Eric Dier: ‘This is the beginning of a new chapter for me and for Tottenham’

Eric Dier: ‘This is the beginning of a new chapter for me and for Tottenham’

Jack Pitt-Brooke 25m ago 2

New season. New contract. New position (although he has played there before). And a new start for Eric Dier after six years at Tottenham?

It has taken a few years to get here, a few years of uncertainty and frustration and pain. One of England’s most promising youngsters — the rock of Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, starting in midfield at Euro 2016, scoring that penalty against Colombia — was laid low by illness, in and out of the team. He was played out of position, was coming into the last year of his contract, and nobody knew what sort of player this promising youngster would turn into.

But part of growing up is knowing what you want and being confident enough to get it. Last summer, when recuperating from surgery, Dier told Pochettino that he wanted to play as a centre-back. Soon after, he told Gareth Southgate the same thing. When Jose Mourinho showed up at Spurs, Dier told him the same. One year on, Dier is starting centre-back at Tottenham, with a contract for the next four years. He is in Southgate’s new England squad too, as a centre-back. He has taken ownership of his career, and this season Tottenham and England could reap the benefits.

In most senses other than his career choice, Dier resembles a certain type of assured cosmopolitan millennial man. He lives in London, or to be more precise St John’s Wood, far from the Hertfordshire mansion-belt. He walks his labrador Clay on Hampstead Heath, preferring its natural wildness to the more sedate Regents Park. His house is stylish, chessboard on the table, Mark Rothko print on the wall, one shelf full of coffee table books. He is politically and socially conscious. He opposes Brexit and came out in support of a second referendum in March last year, after Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated in Parliament for a second time. He is doing a degree in social sciences through the Open University after a suggestion by his Tottenham team-mate Ben Davies, and he has completed his first year.

Dier is curious about politics and enthused by the new generation of athlete activism. As a footballer, he is conscious of the power of his platform, full of admiration for Marcus Rashford (“what he did was incredible”), but also conscious of the responsibility that their platform entails. “It’s ridiculous, really, the idea that you can’t have an opinion about anything else,” he says. “But at the same time, I feel quite strongly that because you do have such a voice, you shouldn’t speak about something if you don’t inform yourself properly beforehand.”

Like most millennials, Dier loves podcasts. He listens to The Joe Rogan Experience so much that “it’s almost like he’s in the house sometimes”, and also listens to Rogan’s separate podcast with MMA fighters. “Joe’s our guy,” Dier jokes. “I’d feel disloyal if I ever listened to anyone else.” Dier first got into the podcast through Rogan’s interview with Jamie Foxx, and has especially enjoyed recent episodes with Guy Ritchie and David Blaine, who got Rogan to push an icepick all the way through his right arm, and later regurgitated a frog. Dier has just read a book that was recommended on the show, ‘Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win’ by Jocko Willink, a former US Navy Seal turned management consultant. “He goes into any kind of business and helps CEOs or people in the business,” Dier explains. “It’s just about taking ownership of your life.” Exactly what Dier is doing now.

We are talking the afternoon after the first round of NBA player walkouts against police brutality in the US. Dier loves his American sports (Philadelphia Eagles and 76ers) and was impressed by what he saw. “Sport has such power in these kind of moments to affect change,” he says. “It was obviously something really extreme in the NBA last night. I don’t know the last time something like that has happened in sport. Hopefully it’s a good moment for America, and for things to change there.” Of the Premier League’s own moment of activism — the players taking the knee before the games after lockdown — Dier felt its power. “What we were doing before the games was really good,” he says. “It gives you goosebumps when you do it.”

And as a true cosmopolitan, Dier is multilingual. He learned Portuguese during his childhood in Portugal, and if you watch the new Amazon documentary you can see him speaking it with Jose Mourinho in a one-on-one meeting in his office. Dier has also taught himself Spanish. He spoke it with Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching staff, and also with Erik Lamela, Giovani Lo Celso, Paolo Gazzaniga, Juan Foyth and Davinson Sanchez.

