Nutmegs, kisses and beating Arsenal: Van der Vaart’s guide to being a cult hero

Nutmegs, kisses and beating Arsenal: Van der Vaart’s guide to being a cult hero

By Charlie Eccleshare 6h ago 5

“I just wanted to say, ‘Listen, there’s only one king here in the stadium — go home’.”

Rafael van der Vaart is grinning, reflecting on the moment in his second north London derby when he nutmegged Jack Wilshere once, and then again straight after. It is just one of many happy memories he has from playing Arsenal, against whom he scored four times in his four matches for Spurs, two of which were victories.

The way Van der Vaart came alive against Arsenal is one of many reasons why he is almost the prototype for a Spurs cult hero and why, despite only spending two years at Tottenham, he remains one of their most popular players of recent times.

“You have to feel what the fans are feeling, what kind of games are important,” Van der Vaart says, as he tries to explain why he and the club had such an instant connection.

The Dutchman’s popularity also comes from his relatability — yes, his technique was world-class, but he did not feel like the kind of perfectly-sculpted, otherworldly athlete we normally associate with elite-level sport. In his own words, he was “the best professional amateur”.

He continues: “I also needed a glass of wine after a win. I needed my McDonald’s sometimes.”

After that derby where he nutmegged Wilshere and scored twice in a 3-3 draw, for instance, Van der Vaart reveals that he “had a few good drinks, a good night, but the next day professional again, ready to play a good game.”

Then there was the way he hit it off with the club’s staff, including player liaison officer Allan Dixon whom Van der Vaart quickly struck up a close friendship with. Their weekly sushi trips became well-known around the club, so much so that Luka Modric once called Dixon for help only to realise what was going on and say, “Are you with that fucking Rafa again eating sushi?”

But as well as the endearing personality, underpinning Van der Vaart’s popularity was his glorious technique. There was a thrill at signing the attacking midfielder, one of the most exciting players in Europe when he joined in 2010 from Real Madrid aged 27. Van der Vaart did not disappoint, scoring 28 goals from midfield in his two years at the club, and helping Spurs reach the Champions League quarter-finals. Within weeks of joining, he had his own chant — to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Give It Up. The Athletic tries to persuade Van der Vaart to sing it, but he laughs and responds: “After one more wine.”

So there’s no singing, but over the course of a highly entertaining hour, we settle down to watch a selection of Van der Vaart’s best moments for Spurs. Now 38, he lives in Denmark with his wife, who plays professional handball in the country, his son, 14 and his three-year-old daughter. He works as a football pundit, primarily for Dutch and German TV and still plays football at an amateur level. His memory of his professional career, meanwhile, is crystal clear.

As we share a Zoom screen to reflect on his two years at Spurs, he raconteurs, analyses the technical aspects of his game, and explains why, in a career that started at Ajax, took in a spell at Real Madrid and involved reaching the World Cup final with Holland and winning 109 international caps, it is his two years at Spurs that he remembers most fondly. He also explains why being told by Andre Villas-Boas that he was no longer first-choice felt like a “slap in the face”, but that leaving “was the most stupid mistake in my career.”

This is what it’s like to be a Tottenham cult hero.

It’s curious to reflect 10 years on that Van der Vaart’s move to Tottenham was precipitated by a now Arsenal midfielder and Spurs’ current head coach.

In the summer of 2010, the new Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho brought in Mesut Ozil from Werder Bremen, which left Van der Vaart, fresh from helping the Dutch to the World Cup final, surplus to requirements.

Mourinho told Van der Vaart that he was welcome to stay, but that he would understand and cooperate if he wanted to leave. “I was ready to stay another season and prove I was worthy of the shirt,” Van der Vaart recalls. “Just like I did the season before when a new president brought in a new manager and a whole squad of Galacticos like Kaka, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Karim) Benzema, and Xabi Alonso. I was told, ‘You’re the number five or six for your position’. But after a few tough weeks mostly on the bench, they started bringing me in and I never left. I played 30 or 40 games that season, just like the season before, and we played really well. But was I willing to fight again after I played that well for the club with no reward…?

