The story of Tottenham’s new centre-back Joe Rodon, told by his parents

The story of Tottenham’s new centre-back Joe Rodon, told by his parents

By Stuart James 23m ago 2

For a little insight into just how driven Joe Rodon was about making it as a professional footballer, the story that his father tells about the envelope that arrived on their doorstep in Swansea one morning takes some beating.

Rodon was in his final year at Pontarddulais Comprehensive School at the time and anxiously waiting to find out whether he had managed to make it through the final selection process to be named in the Wales Under-16s’ Victory Shield squad.

Unfortunately, the news wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “It was basically a ‘Dear John’ letter from the Welsh FA saying, ‘Sorry to inform you’,” recalls Keri, Joe’s dad. “What I would have done, and lots of people would have done, is crumpled it up and thrown it in the bin.

“But Joe pinned it to the back of his bedroom door and it was there until he got his first Wales Under-17s cap. Every morning in that time, the first thing he’d see when he got up would be that letter, that crushing disappointment. I can’t think of anything worse. But that story sums Joe up.”

Rodon is the 22-year-old central defender who has just signed for Tottenham Hotspur from Swansea City in a four-year deal worth £15 million including add-ons. Or, to put it another way, he’s the Wales international who Oli McBurnie was singing about in the away end at Queens Park Rangers last season alongside Rodon’s older brother, Sam, in between buying 50 pints for Swansea supporters at half-time.

Joey Rodon’s magic
He wears a magic hat
If you throw a brick at him
He’ll head the fucker back
He heads it to the left
He heads it to the right
And when we win the Championship
We’ll sing this song all night

Rodon, who is 6ft 4in and the son of a Welsh international basketball player, headed the ball away a lot that night — as he has done this season. But he can do much more than defend for his life. Rodon can play, too.

Some central defenders are safe with the ball and pass responsibility — literally — to one of their team-mates. That’s not Rodon. Schooled in the “Swansea Way” from a young age (he has spent more than half his life with the club where he was a season-ticket holder as a little boy), Rodon enjoys stepping out of defence and playing those sharp, incisive passes that break lines. The passes that make a difference.

He is also deceptively fast and eats up the ground with his long stride and upright running style, prompting Ryan Giggs, his national team manager, to draw comparisons with one of his former Manchester United team-mates.

“He (Rodon) is quick. Sometimes you don’t appreciate it,” Giggs said recently. “It was the day after a game and we gave some players running drills, box to box. He was running with someone fast and went past them, effortlessly. I thought, ‘Oh, I hadn’t seen that’. It made me think a little bit of Gary Pallister. You don’t think of him as quick but when Pally got into the channels, nobody out-ran him.”

(Photo: Chloe Knott/Danehouse/Getty Images)

Indeed, just about the only thing that’s been missing from Rodon’s game up until now is a first goal in senior football. “Head it like you mean it, Joe!” urged Keri when the two of us ended up shoulder-to-shoulder behind the goal at Ashton Gate last season and Rodon narrowly missed the target.

Perhaps he needs to go back to wearing green boots.

When Llangyfelach Primary School needed somebody to coach the football team, there was only one parent for the job. “They used to call me Dave Bassett,” says Tania Rodon, Joe’s mum, laughing. “I used to say to Joe: ‘Play your own game, get the shackles off!’”

That advice seemed to do the trick. “He scored 49 goals in 10 games,” Tania says, smiling. “There was a bloke there, covered in badges, refereeing and he came up to me at the end (of one match) and said: ‘Who’s the boy in the green boots? He’s got to be seen’.”

Tania saw a lot herself. She has been here, there and everywhere watching her sons, going right back to when Sam, Joe’s older brother, joined Swansea’s youth set-up in 2000 at the age of seven and she was selling raffle tickets on the sidelines to raise money for waterproof jackets and goal nets. Swansea, who were knocking around in the lower leagues at the time, lived from hand to mouth back then.

As for Sam’s playing career, he had the talent but not the commitment or hunger. “He left at under-14s,” Tania says. “He’d be saying: ‘Do I have to go training? I want to go out with my friends.’ And then he started pretending he had something wrong with him to miss games. Joe was the total opposite, he was so driven, all he wanted to do was to play for the Swans as a six-year-old.”

Tania smiles as she recounts another tale. “Ceri Bushnell was the head of sport in the secondary school. When they asked Joe when he was 11 what he was going to be when he left school, Joe said: ‘I’m going to be a professional footballer’. Ceri said he’d heard that loads of times from boys. But he said when Joe said it, it was like: ‘No, I’m going to be a professional footballer’. He was hell-bent on making it.”

That journey wasn’t easy, though, and there were times along the way when Keri is honest enough to admit that he started to lose faith, partly because of the odds that are stacked against every kid in the academy system but more because he couldn’t shake from his mind what had happened to his other son, his brother and his father.

“I was gutted with Sam because my dad (Peter) was forced to finish as a professional footballer after two years through injury. Then my brother (Chris, who played for Brighton) came behind him and had the world at his feet, but he became homesick, gave it all up and packed it in. So then Sam was potentially doing something similar. And, ironically, I didn’t think Joe was anywhere near as good as Sam, so I was thinking — and I didn’t tell him this — ‘Don’t waste your time’.”

By the time Joe was 15 years old, Keri saw things very differently. He remembers looking at Tania on the sidelines on a couple of occasions when Joe was turning out for Swansea’s academy and thinking, “Bloody hell, this kid can play”.

It wasn’t the ability alone, though, that made him think that Joe could get to the top. “He came home on day one of the scholarship, Dan James had just joined. Him and Dan James were having races against each other. He was beating Dan. I saw his face that day and he was absolutely loving it. He couldn’t wait to go in the next day and the day after that. I thought, ‘Hang on. He’s not only got the skills, he’s got the attitude’.”

