A fascinating subplot underpins the Champions League Group D encounter between Sporting Clube de Portugal and Tottenham Hotspur in Lisbon on Tuesday evening.

Eric Dier learned his trade and began his career at Sporting before signing for Spurs and going on to become a full England international. Marcus Edwards made the reverse journey. Highly rated as a youth player at the London outfit, Edwards’ rise to fame has not been as smooth as Dier’s, but the twinkle-toed forward is now thriving in the Portuguese capital. 

Dier’s destiny

Eric Dier left English shores still a young kid, his parents’ professional commitments uprooting the 7-year-old and his sizeable family to Portugal. Dier attended an open scouting session organised by Sporting when he was nine. It was not just his size, fair hair and blue eyes that made him stand out from the rest: the scouts saw raw talent. 

Fast-forward a decade and Dier was making his debut at the Alvalade Stadium in 2012. Thrown in at the deep end with the Lions attempting to end an awful run of form, Dier provided the assist for the only goal of the game, coupled with a solid defensive display to shut out high-flying Braga. As the full-time whistle blew, the fresh-faced centre-back received a standing ovation from Sporting’s fans. 

Dier quickly established himself in Sporting’s first team. At the time his highly experienced and respected manager Jesualdo Ferreira had no doubt what lay ahead for Dier. “With some young players you have to mollycoddle them, put an arm around their shoulders,” said Ferreira. “Then there are players like Eric who don’t need that. He lives and breathes football and he has a huge future in the game.” 

More debut delight

Dier was sold to Tottenham two years later, where he again enjoyed a stellar debut, scoring a last-minute winner as Spurs beat West Ham. It did not take long to see Ferreira’s prophecy was bang-on. Dier went on to become a key player at Tottenham Hotspur and an England regular. He was part of Gareth Southgate’s side that reached the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup, captaining the team in the final group match against Belgium.

It would be incorrect to claim Dier owes his success to the years he spent at Sporting’s famous Alcochete academy, the same school that spawned Cristiano Ronaldo. Natural talent, an innate ability to adapt to different environments, and a faultless work ethic underpin his success. But there is no doubt Dier’s solid grounding in Portugal helped him along the way.

Dier has spoken fondly about how his time at Sporting shaped his early career. “It’s a very relaxed approach at Sporting in terms of football,” Dier said in a Guardian interview with David Hytner in 2015. “They pride themselves on bringing you up as a polite and respectful person. They would never get angry with you if you missed a pass but they would do if you were disrespectful to someone.

“A good player for them was someone who could understand when they made a mistake and correct it for themselves. When I first came to England to play I saw coaches having a go at players when they made mistakes and they would literally be talking them through the game.

“In Portugal the coach would sit on the bench and not say a word. We’d just play. It was a matter of us making mistakes and learning from them by ourselves. You understand the game a lot better that way. For me, the sign of a bad player is someone who makes the same mistake twice.”

Edwards takes the scenic route

Like Dier, Marcus Edwards joined the academy of a huge club from the capital when he was still a kid (as an eight-year-old) and was touted as a star of the future as he progressed through the various age levels.

Tottenham’s manager when Edwards was at the club was Argentine Mauricio Pochettino, who famously compared the skilful forward to a rather well-regarded compatriot of his. “The qualities, his body and the way that he plays reminds me a little of the beginning of Messi.”

Edwards failed to break into the Tottenham first team though, and after low-key loan spells at Norwich City and Dutch club Excelsior and some question marks regarding his attitude, Spurs decided not to persevere with him.

His next port of call was a brave decision by Edwards as he signed for Portuguese team Vitória Guimarães. Known for their passionate fanbase and perennial underachievement, it smacked of something of a wild punt of a transfer, both from the club and the player’s point of view. The Primeira Liga has provided a steady supply line of top-class players who have thrived in the EPL over recent years, but it is almost exclusively a one-way street. It remains highly unusual for English footballers to come and play in Portugal.

Instant hit

Edwards was an immediate success, his trademark dribbling and low centre of gravity proving invaluable weapons as he notched 9 goals and 5 assists in 36 matches in all competitions, including what must have been an especially satisfying goal against Arsenal in a Europa League match at the Emirates Stadium.

Rumours were rampant that one of Portugal’s big three of Porto, Benfica or Sporting would come in for him, but nothing materialised. Edwards’ second season at Vitória was not nearly so productive. Fierce competition for places on the wings, including veteran Portugal star Ricardo Quaresma, patchy form and injury niggles hampered the Englishman, but in the first half of 2021/22 Edwards was back to his best, scoring, assisting and generally terrorising opposition defences.

Sporting pulled the trigger and bought Edwards in the January transfer window, coach Rúben Amorim gradually integrating him into the first team.

After having enjoyed tremendous success in his first two seasons at Sporting, Amorim had to face criticism from the fanbase for the first time as the club started this campaign poorly. The supporters were not happy with the manager’s decision to play without a recognised centre-forward, especially after fan favourite Islam Slimani was frozen out of the club.

But the fluid front line has benefited Edwards especially and the team has stabilised, winning their last three matches, scoring 9 goals and conceding none, including a first ever win in Germany with a spectacular 3-0 triumph against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Champions League.

Edwards has been key to the turnaround and is putting up impressive numbers this season with 6 goal contributions in 7 matches (3 goals, 3 assists), forming an exciting mobile attacking trio alongside Pedro Gonçalves and Francisco Trincão, with the English player’s more central position meaning he is constantly involved.

Maturing all round

Still only 23 years old, it appears Edwards is ripe to enter full maturity as a footballer and as a more rounded personality. Previously he had been so reticent to utter more than a couple of words in his numerous flash interviews upon being named man-of-the-match, they even became the subject of memes. But the Enfield-born player has recently talked about how Amorim has insisted he improve his Portuguese and he is becoming more expansive in front of the cameras.

“In the first half it was an even game, 50 percent for both sides, but in the second half we played our football and it was good football,” he said after picking up another MVP gong against Frankfurt. “We were the same team, but the difference was we executed our game plan better. It was important to win the three points to increase confidence for the rest of the competition.”

Marcus Edwards could well be in the perfect place to make good on his early promise. Amorim has proved masterful at taking talented young players and developing their game. Nuno Mendes (€40 million to PSG), João Palhinha (€20 million to Fulham) and Matheus Nunes (€45 million to Wolves) all improved hugely under Amorim to earn big-money moves. Should Edwards continue to shine, who’s to say he won’t make the Lisbon outfit a pretty penny too. 

Sporting-Tottenham: early leaders go head to head 

Sporting host Spurs in one of the early kickoff Champions League matches on Tuesday (5.45pm Lisbon and UK time). The two teams occupy the top two positions in Group D after winning their matchday one fixtures. Sporting beat Eintracht Frankfurt 3-0 in Germany, with Tottenham overcoming Marseille 2-0 in London. 

Follow coverage of Sporting v Tottenham Hotspur live from the José Alvalade stadium via PortuGOAL’s Twitter feed and read the match report at PortuGOAL.net

By Tom Kundert

Related: A history of Tottenham Hotspur’s Portuguese stars

 

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