There was a moment, looking back, when Matt Doherty wondered if his Tottenham career could get any lower.
It was March last year and Spurs were in the last, grim throes of Jose Mourinho’s reign. They had just lost to Arsenal. Doherty, by his own admission, did not play great.
He sat on the bench four days later as Dinamo Zagreb knocked them out of the Europa League even though Spurs headed into the second leg with a two-goal lead.
Matt Doherty has revealed the day he truly hit rock bottom during a tough time at Tottenham
Doherty has rediscovered his past form at Spurs but has battled to deliver consistency
That weekend the 21-man Tottenham squad travelled to play Aston Villa in the Premier League. It was Covid times, so managers could name nine substitutes alongside their starting XI.
Mourinho wanted to send a message after successive defeats so named some of the club’s youngsters on the bench, 16-year-old pair Alfie Devine and Dane Scarlett. Doherty was the one travelling player to be left out.
‘I went to get off the bus and Ledley [King], who was the coach at the time, said to me: ‘You’re not allowed in the changing room, you’ve got to stay on the bus’,’ says Doherty. ‘It was Covid, so you weren’t allowed in the changed room if you weren’t in the squad.
‘Once the game started, I was allowed to go into the stands. I was just sat on the bus on my own. It was the international break straight after and, genuinely, I was so close to just getting in a car and going to the international, you know? I think we were meeting in Manchester anyway. I didn’t in the end, I decided I’d stay and watch the game and then go.
He was frozen out of the team by Jose Mourinho and was once forced to stay on the team bus
‘I’m glad I didn’t. It’s just not that professional, is it, to do that? I know in your head you’re sitting on the bus and thinking, ”What’s the point in watching the game, I might as well go.” There were kids – and that’s no disrespect to the kids – but they were kids on the bench.
‘Obviously, he [Jose] was trying to prove a point to everybody, not just for me, but for the players who weren’t there either, you know? But yeah, that was not fun.’
To be frank – and Doherty is frank enough to admit it — not much of his Tottenham career had been all that fun on the pitch. Going away on international duty with Ireland would come as blessed relief. ‘There were times where you’re thinking ‘I would really like to go away like the national team now’.’
Doherty had been the star wing-back in a vibrant Wolves side the season before Tottenham paid £15million for him in the summer of 2020 but in his first season at Spurs started just 13 league games.
Even this season under Nuno Espírito Santo, the manager with whom he had thrived at Wolves, his league contributions amounted to just the final seven minutes of the opening game. There was even paper talk he might leave in January but he says that never crossed his mind.
Doherty has come under fire from fans and looked like he could be on his way out of Spurs
Yet now, under Antonio Conte, Doherty is at last starting to feel at home on the pitch. Five successive Premier League starts. Four wins. A goal, three assists.
‘I’ve just managed to hit the form that I was in at Wolves,’ says Doherty. ‘I feel really good on the pitch and things are going really well. That has just come with game-time, the manager trusting in you and, obviously, the formation helps a lot.’
Conte teams play with wing-backs. And he wants those wing-backs to attack. That plays to Doherty’s strengths. But, even so, it’s taken a while to earn the manager’s trust.
‘It’s just happening now where I feel I’ve gained his trust,’ says Doherty. ‘Even when we lost to United, lost to Middlesbrough, I wasn’t taken out. I’m able to repay him and help the team set up goals and win games.
‘There were times that I played for him and was in and out and then against Leeds [when he scored the opener and set up another in a 4-0 win] I kind of nailed it down and have been in ever since.’
But he has now gained the trust of new boss Antonio Conte (C) and is enjoying his football
That was his first goal for Tottenham. ‘I always judge my game off what I do offensively, just because of my position. I know you have to defend also, but that’s what I’ve always judged myself off. So it took a long time to get my first goal for Tottenham. When I got that I felt real confident that after that, and that confidence level has stayed since that goal.’
But even through the many bad days, he did not lose heart.
‘It’s not enjoyable when do your preparations all week, then come to do your job at the weekend and you don’t do anything, you’re on the bench or you don’t come on, that part is not really enjoyable. Other than that, the training, I never once got my head down and felt I wasn’t enjoying it, thinking I don’t like it here. I’ve loved it ever since I’ve moved here it was just the part on the pitch that was the problem.
‘I did get opportunities. I did play enough games where I could have got myself back in and I just didn’t play well enough. So it’s not like I wasn’t given any chances. I was. It was just finding the right rhythm.’
It appears, at last, he’s found it. So much so he’s even put himself back in his own fantasy football team. He’s still in a league with his old Wolves team-mates, though languishing near the bottom.
Doherty believes he has now found his rhythm after two seasons in north London
Spurs, meanwhile, look they might finally be on the up consistently under Conte. They are right in the mix for fourth place, in hot pursuit of North London rivals Arsenal. Their game against the Gunners down the stretch could prove pivotal. First, though, they have to get the better of an improved Newcastle side this afternoon.
The improvement under Conte, says Doherty, can be seen in all departments. ‘More professional, more focused on what you’re putting into your body, more focused on recovery. Tactically more aware.
‘So many things that he’s made all of us have little improvements on already and he’s not had a full season yet. He’s not even had a pre-season. So you can imagine with a full pre-season what kind of shape and what kind of state of mind we might be in. That is exciting.’
And it’s not just by banning ketchup. Gone are Doherty’s saucy pastas, replaced by plain old rice and chicken. He’s drinking more water too. ‘It’s just in your head. At home, you don’t dip into that sweet drawer that everyone has in the house. You want to be switched on, you don’t want to give him any excuses, and you want to be ready for him because he gives everything for us so we have to give everything for him.’
The improvement under Conte, says Doherty, can be seen in all departments for Spurs