Meet the real Marcus Edwards: Tottenham starlet lifts lid on tough loan spells and Lionel Messi comparisons

Exclusive interview: With a ball at his feet Edwards is one of the most expressive, confident, imaginative people this country has ever produced. It is the other side of industry, away from the pitch, that has not always come so easily to him

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Friday 14 June 2019 09:37
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Marcus Edwards interview: The top 5 things we learned

It is easy to misunderstand Marcus Edwards. Spend some time with him and yes, you can see why people have found him hard to get through to. Why he might already have a reputation, at the age of 20, as a difficult, disengaged character. This is his first interview with a British newspaper and frankly it does not come easily to him.

But there is a blurred line between surly and shy, between rude and reserved. Spend enough time with Edwards and you find a young man who is honest, self-aware and who owns up to the mistakes he has made in his brief career so far. He admits that he was a difficult teenager in the Tottenham academy, and he knows that his loan spell at Norwich City should have gone better. But Edwards has just returned from a season on loan in Holland, when he showed exactly why there has been so much fuss about him already. This was the season when Edwards finally grew up.

Speak to Edwards about the game itself, or about his time at Excelsior, and you realise that all he ever wanted to do was to play football. With a ball at his feet and defenders to get past, he is one of the most expressive, confident, imaginative people this country has ever produced. It is the other side of industry, away from the pitch, that has not always come so easily to him, where he has never felt that same natural confidence. That is why he thinks people have got him wrong.

Does he feel misunderstood?

“Yeah, I think so, I think some people don’t understand me,” Edwards says. Why? “I don’t know, I think maybe it’s the way I talk.” And why is that? “I think that is how it is in football.”

***

Watch the clips of Edwards’ season on loan at Excelsior and you realise why so many people are so desperate for him to succeed. Here he was, thrown in at the deep end, away from home for the first time, in an unfamiliar country, slogging away at the wrong end of the Eredivisie. But it only takes a brief look at YouTube to see what a unique player he is. Watch for the balance, the change of pace, the close control, the core strength packed into that skinny frame. Watch for the way he goes past defenders, stops on the spot then goes past them again. Edwards’ hero is Neymar: watch him play and it starts to make sense.

Ask Edwards what his best game was for Excelsior and he points to a 2-1 home win over FC Emmen in February. Excelsior went 1-0 down early in the second half, when Edwards decided to turn it round. He scored the immediate equaliser, taking the ball 25 yards from goal, darting forward, shaping to shoot, beating his man, then finding the opposite bottom corner of the goal. Three minutes later he made the winner, getting the ball in the centre circle, running forward, defenders backing off him, sliding a perfect pass through to Dennis Eckert, who beat the keeper.

Excelsior were relegated in the post-season play-offs, but even then Edwards still posted some remarkable numbers, up there with the best players from the best teams. He led the Eredivisie in dribbles per game, with 3.3, ahead of Steven Bergwijn (3.2), of PSV Eindhoven and Holland. He was the second most-fouled player in the league, averaging three times per game, just behind Mark Diemers of Fortuna Sittard. And so Edwards, speaking to The Independent in a hotel in north London, can look back with real pride at his time in the Netherlands.

We watch the clips of his best moments for Excelsior. “It makes me feel good when I watch it, doing some good stuff on those clips,” he says. So what is he most proud of? “Taking players on. Just playing free football. I usually get good feedback about my playing, from players, managers. They always tell me I'm a good player.” Alessandro Damen, the goalkeeper, thinks Edwards has the ability to be the best player in the division. Jeffry Fortes, the right-back, says Edwards is the best he has ever played with. “My team-mates would always tell me, ‘keep going Marcus, you’re a good player.’”

Edwards is especially pleased with how he did, given how hard it was at first to settle in a new country. He missed his mother at home in Cheshunt, and at first he came back to north London whenever he could. “At the start of the season, I was finding it hard,” he says. “I missed home a lot. It was a new country. New people. It took me a while to get used to it.” At the start, as he struggled to find his feet, the locals in Rotterdam dubbed him het mysterie-Edwards.

The football was different, too. Before this season, Edwards’ senior experience was limited to 15 minutes for Tottenham in the League Cup in September 2016 and six minutes for Norwich City in the Championship in March 2018. This is why he was so keen to take the chance to go abroad this season, inspired by the success of his good friend Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund. But making the switch from Spurs’ under-23s team was still a big jump

Edwards is good friends with Jadon Sancho

“It took me a while to get used to it, professional football,” he says. “It's different from youth football.” For a start, he used to play as a no10 for Spurs’ youth teams, but in Holland he was pushed out on the right. He is happy to play in either position. “It’s a very different style of football than England. But I think it helped me gain experience. I think it's more tactical, because it's professional football. And I noticed that the defending was different, the shape, the formation. But I think it suits me.”

