Dawson: Spurs hungry for UCL return
The football landscape at Tottenham Hotspur has undergone a significant change since Michael Dawson first arrived at White Hart Lane in 2005. A fresh-faced 21-year-old with four years at Championship side Nottingham Forest behind him, Dawson joined a mid-table club whose best previous performance in the Premier League era was a seventh-place finish in 1994-95.
Seven years later and Spurs have finished in the top five in four of the past six seasons, tasted life in the Champions League and, in the current campaign, emerged as league title contenders, with Dawson set to captain his side in a massive top-of-the table clash against Manchester City on Sunday.
The centre-back has played under three different managers during his time in North London, and though it was Martin Jol who signed him and Juande Ramos who was boss when he won his first piece of silverware as a player in the 2008 Carling Cup, it is the man currently in the hotseat, Harry Redknapp, who Dawson credits with the raising of standards at Tottenham.
"I think it shows [how far we've come], when he came in we were in big trouble," Dawson tells ESPNsoccernet. "Bottom of the league after eight games, with two points - it didn't read well. He came in and he changed things, he's brought players in, brought a lot of belief. You only have to see the way the players play, they go out there with no fear and it certainly shows. We've had a Champions League campaign with him and some good years; hopefully we'll have many more years."
The next step for Dawson and his team-mates in the ongoing evolution under Redknapp is to sustain a Premier League title challenge. The Spurs boss has regularly talked up his side's chances of glory this season - usually repeating the mantra "it's not impossible" - but a visit to Eastlands this weekend represents what many consider to be the acid test of his side's credentials, particularly as City embarrassed them with a 5-1 mauling at White Hart Lane back in August. Ahead of the game, Dawson says the Spurs camp is in buoyant mood.
"He [Redknapp] is right, it's not impossible to win the league but you know Man City and the money they have spent and the quality they've got in the squad - although they have lost a couple of players to the African Nations Cup. The way we're playing we're full of confidence, we know what they did to us in the first game but we're better prepared and playing with more confidence than we were then. We'll look forward to the game. Regarding the Premier League, while we're in with a shout we'll keep giving it us all."
The trip to City represents Dawson's biggest test since he returned from a four-month, Achilles-induced lay-off against Cheltenham in the FA Cup third round two weeks ago. Tottenham had performed remarkably well in the absence of a player who has been the beating heart of their defence in recent years - averaging 38 games a season during his time at the club - but he has come back into the first-team fold at a crucial time, with fellow centre-backs Ledley King and William Gallas currently out injured.
"It's great to be back, that's the most important thing with injuries," Dawson says. "When you've had four long months in the gym working hard, my rewards were coming back in for the FA Cup game against Cheltenham and then obviously back in the team for the Premier League maybe a little bit sooner than I'd expected.
"When I first did my injury, it was always a case of needing to rest and just see how it was. A couple of times I went out to run and it just wasn't right so we had to look down another option - we found a surgeon and he said 'we need to operate' so it was two months of not doing a lot and then another two months before I'd be back playing. But once I'd had the op I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and we were always looking at the Cheltenham game and everything went to plan which was great."
With Gallas, King and Younes Kaboul all performing so solidly while Dawson was sidelined - keeping clean sheets in 11 of the 24 games he missed - it would have been understandable had he watched on nervously contemplating whether he would ever get back into the team. But the England international insists he was only ever interested in cheering on his team-mates, not thinking about whether he could displace them on his return.
"I'm not the kind of guy who would be worrying about my place in the team, I play for Tottenham and I want Tottenham to do well whether I'm playing or not. It's certainly frustrating when you're not playing, either because of injury or if you're not selected, it's hard. But you still want the lads to do well, they're your team-mates, and it was great to watch the way they were playing - they have been flying. They've played with so much confidence, passing the ball, and teams just couldn't live with them."
With only one league defeat in almost five months and playing some of the division's most entertaining football, Spurs look likely candidates for top-four finish and a return to the Champions League. There were plenty of moments to savour for Redknapp's charges when they took their place at Europe's top table in 2010-11 and, having experienced memorable nights at the San Siro and the Bernabeu, Dawson is targeting another continental charge next season.
"I think we've brought a few players in and the lads who were here are another year more experienced," Dawson says. "We've been there and played in the Champions League last year, unfortunately we missed out on the top four - it was hard playing in the Premier League and Europe week in week out. But this year, we've brought Brad, Scott and Ade in and everyone already at the club has been playing to the best of their ability.
"We had some great trips, some great performances and to make the quarter-finals in our first year - it was an amazing experience and it made the lads hungry. We were gutted to miss out on being in it this year but our performances in the Premier League have showed that we wanted to be there next year and hopefully we can be."
Victory over Manchester City this Sunday certainly wouldn't do their chances any harm.