“It was an international break so I was in Holland. I think the (August 31) deadline was 6 o’clock and at 5.30pm I had a phone call saying I had to make a decision in 20 minutes to do it or not. To be honest with you, I knew Tottenham, of course, but I didn’t know that it was that great a club. That’s what I noticed when I played there for the first time, when I saw the facilities and also the players they had.

“So in the beginning I was like, ‘Leave Real Madrid, go to Spurs? I don’t know’. But then I felt something in my stomach. I said, ‘I have to do this’.” Van der Vaart joined Spurs for a bargain £8 million, and when manager Harry Redknapp was interviewed on deadline day about the possible signing, he tried to play it cool but could barely suppress a grin.

Van der Vaart was soon similarly excited. Often when players leave Real Madrid or Barcelona to join a club of Spurs’ stature — at the time they had nothing like the reputation they do now — they can give the impression they see it as a step down or stepping stone to something bigger. Van der Vaart was determined not to view it that way.

Van der Vaart’s passionate celebrations helped quickly endear him to the Spurs faithful (Photo: Getty)

“For Tottenham fans the biggest club in the world is Tottenham,” he says. “So when I came to the club, I never saw Tottenham as a step back or said, ‘OK, I want to play two years here and then I want to leave again’. I gave 200 per cent, I gave everything every game. At least I tried and I think that’s what people noticed, and I noticed that they really loved me there and had a lot of respect during the game. And to play at White Hart Lane…,” Van der Vaart’s eyes widen.

“You have some days figuring, ‘What today, a game? Again?’ Then you come into the stadium and you’re like, ‘Yeah,’” Van der Vaart bares his teeth and puts his fists on the table. “Ninety minutes. Full power. We’re gonna show them some nice football. That’s what we always did.”

Van der Vaart found playing at White Hart Lane “such a nice feeling”, and scored in his first six games in the ground. On his debut, he stuck away a penalty in a 3-1 comeback win against Wolves and remembers the crowd singing his chant: “It gave me such a power when they started singing the song and I really loved it. I got goosebumps every time and, of course, you then have to play well. I think the connection with the fans was there straight away.”

The connection was strengthened further when, in Van der Vaart’s third home game, he scored twice against Aston Villa and celebrated the first by hugging and kissing an elderly woman in the crowd. “I saw this really nice grandmother and I just wanted to hug her,” he explains.

What did she say in response? Van der Vaart adopts a romantic, raspy voice and says: “I love you Rafa.” He then dissolves into laughter and adds: “No no, I can’t remember.”

By the time Spurs travelled to Arsenal in November, Van der Vaart had scored seven goals in 12 matches for Redknapp’s hugely exciting team — including in the 3-1 win over the Champions League holders Inter (a game best remembered for the heroics of an emerging Gareth Bale). “Bale was killing defenders with pace that nobody had seen,” Van der Vaart remembers. “Also his control with the ball.”

Van der Vaart was proving similarly difficult for opposition defenders to handle, but it was his performances against Arsenal that really elevated his status. “You also need a little bit of luck,” he says. “I scored against Arsenal so many times which also helped. But it’s true when you play two years in a club and the fans already call you a legend, it’s special.”

Van der Vaart had actually been watched previously by Arsenal, and the summer he joined Spurs his international team-mate Robin van Persie called to see if he’d be interested in moving to the Emirates. No offer ever materialised though, and Van der Vaart says that: “I had luck I didn’t go to Arsenal because otherwise I’d never have played for Tottenham.”

In November 2010, Spurs hadn’t won away at their north London rivals since 1993. They trailed 2-0 at half-time, and watching the highlights a decade on, the memories come flooding back to Van der Vaart.

“It’s a funny story, we came in the dressing room, 2-0 down at half-time,” he says. “Terrible, we played so bad and Harry Redknapp came in and the only thing he said was ‘Shut the fuck up everybody. (Jermain) Defoe on, (Aaron) Lennon off.’ That’s it, he left the dressing room and went out.”