It took until the winter break - four weeks off over Christmas - for Edwards to come back and feel truly comfortable in Rotterdam, and to show what he can do. “After the winter break, I got my head down a bit more, and it was just straight football,” he says. “I think I turned it around.” It helped that his father Darren moved out to Rotterdam to be with him. In Excelsior’s first game after the break, Edwards was brilliant in a 3-2 defeat at Vitesse, skipping through defenders and finding the bottom corner from outside the box. Vitesse manager Leonid Slutsky said afterwards Edwards was an “incredible player”.

What mattered most during his time in Holland, even more than the football, was that Edwards realised what it took to be a professional player. How to take responsibility, looking after himself, training hard, tracking back, doing all the ugly, boring side of the game. The things that maybe did not come so naturally to him, but the things that you have to do to make it in the game.

“Just looking after myself was the hardest thing,” Edwards looks back. “Just being there all by myself. It was different for me. But I definitely learned what it takes. What you have to do every day, on and off the pitch, to be a professional footballer, how you have to live. I learned that. I think I did grow up.”

The Spurs player in action for Excelsior

***

Edwards is mature enough to accept that he has not always been perfect, or the easiest player to handle. He knows that he now has a reputation, which he has to prove wrong. But when he looks back at the teenage Edwards, still playing for the Tottenham youth teams, he sees a very different person.

“I know I was a bit difficult when I was going through the academy,” Edwards admits. He accepts that he had his “ups and downs” with the Spurs staff. He knows that the disputes over the first professional contract he eventually signed in 2016 damaged his standing at the club. He knows that he never used to track back, when he was 16 or 17, and why the coaches used to be so hard on him about it.

But there is no question that Edwards looks at his time at Tottenham with real warmth. He feels grateful to Mauricio Pochettino for the support that he has given him. He appreciated the moment before his League Cup debut when Pochettino compared him to a young Lionel Messi. “It was just nice to know that the manager thought I was a good player.” He felt trusted and included when he started to train with the first team. “I just feel like he was very welcoming, he made you feel part of the team.” He is grateful to Danny Rose, Eric Dier and Georges Kevin N’Koudou for looking after him too.

Edwards’ relationship with Tottenham soured and Pochettino wrote in his book ‘Brave New World’ that he had “authority and behavioural problems”. In January 2018 he went to Norwich City on loan, but he barely made an impact, making just one brief substitute appearance. Daniel Farke said that he needed to work harder and eventually sent him back to Tottenham early.

Speaking about that difficult spell for the first time, Edwards is keen to give his own side of the story. Not least because he says he played through a back injury to get to Norwich in the first place. He never felt fully fit in training at Norwich, so could never give his best, but he did not want to pull out either. “I think there were loads of things with that one. I had a back injury when I went there. I was so eager to go, I just got through the clearance training [which is] to see if you're fit. But when I got there, and trained, I felt my back. I was in and out of training for two or three months. So that's the main reason"

There were criticisms from Norwich of his time-keeping and Edwards concedes that “towards the end of the loan”, he “started to get a bit frustrated”. But he is clearly hurt by what was said, and does not feel that he was judged fairly. "I think maybe it was a bit unfair. The whole situation that happened at Norwich, it already played onto what Pochettino said. Even though I was definitely a lot younger then, that's when I was growing up. It was a big misunderstanding."

The 20-year-old has one year left on his Spurs deal

“I feel as though, once Daniel Farke said it out loud, that is when I got misunderstood a bit. Because I felt I had already grown up. I thought I was already grown up, and all the attitude stuff, that was when I was going through the academy. When I hit 19, I felt I was a bit more mature. That’s why I feel I was misunderstood.”

But after the frustration of Norwich, and the eventual vindication of Excelsior, Edwards now feels ready to push on with the next stage of his career. He has one year left on his Spurs contract but he just wants to keep playing first-team football now, wherever that takes him.

“I definitely think I've got a better attitude now,” he says. “I'm just ready to kick on with my career. I think I needed this year. I know I'm a good player, I know I can do what I want to do. It has made me have a clear vision of what I want in football. I just want to get as high up to the top level as I can.”

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