Footballers are sometimes accused of living a blinkered existence, aware of nothing beyond the game and their own bubbled existence. But what stands out about Dier is his curiosity and receptiveness. He likes spending time with people from different backgrounds and is happy to learn their language to try to fit in. “I really enjoy the Argentinean contingent. Their culture, the way they live football, the way they live their lives is very enjoyable to be around.” In fact, he spends our interview sipping from a cup of mate, the traditional South American herbal infusion drink.

Dier spends a lot of time with Lo Celso and Lamela especially — they live near him in London — and has just returned from holiday with some of Spurs’ Latin American players. Dier went to Ibiza and Sardinia and the group even spent time with retired Napoli and PSG legend Ezequiel Lavezzi, an old team-mate of Lamela from the Argentina national team. (“He was a lovely, lovely guy, really nice guy, very fun.”)

Like all well-travelled millennials, Dier is interested in restaurants, and finding the right one wherever he is in the world. Which is why he has been working on a new app, Spotlas, released earlier this month. Dier’s brother Patrick, and friend Zoe Connick have been working on it full-time for two years, with a team of five developers (three full-time, two part-time) working underneath them for the last nine months.

Dier spent lockdown developing his new app, Spotlas

Eric’s brother Patrick walks The Athletic through the app: it is essentially a mix of TripAdvisor and Instagram, you can follow people to view their recommendations, or see recommendations from anyone near you or around the world. It works for cafes and restaurants but also for evening options such as bars and clubs. You can post photos of your favourite spots and chat with other users. It was only launched two weeks ago but is already populated with suggestions, not least with plenty from the Spurs team.

For Eric Dier, it represents a new solution to a common problem in modern life (or at least life before the pandemic). “Everyone relates to this kind of situation, where you’re travelling somewhere, or you’re in London, and you don’t really know how to find somewhere new,” he says. “Everyone can relate to the idea of asking a friend. If you’re going to Copenhagen, it’s, ‘Who do I know who’s been to Copenhagen recently?’ Sometimes you don’t want to message that person, you don’t want to be annoying in that sense. We are digitalising that conversation. And people have taken to it. There was a hunger for something like this.”

Working on this app has become Dier’s main focus away from football, even ahead of his Open University degree. But he loves it, the constant discussions and weekly meetings. And when ‘Spotlas’ is well established, he wants to launch another app. Even though, as much as Dier likes to keep busy, he knows he will be criticised for it.

“I’m quite interested in lots of different things. Some things stick, some things I’m interested in for a little bit and then they go away. But I think it’s really important to have other interests outside of football. My brothers always take the piss out of me, but we have a lot of spare time. It’s important to fill it with things. We’re footballers: if we don’t do anything, people say we’re boring or stupid. If we do do something, people say we should ‘focus on football’. So it’s a battle you can’t win.”

None of this means that Dier is any less interested in football. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a moment in the second episode of the Amazon documentary when Dier says that “nothing can replace the feeling of playing football at this level”, that he hasn’t found it “anywhere else in life” and compares it to an addiction. So, even with all of these external interests, especially those honed over 15 weeks off, has he found a replacement feeling yet?

“No, nothing comes close to it. Everything else is just… more dull when I don’t have football. During lockdown, for example, there were loads of things that I needed to do, like sorting out the house. But you don’t really have the motivation to do anything else because you can’t do that one thing that’s most important to you. It’s my love.”

It feels, two weeks before the start of the new season, as if Dier’s football career is now in a better place than it has been for some time. Remember that he was an integral player during the peak Pochettino years, starting 37 of 38 league games in 2015-16 (in midfield), 34 in 2016-17 (in a back three) and 32 in 2017-18 (largely back in midfield). But in December 2018 he needed emergency surgery for appendicitis, and afterwards he kept on getting ill and couldn’t quite get back to full fitness. Then, in July 2019, he needed another operation, and by the time he came back into the team in late September it was for the last sad weeks of the Pochettino era.

