Football: Mabbutt resumes pursuit of final ambition

Gary Mabbutt has faced some serious battles in his 16 years at Tottenham. The centre-back, diagnosed as diabetic at 18, has just returned to Spurs' first team after a year out recovering from a broken leg. Four years ago, he was sidelined by a fractured c
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The Independent Online
Spurs Lodge, early on Friday morning. The first Tottenham player to arrive at the club's training ground is their captain for the past 10 seasons, Gary Mabbutt, eager to make up for lost time after losing the whole of last season through injury.

Nobody gave Mabbutt, at the age of 36, much chance of regaining his first team place, against tough competition in the centre-back department, but writing the man off has proved before to be a mistake.

He fully expects to be leading his team out this afternoon at White Hart Lane against high-flying Blackburn, ironically the team against whom he sustained his broken tibia and fibia after just 18 minutes of the first game of last season.

"I can't deny the last year's been hard for me," Mabbutt admitted. "I hoped to be back playing after Christmas but complications arose and I was only really able to look ahead after my third and last operation in March. I spent the whole summer training to get back my fitness and, when I ran out as a substitute against Aston Villa earlier this month, in my first game back for over a year, it was a very big moment for me."

Others, after a career that has seen him win England caps, a Uefa Cup- winner's medal and lift the FA Cup in 1991, might have called it a day, especially as all this has been achieved despite the daily battle of being a diabetic. But not Mabbutt. Despite this being his worst injury by far, in a career that has been dominated by 16 years at Spurs, he never had any doubts that he would, once again, be wearing the famous white shirt.

"I always knew I'd be back," he said. "When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, when I was 18 and playing for Bristol Rovers, people had serious doubts about whether I had a future in football. Then, after the facial injury in 1993, when my cheekbone and eye socket were both broken in several places, some thought I was finished.

"I don't quite know why it is, but I've always been able to bounce back. I seem to have the ability to work better when the odds are stacked against me, although maybe the fact that I've managed to build a career in football with diabetes has meant that I'm prepared to meet the challenges of injury."

Whatever the reason, Mabbutt is well and truly back, and when you bear in mind that Spurs boast the likes of Sol Campbell, John Scales, Ramon Vega and Colin Calderwood all playing as centre-backs, room for the captain was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Yet he has returned to a familiar tune. Despite playing for one of the most prestigious clubs in England, if not in Europe, Mabbutt has never won a league championship medal, and although this season is still in its childhood days, Spurs have begun in the same, erratic fashion that has dogged them for so many years, and when Spurs are bad, like at Leicester last Saturday, then they can be horrid.

"It's been my biggest disappointment so far," Mabbutt conceded. "Do you know, the last time Spurs won the league was in 1961, the year I was born. Since I've played for them, we've had some brilliant players like Hoddle, Waddle, Gascoigne and Lineker, but we've never really seriously challenged for the title. For a club like us, that's very poor."

Does he know why this is so? "We've never been consistent," Mabbutt replied, matter-of-factly. "You have to be organised, disciplined and consistent to stand a chance of winning the title. Certainly, when Ossie Ardiles was the manager, he went all out for total football, which meant trying to score as many goals as possible. We hardly did any defensive work in training. It may sound great to try and win every game 4-3, but not if you're a defender, and you don't win the league that way."

Yet results have not significantly improved since Gerry Francis has been in charge, either, despite the former QPR manager's impressive track record. "No, although I believe that he has laid the foundation for consistency," the club captain said.

"It's easy to go on about injuries, but I've never known so many problems as we've had in the past couple of years. Contrary to belief, there's no sinister reason for this, like over-training. Nearly all our injuries have been sustained during matches. Even against Carlisle the other night [a Coca-Cola Cup tie that Spurs won 3-2] we were missing Iversen, Ferdinand and Armstrong, our three strikers. It's very difficult to get any kind of continuity to win a trophy under those conditions.

"It is my honest belief that, with everyone fit, we are capable of at least challenging for the league. Look at the battle in the central defence! It's like that now for every position, and that can only be good."

Still, time is running out for Mabbutt, something he is acutely aware of. If Spurs are going to help him achieve his remaining, and biggest ambition in football, then they had better get a move on.

"The body clock's ticking away all right," he admits. "And we haven't quite gelled yet, not settled into the right system. We've got to start pulling in the same way, because we can't spend much longer this season trying to get it right."

Will he retire as a frustrated and bitter player if the league title eludes him? "Not bitter, no," he said. "But I'm sure it will nag away at me. I've got to remember I've lifted the FA Cup, which is every boy's dream, but I'd like, at the very least, to play a part in mounting a serious challenge for the title, even if we don't end up winning it."

And so, until the Mabbutt body clock alarm rings, he will persevere, injecting himself each day to keep his diabetes at bay, meeting any injury challenge, it seems, head on, and keeping younger and high profile players out of the first team.

As far as Gary Mabbutt is concerned, there is still some unfinished business to complete.