Ryan Mason could not have scripted his first game in senior management any better.
Tottenham played with all the intensity of a bunch of university students having a kickabout after a gruelling freshers week in the first half against Southampton, but were far better in the second, with goals from the recalled Gareth Bale and Son Heung-min, via the penalty spot in the 90th minute, securing a 2-1 comeback victory.
It was a dream start for Mason, who entered the Premier League record books as the youngest manager in competition’s history – aged just 29 years and 312 days – beating a record set by Attilio ‘the bald eagle’ Lombardo for Crystal Palace in 1998. Tottenham’s win on Wednesday came just short of five years after Mason played for the club for the last time.
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Mason’s impact during the early days of the Mauricio Pochettino era in N17 is consistently overlooked, mainly due to the simultaneous emergence of his childhood mate Harry Kane. But he too helped kickstart the Pochettino revolution in the 2014-15 season, with his driving runs and tenacious, front-foot pressing from midfield tallying perfectly to the Argentine’s tactical template.
Ultimately, it was an injury that stopped his Spurs career in its tracks. Mason hurt his knee in the process of scoring a winner against Sunderland in September 2015, paving the way for Mousa Dembele to re-establish himself in central midfield. Mason started just three more Premier League games for the club, culminating in a club-record £13m move to Hull City.
Mason only wore Hull’s amber and black colours 20 times, but his career will always be indelibly linked to the club due to events at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 22 January 2017. With Hull defending a corner, Mason did what thousands of players from the Premier League to Sunday League do each week, by challenging for a header.
Gary Cahill, also did what thousands of players from the Premier League to Sunday League do each week: challenging for a header. The pair suffered a sickening clash of heads in mid-air, leaving Mason to require on-field treatment for nine minutes, before being taken off on a stretcher wearing an oxygen mask and swiftly transported to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.
Mason spent eight days in hospital after undergoing surgery for a fractured skull, which left him with 14 metal plates, held together by 28 screws and 45 staples, to keep it intact. Upon being discharged, Mason admitted that he felt ‘lucky to be alive’.
Despite attempting to return to football, Mason announced his retirement in February 2018, 13 months after the incident, at the age of 26.
“I can confirm that following specialist medical advice I am having to retire from professional football,” he said in a statement on Instagram. “I have worked tirelessly in order to be able to return to the pitch. Unfortunately, having taken expert medical advice, I now have no option but to retire due to the risks involved given the nature of my injury.”
He signed off: “I love the game, I always will and I am excited to see where football will take me next.”
What came next for Mason was a return to Spurs as part of the youth coaching setup in April 2018, initially on a voluntary basis while studying for his Uefa coaching badges, before joining permanently in July 2019 as an academy coach for the U19s.
Mason then became head of player development from U17 to U23 level ahead of the current season, prior to his shock promotion on Tuesday.
Upon returning to Spurs in April 2018, Mason, then juggling coaching with appearances on Sky Sports and BT Sport, gave an in-house interview in which he admitted that he was unsure whether a career in management beckoned. “I don’t know where I want to go with it yet,” he said. “If you were to say, ‘would I be a manager?’, I don’t know.”
Fast forward three years and he finds himself in charge of his boyhood club, replacing Jose Mourinho in the dugout, managing a player he used to idolise as a Spurs youth team member in Bale, and preparing to lead the team out at Wembley for the Carabao Cup final against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Sunday. It really is pinch yourself stuff.
Given the manner in which his playing career was cruelly snatched away from him before he’d even entered his prime years, nobody could begrudge Mason from beaming in the springtime sun at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Wednesday evening. And who knows, a few more results like that one might see him land his dream gig full-time.