Van der Vaart laughs at the absurdity of the situation, and adds: “Everybody played bad and so nobody could complain. You’re just sitting and everyone shuts up and it’s like, ‘Do better in the second half’. But that was not difficult because worse was not possible.”

What happened next has gone down in folklore. Van der Vaart assisted Bale to make it 2-1, then scored a penalty to equalise, before whipping in a free-kick for Younes Kaboul to head home the winner.

An energised Van der Vaart takes up the story: “Bale’s was a really nice goal and then we felt OK, we got to play towards our own fans as you can see. That gave us so much power.

“Then the penalty. You’re always nervous. Some players are acting like, ‘Oh, I’m so cool’, but it’s a lie and I said it many times, ‘I was shitting my pants when it’s a penalty’. But then it goes in. It felt like relief and then you feel like the king and especially running to the fans and then you almost start crying. You think this could be a special day.”

Van der Vaart strikes the penalty to his left, and the way he hits it means his momentum takes him to the right, away from where the Spurs fans are. He has to quickly change direction to ensure he can head towards the away end where the visiting supporters are collectively losing their mind. Van der Vaart is similarly fired up and wags his finger in their direction.

“I shoot it like this so I was running and then I went to our fans,” he says. “I never thought about ‘Oh now I score, now I’m really a team player’, for me it was more that I really liked winning against Arsenal. I think it was almost 20 years ago that we had last won away against them. It was more important that we all were part of something special.”

At 2-2, and with five minutes left, Kaboul rises highest to head in Van der Vaart’s inswinging free-kick from the right. “This one was… I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “The only thing I thought was, ‘OK, take the ball, just try to hit the target, the goal, and hopefully somebody is touching it,’ and then Younes Kaboul is scoring. I mean we… we went crazy.

“We did something that was impossible. I remember as well that former Arsenal striker was doing the expert work on TV. He said at half-time that we were so bad and it’s terrible to watch. I think it was Ian Wright (it was) and then after the game, they came back to the studio and he was like, he had a hat on, head in hands, ‘Oh it’s impossible’. I never forgot that, I saw that on the television and it was crazy.”

When it’s pointed out that Spurs have not beaten Arsenal away in the Premier League since, he replies with a smile: “Yeah, but they also don’t have as good a team as we had.”

The return fixture that season took place in April and finished 3-3, with Van der Vaart scoring twice. It’s a game also remembered for the Dutchman’s double nutmeg on Wilshere, who aged 19 had enjoyed an outstanding season and was Arsenal’s equivalent, in passion and commitment terms, to Van der Vaart. Bringing him down a peg or two was manna from heaven for the Spurs supporters.

“The fans love this,” he says as he watches replays of the incident, which is followed by verbals between the two players and a little push from Van der Vaart. “He was the big star for Arsenal at the time, a good player, we liked him and he came to me so I just wanted to say listen, ‘There’s only one king here in the stadium — go home’.

“I can’t remember (what he said). I pushed him to say, ‘Hey, go away.’ It was in a nice way and yeah, these things happen in your career. I think he is not watching this! This game ended up 3-3 but it was certainly one of my best games for Spurs.”

After Spurs fall behind early in the game, Van der Vaart scores a seventh-minute equaliser and celebrates feverishly in front of the Arsenal fans, putting his finger to his lips and punching the air. “This is passion for the game, passion for the club, against the big rivals,” he explains. ”You want to win, you do it all for the fans and I think they never forget an evening like that.”

The goal was also one of many Van der Vaart scored for Spurs with his weaker right foot, which was an underrated part of his game. He also scored one from range with his right against Arsenal when playing for Hamburg in 2006.

“It’s because you don’t think,” Van der Vaart says. “I always said that that’s probably why I was quite a good player and had a lot of good games because I never think about some things, just playing and enjoying myself. And with the right foot, you never have time to think because it’s a runner’s foot. So just make the best out of it, that’s what I did a few times but it’s true I scored some nice goals with my right foot.”

After Van der Vaart’s equaliser, Arsenal score twice before Tom Huddlestone pulls one back with a spectacular strike with his weaker left foot to make it 3-2 just before half-time. Van der Vaart points out that he has to jump out of the way of the shot. “Look, this ball goes through my legs,” he says. “If I didn’t jump, I wouldn’t have a wonderful daughter here walking around! He almost messed my balls.”

