As remarkable rises within English football go, you’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of a bigger success story within recent times, than that of Tottenham Hotspur’s Steven Caulker.
Still aged only 21, it’s not been just the incredible ascent in which the Feltham-born centre half’s career has taken that’s caught the eye of supporters, more the way in which he’s gone about achieving his meteoric rise.
Where as so many of his fellow young peers are struggling to make an impact at bigger sides, Caulker has in fact already racked up an incredible 126 first-team appearances during his professional career. From scooping four out of five end of season awards at Yeovil Town on loan in 2010, to scoring his first goal for England on his international debut in 2012, Caulker’s age almost defies logic when scanning his brief resume.
Yet with every ascent must come a descent and although Spurs’ young central defender has hardly taken a nose-dive of late, it appears that for the first time in his short career, his progress may well have leveled out a little.
As with several others within Andre Villas-Boas’ first-team of late, Caulker’s form seems to have suffered a little coming out of the New Year and he doesn’t feel like quite the unflappable presence in the Portuguese’s defense that he did several months ago.
Everyone suffers bad days at the office and the former Swansea-loanee’s poor performance against Leeds United last month was a particularly suspect showing. But following his side’s poor fifth round FA Cup exit, we may well be seeing the first real blip in form during Caulker’s short career.
Although contrary to some of the more pessimistic voices emanating from the corners of White Hart Lane, as strange as it sounds, Caulker’s current spell of difficulty isn’t anything to fear. In fact, if anything, it could well be something we should embrace.
The only way that Caulker is going to blossom into the defender that so many at Hotspur Way believe he can be, is by playing top-flight football – not sitting on the bench, not being wheeled out in the competitions and after serving his apprenticeship at other clubs, no longer out on loan. The fact he’s been put in a position where he can make mistakes is all part of the learning process. After all, you can’t feel the heat if you’re not in the kitchen.
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And it’s how he deals with that heat, which is imperative to his development as a top-class defender. Supporters have seen that he has all the raw physical attributes and technical skills to be able to cope playing in the Premier League. But what we haven’t seen is how he deals with the pressure, the added spotlight and the responsibility that comes with playing for Tottenham Hotspur on a regular basis. You can’t teach what he’s going through at the moment out on the training ground.
It will borderline on heresy to some by looking to put Caulker’s recent development in the slipstream of one Ledley King, although as the patience appears to ebb away from a fickle minority, it feels like a comparison worth noting.
Caulker’s appearance against Newcastle United over the weekend, marked the 23rd of his breakthrough season in a Spurs shirt; exactly the same amount as what the legendary King made during his breakthrough 2000-01 term. With the league season yet to break through mid-February, Caulker can expect that total to steadily rise as we hit the term’s final straight.
Does this mean he’s guaranteed to emulate Ledley King? Not for a second, but the point here is that a man now deemed as one of the greatest defenders the club has ever seen, trod a path not too similar to the one that Caulker is now experiencing. He may have been playing a little higher up the pitch during his initial run in the team under George Graham, but the process of learning his trade, making mistakes and dealing with life in the first-team wasn’t any different.
And in the Spurs side of 2013 that Caulker is looking to establish himself within, he finds a level of pressure and expectation that even King himself was perhaps sheltered from to some extent. Looking to break into a side desperately seeking to attain Champions League football brings with it a ratcheted level of expectation and one that caters little for the fledgling young prospect looking to make his mark.
But if Caulker wishes to supplant himself as Tottenham’s first-choice centre-back for years to come, then this is the level of expectation that he has to look to conform to. And part of that process is dealing with the pressure when things don’t quite go to plan. He’ll certainly face harder tests in the weeks to come, but from what we saw against Newcastle on Saturday, Caulker looks to be coming through his first test of form.
With the imminent return of the outstanding Younes Kaboul to add to a resurgent Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen in the central defensive ranks, Caulker is going to have a fight on his hands to command a starting place within Andre Villas-Boas’ starting XI.
Although at only 21-year-old, time is on his side to make his presence felt at White Hart Lane. And with the sort of maturity he’s shown during recent weeks to deal with some of the criticism aimed at him, don’t bet against him reigniting his ascent anytime soon.