Following the serious head injury which cost him his playing career, and nearly his life, Ryan Mason will no doubt treasure every moment of Sunday's Carabao Cup Final.
Named Tottenham Hotspur’s Interim Head Coach for the remainder of the season earlier this week, Ryan Mason will lead his boyhood club out at Wembley this weekend, six years on from starting for Spurs in the 2015 Final.
North London-born, in many ways Tottenham is all he’s ever known. Mason joined the club at the age of eight, before rising through the ranks to sign a professional contract in 2008, a year in which Spurs famously triumphed in this very competition.
Having scored 29 goals in 31 games from midfield in the Tottenham youth ranks, first-team football – in the shape of various EFL loans - was just around the corner. Mason spent spells at Yeovil Town, Doncaster Rovers, Millwall and Swindon Town to name just a few, experiences which would prove invaluable to his development as a player.
Spurs kept a close watch over their budding star, who forced his way into the first-team set-up following an impressive pre-season in America in 2014, earning a start in a 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest… no prizes for guessing the competition. It was a moment capped by his first goal and, just days later, a league debut against rivals Arsenal.
Under the guidance of Mauricio Pochettino, Mason flourished, and would even be given the captain’s armband for a European tie against Fiorentina, finding the net in a 3-0 second-leg victory.
"I think I connected with him from day one when I arrived at Tottenham,” ‘Poch’ said. "I remember the first day we met in America; that connection was there from day one. He was one of the most very talented players I had ever managed.”
The midfielder’s likeable personality was obvious to everyone at Spurs, including Harry Kane, who had followed a similar pathway to Mason. The pair were part of the same academy generation, striking up a friendship which remains today, and deservedly broke into the England ranks in 2015.
Mason received his first call-up to the senior Three Lions squad for a European qualifier against Lithuania and friendly against Italy, making his debut against the latter and taking it in his stride again, providing an assist for Andros Townsend to score.
The following season brought about a new challenge in the North East, as Mason made a move to Hull City, becoming a first-team regular before scoring his first goal for the club in, you guessed it, the League Cup.
Then, disaster struck.
Just 20 games into his new life with the East Yorkshire side, a clash of heads with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill would cruelly bring his playing days to a grinding halt, and leave him fighting for his life in hospital.
Mason required a lengthy procedure at St Mary’s Hospital in London, whereby 14 metal plates were inserted into his skull, held together by 28 screws and 45 staples. At the age of just 26, he was forced to retire, but says the decision of club doctor Mark Waller to go directly to St Mary’s Hospital was probably the one which means he’s still here today.
“Don’t worry, Ryan, you are going to be a successful person outside the pitch,” were Pochettino’s words of encouragement following the announcement, and how right he was. Mason’s response to the physical and mental challenge put in front of him has been nothing short of remarkable, and today that response comes full circle.
Mason returned to Spurs in April 2018, joining the coaching staff and was made the official academy coach for the Under-19 UEFA Youth League side in July 2019, before becoming Head of Player Development last summer.
Having overcome every young player’s worst nightmare and having led by example from the sidelines, this weekend he’ll be hoping to inspire Spurs from the touchline.
“If you went through something like this and it didn’t change your perspective on life, you’d be pretty foolish,” Mason said in 2018. “When you almost die and you’re given a second chance, you find a new level of appreciation for everything you have.”
Whatever happens in the Final, he’ll relish the opportunity. As the world welcomes Mason the manager, the timing of football’s ‘thank you’ to the NHS could not be more appropriate or powerful.