Tottenham's debt of gratitude to Ryan Mason, Pochettino's game-changer
Ryan Mason did not often score but when he did, it was often a goal that changed everything. Two of Mason's four goals for Tottenham, his boyhood team, were season-shifting strikes that helped alter the course of the football club he loves.
Mason's untimely confirmation he has retired as a player, aged 26, following a horrific head injury came hours before the biggest game in Spurs' recent history: Tuesday's Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Juventus. Were it not for their former midfielder and the movement he helped to create, Spurs might not be in Turin at all.
When you changed it all for us mate .. we love you 😘 ..Always with you ❣️# COYS https://t.co/020H8kW8iE— Jesus Perez (@jesus_perez) February 13, 2018
Mason took just six minutes to make a difference on his senior debut. Spurs were trailing Championship leaders Nottingham Forest 1-0 in the League Cup in Sept. 2014 when Mason, then 23, came off the bench to score a dipping, long-range equaliser with almost his first touch.
Spurs scored twice more in the final 20 minutes to record their first win in five matches under new manager Mauricio Pochettino. Mason's goal, Pochettino's assistant Jesus Perez said on Tuesday, "changed it all for us".
Pochettino has since revealed he was already fearing for his job in those unsteady early months and although he has credited the 2-1 win over Aston Villa five weeks later as the true turning point, he might not have made it that far were it not for Mason.
The goal changed everything for Mason too, and three days later he started the north London derby at Arsenal -- back when Spurs were still the underdogs in that fixture -- helping them to a 1-1 draw, as Pochettino's fledgling team began to turn the corner.
"He deserves a lot of credit as he helped us and the team," the Argentine later said. "For that, he will always be a special player for me."
Mason's next big goal came almost exactly a year later. By then, he was an established part of Pochettino's midfield, providing bite and energy and the hint of a goal-threat.
Tottenham had started the manager's second season with just three points from the first four matches -- a defeat at Manchester United before frustrating draws with Stoke, Leicester and Everton -- and the pressure was back on Pochettino and his players ahead of a trip to Sunderland.
The visitors did not record an effort on target in the first half and their staid play suggested something fundamentally wrong. Cue Mason, who flew into a challenge with Costel Pantilimon, managing to dink the ball over the Sunderland goalkeeper before impact to score an 82nd-minute winner. He was stretched off while the away end celebrated, missing the next five weeks through injury.
The goal removed the shackles from Pochettino's Spurs and they would go on to challenge for the Premier League title for the first time in the club's history. Mason's sacrifice would be significant, however. He never fully won back his place in the team and Pochettino reluctantly agreed to sell him to Hull City in the following summer. "It was a sad day," the manager later said.
The outpouring of support and emotion from Spurs fans at the news of Mason's retirement is about more than 70 senior appearances and two big goals.
It is an acknowledgement of the freakishness of his misfortune -- one header has ended all that work, all those loans, all that grafting to be get where he was -- but also of the part he played in something altogether more significant.
Mason, along with Kane, has come to represent a movement that has united the club from boardroom to terraces in the last four years. The idea of local players, and genuine Spurs fans, playing for the first-team was not an aspiration before Mason and Kane proved how valuable it could be.
"One Of Our Own" is not just a terrace chant and a social media hashtag. It is why Kane spoke fondly of Francesco Totti, the ultimate one-club superhero, ahead of the Juventus game. It is why the striker has said he may never leave Spurs, and why his career may genuinely be better for it, even if Real Madrid come calling. It is why Pochettino and Perez, just as they did when Mason suffered the injury back in Jan. 2017, will reach out to him in the wake of his retirement.
And it is why it would be no surprise to see Mason soon return, in some capacity, to the club he has played such a big part in moving forward.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.