“It felt like the end of the world,” Eric Dier says, referring to a specific point of last season. The away games against Crystal Palace and Liverpool in mid-December. The first felt like a defeat; the second actually was. Tottenham were top of the Premier League at the time but they were rocked by Jeffrey Schlupp’s 81st-minute equaliser at Selhurst Park and Roberto Firmino’s 90th-minute winner at Anfield.
With the benefit of hindsight, the results can be seen as the beginning of the implosion under José Mourinho – the team would win only seven more league matches before his sacking in mid-April. Dier’s form, meanwhile, came to mirror that of the collective, declining sharply, although it seemed as though it was placed under a harsher spotlight.
Losing has always stung but, for the modern professional, there is often no escape. Stray online and you are confronted by hurtful words and memes. Venture outside and there are the stares and gawps, the tyranny of the mobile phone camera set to record. “This generation of footballers are the first to experience something like this … social media, mobiles, that kind of thing,” Dier says. “I don’t think players from the past can even fathom what it’s like now.”
For Dier, it is about developing ever more steeliness, relying on the support of his inner circle and getting through. Spurs have had more moments when everything has looked impossibly bleak this season. “Arsenal away, Man United at home, Burnley away,” Dier says, the second in the list of defeats leading to the dismissal of Nuno Espírito Santo at the end of October; the third triggering an eruption of rage and frustration in Antonio Conte on 23 February.
Conte said last week that his meltdown was designed to elicit a reaction from his players, but Dier believes the lessons of last season played their part. There has been no falling away; rather a run, since Turf Moor, of nine wins and two draws in 13 league games.
The see-saw battle with Arsenal for the final Champions League place has swung their way, helped by the 3-0 home victory over them on 12 May. If they avoid defeat at the bottom club, Norwich, on Sunday, it would secure a reward that, in Dier’s words, was not under consideration by anyone at the club when Conte arrived in November.
“I remember last season when we drew at Palace and lost at Liverpool,” Dier says. “You don’t realise that you just need to try and maintain an emotional consistency because, at times, you have results and you look at the table and it looks so scary.
“It’s something that, as a group of players, we spoke about. I think we learned a lot from last season where there were results that felt like the end of the world. You look at the table [this season] and it wasn’t a pretty sight. But it’s not to get too down in those moments because things change so quickly in this league, more than in any other.”
Dier describes himself as an emotional person and the battle for equilibrium was difficult last season. “I don’t really want to talk about that,” he says. “It’s gone. Yes, it’s a part of me but I don’t agree with a lot of the narrative of it.”
A headline-hogging element was driven by Mourinho who, after dropping him for the second time in three matches in early February, said that Dier was suffering from a crisis of confidence. Dier, who would be in and out for the remainder of Mourinho’s tenure, made the point a couple of weeks afterwards that his confidence was not an issue, his dip in form merely correlating with that of the team.
“It was a bad season,” Dier says. “In some ways, having these things happen is good for you. It’s very cliched but they do make you stronger. I came into this season after a good holiday, a good pre-season and I was very motivated.”
Dier has been back to his best and is in the frame to win an England recall for the four Nations League fixtures in the first half of June. The 28-year-old won the last of his 45 caps against Iceland in November 2020.
Conte has plainly been a factor, too. “He changed everything from the moment he came in,” Dier says. “There is a different work ethic in the building, a different discipline. He has incredible experience and you feed off his personality, his confidence in his work. It’s hard not to believe it yourself because he has so much belief in what he does.”
There is a certain irony in Spurs achieving greater emotional balance under a manager who is famed for his volatility, his draining intensity. “I feel like people love that storyline,” Dier says. “Training, meetings and matches are 100%. What has surprised me is that outside of that he is very approachable, very easy to speak with. He likes to have a laugh.”
And so to Norwich, where Spurs surely cannot slip up. Or could they? We all remember what happened in 2006, what they ate before the final round of matches, which they had entered in fourth place ahead of Arsenal; how everything was turned upside down, starting with their insides. We also know a word for it although, after such an easy-going conversation, it feels inappropriate to bring it up directly to Dier.
“I see other teams go through situations but there isn’t a word for them,” Dier says. “We can shake it off on Sunday and then next year we’ll have a result and it will be back. In the time I’ve been here [since August 2014], we’ve had incredible highs where the club has never been before. And then two days later that will come back after a certain result. It will always be there. We’ve got to enjoy that pressure. Prepare as well as possible and use it as a wind at our back instead of in our face.”