Football: Season starts here for Anderton

The Spur nicknamed 'Sick Note' has made his way again into the England set-up. Clive White on a player's fight to be in France
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The Independent Online
WHATEVER tactical differences Glenn Hoddle and his predecessor as England coach Terry Venables may have, the two men seemingly agreed on one thing: a fit Darren Anderton is crucial to England's international success.

There is a feeling of deja vu about the Tottenham's midfielder's call up which could get quite spooky should he be selected for today's match against Saudi Arabia and score. Two years ago, just prior to Euro 96, he was also coming back from injury, on that occasion straight from a seven month lay-off, when Venables, as Hoddle has done now, selected him despite his inactivity. Anderton scored in the friendly against Hungary and went on to figure prominently in England's glorious failure in the finals.

While Anderton has yet to play for Hoddle, his England debut was Venables' first game in charge. That was against Denmark at Wembley in 1994, when the young Spur produced, in the words of Ossie Ardiles, the then Tottenham manager "the most impressive international debut I have ever seen".

The former Portsmouth player, of course, had been signed by Venables when he was manager at White Hart Lane, for what now seems a paltry pounds 1.75m. "He makes goals, he scores goals and his all-round contribution is excellent," Venables once said. "From the first time I saw Darren I thought he had the potential to be an outstanding international player."

Now, as then, there has been accusations against the England management of a bias towards Spurs players which can not make Anderton's return to the international fold any easier. Matt Le Tissier, for one, must be wondering what he did wrong, most pertinently in last month's B international against Russia when he and Anderton both pulled on their first England shirt in a long while and the Southampton player weighed in with a hat-trick yet failed to make Hoddle's squad of 30.

Certainly Hoddle has given the player with the unfortunate sobriquet of "Sick Note" - kindly bestowed on him by former Pompey team-mate Lee Gosling - every chance to attain full fitness. Even Anderton conceded that he was "a little bit surprised" by the call-up, adding somewhat tartly, "considering that four weeks ago I couldn't get in the Tottenham team." Like Les Ferdinand, his run-ins with the Spurs coach, Christian Gross, over the thorny question of fitness provided a distracting sideshow to Tottenham's struggles last season.

Eventually he persuaded Gross to allow him to play in the last two games - "I couldn't expect Glenn to pick me on my performances for the reserves" - and fortunately for Anderton it was enough to persuade Hoddle that he was not a lost cause.

Indeed, the former Spur's faith in the player has put some Paxton Road end diehards to shame. "You'll always get a few who think your heart's not in it," Anderton said. "It's hurtful, because though Tottenham have been very good to me I think I've also been good to Tottenham. When I got the opportunity to go to Manchester United I stayed when everyone else went on their way."

With the injuries he has had - four hernia and one groin operations - it is as well that he is the naturally fit type, which may have something to do with the fact that he was a cross country champion for Hampshire as a boy. "We've given him some real tests and he's flying," said Hoddle. Him and Rio [Ferdinand] came through a couple of runs with the other boys and they looked the strongest. Darren doesn't stand still, even in the eight-a-sides and keep-ball sessions. He's always on his toes and I tell you that takes some doing."

He has not had the best of luck with some of his operations, describing himself as a guinea pig on one occasion. "There will be times after a game when I would feel stiff but I didn't want to say anything otherwise I'd be slaughtered," he said. "It's not nice, all I wanted to do was play. The worse times were when I was coming back to fitness and doing okay only to suffer little breakdowns. But I never wrote off my chances of making the World Cup."

Still coltish looking despite his 26 years, he is now confident that he has fully recovered, but while the season may just be starting for him, just as it was two years ago, he accepts that it could all be over in a week if he does not make the final 22. But, while according to him he is thrashing the ball about with gusto in training, Hoddle has detected a certain tentativeness in his play.

"He's happy to do the simple things at the moment, which is what happens when you've been out for a long time," Hoddle said. "Your first thought is whether the injury is going to go again. You don't concentrate on what you're trying to achieve with the ball. He's not back to his very, very best but he can become that. He needs a run-out over the next three games. He needs a match tempo."

His former Spurs team- mate, Teddy Sheringham, for one would welcome the service of a player whom he once described as the best crosser in the Premiership. But Anderton nowadays regards himself, as Hoddle probably does, as more of a playmaker than an out-and-out winger. "When I was a kid I always played central midfield anyway," he said. "Glenn Hoddle was one of my favourite players."

The feelings look as though they could be mutual.