Football: Tottenham's taskmaster? It's all a Gross distortion

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The Independent Online
In seven weeks in charge of Tottenham Christian Gross has seen his team slide into the relegation zone while losing an average of three goals and two players per game. His chosen assistant has had a work permit rejected, the players have whispered revolt and, this week, two transfers failed.

All this and today Spurs visit Manchester United. It is enough to depress anybody, but Glenn Moore found the enigmatic Swiss manager bold and buoyant.

Ten days ago Christian Gross stood on Westminster Bridge and contemplated the future. No, he was not considering jumping off it, he was seeing in the New Year.

The annual siege of Trafalgar Square is a very English tradition which few Premiership managers would contemplate and those Spurs fans who saw their manager must have dismissed it, when they eventually surfaced the following day, as a booze-fuelled hallucination. It was not and the incident encapsulates the enigmatic nature of Tottenham's new Swiss manager.

He arrived with a reputation as a hard taskmaster, an image which grew after alleged complaints by players about having to train when injured and the sight of him barking out orders, usually it seems, "work, work harder" on the touchline.

But if you spend time with him, another Gross emerges. This one wants to take the team to the circus next week - risking all manner of jokes at the expense of his defence - and raves about seeing M-People in concert. He is also, however, very committed to improving the Tottenham team and very confident of his ability to do so.

"There have been no real surprises for me," he said when we met on Thursday. "I knew when I signed the contract it would be a big challenge for me."

We are sitting in the Portakabin which Spurs use for press conferences while their Chigwell training centre is being extended. There are grilles on the windows and a spartan air about the prefab which shortly before Christmas played host to a consignment of frozen turkeys (no, not the players). This can hardly be what he expected when he came to "the world famous Tottenham".

Earlier in the day Nicola Berti was signed, but Andy Hinchcliffe did not while negotiations on Valencia's Moussa Saib have been postponed. In addition three players have been passed fit for today's trip to Old Trafford but two more ruled out. In seven matches Gross has suffered 13 injuries to 10 different players.

"There is a lack of constants, also in our performances," he said. "Over six weeks we never have the same team, it is hard daily work bringing it together with a new team all the time. We have excellent individuals but we are not a team.

"We are working hard on this. Everybody needs leaders, now we have Jurgen [Klinsmann] and I also expect Les [Ferdinand] to be a leader, with his experience, class and strength, but he is often injured."

He is not alone which underlines the need for Fritz Schmid, Gross's assistant and fitness conditioner from Grasshoppers Zurich. A fortnight ago Gross suggested he would resign if Schmid failed to get a work permit but now he says that even if the appeal fails he will stay.

"I said those things as I wanted to get things moving and show Fritz I was behind him. But I know it was Switzerland's decision not to be in the EC. Fritz is important, if I have to do a special physical session I need a specialist, but I will not be leaving Spurs."

When the furore was at its peak the Swiss FA made it clear they wanted Gross to be national coach but he said: "It is a great challenge for a Swiss coach to coach the national team but for my career, at my age [43], it is better to take a club abroad. I am happy with the situation. I am representing Switzerland. There is a lot of responsibility on my shoulders to do that."

One reason he would like to share that responsibility with Schmid is that, "I only want to work with 100 per cent fit players. I never force a player to train with injury. I expect them to tell me, `I am not 100 per cent today' if they are injured. They have a big responsibility towards themselves and the club. I can't imagine they went to the papers but I know papers want to make their stories."

The revolt over training does not appear to widespread and having the likes of Berti and Klinsmann, hard-working players of international repute, can only strengthen Gross's position. Not that he claims to be the hard man his reputation suggests. He certainly seems astonished when I tell him Brian Clough was notorious for inspiring his players through fear.

"I want to convince players my way is successful, not scare them. It takes time to learn about one other." There is an undercurrent of frustration, however, when he adds: "They have a special profession and I am not sure every player realises this. It is an excellent profession. A lot of players can't compare themselves with life outside soccer."

Gross, 43, was a respectable player himself in Switzerland and the Bundesliga where he played for Bochum. He was described by one German observer as a midfielder with good vision, but overweight which makes his emphasis on fitness ironic. As a coach he has a good reputation in Germany where the reaction to his appointment at White Hart Lane was not "Christian Who?" but "good choice".

He almost played at White Hart Lane as a teenager but was injured when they met in the 1973-74 Uefa Cup. Always keen on coaching he began at Will, a Swiss Third Division club, before progressing to Grasshopper Zurich where he won two championships and the Swiss Cup. Gross cites Helmut Johannsen, a Bundesliga title-winner with Eintract Brunswick in 1967, and later his coach at Bochum, as a key influence along with the Austrian Ernst Happel, who coached the Netherlands, and the Italians Giovanni Trappatoni, Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello.

These last names would suggest a belief in the pressing game, not quite the glory, glory game of Tottenham tradition but potentially attractive, as the Milan of Gullit and company demonstrated.

"I want my teams to play with pressure and I want them to control the game. I hate it when we have to react but there are a lot of strong teams here. The Premiership is very equal. The pace and power of the English game has impressed me. From the kick-off there is a 100 per cent tempo. Sometimes it is too fast, you must be able to control the ball, but there is always a lot of pressure on the pitch. The crowd demands it. I like the passion here but they do not like the ball being passed back.

"My ideal team is Manchester. They are outstanding, one of the best in Europe, maybe the world. They are my European Cup favourites and should have won last year."

He means, of course, Manchester United. It has become increasingly apparent, when talking to foreign players and managers, that they call Alex Ferguson's side "Manchester". Outside Britain, Manchester City no longer appear to have a profile.

Gross has not been to Old Trafford but he is undaunted. "It is a good challenge for us. It is important we are brave and show a big heart. They will pressurise us and we will have to find out the best way to counter them. We have to be intelligent, realistic and efficient. We will not have many occasions to score but I am sure we will have some. We have to take them."

Gross is living in a hotel but expects to move into a flat or house near Chigwell by the end of the month. His Swiss girlfriend accompanied him to Westminster Bridge but remains in Switzerland with no prospect of a work permit.

The New Year's Eve trip ("it was as cold as Switzerland - and I missed the fireworks") is one of only two visits he has made to central London, the other was for visa purposes. A fan of Peter Gabriel, Elton John and M-People among others, Gross was a keen concert-goer in Switzerland and is looking forward to having more time to enjoy the capital's entertainment while accepting he will not be skiing this season. The next London date is to see the Cirque du Soleil Alegria, "an old, famous circus" at the Albert Hall with the team.

David Pleat may be aboard by then, the former Tottenham manager begins work as director of football on 14 January with some wondering whether he is really the manager-in-waiting. "I am open to him," said Gross. "I am positive, we had a meeting and I felt he loves soccer. But it is important the powers are strictly divided. He will not be here, he will be at White Hart Lane."