By Seb Stafford-Bloor, The Athletic
What even is the criteria for becoming Tottenham Hotspur’s new head coach?
There are no clues to be found in the shortlist, which increasingly resembles some kind of abstract riddle: What connects Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Paulo Fonseca and Gennaro Gattuso?
Beyond being cast members in this summer’s north London melodrama, very little.
The Gattuso episode might be the low point of this saga. Within hours of it being announced that he wouldn’t be coaching Fiorentina next season after all, an agreement to join Spurs instead was reported to be close. Fonseca had been dumped at the altar and the club were preparing to run off into the sunset with… who even knew?
It turns out Gattuso was a far better footballer than he is a person. His archaic views about same-sex marriage and the role of women in football and his soft stance on racial abuse make it impossible for him to coach Tottenham. Today, tomorrow, or ever.
And yet the club didn’t see this coming. They were either unaware of Gattuso’s past – which is completely unforgivable — or they knew about his various attitudes and chose to ignore them, which is also completely unforgivable.
It’s only a month since chairman Daniel Levy wrote in the match-day programme that he is “acutely aware of the need to select someone whose values reflect those of our great club”, yet nothing that’s happened since supports that in any way.
Gattuso is just the latest contradiction. He’s the worst, but he’s only the most recent.
In the past month, from the coaches they’ve engaged with, Tottenham have shown that they’re not really tethered to style or ideology and that they’re not really chasing anyone of fixed definition. Either in the footballing sense or the social, and that’s a serious mistake.
Why? Because the last few years have proven the way a football club behave and what they represent are as important as ever. Winning will always matter and the game will forever be a muddle of injustice and heartbreak, annoyance and joy. But those aren’t really the determining factors behind supporter morale. They’re moods, not states, and the fluctuations between them don’t really affect what a fan feels. Not deep down, not really.
Instead, that connection is sustained by people and behaviour.
Do they try to join a new Super League behind your back?
Do they appoint a head coach you can not just admire but like?
These are the issues that matter. Yes, not turning up in a north London derby is awful, but losing your affection for your club is truly devastating — and Spurs are flirting with that disaster.
So, where to now with this endless search for a new coach and a new era?
A starting point would be to recognise just how much the person matters. That’s not to say that recruitment and performance and results don’t, because that’s obviously not true, but there has never been a greater need for a unifying move. The perfect appointment is one that would jolt the first team immediately into gear, restore the players’ lost confidence and, within the same introductory press conference, heal the warring factions in the fanbase.
On the basis that there is no such candidate, Ryan Mason should now be part of the conversation.
The obvious rebuttal is that he lacks experience.
He’s young, his CV is extremely thin at senior level and his brief spell in interim charge at the end of last season was proof of nothing in particular. Beyond the match days, however, there was plenty of substance.
Mason’s effect on the squad he took over was substantial. He inherited a group short on fitness and players who’d had their egos bruised. But rather than seeing him simply as an anti-Jose Mourinho, senior players were highly impressed by the technical standard of his training and welcomed its intensity. Similarly, while Mourinho’s tension had left the squad fractured and divided, Mason’s approach was more inclusive, more aimed towards a meritocracy.
At the time, the results he achieved seemed hit-and-miss. On reflection, though, aren’t they always when a new manager arrives — especially in the middle of a season and into such an acrid and uncertain atmosphere. Actually, he did quite well. The wins over Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United were as good as the defeats to Aston Villa and Leeds United were bad, and he probably shot something close to par.
Not that those few weeks were without contention. His decision to use Tanguy Ndombele only sparingly was a source of frustration but, viewed from a different perspective, perhaps that described a single-minded character – someone without convictions, but with definitive ideas which won’t just be compromised for the sake of playing to the gallery.
Maybe Mason was right about Ndombele. Or maybe he was wrong. What seems to matter, at this moment at least, is that he was willing to make that decision. He wasn’t being contrary or self-serving, he just evidently felt the most expensive signing in the club’s history didn’t suit his vision for what the Spurs team should be. That wasn’t an easy decision. It certainly wasn’t a crowd-pleaser, or one that would have endeared him to his employers.
So, Mason is tougher than assumed; he has managerial qualities. Of course, that’s not the same as saying he is now a fully-formed manager or that – added up – these tiny anecdotes make any kind of compelling case. But this is not a hobbyist ex-player filling his time, nor is this just a likeable character existing on goodwill alone.
Mason has spent three years completing his qualifications and preparing himself for a new career after a forced early retirement as a player. He’s well thought of for a reason and, while there remains distance between where he is now and where he may want to go in the future, it’s not a surprise that interest in him is being piqued beyond Tottenham.
Would it be such a bad move to give him the job full-time? In normal times, it would be too soon for a man who only turned 30 last weekend. It would be bold and reckless and impulsive. But these are not normal times and, in any case, the club are already compromising on their ambition and their values, and continue to entertain candidates who are far less compelling.
Fonseca? Gattuso? Jurgen Klinsmann, who threw his hat into the ring live on BBC television on Friday evening? These are hardly coaches from the top of the game and it’s not ridiculous to suggest that, over time, Mason could at least become their equal.
So why not find out?
The most powerful move Tottenham can make is to install a head coach everyone, without exception, would want to succeed.
Mason would be that appointment. And he might even be more than that.