Michael Dawson was once described as Tottenham Hotspur’s “bionic man” yet his journey from fourth-choice centre-half at club level to England World Cup player in 10 dizzying months would stretch even the plot lines of a comic book.
At the start of the season Dawson was nursing an achilles injury that kept him on the sidelines until the end of September, while the club had spent £8m on bringing in Sébastien Bassong from Newcastle United. Ledley King, the captain, and Jonathan Woodgate were already ahead of him and his prospects looked bleak. Harry Redknapp, the manager, even started the midfielder Tom Huddlestone ahead of him at centre-half in two matches.
A less cheery soul might have grown frustrated. A less hard-working player might have downed tools. Dawson, however, reacted as he always does in the face of adversity and today he can reflect on a defining season that has yielded the ultimate reward. Thanks to Rio Ferdinand’s injury, Dawson has been catapulted on to the world's grandest stage.
Tottenham have had a host of heroes this time out, as they finally reached fourth place and a Champions League qualifying spot. Heurelho Gomes, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Jermain Defoe spring readily to mind but there have been others; King, Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon. Yet when the two player-of-the-season awards were handed out, by the club’s members and the overseas supporters' groups, there was only one winner: Dawson.
It has spoken for his strength of character and status within the squad that, with Robbie Keane out on loan at Celtic, it was Dawson to whom Redknapp turned to wear the captain's armband when King was unavailable.
Dawson is no stranger to being on the fringes for England. In 2006, he was a late addition to Sven-Goran Eriksson's World Cup standby list after an injury to Luke Young. He met up with the group but was not called on to travel to Germany. The 26-year-old, a former captain at Under-21 level, has been named in plenty of full squads, although he is yet to win a cap.
When he was included last month in Fabio Capello's provisional 30-man party for the finals in South Africa, it was widely assumed he would be one of the seven unfortunates to be discarded. So it proved when he got the dreaded phone call from Capello on Tuesday but, despite the disappointment cutting deeply, he still fulfilled a commitment to attend a sponsor's event yesterday, at which he spoke of the pain but also of the positives. Many other players, having suffered such a blow, would have ducked the engagement.
It summed Dawson up: honest, humble, honourable. There is nothing remotely “big time” about him and, at heart, he will always be the enthusiastic boy from the little town of Leyburn in North Yorkshire. “I’d say that I’ve got Yorkshire attitudes,” Dawson once said. “You work hard and you get your rewards”.
His elder brother Andy, the Hull City defender, remembers endless kickabouts in the back garden of the family home, as does their middle brother Kevin, formerly of Chesterfield and Nottingham Forest. “It would be Kev crossing, me smacking shots into the top corner and Mike in net,” said Dawson Sr, with a smile. “The youngest always gets stuck in goal. Mike is a grounded person, it’s the way that we’ve been brought up. He wouldn’t be allowed to get away with anything else.” The Dawson family are bursting with pride, as is everybody at Tottenham, who now have five players in the 23-man squad. Mention Dawson to the club's staff and, as one, they smile and talk fondly of him. One employee tells the story of how Dawson invited a severely handicapped young Tottenham fan and his special assistance dog to the training ground two months ago in order to pep his spirits. Ever thoughtful, Dawson had nipped out in advance to buy treats and biscuits for the dog.
Dawson's first appearance of the season came in the Carling Cup win at Preston North End on 23 September and, after a few games on the bench, he took advantage of injuries to King and Woodgate to enjoy a run in the team. His performances began to brim with such physical power, bravery and composure that Redknapp found he could not leave him out. When King was fit, it was Bassong who gave way. Dawson started in all bar one of the club's 35 matches from 22 November.
Endurance has always been one of his strengths and it was Martin Jol who called him the “bionic man” after Dawson played in all but one of Tottenham's 59 matches in 2006-07. “There aren't a lot of players like him,” the then Spurs manager said. “I think he's a role model. He's a very good character, he's honest and in a group of players, he's good for other players. He's a very good player and he will be a top player.”
Dawson has taken the latest bold step towards fulfilling the prediction.
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