But by the end of the season just gone, Dier was a man transformed. He was back at centre-back, the position he has always wanted to play. In those games after the restart, either side of his four-game ban for going into the crowd to protect his brother in March, he was Spurs’ best defender. And before the last game of the season, he signed a new contract, ending years of speculation over his future. Dier has the confidence and energy of a man who has taken ownership over his future again.

It all started with a meeting with Pochettino last summer — in the Amazon documentary Dier tells Mourinho that he had told Pochettino that he was either in his plans or not, and if not then he would look elsewhere. So what actually happened?

“I had a very honest conversation with Pochettino at the beginning of last season. Because I had surgery in pre-season and missed all the pre-season. I went to see him, it was more about my position and where I was playing. We had spoken for many years about me gradually making that transition back to centre-back. For the last three years we’d had many conversations on it. And it was me saying to him: for me it was now. And if it wasn’t for him, we’d have to find another solution.”

It takes a brave player to make a demand like that of a manager at the peak of his powers, but Dier says that Pochettino appreciated his honesty. “He was very happy. I went to him, made that decision, and came to him with a definitive statement. He was actually very happy with that. He told me: train hard, get fit, and then you know how I am, whoever deserves to will play.”

This fact has slightly been lost in all the drama of last season, but Dier was playing at centre-back for the last two games of the Pochettino era, against Red Star Belgrade and Sheffield United. Pochettino saw Dier and Sanchez as the centre-back pair of the future, and Dier had effectively won the argument. And so when Mourinho replaced Pochettino last November, Dier did not want to get shunted back into midfield again.

The first meeting between Dier and Mourinho was when Mourinho told Dier he wanted him to re-discover his best form. But there was a second meeting between the two, “a couple of months down the line”, where Dier reiterated that he wanted to play in defence. “I said to (Mourinho) that it’s very difficult for me, having made that commitment when Pochettino was there, to go back on it. Centre-back is where I see myself. He said ‘OK, prove it to me’, basically. He gave me my chance. And things have been going OK since then.”

At the same time Dier told Pochettino he wanted to move back to centre-back — after his surgery in July 2019 — Dier had a similar conversation with Gareth Southgate. Dier had played in midfield for England that season, his last appearance against Switzerland in the Nations League in June 2019. He did not represent England at all last season, but last week Southgate named Dier his squad for the games in Iceland and Denmark this month. And made a point of saying he had picked him as a centre-back.

Dier also mentions how grateful he was for Southgate’s support in writing a character reference for him to the independent regulatory commission that banned him for four games. “Gareth has always been fantastic to me, always been very supportive of me,” he says. “Even with the FA after the incident, he was very supportive of me. I’m very appreciative of that.”

Back in club football, that trust to play in his favoured position — the position he has been playing since he was eight, the position he played at Sporting, that he was signed by Tottenham to play, and that he played regularly in Spurs’ best league campaign in decades — was one of the reasons he decided to stay and sign that new contract in June. But so was a conversation he had with his brother Patrick, driving home from their father’s house, as Dier was considering going into the final year of his old deal.

Dier silences Arsenal’s fans after scoring at The Emirates in 2018 (Photo via Getty)

“You can’t leave Tottenham through the back door,” Patrick told Eric. “It’s not the right way to leave.” Dier did not want to force the club to sell him on the cheap (as they did with Christian Eriksen), or leave for free next summer. “It was about staying at Tottenham, with a manager that believes in me, and playing in the position I want to be, and proving myself in that position. That became my main focus.”

And so after a difficult start — Dier was hooked after 29 minutes against Olympiakos in November, although he started that game in midfield — he already looks like one of the winners of the Mourinho era so far. And he is enjoying the psychological challenge of working for a manager who first tried to sign him three years ago.

“To experience his man-management was something that people talk about a lot, if you listen to players he’s coached. To experience that first hand is quite special. He’s incredible in the way that he pokes you with his words to get the best out of you. He’ll say things to you and nudge you with things. It’s all with the idea of triggering you to want to do better. To want to improve or to prove him wrong.”

