Adored… but ignored: As Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino prepares for his reunion with Tottenham we reveal the story of his brutal sacking and how close he was to an emotional return
- Mauricio Pochettino became distant from Daniel Levy while at Tottenham
- However, Levy attempted to bring Pochettino back to the club in 2021
- Big debates on Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal on It’s All Kicking Off podcast
With Daniel Levy’s blessing, Mauricio Pochettino secretly returned to the training ground he called home for five-and-a-half years in the months after his Tottenham sacking.
For a time, that covert meeting wouldn’t have been possible.
The emotions of the gradual disintegration of the pair’s working relationship, leading to Pochettino’s ruthless sacking in November 2019, remained raw.
But time heals all. Spurs chairman Levy and Pochettino have since worked through their differences — and there were a few.
As Pochettino prepares to face Tottenham for the first time since his exit — as manager of bitter rivals Chelsea no less — it will be tinged with a sense of regret for the Argentine. A feeling what could have been.
Mauricio Pochettino is set to be reunited with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy on Monday
Pochettino and Levy became distant during their time working together at Tottenham
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The end of Pochettino’s love affair with Spurs is a story of unfulfilled potential, clandestine meetings with Jose Mourinho and offering Aston Villa £3million plus Josh Onomah for Jack Grealish.
Pochettino loved Grealish and in the summer of 2018, following a meeting with the now £100m-man and his father Kevin in Spain, Pochettino was certain he’d landed his top target. Grealish, too, was convinced he was leaving for Spurs.
But Levy smelt blood. Villa’s financial problems under then owner Dr Tony Xia were well-documented and Levy believed he could use that to his advantage.
But Villa’s pending takeover by billionaire Egyptian Nassef Sawiris put an end to any potential deal and the rest is history, much to Pochettino’s frustration.
Tensions between Levy and Pochettino were mostly recruitment-related.
In the summer of 2016, Sadio Mane, Gini Wijnaldum and Victor Wanyama were targets. Only Wanyama arrived, the Mane deal was lined up but not followed through and Moussa Sissoko arrived for a slightly lower fee on deadline day.
‘I think Mauricio never forgot that,’ a Tottenham source said.
During Pochettino’s tenure, Tottenham once went two consecutive transfer windows without signing a player.
Pochettino was convinced he was signing Jack Grealish but the deal didn’t happen
Bringing in players such as Ryan Sessegnon didn’t match Pochettino’s plans for Tottenham
Pochettino believed he could achieve greatness at Spurs if given sufficient resources
The Argentinian believed he could achieve greatness at Spurs. His team twice went close to winning the Premier League title and lost a Champions League final.
After that heartbreaking loss to Liverpool in 2019, Pochettino believed the acquisition of proven talent over ‘project signings’ would cement their position as a domestic and European force. Jack Clarke and Ryan Sessegnon weren’t what he had in mind.
‘That was a bad summer, the tensions between the chairman and the manager were clear as day,’ said another Spurs source.
Levy, as much as he may have wanted to sign the players Pochettino had prioritised, was operating knowing the spiralling costs of Tottenham’s £1billion stadium.
The outcome was inevitable.
Tottenham’s poor start to the season — five wins from 17 matches — merely accelerated the process.
Pochettino is said to have become more distant — almost grumpy; increasingly high-maintenance, some senior officials felt. Unrecognisable to those behind the scenes at the club.
Mourinho was installed as the South American’s replacement less than 24 hours after the sacking was confirmed on November 20, 2019.
Jose Mourinho’s appointment following Pochettino’s sacking came as a major surprise
Though he had been eyeing the job from the outside as Pochettino’s reign unravelled, Mourinho’s appointment came as a shock to those inside Tottenham.
After Mourinho’s arrival, rumours of secret talks involving the Portuguese, agent Pini Zahavi and Levy in Israel spread through Tottenham’s training base but behind the politics and ill-feeling was a devastated workforce.
They loved Pochettino. They adored his personality, his smile, his humility. Yet by the end there was an unmistakable view that it was the right time to part, although Pochettino was deeply upset by his sacking and had no inkling that it was coming. He believed he could still turn the team around but too much water had passed under the bridge.
The pain of his sacking was compounded by its speed. Pochettino did not have the chance to properly say farewell to his players, some of whom had been with him every step of the way.
Lockdown following not long after hampered his hopes of football providing some solace or being able to travel to recharge. He stayed put in north London. ‘I think that’s the biggest heartbreak of his life,’ one source said. ‘I don’t think anyone should underestimate how hurt he was by that sacking and how long it took him to recover from it.’
It was almost 13 months before he returned to football at Paris Saint-Germain and another year after leaving France before he came back to the Premier League in May, setting up his eagerly-anticipated return to Spurs on Monday.
If he was heading back with most other teams Pochettino would have stood far more chance of receiving a warm welcome befitting somebody who transformed the club.
But the man who loved and cried tears for Tottenham after his greatest victory, their 2019 Champions League semi-final win at Ajax, will be returning in charge of their bitter rivals, Chelsea.
For some at Tottenham, Pochettino’s choice to become Chelsea manager is unforgivable
Ange Postecoglou has revived Tottenham and may match the popularity Pochettino had
For some, Pochettino’s choice to join Chelsea is unforgivable.
The animosity between the clubs, supporters especially, is long standing. And there was an increased edge to the rivalry during Pochettino’s reign. Arsenal are the one side Pochettino ruled out ever managing but he put Chelsea on a pedestal, suggesting matches against the Blues were bigger.
There was immense pain inflicted by Chelsea too. Pochettino was denied a League Cup triumph in 2015 and an FA Cup final place by Chelsea in 2017. Then there was the ‘Battle of The Bridge’ in May 2016.
It was an occasion whipped up by Chelsea’s players, with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard publicly declaring their hope that Leicester rather than Spurs won the league.
In a season when they had nothing left to play for, stopping Spurs became Chelsea’s sole motivation in the final weeks and they duly did, staging a dramatic fightback from two goals down in an unforgettable ill-tempered game .
The Battle of the Bridge in 2016 marked a painful moment for Tottenham under Pochettino
Levy contemplated bringing back Pochettino in 2021 but the situation was taken out of his hands by Paris Saint-Germain activating a contract extension. Last summer, when Spurs were seeking a replacment for Antonio Conte and Pochettino was keen to return Levy did not reach out.
It would have been easy for him to go back in time, getting fans back onside in the process.
But, ultimately, he removed the emotion and remembered the bad times towards the end of Pochettino’s tenure as well as the good.
Concern about whether Pochettino was enough of a winner was said to be an additional factor.
Levy overlooked a potentialromantic re-appointment of Pochettino after Conte’s sacking
The pair’s relationship is described as good, though, and they remain in contact. Levy was among those to send a ‘good luck’ text to Pochettino when he was appointed by Chelsea in May.
Rather than a romantic re-appointment of Pochettino, Spurs eventually settled on Ange Postecoglu to succeed Conte.
Endearing Australian Postecoglou, with a style of football that fits the mould of a manager Spurs were looking for, has revived the club and is already well on his way to reaching Pochettino levels of popularity.
That does not mean the good times under Pochettino should be forgotten. But come Monday night he will no doubt hear just how his move to Chelsea went down with some Spurs supporters.
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