"Who got married?" Juande Ramos looks back on his first days as Tottenham Hotspur manager and cannot help but smile. When he and his staff walked into the dining room at Spurs' training ground, they could hardly believe it. "Incredible," he says, shaking his head. "It was like a wedding buffet. Cakes, pastries, sauces – and that was what they ate regularly." The Spaniard leans forward and says softly, if a little mischievously: "Honestly, and I say this with no bitterness at all, there were players who were … well, fat." Then he laughs and adds: "They were sedentary."
"A sportsman's physical condition has to be impeccable: your body is your living. A runner is like this," Ramos continues, raising a skinny little finger. "You can't live like the man on the street who's had dessert or cake. If you eat a cake, you're putting in diesel; a sportsman's got to run off super. A sportsman who makes, say, €6m and drinks and smokes and eats. It makes no sense at all."
And so Ramos, who faces Spurs as Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk manager in the Europa League on 20 February in Ukraine, began. "A lad who's 22, 23 and has cash might think: 'This guy's not telling me what to eat.' We trained not far from a McDonald's and we'd see them in there eating hamburgers, drinking Coke but you explain and they understand. 'This is your ideal weight, the percentage of body fat.' I can't go to their houses to watch their eating but we could train morning and afternoon and weigh them. If you're not in shape, you don't play and with work the team started improving."
By the end of that 2007-08 season, Spurs had recovered in the league and won the Carling Cup, defeating Arsenal in the semi-finals and Chelsea in the final. It was the first trophy they had won for nine years, their second in 17; it is also the last trophy they won.
The fall from grace was swift. Whatever Ramos had, he lost. When the new season started, Spurs could not win: bottom with two points from eight games, it was their worst start. On 25 October 2008, Ramos was sacked. He had been there one day short of a year. He has not been back.
Until now. Tottenham had just announced the sacking of André Villas-Boas when the news broke that Ramos would be returning to White Hart Lane with Dnipro on 27 February. It was the perfect comic combination: great timing and funny because it was true.
The Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, may not have found it particularly funny; nor is it a draw Ramos particularly welcomed. As he recalls his year at Spurs over a coffee on Spain's east coast, where he was preparing Dnipro's training camp, you sense that, frankly, he could have done without it.
Dnipro are fourth. In Ukraine, Ramos says with a resigned smile, that's the way it is: they have finished fourth in seven of the last nine years. The way that Ramos tells it, you cannot fight it. There are greater powers. And if competing is impossible at home, it will not be much easier abroad. "I was happy because it's a chance to go back to a team and a city I love, a place where I was happy," Ramos says. "On the other hand, Spurs are superior. They're clear favourites and there's a very good chance of us getting knocked out."
If the likelihood is that defeat awaits, it is likely too that it will be seen as Ramos's defeat. He has not been missed in north London. Largely forgotten, silent too, when he is talked about, his spell is often seen as a kind of strange and disappointing interlude. Ramos has been portrayed as the man who wasn't there – and should never have been there. An underwhelming manager who never really "got" the Premier League and could not communicate with his players. When Harry Redknapp took Spurs to the Champions League that sensation was enhanced.
Never mind his success at Sevilla – five trophies and the last genuine league title challenge from one of Spain's "other" clubs – or Real Madrid's recovery under him, most judge Ramos as just not that good. It is as if his full name is: Spurs flop Juande Ramos.
Ramos knows that. Here starts a defence that he has clearly thought about, if not expressed before. He insists that most Spurs supporters will have good memories but you sense he suspects otherwise. He is not angry and does not rant but the feeling of injustice is there. There are explanations to make and a phrase he returns to often: "quantifiable facts". He has a point to prove and he can prove his point.
A Dnipro defeat may increase the conviction that Spurs were right to sack him, that he was never up to much, but Ramos responds: "Some fans might think that but football people know, they're infinitely stronger. One Spurs player may be our annual budget. You can prepare players and Spurs could still score four. Why? Because they're better. I can say: 'Look out, [Aaron] Lennon's quick on the outside.' They know but, voom-voom and he's gone. What are you going to do, chuck a rope round him?
"At White Hart Lane they'll have good memories: the last title that Spurs won was with me, so I guess they'll remember me fondly," Ramos continues. "We hadn't beaten Arsenal for years and we won 5-1. We won the Carling Cup, everyone's really happy … " And then? Ramos pauses. "I was sacked.
"[Daniel] Levy had an easy explanation: 'No, the thing is, the coach doesn't get it, the players are hungry, they don't eat, he doesn't understand … ' When we won the Carling Cup I understood and then I don't understand any more! They sacked a manager they'd given a four-year contract to. So they say: 'He didn't understand … '"
The image persists, though, of a manager whose relationship with players was non-existent. "My relationship with them was excellent," Ramos counters. "You know who it was bad with? [David] Bentley." Yet the collapse is inescapable. Something changed. What? "It's quantifiable; you can explain it," Ramos says by way of a prelude and then he begins, calmly but firmly. "The year before they'd signed Darren Bent for £17m. They sell Robbie Keane and [Dimitar] Berbatov because they want Bent to play, so they left us with Darren Bent and Frazier Campbell. Without strikers."
And Roman Pavlyuchenko, surely? "Yes but he was new to England, didn't understand and hardly played – and not just under me. I'm sure that if Levy had known what would happen he would have either not sold Berbatov or signed a replacement. But he wanted Bent to play and Bent had a brilliant pre-season, so Levy thinks: 'We've got the players.'"
Ramos laughs. "Bent scored 12 or 13 during pre-season. That's the worst thing that could happen! So Levy says: 'This guy [Berbatov] out, this guy [Keane] out … '"
"Berbatov didn't want to stay. Against Middlesbrough he said: 'No, no, I'm not playing.' I understood. It's more honourable to say 'I don't want to play' than to go out and not even try," Ramos continues. "If he stays and he's pissed off, he's pissed off all year. In my opinion, the problem isn't selling him and Keane, it's not replacing them.
"I wanted Samuel Eto'o and David Villa. Eto'o wanted too much in wages. We negotiated with Villa, when he was one of the world's best. Levy's a hard, hard, hard negotiator and in the end it didn't happen. So we were left with Bent and Campbell. We couldn't beat anyone. We couldn't have scored if we'd used a rainbow as the goalposts."
There were problems at the other end too. Ramos says he could see that Gareth Bale was going to be very good but that the Welshman spent eight months injured. He speaks highly of Jermaine Jenas, who "always offered tactical solutions", describes Tom Huddlestone as like "a bear" with a "scandalously good touch" and calls Jonathan Woodgate a "very good, intelligent player". But Woodgate, as with Ledley King, was injury prone and Michael Dawson was "still just a kid".
He remembers: "We could only use King in important games: he didn't train, which was a pity. He was so talented. Even at 50%, he was the leader but, sadly, you can't fight for the titles like that.
"So, eight weeks into the season: 'out!,'" Ramos continues, presenting Exhibit A, a "quantifiable fact". "Then what happens? In December they spent £51m to rectify the mistake. [Jermain] Defoe, Keane, [Younès] Kaboul, [Wilson] Palacios. £51m! 'No, the manager doesn't understand … it's the coach, that silly little Spaniard who hasn't got a clue … I took the blame but they had to spend £51m to sort it out. The honourable thing Levy did was sack [director of football Damien] Comolli too: if he'd truly blamed the signings on me, Comolli would have continued but the whole structure changed. He knew but when it came to the [message to] the press and fans, it was the manager's fault."
Did you feel let down by that? "Yes, totally. They know they ruined the team when they sold two strikers and left me none."
You must accept some blame, surely? You must have made mistakes. "Of course," Ramos says. "I shouldn't have accepted some decisions that weren't mine. I can't think of a specific thing I'd change but the responsibility for the team is mine, absolutely. I accepted Comolli's players, who I hadn't proposed. That was a mistake."
Should you have refused to work with Comolli, then? "With hindsight that might have been the right thing to do."
Ramos accepts the way Tottenham is run but not the apportioning of blame when it comes to not being among the country's very best sides. "Spurs works as a business," he says.
"That's legitimate and I'm sure the model's built with the right intentions. They think the economic model enables the sporting model to function but that's not always true. Levy makes a £17m investment [Bent] but has two better players in the way. They have to remove obstacles so the investment plays. In economic terms, fine. In sporting terms it turned out to be a disaster."
He explains: "Spurs spend a lot of money but only sign players who are 20 or 22 because they're thinking of future sales. [Gareth] Bale, for example, or [Luka] Modric: I advised Spurs to sign him. He's a great player but you still need patience; it doesn't happen immediately. The idea is: sign players, see if they take off, sell and reinvest. Fine but are you trying to win money or titles? The criteria at Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea is that the sporting side is the priority. If City sign [Jesús] Navas or [Álvaro] Negredo, they don't look at the player's age; they look at his performances.
"Spurs aren't going to win the league. Economically, it works well but in sporting terms maybe it needs retuning. You can't demand something that doesn't fit the reality."
So Ramos comes back to the Europa League and will reappear at White Hart Lane as the only manager to have won a trophy in 15 years. "The reality," he says, "is that we're light years away from Spurs right now."