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Son Heung-min: Spurs’ Superhero Seems to Flourish When the Pressure is on

Son Heung-min: Spurs’ Superhero Seems to Flourish When the Pressure is on

Tuesday, 23 April, 2019 - 08:00
Tottenham coach Mauriccio Pochettino (right) celebrates their Champions League success with goalscorers Fernando Llorente (left) and Son Heung-min. (Reuters)
London – Eni Aluko and David Hytner
It will be between Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk for the player of the year awards. They would be in my top three along with Tottenham’s unsung South Korean.

These have been a memorable few weeks for Tottenham. I have not been to their stadium but the images online look incredible and the Spurs supporters’ response to it has been extremely positive. In two games there they have two victories and they are yet to concede a goal. On Tuesday they took control of their Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, with Son Heung-min scoring another vital goal.

At this time of year talk starts to turn to the player of the season award and there seems to be a consensus that the decision will be between Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk. Those players would be in my top three and rounding out the trio would be Son. He is a wonderful player, extremely consistent, and when the pressure is on he seems to flourish.

When Harry Kane went off against City Son appeared to step up, as if motivated by the extra burden he carries when the Spurs striker is absent. Son is a special player, in terms of his technical ability and mental strength. He speaks several languages, has a wonderful smile, scores incredible goals, works extremely hard and can deal with any amount of pressure. He is generally a bit of a superhero.

Spurs need him now, with Kane likely to be absent for perhaps the rest of the season with an ankle injury. This is not new for him: when Kane missed seven matches through injury in January and February Son played in four of them, scored in each and Spurs won all four. He has 18 goals in all competitions, three away from his all-time best of two seasons ago with plenty of games to get them.

Despite Son being able to bear the frontman responsibility on his shoulders, it is important for any team, especially at this stage of the season, not to be over-reliant on a single player for goals. Mohamed Salah is crucial for Liverpool but when he is not scoring Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mané step up; Manchester City have the Premier League’s top scorer in Sergio Agüero but Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sané also contribute. A couple of years ago Dele Alli was scoring a goal every other game for Spurs but with him now playing further from the forward line Son’s goalscoring contributions are vital.

Son’s father, Son Woong-jung, was a former professional footballer who made it to a good level in South Korea, and he had begun to coach his boys, making it his mission to guide them to the top, avoiding the pitfalls he encountered. On this occasion, he saw red and, to borrow the word Son uses, decided to impose a forfeit.

“He gave us four hours of keepy-uppies,” Son says. “Both of us. After about three hours, I was seeing three balls. The floor was red [through bloodshot eyes]. I was so tired. And he was so angry. I think this was the best story and we still talk about it when we are all together. Four hours keeping the ball up and you don’t drop it. That’s difficult, no?”

Wait, what? Son did not let the ball hit the ground? In four hours? As a 10-year-old? “No,” he says. Impossible! Son’s gaze is steely. “No, not once,” he replies.

The story advertises several things – Son’s natural talent, among them. “As soon as I could walk, I was kicking a ball,” he says. But what shines through and has underpinned his rise, to the point where he can be considered as the pre-eminent player in Asia, is his readiness to respond to the demands of his father. That, and his extraordinary levels of focus and dedication.

Son recounts another tale that features his father and keepy-uppy punishments. “When I was 10 or 12, he came in to coach my school team and we were training, 15 or 20 players. The programme was for us all to keep the balls up for 40 minutes. When someone dropped the ball, my father would not say anything. But as soon as I dropped it, he made us all start over from the beginning. The players understood, because I was his son and, yeah, it was tough. But when you think about it now, this was the right way.”

It is tempting to pigeonhole Son’s father as a remorseless disciplinarian, and wonder whether his drive affected the relationship between the pair. It would be wrong to do so – the reality is Son has nothing but admiration and respect for him. “Was he a strict coach?” Son says. “Yeah. Scary, as well.” Yet the tone is affectionate. In Korean society, a father’s word tends to be law. Son has followed it; he has embraced it.

“My father was thinking of what I needed all the time. He has done everything for me and without him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. As a player, you need some help. It’s also important to meet a great manager and then there’s luck, too. Everything has come together for me.”

One statistic from Opta shows Son has scored with 19.3% of his Premier League shots this season, making him more clinical than he has ever been in the competition. It has all served to put him in the conversation for the player of the season awards.

“Mid-November was 100% a big period for me,” Son says. “I’d been travelling a lot. I didn’t feel great. I had so many things in my head. It was just a bit rough. The gaffer made the choice and it was perfect for me – some hard training at Spurs and a bit of rest. As I said before, you have to have the luck to meet a great manager. I’ve improved an amazing amount under him.”

What has elevated Son in the eyes of the Spurs support and many neutrals is his respectful nature, energy and positivity, and that smile. For somebody with such confidence in his ability, it is rare to find such humility.

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