Dier tells a story from the last week of the season, just before Spurs’ final game against Crystal Palace. His four-game ban for going into the crowd had just come to an end. Mourinho walked up to Dier. “You’ve been shit in training since your suspension. Do you want to play this weekend?” “Of course I want to play,” Dier replied. “Yeah, well you’ve been shit since you got suspended,” Mourinho said, before walking off. “I felt like I knew what he was doing,” Dier reflects. “He was just giving me a kick up the arse before the final game. Those kind of things trigger you.”

The evidence of the end of last season is that Mourinho’s motivational style (he calls it ‘confrontational leadership’) has succeeded. Mourinho hammered his players in public after a 3-1 defeat at Sheffield United, prompting a run of four wins and two draws which secured sixth place and Europa League football. And Dier’s assessment of Spurs’ mentality is not very different from his manager’s.

“It should always provoke a good reaction, if you’re honest with yourself. Which I think we were in that case, after Sheffield United, a really embarrassing game. If you’re honest enough to accept the reality, then it should always provoke a positive reaction. And that time, it did. But we’ve had too many times over the time I’ve been at Tottenham, we’ve had too many games like that Sheffield United game. The reasons are quite consistent. It’s something we need to change.”

What are those reasons? “It’s just a question of mentality. Because, with no disrespect to Sheffield United, with our quality, it can only be because of our mentality, and the way we approach those games. If I look back at lots of seasons, the season Chelsea won the league ahead of us (2016-17), if you look back to the results of that season, there were those games at home at the beginning of the season. West Brom and Newcastle. Those games I still remember, because those are the games that cost us.”

Dier hopes for no such slip-ups this year. He is not making any promises about positions or trophies, just that Spurs will not let up in any game. “The target is to be competitive in every competition. One thing that’s great about the manager is that you know that in every competition we’re in, we’re going to be trying to win it. It’s really straightforward. There is nothing else to it. That is a very nice feeling to have now. To know that in every competition, we’re going to be trying to win it.”

Hearing Dier talk like this, he sounds like the voice of the dressing room. Since the departures of Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen, only Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Hugo Lloris have been in the first team longer than Dier. He is only 26 but he is one of the experienced leaders of the team. “I was talking to Dele about it today,” he says. “With Jan and Michel Vorm leaving, it felt like the end of an era. At the training ground, this season feels like a new start. It really feels like the beginning of something new.”

Dier and Vertonghen were very close. Vertonghen was one of the team’s leaders, setting the tone not just in the dressing room but away from it too, popularising board games throughout the squad. He helped to introduce Dier to chess. And this season Dier — the multilingual glue in the dressing room — would always tell Vertonghen how much he wished he could understand Lo Celso. “I saw two people there that I think would really get along.”

“I was very close to Jan,” Dier says. “We spent a lot of time together. And with Christian as well, but with Jan it was a bit different. Outside of football I spent a lot of time with Jan. Jan and Mousa Dembele helped me a lot, outside of football, we were very very good friends. When Mousa left, it was Jan and me, and now Jan’s gone. It’s going to be very strange without them. It was already strange without Christian and Mousa, but with Jan and Mousa leaving it feels like the end of something. And the beginning of something new.”

Those last few words are crucial. It has been a difficult year for Tottenham, but a difficult few years for Dier. The appendicitis, the further surgery, the contract saga, the four-game ban that interrupted his good run of form. But all of that is behind him now. He has everything in place to give Tottenham the best years of his career, starting on September 13 against Everton.

“I really believe that for me it’s the beginning of a new chapter. And one I’m very excited about. When I signed my new contract, in the interview I gave to the club, I said I feel like I do when I was 20, when I arrived at Tottenham. It feels like something completely new for me. I’m very excited about that. I’m very excited to be playing where I am, to be playing under this manager, to be starting with the new manager, it’s the start of a new journey. Everything’s at zero. The table is zero, zero, zero. We’re in all the competitions. It really feels like we can build something.”