.

The arrival of the 21-year-old Anglo-German, prised from Schalke 04 for a paltry £1.5m, had been met with a swirl of admiration. How the FA had let such a precocious talent – the son of an RAF pilot no less – slip through their grasp quickly a common mantra.

But now, almost ten years on from playing master of destruction in a German U21 side alongside Mesut Ozil, the prospects for Holtby are very different. Ticking towards his 29th birthday, the 2009 Fritz-Walter-Medal winner is in his fifth season in Hamburg, brawling for a swift return to the Bundesliga after ‘The Dinosaurs’ succumbed to relegation for the first time in their history.

Still to this day, though, Holtby gives more than a glance to his former club. There is not a hint of envy, nor any lingering sense of regret, over a troubled 18-month spell in England when he speaks of still watching Spurs’ every game. In fact, Holtby still treasures his memories in white and, as he sat back to watch Tottenham disassemble a powerhouse Dortmund side 3-0 at Wembley a fortnight ago, he felt an overwhelming sense of pride.

“To see the club evolving to where they are now,” he says earnestly. “Somehow it makes you proud that you have been a part of something.”

Many Spurs supporters feel that Holtby, still fresh and admittedly naive, wasn’t given the chance to develop in north London. After offering brief flashes of the form – the poise of technique and balance combined with an aggressive and expansive array of passing – which had made him such a heralded talent, he in many ways became a victim of circumstance.

Still fledgeling in his career, with his transfer from Schalke rushed through in the winter window, he found himself competing against two preternaturally talented players in Mousa Dembele – “an absolutely fantastic player, strong and technically gifted” and the “outstanding” Christian Eriksen.

“I loved the time in England,” Holby says unhesitatingly. “You can’t compare Fulham or even back then Schalke to Tottenham. It was definitely frustrating though because I had good spells where I felt I deserved more game time. But I did expect more of myself, I had more expectations to succeed.

“I thought I had the quality but maybe I was a bit naïve. I made too many rash decisions. I wasn’t as professional as I am now in a lot of things. There’s a lot of things that I’ve gained now over the years and I think if I was there now I would act differently, I think I have more in my locker.”

Holtby failed to cement a first team place at Tottenham

“I was so eager to play, so desperate to start week-in-week-out that I made the move [to Fulham and then to Germany]. You get very stressed in periods when you don’t get the game time. It's different now, I have more experience. Sometimes, when you’re young, you’re eager, but you need a bit of patience and to push yourself even more. That’s how it works at the highest level and maybe that was missing a bit from my point of view at that age.

Holtby credits the sheer scale of his early rise to former Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel. A fearless but unrefined 19-year-old on loan at Mainz, the “possessed” PSG boss “taught him everything he knows”.

“The way he feels football,” he says. ”It is indescribable. He is very similair to Pep [Guardiola]. They aren’t just desperate to win, they want to make people better.”

Holtby has become a talisman at Hamburg

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” he laughs, thinking back to those early days. Now in a talismanic role at Hamburg, Holtby speaks with the maturity and self-awareness of having settled into his peak, and is “mentally stronger” than in those early days at Tottenham.

Beloved by Hamburg’s ardent fan base, he is an ever-present anchor in midfield and regularly captains the side. The scene of the 28-year-old topless and screaming over the shoulders of riot police to jubilant supporters after Hamburg evaded relegation via the Bundesliga playoff in 2015, has rapidly been painted into the club’s cult lore.

Holtby celebrates with supporters after Hamburg evade relegation in 2015 

But if Hamburg are successful in their promotional campaign, would he ever consider a shot at redemption? “It’s never too late to come back to high standards like the beginning of my career," he says. "I used to play in the Champions League, for the national team. Then, you’re a top-shot. You always want to come back to that. I think I’ve still got that in my locker.”

“You can always imagine going back,” he continues, with a hint of longing. “You never know what’s going to happen in football. But right now, I’m not looking left or right. The future is bright and, right now, at Hamburg, it’s always sunny.”

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