Football: Griffin hoping to uphold Stoke's tradition

NEW FACES FOR '98: ANDREW GRIFFIN
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The Independent Online
Being part of Stoke City's defence when they suffered a record home defeat is the kind of setback that could break a fledgling career. But as Phil Shaw discovers, the pounds 2m-rated Andrew Griffin recovered well and has the talent and temperament to become an England full-back of the future.

One day the media was trumpeting Blackburn's arrival in the posse of Premiership clubs interested in buying him. The next he struggled in a Stoke side battered 7-0 by Birmingham. For Andrew Griffin, it was like being repeatedly dumped on your backside by a 16st forward, only worse.

Griffin speaks from experience. He says he was "toughened up" by the heavyweights he ran into in his early teens - but then he did begin his sporting life playing rugby league.

The 18-year-old from Wigan watched the 13-a-side code at Central Park as well as representing his school and town at stand-off and centre. His best friend, Terry Newton, went on to Leeds Rhinos and Great Britain Under- 21s, but as Griffin said: "Everyone got bigger than me, so I switched to football.''

It took a further switch, from striker to defender, before anyone took notice. Going to the Greater Manchester trials, Griffin heard there was always a surfeit of forwards and a shortage of left-backs. He took a chance and looked a natural except in one minor detail: he is right-footed.

Stoke's scout was sufficiently impressed to whisk Griffin down to the Potteries. After one A team match he was snapped up, and it became apparent that he was the club's best discovery since Steve Bould. He made his senior debut at 17, settling so quickly that Stoke released Nigel Worthington, Northern Ireland's captain.

This season Howard Wilkinson called him into the England Under-18 squad. Griffin has won four caps - having to pinch himself that he was actually at the Kremlin before facing Russia - alongside Liverpool's Michael Owen, Everton's Danny Cadamarteri and Matthew Upson of Arsenal.

Recently, however, he suffered a dip in form as Stoke slid down the First Division. They were so poor against Birmingham last weekend that the local newspaper refused to dignify the display by awarding its customary marks out of 10. Three days later, after a battling FA Cup exit at West Bromwich, it made Griffin man of the match.

According to the Stoke coach, Mike Pejic, his long-term prospects could hardly be brighter. Pejic, a left-back himself, was capped four times by Sir Alf Ramsey, having followed in the footsteps of another Potter, Tony Allen, who played three times for England in the same position in 1960. He is confident Griffin can uphold the tradition.

"He's the first player managers and scouts ask about," Pejic said. "George Graham was very impressed by him when we played Leeds in the Coca-Cola Cup and he's kept up his interest. George bought Lee Dixon from Stoke for Arsenal, so he knows about full-backs.''

"Griff's got a good physique and handles himself well against some big, hard lads who've been around. But his greatest attribute is a change of pace. Even from a standstill he can get away from people with a sudden burst over five or 10 yards.

"His other big asset is the ability to pressure an opponent who's got the ball. He's good at stepping in and forcing that player to get his head down over the ball rather than taking him on. He's not frightened of going in tight because he knows he can turn and cover.''

Pejic acknowledges that the big clubs are waiting to see how Griffin develops physically - at 5ft 8in and 11st, he may have two years' growing still to do - but gives him "every chance" of making it.

"There are aspects he needs to improve on, like his crossing, but I've no doubt he'll do it. He works hard on his game and he's got a one-track mind - football, football, football - which is important with all the distractions for youngsters, like drink, gambling and now drugs.''

Griffin's early role models were rugby players though he admits to an admiration for Stuart Pearce, whose past and present employers, Nottingham Forest and Newcastle, have joined Arsenal, Everton and others in monitoring his progress.

"I like the way Pearce goes forward and has shots," he said. "That's a big part of my game. I scored one from long range at Huddersfield, though I have to remember I'm a defender first and foremost.

"I'm aware a lot of players in my position are better at the wing bit than the back part. The staff here keep on to me about that.''

Even before the Birmingham debacle, teacher and pupil knew there was hard graft ahead. Pejic declines to speculate how much longer Griffin will remain in Stoke's stripes. He is none the less hopeful that he will advance to the England Under-21s, and believes his future may even lie as a right-back or right-sided midfielder.

Griffin's ambitions are those of every teenaged dreamer - "to play for a big Premier League club and at full international level" - and he is level-headed enough to realise he has no chance unless he gives his all for the club who gave him his break.

Stoke, beset by financial difficulties and supporter unrest, must trust that their prized gazelle continues to demonstrate the resilience he developed among the 16st rhinos. And if Griffin fulfils his potential, rugby league's loss could be England's gain.

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