‘“WTF is Danny Rose thinking?” tweeted Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourite lapdog,’ was The Sun’s mature response to Gary Neville’s opinion on Danny Rose’s very public display of ambition in August 2017. Rose had chosen The Sun as his mouthpiece to display frustrations at the wage structure at Tottenham and detail his desire to move to the north (read: Manchester United) in the future. It was unclear why being trusted by the greatest manager in modern-day English football should be a black mark on Neville’s CV.
The Sun unsurprisingly took a different view of their interviewee, commending Rose for his ‘outspoken honesty’, but seven months later Tottenham’s left-back must wonder whether opening his mouth at all was a good idea. Neville’s point was that Rose was burning bridges at a risky time. That concern now looks spectacularly well-judged.
Rose has started five Premier League games this season, and has been left on the bench for nine. He is yet to play a league minute in 2018, and on Wednesday evening is likely to sit on the bench for Tottenham’s biggest game in half a decade. He is missing some of the biggest matches of his career.
This absence has an obvious knock-on effect. A year ago, Rose was a virtual cert to start England’s first game at the World Cup in Russia. Now there are 15 players available at shorter odds to be named in Gareth Southgate’s squad. Rose’s problem is that he has accrued very little goodwill in international football. Despite being England’s best left-back over the last two years, he has played in just seven competitive games for his country.
There is nothing wrong with ambition; that is important to say. Professional athletes do not get to the top of their professions without making huge sacrifices and committing themselves wholly to the pursuit of excellence. Those are natural bedfellows of ambition, and the career of a footballer is comparatively short – why shouldn’t they maximise their earnings and chances of success? Would you deliberately curtail your own career path in your own industry?
Yet there is clearly a middle ground between harbouring ambitions and allowing them to be splashed across the back page of a newspaper, particularly when your quotes contain barbs against your current employer that you have not expressed to your manager in private. Neville was not telling Rose to keep in line; he was worried about the fall-out of such a brazen PR move.
To make matters worse, Rose was injured at the time of that interview, and knew that he would not be fit for the first two months of the season. Pushing your case for promotion from a position of strength is one thing, but doing so from a position of weakness only increases the risk of negative reaction. Rose could not demonstrate that he merited such grand designs. Out of sight, out of mind.
Rose probably hadn’t legislated for Ben Davies’ excellent form; few had. The Welshman entered pre-season fully aware that he would be Tottenham’s first-choice left-back for at least two months of the new season, but also that he had the goodwill of Mauricio Pochettino. If Davies could stop manager, teammates and supporters from missing Rose, there would be no reason to recall a want-away player.
As it happens, Davies has been excellent. It has been noted at Tottenham that, despite being perceived as a more defensive option, Davies has actually created chances at a more regular rate than Rose last season. His ability to play as a central defender does indeed mean that Tottenham are more secure defensively in that area, and Davies is comfortable both in a flat back four and at wing-back. There is an argument for saying that the UK currently boasts the two most in-form left-backs in the Premier League. Neither are English.
Pochettino deserves great credit for the courage of his convictions. Sir Alex Ferguson’s old adage was that no player was bigger than Manchester United, even if it prompted the departure of superstar players such as David Beckham. That strength of personality helped create the aura that earned Ferguson so much respect amongst the club’s players, and thus their trust. It’s one thing preaching the ‘no player is bigger than the club’ mantra and making it work at Manchester United, the biggest club in the world, but another entirely at the fifth or sixth biggest club in the country.
Pochettino’s principles matter. Had Rose been brought straight back into the fold without punishment, it would have set a precedent that key Tottenham players, well aware that their club were not the biggest payers, could use the media to signal their discontent. Had Davies struggled in Rose’s absence, it would have reinforced the suspicion that Spurs needed Rose more than he needed them.
In fact, the opposite may now be true. Rose has been forced to sit and watch his former deputy take his gun and badge and step into the breach. That suggests two things: That the tactical systems and working environment Pochettino has created are more important than the quality of the individual, and that ill-discipline and mutiny will not be tolerated at Tottenham. Rose drew the battle lines; Pochettino has won the war.