Van der Vaart then equalises with a penalty, sending Wojciech Szczesny the wrong way. There’s a great moment where he runs to grab the ball to take it back to the centre circle, but then thinks, ‘Sod that, I want to celebrate with the fans’.

“Football’s about making goals and of course when you’re 2-0 down you have to come back but we still had time so you have to enjoy the moment and celebrate,” Van der Vaart says. “Also Arsenal had been ahead, let them be sad for a few minutes.”

The game finished 3-3, which remains a regret for Van der Vaart as it contributed to Tottenham finishing the season fifth, just outside the Champions League places. It meant no return to the competition where they had enjoyed such a thrilling run to the quarter-finals that season.

The following campaign, Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-1 in October. Van der Vaart, who had returned to his best form after fading in the second half of his first season, scored the opener — his best against Arsenal as he controlled Emmanuel Adebayor’s lofted pass with his chest and arrowed a volley into the bottom corner.

“Technique-wise it is one of my best goals,” he says. “It looked easy but it wasn’t easy, it was a good ball and I had to control it on the chest but really quick because the defender was coming.

“I used one of the defenders a little bit with my hand to almost fall down as well like this… you can’t do that anymore.” Again, the celebrations are frenzied, with Van der Vaart rushing towards the Spurs fans to take their acclaim, and jubilantly kissing the camera.

Van der Vaart’s technical gifts in the clips we watch raise the question of how much of his skill was innate and how much was trained. “I think you have to be born with a feeling for technique but of course you can develop it. Nobody is born with a proper step-over, you can make yourself better,” he says.

“I think the passing game is really important to train, I always say it’s like a tennis player — they still practise their forehands and backhands and as a football player it’s the same but the first touch for me was really important because I was not quick.

“So when I got the ball then the first touch had to be almost perfect otherwise it was gone. You see a lot of quick players, they have a bad touch but they can still get the ball. In my case it was different.

“So that’s what I always trained and tried to develop but when I was young, yeah, my technique was already much better than the most.”

In this Arsenal game, Van der Vaart was then caught out by Alex Song down the Spurs right for Aaron Ramsey’s equaliser, and he admits he wasn’t always the sharpest when it came to tracking back. “I came back from an injury that game and after 45 minutes I had a little problem with my hamstrings. So I was so scared to get injured again.”

Van der Vaart was later substituted, in what finished as a 2-1 victory, before Arsenal exacted their revenge with a 5-2 win at the Emirates the following February (a game in which Van der Vaart was only fit enough to appear as a substitute). Spurs ended up finishing fourth but were denied a place in the Champions League because Chelsea, who ended the season sixth, won the competition to qualify at Tottenham’s expense.

Despite that frustration, Van der Vaart says Tottenham was “maybe the best club team I ever played in, quality-wise”. Better even than the Real Madrid side that contained the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka and Alonso? “Yeah, because as a team understanding, guys like Modric, Bale, Lennon, Defoe, (Ledley) King, Scotty Parker in the middle, Peter Crouch, we had so many good players, with the ball and without the ball, that’s why I performed so good.”

What then prevented that Spurs team taking the next step and winning a trophy or challenging for the title? “It has to do with a little bit of luck and also that I think Tottenham in that phase was a top club but still a little bit in the middle, let’s say. When you think like that then you’re happy with fourth place.”

He also points to the agonising 3-2 defeat at Manchester City in January 2012 when Defoe so nearly grabbed a late winner before Mario Balotelli, who should earlier have been sent off, scored a stoppage-time penalty as a turning point that season.

“But I’m also proud because in that time, not only England but in the world everybody loved to watch us because we always ended up 3-3, 3-2 so it was never boring with us. The only thing is that we didn’t win anything.”

Van der Vaart’s goals and obvious delight in scoring against Arsenal are a big part of his popularity at Spurs, but his cult-hero status goes beyond that.

