From Hemel Hempstead to Madrid: Our exclusive feature on Harry Winks’ journey to the Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool
There are just days to go until the biggest football game of the club calendar - the Champions League final.
But when Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool go head to head on Saturday evening there will be an extra loud cheer from Hemel Hempstead.
Because one of our own is hoping to get on the pitch and pull the strings for Spurs in midfield - young England tyro Harry Winks.
This is the story of how he got there.
>A nimble-footed playmaker, Harry has been part of the Tottenham academy since he was a student at Cavendish School 12 years ago.
Even as a teen he juggled a strict training regime alongside his studies, with PE teacher Richard Woodard describing him as a “model student”.
And the dedication clearly paid off - almost immediately after Harry finished his final GCSE exam he was told that he had been selected for the England under-17 squad to play the Nordic Tournament in the Faroe Islands.
Talking to the Gazette in 2012, shortly after Harry began his apprenticeship at White Hart Lane, Mr Woodward told the Gazette: “Harry seems to take everything in his stride and I enjoy listening to his weekly updates.
“He is very level-headed and has always seen the importance of completing his school work and staying on track.”
>Spurs and football may have become Harry’s life after he left school, but as with any young footballer he faced a long journey to establish himself as a professional.
Nonetheless Harry was first named as a Premier League substitute on March 2014, just weeks after his 18th birthday, and nine months later played his first senior game - as an 87th minute substitute in the Europa League against Partizan Belgrade.
After replacing Brazil international Paulinho he said: “This was by far the best moment of my life so far.
“It’s a dream come true to play for Spurs. Five minutes or 50 minutes; I didn’t really mind as long as I got on which was brilliant.”
>Despite his early debut, the arrival shortly afterwards of a new Spurs manager proved to be a slow-burning benefit to Harry.
Mauricio Pochettino was immediately a fan of the midfielder, yet her blooded him very gradually. The Europa League game was Harry’s only first team appearance of his debut season, followed by two more games in European competition the next term.
A less patient player might have become frustrated - but Harry and ‘Potch’ had a strong bond from very early on, as Harry’s mum Anita told the Gazette in an interview in 2017.
She said: “I am such a fan of Pochettino. He sees things that no other manager does.
“My son has so much respect for him. Perhaps more than anyone else in his career.”
>When the 2016–17 season began it was surely make-or-break for Harry. Now 20 years old, he was one of 10 midfielders in the first team squad.
And whilst Spurs were a club prepared to give young English players a go, the likes of Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Dele Alli were not just cemented in the first team but had already broken into the England side too.
Any doubts were quickly assuaged. That season Harry played 33 games for Spurs, and notched his first-ever goal on his first Premier League start. Spurs finished second, their best finish in more than half a century.
The next season was even better. After an early injury restricted him to substitute appearances, he starred in a Champions League win over APOEL FC which saw him labelled the “perfect midfielder” by his manager.
And in October Harry received his first call-up to the senior England squad, for the final round of World Cup qualifying matches.
Harry already knew what it was like to pull on an England shirt, having 24 youth caps to his name at various age levels. But in the final qualifying game he started against Lithuania, putting on an assured performance in a 1-0 win.
>The 2017-18 season ultimately proved bittersweet for Harry. Another 25 games proved he was there to stay in the first team, and a new contract signed in May sealed his future at the club for the foreseeable.
But an ankle injury not only robbed him of three months of his season but also contributed to him missing out on a place in the England squad which made it all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Yet once the new season dawned Harry was soon back in the Spurs midfield. 2018-19 has been, in many ways, his best to date. He made 40 appearances for Spurs, and notched his second first team goal. He also won his second and third England caps, including a busy showing in the famous 3-2 victory over Spain which helped book a place in next month’s UEFA Nations League finals.
>What happens next will start to unfold on Sunday. First comes in the Champions League showdown against Liverpool, only the second time that the final has been contested between two English clubs.
Then comes the UEFA Nations League finals, which Harry will be desperate to be picked for after his World Cup heartbreak.
At age 23, the young man who wears the Number 8 jersey for Tottenham stands with the world at his feet.
Good luck Harry. Hemel will be cheering you on!