I am disappointed my former club Tottenham have not won a trophy since 2008 but the future should be brighter with a top stadium, world-class manager Antonio Conte and the captains of England and France in their team.
Qualifying for the Champions League is an important start to the rebuild. Despite the last two Premier League results, a top-four finish is still in their hands. They must beat Leicester City on Sunday, with the north London derby against Arsenal on May 12 looking pivotal.
I believe the role of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is significant given the high stakes. Not only do I admire him as a fellow central midfield player, his mentality is equally significant having started out at one of the biggest clubs in the world, Bayern Munich.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s role at Tottenham is significant given the high top-four stakes
It was fascinating to sit down with him last week and learn about the impact of that development when he made his Bundesliga debut at 17 and won the German Double under Pep Guardiola at 18, alongside Philippe Lahm, Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer.
‘I call Bayern a school of champions,’ says 26-year-old Hojbjerg about his career pathway. ‘You get the best education, the A+ students stay and the A students have to go somewhere else.
‘I signed for them 10 years ago. The plan was to get to the first team in my third year but they had 11 players at Euro 2012 so I went straight off youth football in Denmark into first-team training.
Hojbjerg won the German Double at Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola (left) at 18
It went OK so the manager Jupp Heynckes said: “I want to keep the kid with me”. I had to be patient after that, it took eight months to get on the bench, but in my stomach there was this little fight to be involved.
‘Guardiola came in my second year. He taught me positioning, how to analyse the game. I was eating right off it. I couldn’t get enough. My first Champions League game was against Roma. I started at Manchester City, facing Frank Lampard in midfield.
‘I learned about hunger for trophies. I was lucky to share a dressing room with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Daniel van Buyten, the captain of Belgium, Neuer, fantastic personality, Mario Mandzukic, nasty fella but there when you need him.
‘On match day, the moment they were in the huddle you knew they would give every centimetre for each other. They had this trust between them and a cold determination to win.’
The Dane branded the Bavarian side the ‘school of champions’ as you get the best education
Hojbjerg, a member of Denmark’s Euro 2020 semi-final team last summer, did eventually leave to further his career, first at Southampton, then Spurs. But the lessons learned in Bavaria will be music to the ears of a serial winner like Conte.
Like the Dutch, Danes speak in a forthright manner and Hojbjerg does not shy away from this being an important time in Tottenham’s history.
‘I want to try and play for the big titles,’ he says. ‘I’m not scared to say when you go to Tottenham, people might not expect you to win things because of recent history. I fully understand that but really want to change the cycle. Also, for my own career, my ambition, I want to fight.
‘You don’t associate my style with big headlines but my contribution is for the team. One thing I know I can do is compete with anyone because it’s in my blood. I like to push everyone, starting with myself, to the limit.’
Hojbjerg was a member of Denmark’s Euro 2020 semi-final team against England last summer
Growing up around Paul Ince and Steven Gerrard as I did, the best players do put demands on each other. It is less common these days but there is still a place for it. Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson is the best example and Hojbjerg has others he has come across.
‘My second red card in the Premier League was for a foul against Fernandinho when I played at Southampton,’ he says. ‘Then the first game of this season, for Spurs against City, Fernandinho gets to a loose ball first and goes through me with his follow-up.
‘I yelled at the ref “If I’d planted my foot, he was going to f***ing break my leg”. And Fernandinho comes past telling me: “Yeah, remember a couple of years ago, you did it to me”. When I calmed down, I just thought “I love this guy!”
The midfielder’s second red card in the Premier League was for a foul against Fernandinho
Fernandinho reminded him of the incident in Manchester City’s clash against Spurs this term
‘Dusan Tadic at Southampton was the most unbelievable trainer and professional I’ve come across. I remember my first pre-season camp with Saints in France, the sun was shining and I felt good about everything.
‘Dusan came over and asked me very seriously if I thought I was doing well. I thought I was and he replied: “You are not going to play one minute in the Premier League like that!”
‘He became an important person in my career. I saw him recently when Denmark played Serbia. He said: “Bro, please come today and kick me”. He just wanted to compete. Needed to.’
