Marcus Edwards will never forget his first meeting with Mauricio Pochettino. “Ah, it’s the best young player in the academy,” the then Tottenham manager said, and he watched how the attacking midfielder tried to conceal the surge of pride. “The one with the right foot …”
Er, hang on a second. “You mean the left?” Edwards replied.
“Oh, sorry. Wrong player,” Pochettino said, walking away.
The Argentinian left it for a while before he turned back. “Only joking.” Edwards would also break into a smile.
It was classic Pochettino, a genial ice-breaker undercut by mischief – one designed to establish a connection – and that early period of his Spurs tenure, after his arrival in the summer of 2014, was coloured by hope and excitement when it came to Edwards.
The idea was that the precociously gifted kid would rise through the ranks and one day be involved when Spurs played in showpiece Champions League fixtures. Which, all these years later, will happen on Tuesday night when the club take on Sporting at the Estádio José Alvalade in Lisbon. Only it will be the wrong way around, everything topsy-turvy – which is one way of describing Edwards’ final years in north London.
Now 23, Edwards will wear the No 10 shirt for Sporting, not Spurs, having joined them from Vitória Guimarães for €7.5m last January. He has been in Portugal since September 2019, when Spurs moved him on permanently to Vitória, and the first thing to say is that some of the old excitement is bubbling around him again.
The Sporting manager, Rúben Amorim, bedded him in during the second half of last season, the club having signed him to take over from Pablo Sarabia, whose loan from Paris Saint-Germain would expire in June. This time out, Edwards has started regularly, scoring three and assisting three in seven matches and showing the flexibility to meet Amorim’s tactical demands.
But Edwards’s presence against Spurs will stir an inevitable question and possibly a sense of regret. It is because he was a phenomenon in many respects – despite barely featuring at senior level in English football – a player with the X factor, the rare combination of touch, balance and acceleration that allowed him to drift past opponents and which, infamously, led Pochettino to say in September 2016 that Edwards reminded him of Lionel Messi. Edwards’ “Mini Messi” nickname was already established at the club where he had been since the age of eight. So how, where and why did it go wrong for him at Spurs?
An important thing to say is that it was not about his contracts. Spurs had wanted Edwards to sign his first professional deal in December 2015 when he turned 17 but he would hold out until the following August, until the value and the two-year duration of it were right, despite the pressure he was put under.
Edwards made his Spurs debut as a substitute against Gillingham in the EFL Cup the day after Pochettino had offered up the style comparison to Messi and, in July 2017, having won the European Under-17 Championship with England, he agreed a new three-year contract to 2020, which guaranteed him £2m.
Never before had Spurs paid so much to an 18-year-old from their academy and, when it was all said and done, they did so because they wanted it to work. Then why did Pochettino feel that he was unable to include Edwards in his first-team squad over the first half of the 2017-18 season?
There are some who would blame John McDermott and Dean Rastrick, the lead academy management figures at the time. Edwards needed to escape the academy bubble, to work with the experienced senior players in order to mature himself. But McDermott and Rastrick were reluctant to champion him because his behaviour and time-keeping were erratic. How could Edwards be rewarded while he did not fit with the culture they were seeking to establish?
The bottom line with Edwards is that he is an introvert, somebody who does not open up easily (if at all) and people can consider him rude. At Spurs he clashed with Rastrick, in particular; positions became entrenched and the relationship could not find the compromises it needed.
Pochettino released his autobiography in October 2017 and in it he wrote: “Edwards has authority and behavioural problems and we have to look at the bigger picture to find out the root cause.”
Then came Edwards’s disastrous loan at Norwich in the second half of the season when he made only one brief substitute’s appearance; his stay was cut short amid reports of poor time-keeping and a failure to engage with teammates. The writing was on the wall for him at Spurs. He was loaned to Excelsior in Rotterdam in 2018-19 before his transfer to Vitória, where he would score 20 goals and make 14 assists in 96 appearances.
At Sporting, Amorim would like him to learn more Portuguese. Edwards does not have too many words in the language and he hangs around mainly with the Ghanaian forward Abdul Fatawu Issahaku and the Dutch defender Jeremiah St Juste – both of whom are English speakers. Amorim communicates with Edwards in English and the assistant manager, Carlos Fernandes, is also an English speaker.
Edwards, who plays on the wing but has operated as a false 9 this season, is liked within the squad, even if he is not the most social person. He keeps his head down, focusing on his game and allowing little to bother him. His relationship with Amorim is good. Spurs fans will watch him with interest and foreboding.