Jose is the perfect man to finish what I started, says Pochettino
The memory makes him laugh but Mauricio Pochettino admits there was a time when he was manager of Espanyol and he allowed his mind to wander and toy with the idea that he might replace Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid.
He had been linked with the Madrid job in the media and was asked about it before his team played at the Bernabeu Stadium.
‘It was in the past, years ago,’ says Pochettino. ‘I said I was not thinking about that and, by the way, my kids sleep in Espanyol pyjamas every night so it’s very difficult for me to think about changing. I am more than committed to Espanyol.
‘When I arrived at the stadium, Jose was waiting for me with a bag with a very nice bottle of French red wine and two kits of Real Madrid, shirts and shorts.
‘He says, “These are for your kids to wear from now on”.
‘We have kept a good relationship. We have known each other for a long time. He’s a top coach.
‘In life, look what happens. I always think, “Oh, maybe one day I can take your place at Real Madrid” and he has taken my place at Tottenham. Unbelievable, eh? I am happy he has replaced me.
‘I am happy to leave the club in the way we left it, with the best facilities in the world. For sure, he is very grateful for the way we helped to build the club which is now his club.’
Pochettino is in relaxed mood. He is tanned with a sparkle in his eyes befitting his six months free from the stresses of the touchline. His wife Karina does not approve, he says, but the 48-year-old has grown a lockdown beard, grey in contrast to his dark hair. A new, wiser image to accompany his search for a new challenge.
It is six months since he was sacked with Spurs languishing 14th in the Premier League and he has sifted through what went wrong with his inner circle of coaches. Jesus Perez, Miguel D’Agostino, Toni Jimenez and Pochettino have remained in permanent contact and he often talks in the collective.
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he says, there have been conversations with Mourinho since November. And there was a friendly meeting with Unai Emery shortly after he had been sacked by Arsenal, which turned heads in north London.
‘We met to talk and share our experiences,’ says Pochettino. ‘We were working in different clubs. We were the enemy. But we finished at around the same time and we were just taking a coffee.
‘It was in Cockfosters, very close to Arsenal and Tottenham’s training grounds. People were walking past and saying, “Unai and Pochettino are now sharing a coffee”. It was very funny.’
There are plenty of Spurs fans still pining for the man they sacked but any bitterness has been washed from his system and time has delivered perspective.
‘We needed to move on,’ reflects Pochettino. ‘I’ll always remember the good times.’
Chief among them, last year’s remarkable European campaign. Tottenham beat Manchester City and Ajax when all hope seemed lost and reached the final against Liverpool only to go behind to a penalty conceded in the opening seconds and were unable to find a way back into the game.
‘Very difficult to accept,’ says Pochettino. ‘I was convinced that the final was going to go our way. That was completely in our minds. But nobody is prepared after 30 seconds of the Champions League final to concede like that.
‘The goal changed the whole game, all the emotions.
‘It is difficult to prepare a team for that happening. We were much better than Liverpool. We were unlucky that we didn’t score.
‘Maybe we deserved a better result, but in the end, finals are about winning, about the title.
‘Not about to deserve or not to deserve.
‘Who wins has won. When you lose, a lot of people can have different ideas, but if you win, no one analyses why you win. You have the victory.’
Inside Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, Pochettino broke down. ‘I was so disappointed,’ he recalls.
‘It was difficult to stop crying, to stop feeling bad. You can use the example of Liverpool after they lost to Real Madrid the season before. That was a massive motivation and inspiration.
‘But I knew after five years — with the way we were working and all the things that happened — it was going to be difficult.’
His Spurs drew popular acclaim. They were easy on the eye and he developed young English talent such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Harry Winks. They reached semi-finals and finals and were Premier League runners-up in 2016-17.
Much of this was achieved within the financial constraints of their delayed move to a new £1 billion home at White Hart Lane.
They lodged at Wembley for almost two years, played a home game at Milton Keynes and went 18 months without a new signing. His work and his values impressed. And yet, no trophy.
For Tottenham, nothing since a League Cup in 2008, and their longest post-war drought goes on. For Pochettino, nothing as a manager, and it will weigh against him when prestigious clubs consider his suitability.
‘At Espanyol, I wanted to win trophies,’ he says. ‘When I moved to Southampton I wanted to win trophies. The same at Tottenham. The difference is the reality.
‘We are not a coaching staff that started at Bayern Munich. If you start at Bayern Munich it’s completely different from starting at Nuremberg. To win a title with Nuremberg is going to be more difficult than with Bayern.
‘Claudio Ranieri won his first title at Leicester when he was nearly at the end of his career.
‘People can say I wasn’t a successful coach, and if we talk like this then 90 per cent of coaches in the world are losers because, in Spain, there is only Barcelona and Real Madrid. In France, Paris Saint-Germain dominate the league. Coaches are not thinking only about winning titles.’
Pochettino recalls a meeting with Tottenham’s billionaire owner Joe Lewis and chairman Daniel Levy soon after he arrived from Southampton in 2014. They met in Nice on Lewis’s yacht.
‘The old boat,’ Pochettino points out with a smile. ‘The first and last time. Never again was I invited.’ But his point was this: ‘They were very clear about what success would be over a five-year period.’
He would often refer obliquely to this when defending his record towards the end of his days as Spurs manager. Lewis and Levy wanted Champions League football at the new stadium and Pochettino delivered it almost three years ahead of schedule.
They were still in the competition when he was replaced by Mourinho and crashed out against RB Leipzig days before the season was suspended. ‘People sometimes can measure success in a different way,’ he says. Although he is ready to admit that five years of intense focus coupled with Tottenham’s unique circumstances put strain on relationships inside the club.
‘In these types of projects there is a lot of work and disappointments,’ Pochettino says.
‘It’s normal that there’s a lot of friction. We worked very hard to finish the dream. We could not finish it the way we wanted.
‘We are happy with the way many things went. It is difficult to think about changing things because you cannot regret decisions. To help the club to be the club it is today is fantastic. Tottenham is one of the best clubs in the world. We feel very proud.’
Pochettino cleared the air with Levy before his gardening leave expired on Tuesday. ‘I wanted to translate my gratitude,’ he says. ‘He was the person who trusted us and gave us the structure to work and try to achieve. I told Daniel our success was his success because he chose us. He was the architect.
‘I also joked with him, “Oh, you only signed me because the manager you liked at that time, Louis van Gaal, chose to go to Manchester United”. He told me that at the time, he was very clear about it, and it was very public.
‘I was a very young coach, with my experience in Spain and my one and a half years in Southampton. Always Daniel is going to be my friend. I am a football person and we understand that sometimes the chapter finishes.’
And, freed from gardening leave, he goes in search of a new one, aware it could lead him back to Spurs as an opponent.
’We’d try to win, but of course it would be special to come back to Tottenham,’ he says.