He was also someone who was clearly popular at the club, and a key figure in the dressing room. “Oh I loved him,” Redknapp says now. “I absolutely… what a footballer. Great, great, great footballer, great guy as well.

“I have so much time for Rafa. Wish him all the best from me.”

This kind of fondness was shared by his team-mates, and the feeling was mutual. “We were all good friends and there was not even one player that I thought wasn’t a nice guy and I think we created that (spirit) after the game in the dressing room,” Van der Vaart says.

“Robbie Keane was my neighbour in Hadley Wood until he left, and then Modric, Crouch, Defoe, (Kyle) Walker, a lot of players we also went for a drink sometimes together.

“I’m still in touch with some of them. Crouch called me the other day, he’s doing a lot of TV stuff and I did an interview with him when I had my testimonial in Hamburg last year.”

Van der Vaart enjoyed a good relationship with Spurs manager Harry Redknapp (Photo: Getty)

Van der Vaart’s closest accomplice though was player liaison officer Dixon, with whom he quickly clicked. “It was so natural,” Van der Vaart says. “He was the biggest Spurs fan and told me all these stories about Arsenal, about what the fans expected so for me it was really nice to be his friend.

“I remember one time we were playing at home that weekend and he had done so much for me. He helped me with finding a house, helped to take care of my family and so I said to him ‘Listen, you like sushi?’ He said ‘I love sushi.’ I said ‘Me too’. So I said, ‘After training, we gonna get some sushi’. So we drove up there and had lunch together at a place in Chigwell, next to the club’s training ground at the time.

“The next day we played Wolverhampton in my first home game. We won and I scored. So I said, ‘We do this from now on, every Friday before the game!’ And we did, every Friday from then on. It was really nice.

“One time he said, ‘Ah, I have to work a bit’. I say, ‘Oh come on, just drive with me’. And we drove for five minutes and then Luka Modric was calling: ‘Allan, where are you? I’m… are you with that fucking Rafa again eating sushi?’

“So it became a thing. That’s one of the things that I really miss.”

Van der Vaart also references the club’s kit men and Roberto Balbontin, another player liaison officer, as people he was close with, and this relatability and groundedness are a big part of his appeal.

He was not perfect, and acknowledges that there were far more dedicated, consistent players. But he sees his approach and Tottenham’s at the time as the perfect marriage.

“I became the first Golden Boy in 2003 (the award for the best under-21 player in Europe) but never won the Golden Boot or Ballon d’Or and if you like me, you say, ‘He was one of the best No 10s in the world.’ When you don’t like me you say, ‘He was rubbish.’ But I always said I was ‘the best professional amateur’ — I also needed a glass of wine after a win. I needed my McDonalds sometimes. You can’t do that sort of thing any more. But that’s what worked for me. I was a professional football player but had so much love for the game, less for the business. To play good, to train hard, I needed to feel happy and relaxed. If it becomes too rigid it doesn’t feel comfortable to me and that affects my game. I have to stay loose to bring out the best performance.

“At Tottenham at the time, as long you were there at the weekend, all good. That mentality really suited me and when I say the best professional amateur, I mean professional but also you can switch off, enjoy life, and the next day be professional again.

“It sounds crazy but sometimes we were playing in Tottenham and I knew that after the game there was pizza and chicken nuggets, and always beer for the other guys and sometimes in the 70th minute you think, ‘I’m tired, I’m playing for after the game’. So you run a little bit more, that’s mentally how it works.

“I play now on an amateur basis for a club here in Denmark and the best thing is having a few drinks together after the game, and that’s what we also always did with Tottenham. That’s how we created the group of players that became good friends.

“And also we had a coach (Redknapp) that totally understood the team. Like with Ledley King, Harry explained to me that, ‘He doesn’t train, he just plays games. We will see you tomorrow and he’s going to be the best on the pitch’. And it was true. Sometimes you have to accept that a coach has special treatment for special players. Harry got that, that’s why he was such a good coach.

“So yeah, it was an ideal life.”

