Dean Harding was a highly skilful winger who could operate on either flank (he did predominantly play at right-midfield), and while he is of slight build he was just such an intelligent player who had great ability on the ball (Dean was in the same age group as Ledley King and Peter Crouch at Spurs). The Enfield born former player who outside of Spurs was coached by former Spurs player Andy Rollock who he speaks so highly of, was unfortunately not offered YTS by Spurs and after eight years with Tottenham Dean left the club at the age of 16 in the late 1990’s. However, he went on to have spells with Barnet and Southend United before playing for the likes of Hemel Hempstead and Arlesey Town in the non-League. I recently had the great pleasure and privilege of catching up with Dean, as he looked back on his eventful time at Spurs.
What are your earliest footballing memories?
Dean: That would probably be playing for Enfield Rangers where so many of the lads were at Spurs and Enfield Rangers was the team back in the day, and we won everything there. I can remember playing against Peter Crouch (he was about two foot taller than everybody else) at Craven Cottage in the Middlesex County Cup final but we lost to West Middlesex Colts and Crouch scored against us and scored two, and obviously then years later I went to play with him for Spurs. So my earliest memories would be growing up with Enfield Rangers and then also joining Spurs and growing up there, and because I wasn’t the biggest lad in the world Spurs really tried to strengthen me up. Also, Des Bulpin (coach) who came from QPR used to encourage me to eat loads to help me to strengthen up.
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?
Dean: Well I’m a big Arsenal fan so that was a bit weird, but it was good to join and when I first joined Spurs it was amazing and I think that eight of our team from Enfield Rangers were at Spurs, and in the end I think that I was the last one left. One of my first memories was playing over at Mill Hill which was the first training ground, and then one year I can remember that only two of us got a two year contract and that was me and Ledley King, but then no one else got one as everyone only got a one year contract, so it was going really well. One of my earliest memories was training on a Tuesday and Thursday in the gym at White Hart Lane and the training was from seven until nine. I used to have to go straight from school at Bishops Stopford’s School and go straight to Green street and get the 279 bus straight to the main stadium. I would then walk into the main entrance and past Rudolph’s and past the security guard, and then I’d go in to train. I used to train with Robbie Stepney and so when I got there they used to say Deano, Robbie says to go upstairs, and so I’d go up to the coaches office and go in. And my dad used to say to me you’re there like half an hour early and what do you when you’re waiting for Robbie? And I said that I used to just have a cup of tea with this old guy as he makes me a cup of tea and then we talk about football, and so my dad would ask what’s his name and I’d say I don’t know as it’s just got consultant on his door, and he’s really old but he knows lots about football. This went on for about 18 months reckons my dad and then one day when we were over at the training ground I was standing with my dad and watching the lads play, as I was injured. And then this old man was walking across the training ground and so I said to my dad that that was the guy that I speak to, and so he said don’t be silly Dean as that’s Bill Nicholson!
When I signed my contract at the Bill Nicholson suite I asked my dad is that who it’s named after, and my dad said yes Dean that’s who it’s named after, but as a young lad then I just didn’t know. Another story was one time I had come down from training and it was just after the World Cup and there was a guy standing there and I was just going to the canteen to have a cheese sandwich, and then this guy said to me that you’re a very good player, and very quick and move the ball well. I was like thanks, and so I said to my dad who’s that? And he said I don’t know and I’m not sure who he is, and I was like me neither. Colin Reid who was my coach at the time came up to me and said do you know who that is? And so I said no, and then he said that’s Ilie Dumitrescu and he’s just waiting to sign his contract here, and earlier he had watched some of the lads play, and so that was a nice thing. Growing up at Spurs you used to see so many great things that it was unbelievable.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
Dean: Growing up I suppose Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Paul Gascoigne who was a nice guy at Spurs and Teddy Sheringham was also a nice guy, were people that I liked. And also Anders Limpar was one of my favourite players of all time and he was unbelievable, but if I wasn’t at Spurs playing then I was over at Highbury watching Arsenal play, which was a bit strange. Teddy Sheringham was one of the nicest people that I’ve ever met and one of the best that I’ve ever seen, and his finishing was just another level.
Could you describe to me what type of player you were and what positions you played in during your time at Spurs?
