When you’re in demand by icons of the game like Thierry Henry and Jose Mourinho, you have to be doing plenty right.
At 18 you must have dollops of potential too, and pre-season that’s exactly what Montreal Impact acquired when former Tottenham starlet Luis Binks saw MLS as the next development step in his career.
Despite finding it a huge wrench to leave the north London giants, Binks’ decision was influenced around lack of first-team opportunity and frustration at playing Premier League 2, essentially u23 football (on which he has some strong opinions).
He’s not the first promising young English player to up-sticks, the trickle has in fact become a trend, especially considering the exodus from English shores to the German Bundesliga in recent seasons.
I took the chance to chat with the Impact’s new #5 after training this afternoon...
MRS: School-days. Howard School, Rainham in Kent is where you had your secondary education. It has a reputation for sports... ?
LB: Yeah, it’s known as a sports college. So I passed my 11+ and never had any ambition to go to another school, because Howard has been the one where there’s been a few footballers come through (most recently George Boyd who played Premier League for both Hull City and Burnley), and it has the reputation for being the best for sports.
MRS: You were at Tottenham from the age of 6, twelve years, how much of a wrench was it to leave the club?
LB: Very much so. It wasn’t easy. I knew the club inside out. I knew everyone there, but I just felt I had to move on to progress as a player. I don’t think by staying there it would have helped me.
The day I said I was leaving I sat down with Jose Mourinho and to tell someone like him you want to leave his club is not easy.
MRS: Pressure situation I expect, especially considering his expressed wish was for you to stay?
LB: Well I went in there and sat down with the academy manager and some of the coaches with whom I’d worked most. They didn’t want me to leave and then they said, ‘OK, we’ll get the manager in here.’
And obviously when I heard that it was a bit like, ‘Awwh, No’, because everybody knows what Mourinho’s like. So to tell him you want to leave is not easy. And he came in saying if I carried on doing what I was doing I would be with the first-team, I’d go on pre-season with them and next season I might play a few cup games and be involved with the squad.
But I didn’t want to take that risk of maybe... I’d rather come and play men’s football be guaranteed to train with them every day, and hopefully if I train well, I’ll play. So coming to Montreal was a better option for me, I felt.
MRS: But it must’ve made your decision a little more difficult, actually no, probably hugely more difficult?
LB: Oh! Massively. Because obviously he's been one of the best managers in English football and I’ve been growing up watching his sides. One of my favourite-ever defenders is John Terry and obviously he’s worked with him. Another of my favourites is Sergio Ramos, Mourinho’s worked with him too, so to turn someone like that down, who’s been at the very top, is not easy.
MRS: You may not have expected to have to face Jose, but before you delivered your decision to your other coaches, you must have discussed your decision with your parents, especially since your dad knows the game after a long career in non-league football.
LB: Yeah, a lot, because it wasn’t a decision I made overnight, so I had a few months, maybe a few years... I thought I want to play first-team football as soon as possible. So I’d always speak to them, and my mum too appreciates the football business, she’s worked at Gillingham Football Club since she left school. Her brother, my uncle used to play a bit of non-league, he was at Wimbledon, so I’ve always had that family football background.
To talk to them helped and they agreed with what I wanted to do. But they never told me what I should to do. It was always me, and they respected my decision.
MRS: You made an interesting comment earlier about wanting to play with and against men. I’ve heard some Premier League coaches criticize Premier League 2, probably the most vocal being Neil Warnock when he was at Cardiff City, in that as PL2 is essentially an u23 league, young players possibly don’t develop as well as they might if they were playing against more experienced professionals. You have thoughts on this?
LB: Yeah, I agree with anyone that says u23 football is bad. I hate the league. They do it differently in other countries like Spain, where a La Liga club’s B team will play in tier 2 or 3 against the first-teams of other professional clubs. You get exposed to men’s football, to getting beaten up a little bit, which I think any young player needs. By playing 23’s football it’s fake, it’s not real.