Looking at the way football has changed nowadays, Van der Vaart doesn’t think football in 2020 would suit him: “Now I would have to say after a few years, ‘Sorry I’m born in the wrong time!’ It’s crazy, I remember (Georginio) Wijnaldum and (Virgil) van Dijk when they won the Champions League with Liverpool they were interviewed on Dutch television. The guy asked, ‘So tonight, champagne?’ They were like: ‘No, no, no, in five days we have the Nations League finals’.

“Five days?” Van der Vaart laughs. “I would be pissed already during the interview. That’s the mindset that they have now and I don’t think they need it. And of course it’s because of the cameras and perhaps that’s why they give these answers. It’s OK but no, for me the teams lead a really boring life. Please enjoy it while you can, especially after such an achievement — it will make your life more pleasant.”

Though Van der Vaart’s penchant for the odd post-win glass of wine and burger makes him seem relatable to amateur players, watching some more of his highlights from his Spurs days are a reminder of how fanciful that notion is.

Even if he wasn’t the most athletic player, Van der Vaart’s technique was world-class. Take his second goal against Aston Villa in a 2-1 win in October 2010 for instance, which he rates as his best goal for Spurs. Receiving Crouch’s knockdown, Van der Vaart waits to invite Richard Dunne to come flying in with a sliding tackle, then allows the ball to run onto his right foot before smashing a volley past Brad Friedel.

“Again it’s a long ball to Crouchy — he was that tall so when we had a bad game, if football-wise it wasn’t working then he (Redknapp) always said ‘Put the ball up to Crouchy and Rafa’s there behind him’,” Van der Vaart says as he watches a clip of the goal. “I scored so many goals like that (his first four non-penalty Spurs goals were set up by Crouch). A knockdown and I scored.

“And then this is what I mean. A lot of players, when they’re in the box, they get really nervous but I think here although it’s my bad foot, my ‘chocolate leg’ as Van Persie called it, I kept calm and the defender came and I waited a little bit and then had good control to score.”

It almost looks as if time slows down as Van der Vaart waits for Dunne to commit himself. “Yeah because if he touches me it’s a penalty so I just waited a little bit and he also missed the ball and then I could control quite easy and then score,” he says.

“It’s the best feeling ever, when your own fans are there, 35,000 people. It’s a great feeling.”

The next goal we see is a right-foot volley from outside the area in a 2-0 win at Liverpool in May 2011 — Spurs’ only league win at Anfield since 1993.

Watching the goal makes Van der Vaart reflect on the time he nearly moved to Merseyside when still a teenager in 2002.

“I was a teenager. Gerard Houllier called me saying they wanted to buy me — he said, ’I talk with Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and they’d really love to play with you and blah blah blah.’

“But I was like, ‘No! I want to stay with my parents and with Ajax. No chance. So yeah, all nice, but sorry, I’m really going to stay with my parents’. He was like, ‘No they can also come’.

“I had done just one season for Ajax. I was nothing and I really wanted to stay and win titles. I was not ready.

“Now sometimes players aged 15 or 16 go from Holland to England because they are offered big money. I never thought about it.

“It’s way too early. Way too early and I understand because the money these days is crazy and you see especially in the Premier League, they make so many transfers for players that I think in my days they were not even on the bench. The clubs paying £40 million for players that we do not even know and that’s… I think it’s a pity, but yeah, you have to accept it.”

Returning to his own career, we look at goals that exemplify why Van der Vaart was so aesthetically pleasing to watch. Those controlled finishes after attacking the box from deeper positions. His final goal for Spurs, in a 4-1 win at Bolton in May 2012, sees him sweeping home a low finish from a Bale pull-back.

“It doesn’t have to be hard,” he says of his shooting technique. “It’s all about control and that’s also what I try to teach young kids and my son: that everybody tries to kick it as hard as possible but it’s more about control, and hitting the target is also important.”

Van der Vaart suggests we watch his first goal in a 2-1 win over Blackburn in October 2011 (he scored a brace in that game) to see a paradigm of how he tried to finish. On this occasion, Walker pulls the ball back to Van der Vaart’s right. He somehow manages to manoeuvre his body to hit the ball with the inside of his left foot, like Rafael Nadal running around his backhand to whip a forehand. The angle he connects with is perfect, and the ball rolls satisfyingly into the far corner.