The big problem, though, was the absence of a pathway. Swansea were a Premier League club when Rodon joined them as a scholar and, naturally, that raised the bar for those trying to break into the first team. It became harder still when Swansea badly lost their way on the pitch and got caught up in a cycle of hiring and firing managers and playing survival football. It was all short-term thinking. The solution was another signing — more often than not a bad one. Not an academy graduate.

All of that meant that Rodon was two months short of his 21st birthday by the time he started a league game for Swansea — in the Championship. James was a couple of days older when he got that opportunity, also in the second tier. As for McBurnie, he had played only 76 minutes of league football for Swansea by his 21st birthday, with no starts. He didn’t play a full 90-minute game in the league for the club until they’d been relegated from the Premier League. Remarkably, all three have now been sold for the best part of £50 million.

“It should never have taken the amount of luck it did, or bad luck for Swansea to be relegated, for Joe to come through,” Keri says. “We got lucky. Joe got lucky. But Joe should never have needed luck. He was that good two years before. You had Oli McBurnie, Dan James and Joe in the under-23s, and they were brilliant week in and week out in that under-23 team. Oli, Dan and Joe were special. I think people like Gary Richards (the former under-23s lead coach) saw that and maybe one or two others, but then they (the club) were just expecting it to happen naturally.”

(Photo: Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

In the end, it happened not just because Swansea were relegated but because the club was in a terrible mess off the field. In the 2018-19 summer window, Swansea had a fire sale. Two central defenders, Federico Fernandez and Jordi Amat, were among the four senior players who left on deadline day. Alfie Mawson and Kyle Bartley, another two central defenders, had already been sold, leaving Mike van der Hoorn as the last man standing in that position. Graham Potter, Swansea’s manager at the time, had two choices: play a full-back out of position or give Rodon a chance.

Rodon, who had spent the second half of the previous season on loan at Cheltenham Town, got his opportunity and, to his credit, grasped it. Swansea won 1-0 against Preston North End, Rodon slotted in seamlessly and never looked back.

Yet neither Keri or Tania can ignore the circumstances. “We don’t know if they hadn’t sold Fernandez whether Joe would have come through,” Tania says.

Keri shakes his head. “It’s bonkers. If relegation hadn’t happened, he’d have been gone and might never have made it.”

“If it’s true what I’m reading about Joe Rodon deactivating his account because of stick off his own fans, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You know nothing about football. This lad is class and will be a star for club and country.”

Lee Trundle, the former Swansea striker and club ambassador, tweeted that in August last year, shortly after Rodon had decided to close down his Twitter account in the wake of a 3-2 win (yes, you read that correctly) against Preston. Needless to say, Trundle’s thoughts on Rodon carried much more weight than those who turn Twitter into a cesspit at times.

Some players might have fired a few shots back but that’s not Rodon’s style. Quiet and unassuming, Rodon did his talking on the pitch, starting with that outstanding performance at QPR four days later, when McBurnie and 1,500 other Swansea fans were singing his name long into the night. That was followed by impressive displays against Birmingham City and Leeds United when a tackle — and what a tackle it was — on the edge of the penalty area stopped Marcelo Bielsa’s side from counter-attacking and, at the same time, helped to set up a 90th-minute winner for Wayne Routledge.

Swansea were flying high, Rodon was rewarded with his first senior cap for Wales and everything was going along nicely until an injury in late October. On reflection, Rodon shouldn’t have featured against Brentford that night because he wasn’t fully fit. But saying no to playing for Swansea wasn’t easy for him. Senior players later pointed out that it was a lesson that he needed to learn.

(Photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images)

Rodon ended up being sidelined for more than three months after undergoing surgery on his ankle. He was upset. There was a similar spell out of the team the previous season when he broke a metatarsal. To compound things, he wouldn’t be available for both matches against Cardiff City, Swansea’s bitter rivals. The first fixture was spent in the stand, the second in the away end.

Rodon missed playing and Swansea missed him. Maybe he missed out on a move in January too. Sheffield United had been showing interest before his injury and it is easy to see how Rodon would have slotted into Chris Wilder’s way of playing.

By the time the summer came around, other Premier League clubs had started to look at Rodon. West Ham United are big admirers and believe that Rodon will go on to be a success, but they baulked at Swansea’s asking price (£18-20 million) for a player they saw as having potential rather than being the finished article.

Tottenham’s interest surfaced later in the window, when the club’s search for a more experienced fourth central defender ran into difficulties. Rodon, who had been excellent for Swansea in their opening four league matches of the season, emerged as a viable option, especially with the domestic window extended.

While some will look at the transfer and wonder about the influence of Trevor Birch, who left his position as Swansea chairman last month to become Tottenham’s director of football operations, the bottom line is that it was always a question of when, not if, a Premier League club signed Rodon.

The bar will be set high at Spurs, where Davinson Sanchez, Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld are going to be ahead of him in the pecking order, yet any ambitious young player would relish the chance to prove themselves in that environment and become a better footballer in the process.

Although Rodon hasn’t played in the Premier League, the same was true of another young central defender who Spurs bought from a Championship club on deadline day many years ago, and that didn’t turn out too badly. Michael Dawson went onto play more than 300 games for Spurs across nine years after signing from Nottingham Forest in 2005.

Whether Rodon goes on to do something similar or not, there is a lot to admire about the person, and not just the footballer, who pinned that rejection letter from his country on the back of his bedroom door and fulfilled his boyhood dream of playing for the club he grew up supporting.