Mauricio Pochettino was, by his own admission, living inside the typical footballer's bubble. Ernesto Valverde was the man who popped it, and, boy, did it come as a shock.
It was the summer of 2006, and Valverde had been installed as the new Espanyol manager. Pochettino was one of the club's senior players, the most influential voice in the dressing room.
Too influential, Valverde thought. He decided he did not want Pochettino in the squad, having been led to believe he undermined his predecessor Miguel Ángel Lotina. Pochettino has always denied this.
“In football there are people who live off confusion, and you sometimes don’t know who the good and bad apples are,” he wrote in his autobiography, suggesting Valverde had been misinformed.
But the decision was made, and, at 34, it spelled the end of Pochettino’s playing career. He said his farewells at a highly charged press conference in which he broke down in tears and had to leave the room to compose himself.
It was tough for Pochettino to accept but time has healed the wounds, and when the Tottenham manager encounters Valverde on the touchline at Wembley on Wednesday night before the Champions League tie against Barcelona he will embrace him.
“That day it was difficult to understand his position, but I talked to him in pre-season when we played Barcelona in Los Angeles, and I completely understand,” Pochettino said. “He arrived at Espanyol at not a good time for me. I could not see it at the time, but I can now.
“In football you are always protected by this bubble and then, when somebody shows you the reality, it can surprise you. These things show you that situations in life and in football change very quickly, and when one door closes many others open. I never wanted to be the victim, and I am now going to face the coach who gave me the opportunity to become a coach.”
Pochettino is pathologically opposed to presenting himself as the victim and, as he considered an injury crisis that has stripped him of four, maybe five, starters, he was defiant. Hugo Lloris is back after a thigh problem, but Jan Vertonghen, Serge Aurier, Mousa Dembélé, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli are out – together with back-up goalkeeper Michel Vorm.
“I never make excuses if players are injured,” Pochettino said. “We are not going to win or lose because we have some players out. We believe we are going to win – with young players, senior players, I don’t care – because it’s Tottenham that is going to play.
“We need to build that mentality if we want to win some trophies. I repeat again. I am not the victim, and I am not going to be the victim in football and in life.”
Pochettino will attack the problems in front of him with gusto and yet, at the same time, he was happy enough to highlight them: to explain why this season “will be the most difficult for us”. He made the now obligatory reference to the delay in the completion of the new stadium, and he gave the impression that it was unsettling; the club have no base so they can merely busk it from game to game.
Pochettino also flagged up the looming fixture black spot in which his team must play four times in nine days – including a Carabao Cup tie at West Ham. It has been caused, in part, by the necessity to move a home match against Manchester City to Monday, October 29th, because Wembley was not available on the day before and the new stadium is not ready.
“The ambition is to win but maybe reality, and dreams and perception, are not in a good balance today,” Pochettino said. “It’s difficult to say if the team will be better or improve from last season because the circumstances this season are so tough.
"Look at the Carabao Cup. We are going to play on the Monday against City, then the Carabao Cup tie on Wednesday or Thursday, and then we must play on Saturday at Wolves and in the Champions League the following Tuesday against PSV Eindhoven. It is completely unfair for a team that wants to win titles.
“We don’t know when we are going to play in the new stadium, and everything like this makes you more cautious to guess what will happen. We will see what happens at the end of the season when we will settle ourselves, the fans and the team in the new stadium. Then we can start to talk about objectives but, today, we can only be focused on the next game.”
Spurs are fortified by their Champions League victory over Real Madrid last season, although Pochettino pointed out he could not motivate the players in the same way. "That was the most important game they had played but since then they've played at the World Cup," he said.
For Pochettino the challenges keep getting bigger.