AS Mauricio Pochettino sat sobbing in the dressing room after last year’s Champions League final, he thought it was not meant to be like this.
He had always expected to end the greatest night of his managerial career so far in floods of tears — just ones of joy.
Instead, those streaming out were of sadness and despair.
As the anniversary of Tottenham’s debut in the final of Europe’s elite competition approaches, their former boss Poch admits he was so devastated after the 2-0 loss to Liverpool in Madrid he could not stop CRYING.
Not only was the Argentinian upset about the Wanda Metropolitano defeat, which saw a controversial first-minute Kop penalty destroy his dream and the gameplan his squad had fine-tuned for three weeks.
He also realised through the salty bitterness that it would ultimately and inevitably spell the end of his five years in charge.
And so it came to pass as Poch — who, it should be pointed out, had not helped himself with his wacky comments and team’s poor Premier League form — was relieved of his duties by Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and replaced by Jose Mourinho within hours of his November sacking.
For the last six months Poch has been on “gardening leave” during which time the only thing he has grown is the interest on his bank account from the £8.5million-a-year salary he continued to rake in from the club as part of his severance.
In his first newspaper interview since becoming a free agent, he explains that famous night in the Spanish capital was the beginning of the end of his time in N17.
He said: “I think it was very difficult to accept the way the game went.
“When you prepare for three weeks with the responsibility and in the way we did, and worked, with all the staff and players. We were very focused.
“I think we were convinced and I was convinced that the final was going to go our way. That was completely in our minds. But no one is prepared after 30 seconds of the Champions League final to concede like that.
When the decision came it was right and we needed to move on.
Mauricio Pochettino on his Spurs sacking
“The goal changed the whole game, all the emotions. It is difficult to prepare a team for that happening.
“I was so disappointed afterwards. It was difficult to stop crying, to stop feeling bad.
“It was a massive achievement. And you can use the example of Liverpool after they lost to Real Madrid the season before, that was a massive motivation and inspiration to be back in the future.
“But I knew after five years and with the way we were working, all the things that happened, it was going to be difficult to change a little bit in our minds and to stay open to design another plan, or a strategy to build again, a different chapter.
“A different project was going to be difficult to maintain — to keep improving.”
Former Espanyol coach Pochettino switched to Tottenham from Southampton in May 2014 and turned the North Londoners into a top-four club.
He also did this while overseeing the move from their old White Hart Lane home to a sparkling new £1billion stadium on the same site.
Construction problems led to delays as Spurs played the best part of an extra season at Wembley.
Pochettino’s ability to keep them up among England’s top clubs, despite almost two seasons without a home game, enhanced his reputation as one of the game’s best coaches.
It saw him attracting interest from a number of rivals, including Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Many will say Pochettino, 48, should have walked away from Tottenham on June 2, the day after the Champions League final.
But he insisted: “No. Because my commitment with the club, with Daniel and of course with the players, the fans, was massive.
“I said to Daniel that we finished in the way that no one wanted but the end, because of our commitment, our emotion and our feeling — in football — it needed to happen.
“If not, our relationship would have continued forever! And maybe that’s no good for the club or for us.
“When the decision came it was right and we needed to move on.”
Pochettino was given the boot by Tottenham after the Champions League hangover turned into a major headache for chairman Levy and the club’s board.
Yet Poch remains grateful to the man who axed him — and even phoned him last week to say so.
He said: “What I was talking about with Daniel was to say thank you for trusting in us.
“I also joked with him, ‘Oh, you only signed me because the manager you liked at that time, Louis Van Gaal, chose Manchester United!’
I am so happy that he is at Tottenham, replacing me. He is a top coach and we have a very good relationship.
Mauricio Pochettino on Jose Mourinho
“Daniel told me that at the time, he was very clear about that, it was very public. I was a very young coach, with my experience in Spain and my one-and-a-half years in Southampton.
“The football vision at Tottenham was completely different then to what it is now. Today, they are one of the best clubs in the world and we feel very proud of that.”
Pochettino, now sporting a grey beard, has remained in London during lockdown.
Shortly before the crisis he went for a coffee with Unai Emery — axed by Arsenal days after Poch left bitter rivals Spurs.
And he has even spoken with his Tottenham successor Mourinho.
Poch said: “We’ve known each other for a long time. When I was the coach of Espanyol and he was at Real Madrid.
“During that time we were going to play Real Madrid when some information appeared that maybe I was on their radar in case Jose goes.
“In the press conference before the game the media asked me about that.
“I said ‘Oh, I am not thinking about that and, by the way, my kids are sleeping in Espanyol pyjamas every night. So it’s very difficult for me to think about changing’.
“So, when I arrived at the stadium, Jose was waiting with a bag with a very nice bottle of French red wine and two kits of Real Madrid, shirts and shorts. He said, ‘OK, these are for your kids to wear from now on!’
“I am so happy that he is at Tottenham, replacing me. He is a top coach and we have a very good relationship.
“I always thought I’d replace him. When he was at Real Madrid and I was at Espanyol I used to joke, ‘Oh, maybe one day I can take your place at Real Madrid’ and look at how life works out!
“He has taken my place at Tottenham. Unbelievable, eh?”