“How I see myself as a player, that goal describes the player that I am,” Van der Vaart says. “It looked so easy but I had to stop and I couldn’t get a lot of power behind it. So the only possibility was just nice and easy in the goal.”

As we watch similarly caressed finishes against the likes of Swansea and Aston Villa, he adds: “It’s about total control of your body. That’s how I always learned. You have to always try to keep calm.”

But despite the 28 goals from midfield in his first two seasons, Van der Vaart’s spell at Tottenham ended two years to the day after his Spurs journey began, as he moved back to Hamburg on August 31, 2012.

Tottenham had sacked Redknapp that summer and replaced him with Villas-Boas, who didn’t see a place for Van der Vaart in his more disciplined side. He signed Gylfi Sigurdsson from Swansea and told Van der Vaart that the Icelander would be his first-choice No 10. “That was a slap in the face, so then I thought, ‘OK, maybe it’s better to go because when I’m sitting on the bench then I’m going to be unhappy,’” Van der Vaart says.

He spoke mainly to chairman Daniel Levy about what he feels was a “stupid” decision by Villas-Boas: “You saw the clips, you knew how good I played two years, that was for me really one a big mistake because I knew I was much better and you have an unhappy player because it’s the same as saying to Bale or Modric, ‘Sorry but you start on the bench’. It was strange.”

Van der Vaart’s pride had been stung, but he looks back on leaving Tottenham as “the most stupid mistake in my career”. He had a good first season back at Hamburg, but he and the team didn’t hit the heights of his first spell there. He then went to Real Betis before winding his career down in Denmark, with spells at Midtjylland and Esbjerg, retiring in 2018.

It still hurts Van der Vaart that he never got to say a proper farewell to the Spurs fans. “I went back a few years later to say goodbye but it’s not the same,” he says. “I think the fans and also me, we deserved more to say goodbye to each other but I’m so thankful for the people there, the days at White Hart Lane.”

As always with a player as mercurial as Van der Vaart, how you view his career depends on your perspective. He was one of the stars of the Ajax team of the early 2000s, scoring prolifically for a side that also included the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wesley Sneijder, but didn’t win a major honour after leaving the club in 2005.

And there were plenty of near-misses, most agonisingly the 2010 World Cup final when Holland were beaten 1-0 in extra-time by Spain.

Van der Vaart though prefers to focus on the positives — those 109 Dutch caps, playing in a World Cup final, spending two years at Real Madrid, and of course that hugely impactful spell at Spurs. “It’s not easy to win prizes with Hamburg but we performed very well in my first three years,” he says, looking back on his career. “We played for the title, beyond every expectation, but we were also very good in Europe. Same for Spurs. We didn’t win prizes, but at least every fan of the club started dreaming about it again. Our team started the revival. At Madrid we were a winning machine, but we were in competition with a phenomenal Barcelona.

“Overall, I’m thankful for everything I’ve done and I achieved in my career and I think that some will say, ‘Ah, but you were so good, maybe if you were a little bit more professional…’

“But I feel really thankful, I think every young player dreams of (a career like this) and me too. So I’m happy.”

As for the future, Redknapp would like Van der Vaart to give coaching a go. The Dutchman says he may work towards getting his licences, and already helps to coach the Esbjerg youth side that his son Damian plays for, but is relaxed about it at the moment: “I think you also have to be a certain type of person to be a coach and right now, I’m still enjoying my life, with no pressure. I enjoy analysing games all over Europe and sharing my views on the TV — that’s what I like at the moment.”

When it is permitted, Van der Vaart looks forward to returning to watch Spurs with Damian, who hopes to be a professional footballer himself.

“I still talk about Tottenham with him,” Van der Vaart says. “White Hart Lane, playing the games against Arsenal, winning. When all the hard work was worth it.

“I’ve taken him to watch Spurs a lot of times, he’s a big fan now also. A big Son (Heung-min) fan, a big (Harry) Kane fan.”

He pauses, and adds matter-of-factly: “You have to raise your kids good.”