You’d have needed to have your head examined if you’d said in the summer that Harry Winks would be impressing on his full England debut in early October, and following it up with a commanding display against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu a few days later.
But no one at Tottenham Hotspur has been surprised by the rapid progress Winks has made since breaking into the first team last year.
From making his full debut 12 months ago, when he scored in a 3-2 win over West Ham, Winks is now central to Tottenham’s plans and the latest player to roll off Mauricio Pochettino‘s production line into the England team.
Winks became the 12th player to make his England debut after working under Pochettino, and the Argentinian is delighted that his latest protege is making giant strides.
Winks is not tall, at 1.78m, but he has been growing in stature with each step up in standards, from first team, to England and then to the toughest test of all, facing the European Champions on their own turf.
That the boy from Hemel Hempstead has acquitted himself so well has come as no surprise to those behind the scenes at Tottenham, who have known for some time that Winks has something special.
Pat Jennings, the legendary goalkeeper with 119 caps for Northern Ireland and 675 games for Spurs, still works at the club as a goalkeeping coach and told me three years ago to watch out for Winks.
“We’ve high hopes for him,” said Jennings, who has seen some of the greatest players in history at close quarters.
Winks made his debut with a cameo appearance off the subs’ bench in the Europa League three years ago, and then made a similarly late appearance for his Premier League debut at the start of last season.
It was telling that last January, when Spurs were looking to see out their crunch game against Chelsea with the same 2-0 lead they had blown infamously the season before, Pochettino sent on Winks from the bench ahead of much more experienced team-mates to see out the game.
What Pochettino liked, and Gareth Southgate is now beginning to appreciate, is that Winks is the sort of midfielder who can be trusted not to give the ball away easily; who can pass it long or short but invariably to a team-mate.
It is something that is rare among England’s midfielders, but is essential in international and European football. Perhaps it is the fact that Winks has Spanish heritage on his mother’s side, although as it was his great-grandparents who were Spanish, he would not qualify for them.
It is no wonder he looked so at home in Madrid against Luka Modrić, the former Spurs playmaker now regarded as among the best in the world, and one of Winks’ heroes when he was rising through the ranks at the club he supported.
After an understandably nervous start in the Bernabéu, Winks grew into the game, helped set up the opening goal for Tottenham, and was one of the most impressive performers in the 1-1 draw which played an important role in them qualifying from Group H after just four games.
His pass completion percentage of 94 per cent (44 out of 47 attempts) was up there with the likes of Modrić and Toni Kroos, while his ability to get back quickly and break up attacks was essential as Spurs had to withstand the best side in the world.
The 21-year-old followed that up with a sublime performance against the Spain giants at Wembley. Helping create the opener, he was flawless as they beat Real 3-1.
Pochettino didn’t start him in the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, but was back in for the trip to Dortmund. He led the team in touches and passes, completing 93.4 per cent of his 76 attempts. It was amazing to see the youngster step up in one of the most daunting stadiums in Europe.
Rio Ferdinand compared him to Michael Carrick, who regularly had the best interception stats in the Premier League when he was at Tottenham. Carrick rarely flew into tackles because he could read the game so well, and having won the ball, would find a better-placed team-mate with a quick forward pass. Winks has similar qualities, and also Carrick’s ability to get around the pitch.
“He is the perfect midfielder, who can play box to box or as a holding midfielder,” said Pochettino recently.
Winks is certainly not overawed by big occasions and is growing in confidence, although he has always had belief in his ability, without being cocky.
His England debut, albeit in the low-key setting of a tiny stadium in Vilnius, showed that he was prepared to take the initiative in a game.
He started against Bournemouth the following week and was instrumental in Tottenham’s first league win at Wembley, and then came the biggest test of all, against the world’s biggest team.
So far he has passed all tests with flying colours, having also overcome a serious ankle injury last season. The next stage is to see if he can secure a regular spot at the heart of the Spurs midfield, and then look ahead to England’s World Cup warm-up games in the new year.
After that, we may know whether Harry Winks will be the heartbeat of England’s midfield in Russia next summer.