Sunday 22 April 2018

Walker fired up by Chelsea nailing colours to Foxes mast

Tottenham's Kyle Walker. Photo: Getty
Tottenham's Kyle Walker. Photo: Getty

David Hytner

Like most northern boys, Kyle Walker knew that Tottenham Hotspur were hated by Arsenal. Like most northern boys, he did not know they were also hated by Chelsea and West Ham. It is a curiosity that the supporters of three of London's biggest clubs should each cite Tottenham as their fiercest rival. Walker, who moved to White Hart Lane from Sheffield United in February 2010, learned quickly.

"When I first moved down from Sheffield, obviously, you know about the Spurs and Arsenal rivalry," Walker says. "I was getting advised: 'Don't buy a red car. Don't do this. Don't do that.' I was thinking: 'OK. Here we go.' I'm a Sheffield United fan. I loved red and white!

"But I was living around Essex and I was getting West Ham fans taunting me. I was thinking: 'Ooh. OK. I didn't know about this.' It was an eye-opener. With Chelsea as well but I think it's good that there are rivalries everywhere. We're right on each other's doorsteps and it's good for football - and it's only going to get bigger and better."

Walker jokes that he has a solution to the car colour problems created by his professional allegiance. "I've just got a push bike," he says, tongue firmly in cheek. "I come to work on my push bike. What colour is it? It's a white one."

Tottenham's visit to Chelsea tomorrow night will be framed by the usual hostility but there has been a twist. This year, for the first time in a long time, it is Tottenham who have the Premier League title aspirations and the imperative for Chelsea is to derail them.

At Bournemouth last weekend, the travelling Chelsea fans chanted to their players that they had better beat Tottenham, while there have been comments from caretaker manager Guus Hiddink, and Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard to the effect that they would prefer Leicester City to win the league.

It has needled some people at Tottenham, particularly as Chelsea still have to play Leicester at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season - although the title race might not last that long. It may not last beyond this afternoon.

Walker, however, takes a different line. "It is a compliment, in a way," he says. "And it gets you fired up. We need to show the fighting spirit that we've shown all season and go to Chelsea and get a result. It's been a long time since we've done that so, hopefully, we can put it right."

Tottenham have to go back to 1990 for a league win at Stamford Bridge. Since then, they have drawn eight and lost 17. But Walker says this is a much-changed Tottenham; they are a group that is: sturdier and more together. Walker's last appearance at Stamford Bridge was the 4-0 drubbing in March 2014, after which the then Spurs manager, Tim Sherwood, questioned the character of his players. Under Mauricio Pochettino, the mentality is different.

Pochettino's announcement on Friday that he had agreed a new contract until 2021 reinforced the sense of permanence and there are now likely to be a clutch of players committing to new deals. Pochettino has become one of the most coveted managers in Europe and it had been easy to detect a nervousness within the squad over recent weeks while his fresh terms remained unsigned. Walker's reaction, when told of the news, spoke volumes.

"I've been waiting for someone to say that for ages," he says. "Thank God for that. I'm over the moon about that. It's how he is off the pitch. He is the man to take this club forward and on to new levels. It's just everything about him; his aura, as well. This is a relief. It's about the foundations. They are set now - and he is a big part of that."

Walker, 25, has been a big part of what Tottenham have achieved this season and his all-action performances for a manager who demands that his full-backs press high have been built on sound fitness. After being hampered by injury, which led to him missing out on the World Cup in Brazil, he was able to enjoy a full pre-season last summer and has not looked back. It is sometimes forgotten that he was voted the PFA's Young Player of the Year in 2011-12, ahead of Gareth Bale and Sergio Aguero, and he feels he is finally back up to those levels.

"I think that I'm getting back to where I should have been, you know, a couple of years back," Walker says. "Hopefully, I can move forward and show people my full potential. I feel stronger than ever and my stats are the best they've ever been. It's definitely been the best season of my career."

There remains the sizeable incentive of a place in the England squad for Euro 2016 and, next season, a first taste of Champions League football. More immediately, Walker refuses to give up on the title dream, despite Monday's wobble.

"Personally, it's been hard - that result settling in," Walker says. "But it's not over until the fat lady sings. Manchester United are still chasing something while Everton are not going to want to lose at Leicester next weekend. Everton, probably, have a point to prove, having not had the best of seasons and Chelsea, likewise. So, hopefully, they're not easy games for Leicester. But, first and foremost, we need to go to Stamford Bridge and win."


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