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A requiem for Jan Vertonghen

It’s never fun to say goodbye to your heroes.

Tottenham Hotspur v Southampton FC - FA Cup Fourth Round: Replay Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

Jan Vertonghen took the long way around.

Substituted off in the 53rd minute of Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-2 come from behind FA Cup replay win over Southampton on Wednesday, new Premier League rules meant that instead of walking across the pitch to the dugout, the veteran defender instead had to exit the pitch by the most direct means possible. In this case this meant departing next to his own goal and making a slow, trudging walk back to the bench.

Jan’s head was down, his brow furrowed. He didn’t look up from his shoes or acknowledge the Spurs fans calling his name the entire way. The next time the television camera caught up to him, he was sitting on the bench, his chin in his hands, staring off into the middle distance. He looked as though he was moments from bursting into tears.

Certainly it was not a good match for Vertonghen. Jose Mourinho had opted to set up with a back three formation, Vertonghen operating as a left-sided center back along with Toby Alderweireld and the youngster Japhet Tanganga. Spurs struggled throughout the first half and into the second, with Vertonghen in particular looking off the pace. He was turned around several times by the double-attack of Southampton’s Shane Long and Danny Ings, trying to fall back on superior positioning when he couldn’t keep pace. Spurs were looking listless, offering very little in the way of attack and especially porous on defense, considering there were three center halves in front of Hugo Lloris.

So it was no surprise to see Mourinho make a tactical substitution early in the second half, bringing on 20-year old Gedson Fernandes and changing the shape of the squad to better control the midfield. It worked — Spurs conceded a second goal but roared back late behind a goal from Lucas Moura and a penalty from Son Heung-Min.

Mourinho, to his credit, explained his decision-making in the post match press conference, saying that subbing off Jan was for tactical reasons.

“[There was] no injury. I had a feeling in the first half that I needed to change to a back four but it was a question of waiting to be able to bring on Dele. Like a chess game with no bishops or kings. Missing so many pieces. I had to change and I decided to leave Tanganga and Toby, a bit faster and better to cope with space. I sacrificed Jan. [He was] so sad but [is] happy now.”

But try telling Jan Vertonghen, who trudged back to the bench looking shell-shocked and pensive, that it was the right decision at the time. Spurs fans have become used to deciphering Vertonghen’s body language over the years (it’s practically a supporter-led pastime), and the emotion written all over his body wasn’t anger or indignation. It was sadness and resignation.

It was the look of a player who has spent the past couple of seasons trying desperately to stay one step ahead of Father Time, and realizing, perhaps for the first time, that he has fallen behind.

There are some footballers who throughout their career seem to be immune from the passage of time. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo — they may start to look a touch craggier, exude that sense of gravitas that comes with a 15 year playing career and a sophisticated beard, but they certainly don’t look as though they will ever fade away. They don’t retire, they move past so that the game is forced to adjust to the lack of their presence, a cosmic reshuffling to fill the player-shaped hole they leave behind.

Other players fade away gracefully, content in the knowledge that the time is right. They are lauded for their accomplishments just as they are solemnly respected by fans for knowing the right time to hang up their boots. I remember watching Ledley King during his last full season with the club in 2012. He was still the King of White Hart Lane but by then you could see the cracks in his game widening, and they had been for some time. When he finally announced his retirement in July 2012, he was allowed to do so with grace, for it had been coming for a long time and everyone knew it.

Then there are the players for whom time catches up suddenly, almost precipitously. The pace falls away, the legs stop working like they used to. The mind is still there — always — but the body just doesn’t respond to the rigors of the game the way it used to. It’s almost like a switch flips — one day it’s everything’s copacetic, and the next it’s all over. The cliff appears, and before you realize it you’re already over the edge.

It feels like Jan Vertonghen is in this final category, and it’s unspeakably sad.

There have been few constants over the past decade at Tottenham Hotspur. Jan Vertonghen has been one of them. Signed ostensibly as Ledley King’s replacement in 2012, he has been a stalwart and almost immutable part of Tottenham’s back line since he arrived as a 24-year old from Ajax. Almost every positive moment that Spurs have had in the past decade has included Jan. He’s had his ups and downs, but for so many years has been considered one of the best defenders in the Premier League, especially when paired with his Belgian national teammate and friend Toby Alderweireld. You can make the argument that his contributions to Tottenham’s success are as important as Ledley King’s.

But here’s the thing about time: no matter how fast you run, you can never outpace it. It will always eventually surpass you.

I don’t like to think about a Tottenham Hotspur without Jan Vertonghen. It feels... wrong. Like there’s a vital formula missing from the equation that makes Spurs run. I felt the same way about Mousa Dembele when he left for China — there are certain players that worm their way into your hearts and never fully leave. The worst is the moment when you first realize that your hero is aging, and that he’s never going to be as good as what he once was.

Thanks to the contract disputes swirling around Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen it’s easy to forget that Vertonghen’s contract also expires at the end of this season. Based on his performances thus far and in particular Wednesday night, no one would begrudge Tottenham if they were to let him quietly leave the club without a contract extension this summer. Perhaps Wednesday’s FA Cup replay was a fluke, a particularly bad match that will wash away like water under a bridge.

But somehow I don’t think so. Jan’s reaction to his substitution was visceral. It was though it finally hit him that he’s no longer able to really compete at this level. He looked as though he knew that his time at Tottenham was over, and it was only a matter of what comes next and where he will see out the remainder of his career. Davinson Sanchez almost certainly deserves to start over him at this point. So does Tanganga.

I hate it. It’s not fair. Our heroes are supposed to live forever, always the titanic figures that we remember from when they were at their peaks. But Father Time is undefeated and will never, ever lose.

What hurts the most about those sideline shots of Jan from yesterday’s match is that it felt like that moment may have been when it finally hit home for him. When he realized that it’s over, his Tottenham days are limited, and he’s officially past the point when he can be relied upon to be a solid defensive presence in Spurs’ back line. It was heartbreaking to watch.

And sure, he’s not going anywhere, at least for now. There will be other matches where he improves his game — I have no doubt that he will come through with a massive match, possibly in the Champions League, that reminds us of how much we relied upon his ability over the past eight seasons.

Even so, there’s no denying that this was the moment where Spurs fans got a close up and personal look at the end of a beloved player’s career. This was more than just a player upset at being subbed from an important match. Dorian Grey finally looked upon his portrait, and recoiled.

I’ll always love Jan Vertoghen. He’ll be forever one of my all-time favorite Spurs players for everything that he has done in service of the club. But it’s time for me, and all Spurs fans, to start saying our goodbyes. He probably has a few more years left in the tank; I have no doubt that he could do a job for some club in Serie A, perhaps, or a return to Ajax to see out the rest of his career. But I can’t see Tottenham extending his contract, knowing that he is now something of a liability in the back line. That makes me emotional. But I also know it’s not wrong.

So thank you, Jan. For everything. For the good parts and the bad. You were always there, and you’ll always be a part of this era of Tottenham Hotspur. If you eventually leave, I hope you know that you’ll always be a part of our hearts, and that you are loved for who you are and what you have brought to our club. You have earned our respect and your place in the pantheon of Tottenham defenders.