For instance my last game for the 23’s was away to Derby County on a Thursday night. We played at Loughborough University and there was 50 people there, max. We’re expected then to go train and you want to play for the first-team, but how are you meant to deal with Old Trafford in front of 75,000 when you’re used to playing in front of 50 people.
I did however enjoy the Checkatrade Trophy (also known as the EFL Trophy an annual knockout competition open to the 48 clubs in EFL’s 1 & 2, the third and fourth tiers of English football and, 16 under-21 sides from Premier League and Championship clubs). We played Ipswich Town, Colchester United and rather specially for me Gillingham at Priestfield last season, where I held a season-ticket for eight years.
It’s so much better. You are exposed to playing against men, like players at clubs such as Gillingham, where they’re playing for their livelihood, so they don’t want a 17-year-old turning up to Priestfield on a Tuesday night and beating them. It’s a matter of pride as well, so they’re not going to want to get beaten.
I think this competition is a great idea and there should be more of these types of fixtures.
MRS: Your decision to leave England; was it partly influenced by some of the young English players we’ve seen in recent seasons head off to the German Bundesliga and become successful, Jadon Sancho being the most prominent?
LB: Not really. Maybe a little, subconsciously. But I don’t ever think because I’ve seen those players go, it’s something I want to do. Ever since I’ve grown up I’ve always wanted to play abroad. Spain is a country I’ve always wanted to play in. I went to watch Barcelona as a small kid and really the whole lifestyle, the culture, the way they play, it’s always something I wanted to do. Seeing other players move didn’t really persuade me, but going abroad is a great way of maturing quickly and growing up.
MRS: How did the move to Montreal Impact come about? Because I don’t believe you would’ve pinpointed Montreal specifically when you took your decision to leave Tottenham. The Impact, or MLS, possibly wasn’t even on your radar.
LB: Right. I made myself available. Was offered a pro-contract [at Tottenham] before Christmas last year and decided not to sign it. And the months went on and there were a few teams sniffing around...
MRS: English clubs?
LB: A few, but foreign clubs as well. But I think coming here it was a good chance for me to learn from the manager. The manager was a massive, massive reason as to why I’ve come here. And obviously the squad that’s here. There’s some big names like Bojan when I first arrived, and Rod Fanni a centre-back, who’s someone that’s played at the top I can learn from.
I didn’t want to go from a huge club to another huge club, because I could easily have found myself in the same position as I was in at Tottenham. No point going from Tottenham to Arsenal, because I could’ve found myself in Arsenal’s u23’s
MRS: And probably lose a lot of friends if you’d done that... ?
LB: (Laughs...) Yeah, I wasn’t too bothered about that. If Arsenal had said come and I was with the first team I’d have thought about it, but no, I wasn’t bothered about that!
MRS: From my experience Europeans still sneer somewhat at MLS; to be fair probably the fans more than those involved professionally within the sport. Do you agree with this synopsis?
LB: Agree. When I decided to come here I saw comments saying. ‘Oh, he’s gone to that league. It’s a league where players go to retire. Pick up some easy end of career money, have a good life and so on. Some players do...
But I was surprised how intense things are here and how professionally it is run. Because when I was coming out here, people were saying, ‘It’s not going to be professional’. I would say Montreal Impact is as professional as what I was getting in the youth team at Tottenham, if not better.
People look at it and say those things, but until you come here and look at it you really don’t know.
I would say that Europeans who are less complimentary about MLS probably don’t watch it and sometimes you feel like saying. ‘Well, hold on. have you ever watched an MLS game?’
MRS: We’re building quite a colony now with north London links in Montreal... obviously there’s the manager, but did you know Victor Wanyama at Tottenham?
LB: I trained with him a few times, but I didn’t really know him, because obviously I was a young kid training and you keep yourself to yourself sort of thing. So I didn’t come across him too much, but since I’ve come here he’s looked after me a bit.
MRS: So tell me about the European Cup Final last year. There must have been a huge buzz around Tottenham Hotspur Football Club from the semi-finals onwards...
LB: Definitely a huge buzz around the training ground and that was the step Tottenham needed to go and get into a final like that to prove they are a big club.
