How a liquid lunch with Alex Ferguson might have changed the course of Mauricio Pochettino's career
It was over a £114 bottle of Brunello di Montalcino red wine that Mauricio Pochettino picked the brain of Sir Alex Ferguson at Scott’s, the fashionable Mayfair restaurant where celebrities want to be seen.
And it certainly seemed a remarkable coincidence that two days after that meeting which was captured by the waiting paparazzi, Tottenham announced that Pochettino and his staff, including his assistant Jesús Pérez who was at the lunch, had signed new five-year contracts to kill off talk of a possible move to Manchester United – for one summer at least. There was also a change of job title as the 'head coach’ became 'manager’.
Pochettino was high on United’s list of targets to replace Louis van Gaal, with influential figures at Old Trafford, including Ferguson, said to be big fans of the Argentine.
Nobody will know for sure whether Ferguson tried to entice Pochettino to United over their expensive bottle of red, or whether the Scot, wittingly or unwittingly, helped the 44-year-old get his new £5.5 million-a-year Spurs deal over the line.
“If I was Man United I would have tried to take him from us, especially when you see what he can do to a team,” said Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen. “When the rumours were getting bigger, we were always worried, especially with this manager.
"The team is very happy he stayed. He signed a long-term deal like so many of the players and it is good to have that stability in the club.”
It is increasingly clear that Pochettino would have been a far closer fit for United in their attempt to find somebody who could go some way to replicating Ferguson than Jose Mourinho.
Alarmingly for United, it also seems Pochettino was right to recommit himself to Tottenham and that the former central defender is better placed to build a Ferguson-style legacy in north London than he would be in Manchester.
Daniel Levy is concentrating on building Tottenham’s new stadium and has given Pochettino full control of the football operation, which has not always been the case.
Pochettino froze out top earner Emmanuel Adebayor, something that contributed to one of his predecessors – Andre Villas-Boas – losing his job, and this season dropped Moussa Sissoko from his squad after convincing Levy to pay a record £30 million for the midfielder in the summer.
Those decisions would not have been popular in the past, but Pochettino has developed an extremely close working relationship with Levy, the Spurs chairman, that has also survived the decision of head of recruitment Paul Mitchell to hand in his notice on the eve of this season.
In previous years, Tottenham would lose their best players to United but striker Harry Kane underlined the change in direction of both clubs by this month signing a new contract to stay at White Hart Lane despite the interest of Mourinho.
Spurs used to travel to Old Trafford in trepidation, but Pochettino’s team now carry the welcome weight of expectation ahead of Sunday's clash between the two clubs.
“We are making a big effort to try to reduce the gap on the pitch,” said Pochettino. “Also, our chairman and board are working hard to build a new stadium to reduce the gap on the commercial side. Tottenham show the ambition to build one of the biggest and best clubs in Europe. The job we are doing on and off the pitch is unbelievable.”
Like Ferguson did so successfully at United, Pochettino is building a young, vibrant team with a clutch of British players at its heart.
“You can be inspired by different mangers,” said Pochettino. “I think it’s about philosophy on the pitch, off the pitch and how you coach your team.”
Ferguson this year claimed one of Pochettino’s fledglings, Dele Alli, is the best young midfielder since Paul Gascoigne. The 20-year-old has a sense of devilment, like the former Spurs star, that is key to his game.
“Dele Alli is Dele Alli because he’s a little bit naughty,” said Pochettino. “But it’s his character, in a good way. He’s a brilliant boy. He has a brilliant brain, he’s very smart. He is very sensitive, very intuitive and because he comes from a difficult background, you can understand that when you’re with him. But he’s a very nice person – off the pitch.”
So does Pochettino ever expect to manage a club, such as the one United have become, who are reliant on big-money signings and paying more than their rivals?
“Every club has their philosophy and I am focused on Tottenham,” said Pochettino. “I do not think to put myself in another club or another philosophy or system. I don’t think too much – I am focused only on Tottenham.”