Sunday 11 December 2016

Van Nistelrooy helps Son enjoy happy return to Germany

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Published 18/10/2016 | 02:30

Son Heung-min has become a key player for Tottenham Photo: Reuters / Andrew Boyers
Son Heung-min has become a key player for Tottenham Photo: Reuters / Andrew Boyers

There was a time earlier in the summer when Heung-Min Son was wishing for a return to Germany. This week he has got it, but not in the way first expected.

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Son learned his trade in Germany, joining Hamburg at the age of 16 before moving to Bayer Leverkusen, where he earned his £22m switch to Tottenham.

But his first season at White Hart Lane was not what he hoped for, and when Wolfsburg offered him a route back into the Bundesliga, Son was certainly open to taking it. It took the intervention of Mauricio Pochettino to keep him at White Hart Lane.

Pochettino knew that he would need Son, and he was right. The ankle injury to Harry Kane means that Son is now Spurs' best forward, more dangerous and incisive than anyone else, with his five goals already this campaign, including the crucial winner at CSKA Moscow, rescuing a Champions League campaign that desperately needed a lift-off.

So tonight he returns to Germany, and to Leverkusen itself, not as someone who tried English football and came back, but as the spearhead of one of the Premier League's most exciting teams.

Tonight will be emotional for Son, who still holds the big chemical giant club just outside Cologne deep in his heart.

Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt and centre-back Jonathan Tah spoke warmly about Son yesterday, and Son was just as positive about his old side.

"It's a special game for me because I played there for two years," Son said yesterday. "I had some great times there and made so many friends, also. I am very excited to be going back."

If he scores tomorrow night he has said that he will not celebrate out of respect, just like Nacer Chadli against Spurs at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

There are too many memories here for that. Son will always remember taking the field at Old Trafford for a Champions League game, only his sixth game for Leverkusen, in September 2013.

He picks that out now as an "exciting first memory", and treasures his two Bundesliga hat-tricks, against Hamburg and Wolfsburg, as his best moments on the pitch.

Son's time in Germany, though, pre-dated Leverkusen. He started off at Hamburg, leaving South Korea at just 16 to join the big club in north Germany. It was a daunting move for a teenager who spoke no German, but Son was committed to making it in Europe.

"At 16 it was difficult," Son remembered. "I knew no English and no German, nothing. But I wanted to play in Europe, this was my goal and I came to achieve it.

"The first year was really difficult because I didn't have any friends. No-one came with me. I felt so alone and so humble because everyone was helping me, but it was tough. Sometimes I missed Korea. But I wanted to play in Europe, and this is what I had to do."

Help came from an unlikely source. In January 2010 Hamburg signed a 33-year-old Ruud van Nistelrooy from Real Madrid. A 17-year-old Son was just starting to make his way in the first team and the veteran Dutch striker took him under his wing.

"He helped me a lot," Son remembered. "He saw my first training session and he talked to me. He told me I was a good player. He gave me confidence and I want to thank him for that. We had a really good team and were successful for a time with him."

But while the fundamentals were in place for Son to succeed at Spurs, he still needed his first year to adjust to the pace of the English game.

After scoring three goals in his first four games he soon lost rhythm, suffering from a foot injury and never fully winning his place back. That was what made his first season so frustrating and why he wanted to return to Germany.

But now he is flourishing and both Pochettino and Schmidt, his last two coaches, are vindicated for knowing that he would succeed.

Independent News Service

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