MRS: Are you surprised with what’s happened since?
LB: Yeah! Massively. Well, I am and I’m not. You see players like Trippier leaving and you think, why? Vertonghen never signed a new deal, Alderweireld hadn’t signed a new deal up until then either. There were little signs and you thought, ‘Oh! What’s going on?’ but I was never involved enough to know what was going on and what wasn’t.
MRS: Did you have much contact with Pochettino, probably not?
LB: Not really. A little bit, but when Mourinho came in was when I was more with the first-team. Mourinho said to me he quite liked me as a player, so he definitely involved me more than what I had when Pochettino was there.
MRS: Did Tottenham take you to the Champions League Final, or at least arrange tickets for you?
LB: No, we were actually away while it was on. At a tournament, in Holland or Belgium, I think it was. Liverpool’s youth team were actually at the same tournament and them and us were in the same hotel. They were in one room and we were in another.
MRS: That must have been some fun - not!
LB: We actually went to the complex to watch it and when we walked back we saw them all in their meeting room watching it, and it weren’t nice!
MRS: Apart from the crowds, what else are the main differences between Tottenham u23’s and playing for the Impact in MLS?
LB: It’s much more intense. Since I’ve come here, I’ve definitely become a lot fitter and filled out more. I think I’ve had to because I came on against Philadelphia in pre-season and I was only on the pitch 20 mins, and I could just tell. I knew after that game I needed to get a lot bigger and a lot stronger.
So I went away and I worked at that, because some of the strikers I’ve had to mark in the first four games I’ve played in are big men, and it’s a lot different to 23’s. But it’s a good challenge and one I think I’ve dealt with quite well.
MRS: Is that something that you expected, or something that took you by surprise?
LB: Yeah, it definitely took me by surprise. To be honest I didn’t know the league inside out. Obviously I knew of it, I watched games and knew certain players in MLS, but since I’ve come here, Dallas - big striker, even Olimpia - big striker, New England - big striker... it’s a very challenging league
MRS: Tell me about lockdown. You must’ve found things a bit tough since you hadn’t been here that long when everything reached a standstill... but I expect the Ritz-Carlton wasn’t such a bad place to be?
LB: Yeah, it wasn’t. I think that was my third hotel during lockdown, so I’ve toured Montreal hotels a bit. Started off in the Sofitel, then the Sheraton in Laval, then ended up at the Ritz. It was quite a nice place to be to be stuck-inside.
But generally it was dead. I was going for runs around the city and nothing open and no-one on the streets, no cars. It was like a ghost-town a lot of the time, but it’s slowly starting to come to life and it looks a good city.
But during lockdown, I was fed up and was thinking what a bad time this has all come at. Hadn’t been in the city that long and literally was going for runs in the morning, coming back, face-timing with the family, speaking to people back home. There’s not a lot you can speak about to people, but yeah, was on the phone with my mum, dad and sister every day, but still it wasn’t the same.
Wasn’t great, but at least we’re back to football now, so....
MRS: That’s the social aspect, but how frustrating is it on the football side that you’ve been prevented form establishing yourself more at the club? Normally at this stage of the season, you’d have over a dozen games behind you.
LB: So annoying. I check the fixtures every week, and I’ll be like, ‘Awwh I would’ve been playing against Inter-Miami this week or LAFC’.
We would’ve been in New York tomorrow and yeah, it’s horrible looking at that.
It does get you down, because I do think to myself, ‘Who knows, I could’ve played 20 games by now, before I’m 19, but obviously there’s not anything anyone can do, but yeah, it’s not good.
MRS: How do you think you will handle the travel in MLS?
LB: That’s another challenge in itself. I’ve had a little exposure to it in our first few games: Costa Rica, Montreal, then two days later off to Dallas, so a lot of travel in a short amount of time. Was pretty hard to deal with and it’s not something that people automatically think of when coming to MLS, and it does take it’s toll.
MRS: How about the city? Are there any little things about Montreal that you’ve picked up on that you particularly like?
LB: The Old Port. I’ve been running down there, nice quaint little streets, nice restaurants, and I’ve been running also at Mount Royal Park, it’s nice up there, and obviously downtown with all the shops. It’s got everything, the city.
MRS: Have you picked up any French so far... ?
LB: Not too much so far. I did Spanish at school.
MRS: Was that motivated by footballing ambition?
LB: Yes, exactly. We had to choose between Spanish and French and I picked Spanish. And I’ve ended up here, so it didn’t really pay-off!
MRS: I assume you’re now moved on from hotel living and have your own apartment?
LB: Out of the hotel now and in an apartment downtown, in a good area.
MRS: Assume your folks will be regular visitors to the city now?
LB: Yeah my dad was here for Saprissa and New England. My sister was still at school so she didn’t travel, but they were all due another visit before now, but with all the Covid stuff going on, it’s not been possible.
MRS: You’ve played for England along with Mason Greenwood... what do you make of the progress he’s made and does seeing a team-mate from the same age-group flourish like that, provide extra inspiration?
LB: Yeah, very good. You see, I think he used lock-down as well as a time to come back a lot fitter, sharper. You see pictures and he’s come back like a man. But no, he’s a very, very good player.
Regards inspiration, yeah, but at the same time you need to be careful. He’s an attacker and clubs are more inclined to take chances on an attacker than a defender. And also you’re more likely to see an 18 year-old attacker get a chance from the bench in the last 15/20 minutes, than you would a defender, simply because of the different jobs and responsibilities they have.
MRS: Obviously you know of the Impact’s links with Bologna, and you’ve mentioned a desire to play abroad, namely Spain, but is Serie A part of those travel aspirations?
LB: Serie A is a very good league. I think it would suit me going there because it’s very defence-minded and tactical, and I think yeah, I’d definitely like to play in Italy as well, one day.
MRS: I’m going to be a little naughty now. Regards international aspirations, where do they lie - England or Scotland (he qualifies for both)?
LB: That’s a very, very hard question. I enjoy playing for both. I actually played internationally for Scotland before I played for England, but I’ve played more games for England now. It’s really a matter of seeing how my career develops...
MRS: The tournament in Florida. Thoughts?
LB: Yeah, I can’t wait to go and play football again. Obviously Florida is not ideal. It’s not what any of us want to be doing, but if it means to get back to playing quickly it’s what we gotta’ do and hopefully when that tournament’s over we’ll be able to play in our market with some fans.
MRS: Can’t believe we reached this far in the chat without asking you about player influences and the teams you support, so obviously Gillingham is close to your heart, but with respect to them is there a big club you favour as well?
LB: Yeah, my main team is Gillingham. I’ve probably watched most games there, grown up there, so yeah Gillingham, but West Ham is my bigger team. It was probably a family connection, but yeah, I was brought up around West Ham... it was also quite local to where I’m from.
Still follow them now, but with playing you lose that ‘fan’ thing a little. Well, you don’t lose it, you more just... well... I say I support Montreal now, because I support myself. So you lose a bit of focus, but West Ham is still my team.
Favourite player? Growing up it was always Steven Gerrard, but as I developed more into a defender, it’s been Sergio Ramos and John Terry.
What Ramos has done, he’s the best. All the stuff he’s won. One of the things that stands out and why I like him is that whether it’s right or wrong, he’ll do whatever he can to win. Like in the 2018 Champions League Final against Liverpool, when he knew what he was doing to Mo Salah wasn’t right, but if it makes his team win he’ll do it, which for a sportsman it’s a great mentality and attitude to have.
MRS: Last question.... Favourite Gillingham player?
LB: Have to say Stuart Lewis, who is a coach at Tottenham, and if I didn’t say him he’d get a bit angry. And Danny Kedwell probably. I have to pick two. And if I didn’t say him, he’d probably get angry too, because he’s good mates with my mum and dad and we used to go on holiday a bit. But he’s a Gillingham legend and yeah, he’s one of my favourite Gillingham players.