Dean: We used to play 4-4-2 most of the time and Spurs used to play me at right- midfield, although I could also play on the left as well. I suppose that I was a quick and skilful attacking player who worked hard, and also had an eye for goal.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
Dean: I looked up to a player called Simon Spencer and actually Steve Perryman said to my dad that he is the best player that he had ever seen in his life, and that he had never seen anything like it in football. But he had the worst attitude you’ll ever see in your life, and he was a first team player in the first team training and he’d walk off the first team training pitch at Chigwell and stand next to my dad and just watch me play. When he got released by Spurs because they couldn’t put up with him he actually went to Crewe and my dad actually took him up there. So he went and played a game for them in pre-season against Liverpool, and so he went up there and played that game which was on live television. He nutmegged Steve McManaman and then McManaman came back at him, but then he nutmegged him again and passed it all the way out to the left-back. After the game Crewe said that they wanted to offer him a contract, but he said nah I’m going to do painting and decorating now as I prefer doing that, but he was the best player that I’ve ever seen! Another influence on me at Spurs was probably James Bunn who was a striker, and he was a great player, and then obviously I looked up to Ledley as well because he was just unbelievable.
Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?
Dean: There was a player called Wayne Vaughan and he was a year above me and like me he wasn’t big, but he had so much tenacity and he just used to work so hard. So I always used to look at him and I always wanted to be more like him.
What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?
Dean: Well in the end I got released by Spurs and I then went to Barnet, because Tommy Cunningham who was a coach at Spurs left them about two months before I was released. So he rang me and said come to Barnet, and so I went there for a bit but it didn’t work out and so then I went to Southend which was luckily where my auntie lived, so that worked out. So I lived there for a while and Southend offered me a contract but the money just didn’t even add up to be honest, and I don’t think that the money that they offered me would have even paid for the petrol for my car. Looking back I probably should have seen the bigger picture, but it just wasn’t for me to be honest, and then obviously I didn’t sign for Southend so I then went to Ware which was a local team to me. I played for Ware in the first team and really enjoyed it actually, and then I got signed by Hemel Hempstead who were absolutely flying and I just couldn’t get off the bench and in to the team as they were unbelievable. So after about four months there I’d had enough and so I signed for Arlesey in Bedfordshire, and so I went and played there for four or five years with the likes of Dave Kitson and Craig Mackail-Smith. So we had some really good players there.
Having to leave Spurs must have been incredibly difficult for you. How did you find that?
Dean: To be honest it broke my heart and I didn’t really want to play football that much afterwards for a while, as I was really upset as bearing in mind I had grown up there. One of my footballing memories which I’ll always remember that was quite sad was that I played for Bishops Stopford’s School, and we got to the cup final against Enfield Grammar who would always win everything, but we won 3-0 in the final. I scored a goal in the final and then afterwards Mr Williams who was the PE teacher took everyone out for a McDonald’s to celebrate, and I can remember all of the lads going on the bus but I was waiting to go to Spurs to train, so those kind of things stay in your memory. So as a youngster that was heartbreaking, but that’s what you had to sacrifice to try and make it I suppose and play football.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?
Dean: I absolutely loved every minute of it, from game days to training in the week and also half-terms at the training ground. And in pre-seasons we would go around the stadium pitch at White Hart Lane and do laps around the pitch, and I remember when they had the sprinklers on and they were like a full on hose! I can also remember running up and down the steps in the stadium and also being around the first team players as well which was nice. So it was brilliant and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?
Dean: I would probably say when I went to Arlesey and we won the Ryman Division three, and I know that wasn’t at Spurs but it was probably my greatest achievement, and the team there was unbelievable. So that season was the best season of my life. Then at Spurs I suppose that probably getting the two year contract was brilliant and was a great moment for me.
Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
Dean: I would say Ledley King or Dave Kitson who was also a really good player, and also Peter Crouch who when he was younger was actually not that good in the air. He was so slight and he wasn’t big in the end, and I can remember once that as a joke our coach at Spurs Colin Reid asked us to both go up against the wall, and one of the players had used a pen to draw around our knees, and in the end my legs were wider than his! But technically Peter was a brilliant player.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories or ones which stand out from your time in the various Tottenham youth teams?