Conte is the managerial equivalent. I recently joked in a radio interview I’d have found him tough to work for because I preferred an easier life.
Hojbjerg recognises the input Antonio Conte has had since arriving at Spurs in November
On a serious note, Hojbjerg recognises the input the Italian has had since arriving in November. Spurs quickly went from 19th to top in the running stats.
‘The demand for perfection in training caught my eye straight away,’ says Hojbjerg. ‘It can be the difference between winning or not, achieving your goals, being a champion.
‘It excited me because you start to look up. He is demanding of us as sportsmen but also gives you responsibility. You are allowed to prepare the best way you see it.
‘At the beginning, there was a lot of information to take on board and we played a bit stiff, not expressing ourselves. Not because we weren’t allowed but because we were trying to do the shape so perfect, you forgot a bit of your own game.
‘Over time, we have become a bit more flexible. We beat Man City when you need to be in a strong shape, but also had this little touch of freedom, the X-factor.’
Internationally, 2022 promises to be a big year for Hojbjerg. Left out of the last World Cup squad, he will be an important player for Denmark in Qatar alongside Christian Eriksen and Sunday’s opposition goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
The midfielder will be an important player for Denmark alongside Christian Eriksen (right)
‘Euro 2020 was big for us, particularly after what happened with Christian [his cardiac arrest],’ says Hojbjerg. ‘I’ve never experienced euphoria like beating Russia to qualify from the group. The crowd was 25,000 because of Covid but it felt like 50,000.
‘I would make a little note on us for Euro 2024 because we are improving. We have Andreas Christiansen, Joakim Maehle and look out for Andreas Skov Olsen from Club Brugge. He is an old school winger, Ryan Giggs-style, goes one-against-one and either crosses or shoots.’
England ended Denmark’s run with a penalty controversially won by Raheem Sterling. ‘I’m not going to lie, I don’t think Sterling will get dinner bought for him in Copenhagen,’ says Hojbjerg with a smile.
England ended Denmark’s run with a penalty controversially won by Raheem Sterling (centre)
The return of Eriksen to Brentford this season has been a marvellous feelgood story. ‘He is an example to everyone because he’s kept his focus on doing his job well despite all the emotions everyone else was feeling,’ says Hojbjerg.
‘Sometimes we forget in an age of sponsors and social media that the important part for any sportsman is to be focused on what you’re good at.’
Hojbjerg’s displays this season have caught the eye of Newcastle, who will invest this summer to try and break into the top six.
But there is no doubt the Dane is resolute on restoring Tottenham to the biggest competition in club football, the Champions League. Since Rodrigo Bentancur arrived in January, the pair have formed a midfield partnership as important to the team as that of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
Hojbjerg is resolute on restoring Tottenham to the biggest competition in club football
Hojbjerg has formed an important midfielder partnership with Rodrigo Bentancur (above)
‘There haven’t been any forced dinner dates for us but sometimes you know there are players where you find a quick understanding,’ he says.
‘My best position is deep. I have the eye for choosing the moment when to go forward or to play a ball that can kill but when you have a Harry Kane in your team or a Son, sometimes they do that part for you. You need to make sure at the back and behind them, it is clean. Sometimes a strong five-yard pass between two players is enough for Harry, he turns and puts it in or does a great pass for Sonny.
‘We are capable of finishing in the top four. The Champions League is the big prize, it also shapes the team to maybe one day compete for cups and the Premier League.
‘Winning is like a drug. After that, second place is not acceptable. Maybe it’s better I don’t say it but we are closer than we have been.’
Tottenham midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg met former Spurs player and Mail on Sunday columnist Danny Murphy during a visit to the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (LAET) – a state-funded sixth form on the site of the Tottenham stadium, sponsored by the club and Highgate School.
The academy gives pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds the best chance of accessing top universities and was named sixth form college of the year with 10 students gaining entry to Oxford and Cambridge.
Hojbjerg gave his own ‘pep talk’ to students who are about to sit their exams. The free school opened in 2017 for 16-19 year olds as part of the redevelopment of White Hart Lane.
Hojbjerg met former Spurs player and Mail on Sunday columnist Danny Murphy (left) during a visit to the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham