Football: Anderton dreams of a Spurs resurgence, fitness and France

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The Independent Online
The downturn in the fortunes of Tottenham Hostpur has been mirrored by the injury setbacks suffered by Darren Anderton.

Adam Szreter talks to the England midfielder, whose career, and Spurs' form, needs to take off again - starting against Barnsley today.

If injuries were to blame for the demise of Gerry Francis as Tottenham Hotspur's manager, then Darren Anderton was the source of his greatest frustration. Last season he started 16 League games, but finished only seven, and the season before he played just eight. In between he was ever present for England during Euro '96, but this season he is again struggling for fitness.

Despite five goals in 16 appearances for his country, Anderton's chances of a place in England's World Cup squad for France are receding fast. His problems started when his groin began to trouble him after playing all three games in the Umbro Cup in 1995, England's dress rehearsal for Euro '96.

Later that summer he had a hernia operation on his right side, to match the one on his left side two years earlier, but the keyhole surgery failed to solve the problem. Three months into the new season he had played just a handful of games before the scar tissue was removed and a cyst was found.

"After that I was hoping to play within four to six weeks," he said. "It turned out to be five months."

Following Euro '96, at the start of last season, the pain in his groin grew worse. "The specialist who originally did the left side said the second hernia operation probably hadn't been done properly, so he did it himself this time and four weeks later I came back and felt great. But after three games I did my knee at Bolton in the Cup when we lost 6-1 and I was out for three months with knee ligaments."

Finally, he tore his hamstring in his second game back from that, against Leeds United in March, and despite a couple of comeback attempts that is what Anderton is now trying to recover from. So far, under the new Spurs coach, Christian Gross, he has played the last 30 minutes of the Premiership games at Everton (won 2-0) and home to Chelsea (lost 6-1), and the first 52 minutes of last Saturday's 4-0 defeat at Coventry City. Today comes a match third-from-bottom Spurs must win - home to Barnsley.

"I'm definitely not fully match-fit,"Anderton said. "If I was then I would ask the manager why I wasn't playing. Before the Everton game he just said my time will come, so I guess I'll have to wait. I haven't really spoken to him about it, all I really know is what he said about me in the papers, that he wanted to know why I'd been out for so long. So maybe that's why he's getting me to take a back seat, to get me fully fit which is fair enough. I am getting fitter and stronger all the time."

Given Anderton's injury record, and the fact that he played in Euro '96 without any obvious discomfort, inevitably there have been grumblings of discontent in the media and among the Tottenham faithful.

Anderton is aware of it, but is happy enough at White Hart Lane to have signed a contract that will tie him to Tottenham until 2000. "I want to play and get back in the team, there's no doubt about that," he said. "Some people think maybe he doesn't want to play for Tottenham, maybe he doesn't want to play at all. That's the hardest thing, but you just have to put up with that, get fit and hopefully it will be forgotten.

"With my groin there were a lot of times when I really didn't know what was going on and in the end it became a joke. I'd be out with friends and people would come up and say, `When are you going to be back?' I'd say two or three weeks, then I'd say the same thing to them a month later. It was a nightmare. I could see things slipping away.

"I had an opportunity to win things at Tottenham and have a great time here, and I've seen all that disappear so far."

Had it not been for the long-suffering Francis, Anderton's career might have taken a different course altogether. "Just before I got my injuries I had an opportunity to go to Manchester United, but I decided to stay and Gerry was one of the main reasons," he explained. "It was when Jurgen [Klinsmann] went, Nicky Barmby went and [Gica] Popescu.

"Gerry had just moved me into central midfield, I'd had a really good season and Gerry said he was going to build the team around me. I was 23, I was in the England team and the next couple of years were going to be big years for me, but that hasn't happened and now it's just a matter of gradually coming back and getting back to what I was.

"I still haven't given up on England, it's every kid's dream to play in the World Cup. I've been lucky enough to play in the European Championship, and that was a great couple of weeks. After that it's the World Cup, that's everyone's aim and that's why I'm so desperate to get fit again."

As for Gross, who arrived with a reputation for strict discipline, Anderton's initial impressions have been positive. "He seems like a good motivator , he knows what he wants and he puts it across well," he said. "There's no doubt there are a lot of very good players here, and if you can get good players to work then you're not going to be far away. I believe that we will battle our way out of this present position. Certainly the attitude of the players is one of determination."

Just where Anderton will fit in to the new regime is anybody's guess, but the player himself is in no doubt where he wants to play. "I'd say central midfield. I don't mind playing wide, but it can be too frustrating at times. I don't really want to be stuck out on the wing, waiting for the ball. I'd rather be in there having an effect on the game.

"I don't see myself as a flair player," he added. "I see myself as a player who has skill but giving 100 per cent, and working hard is what made me the player I was. I'm not the sort of player who will stand around when the ball comes and do a trick or anything. I play for the team."

While Anderton the player remains an unfulfilled talent, Anderton the person says little to dispel the "boy-next-door" image that comes with his youthful looks. "I like to just take it easy, go down south and see my parents, family and friends," he says before adding with a grin: "I like to play golf, but I don't think we'll have any hobbies any more - we'll be getting away from here too late with all this afternoon training."