Dean: When I was at school I did work experience and I got to go in and do two weeks with the YTS lads at Spurs, as I has said to Robbie Stepney could I do my work experience at Spurs. When I turned up there I was expecting him to ask me to work in the ticket office or something, but he said get your kit as you are training with the YTS lads, and I was only 14/15 at the time. So I went and did my two weeks of work experience there and I also went to Cambridge United away with them in the FA Youth Cup which was nice. Also, the story about Bill Nicholson is obviously a really good one and it was great when I realised who he was, and then I also remember that once I had to go to the stadium from the training ground, which was where I met my dad, as before meeting him I had to talk to someone about a diet or something. Back then you used to be able to go across the road to Hotspur Café to sign for your food, and so that was where I met my dad. Then afterwards we were coming back and just walking past Rudolph’s, and back then I had hair like Gareth Gates, and as we were doing a left into the main entrance Teddy Sheringham was pulling out and he said Deano, and I looked at him and said alright. Then he pretended to do his hair and my dad was just standing there watching, but to me Teddy Sheringham was just like a normal guy. Another memory was of my dad taking me to Chigwell to watch the under 18’s play, as I wasn’t playing at the time. Then at half-time I went up to get a coffee and as I was walking back down Chris Hughton who was the coach at the time said to me did I have my kit, and I was like nah. As there were two players who had gotten injured in the warmup he had asked me to go up to the changing rooms, and so I had to see Roy Reyland and he sorted me out a kit, and so I went on the bench for the game against Arsenal in the South East Counties League, which was nice for me. I also got to wear Ruel Fox’s boots as they were the only ones that would fit me.
I can remember when I was about 13 that Joe Cole came down to train with us but Spurs weren’t trialling him as he could choose wherever he wanted to go. He was unbelievable and was one of the best players that I’ve ever seen as he was so skilful, and I can remember that some of the other lads didn’t like him and so they gave him a bit of a hard time on the pitch, which wasn’t on, but he was just unbelievable. Another memory which stands out from my time at Spurs was seeing a player get carried off in a wheelbarrow at Mill Hill, which was incredible. Also, I can remember up at the Astroturf pitch at White Hart Lane that they were working on Paul Gascoigne’s heading, and somebody had tied a Mars bar from the roof onto a piece of string for him to try and get up to.
Who was toughest player that you ever came up against?
Dean: That would have to be Ashley Cole when I was at Arsenal, but I actually played for Arsenal twice when I was on Spurs’ books. I played for Spurs against Millwall but this was not too long after I had joined the club, and this game was at Mill Hill. Later that night an Arsenal scout had called my Sunday manager called Alan and said that he wanted Dean to play for us tomorrow against Cambridge United. So I remember my dad going out to the hallway to get the phone and he then came in and asked me if I wanted to play for Arsenal tomorrow against Cambridge United, and I was like yeah. They were playing at London Colney and so I went up there the next day and the difference between the Arsenal and Spurs setup then was unbelievable. You had all your kit set out and a towel with it and so in them days it was just so different at Arsenal, but anyway I played at left-midfield at that time and I think that Ashley Cole played at full-back. So then I played again for Arsenal in another game which I shouldn’t have done, and this was against a team called Pegasus and there was a player playing for them called James Harper who would go on to play for Reading. The next day my dad had Spurs on the phone and I think that it even ended up at the FA as Tottenham had reported Arsenal to the FA and so my dad had quite a few phone calls to deal with. But for me that was quite a good experience to play for Arsenal.
Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?
Dean: Me and Glenn Poole got on really well and he went on to play for Brentford, and I also got on well with James Bunn who was older than me. I also got on quite well with Ledley King and I remember once at the end of training that I managed to get past him really well and scored, and then Colin Reid said right we’ll finish there and that will do, and so that’s my claim to fame! I’m also in Ledley’s book and he says in the book that he doesn’t even think that Lionel Messi would have made it at Spurs back in the day, because they wanted strong players. He mentions in the book that Spurs had this player called Dean who was really slight but he was literally like Iniesta or Xavi. So that was nice.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?
Dean: My advice is be able to look back and say that you gave it your all and that I couldn’t have done anymore. Cherish every minute of playing because it’s over before you know it, and also to play with a smile on your face.
After all these years how do you look back on your time at the Lilywhites and is Spurs a club who you still hold close to your heart?
Dean: Not really because I’m a big Arsenal fan! But there is always a big part of me that appreciates my time there and the stuff I learnt, and also the education that I got. So there is a part of me that will always like Spurs.