Frank Arnesen: Enter a master alchemist in Tottenham's leap of faith

He unearthed a diamond called Ronaldo, so rediscovering the lost soul of Spurs should be easy. Alex Hayes talks to a Danish craftsman
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The Independent Online

Frank Arnesen has nothing but bad memories of White Hart Lane. The last time Tottenham Hotspur's new sporting director was in the north London stadium, just over 20 years ago, he suffered one of the worst nights of his career, losing the Uefa Cup final with Anderlecht on penalties. "Put it this way," he smiles, "I am planning to make a much happier return in six days' time."

Frank Arnesen has nothing but bad memories of White Hart Lane. The last time Tottenham Hotspur's new sporting director was in the north London stadium, just over 20 years ago, he suffered one of the worst nights of his career, losing the Uefa Cup final with Anderlecht on penalties. "Put it this way," he smiles, "I am planning to make a much happier return in six days' time."

Come full-time of Saturday lunchtime's opening game of the 2004-05 Premiership campaign, against Rafael Benitez's new-look Liverpool, Arnesen will be hoping that the memories of his 1984 "nightmare" have been erased. "What I want is for the Tottenham fans to feel as elated as they did on that night again, rather than as deflated as I was," says the man whose first coup as sporting director was to secure the services of the former French manager Jacques Santini before a ball was even kicked at Euro 2004. "For too long now, this club have been on a downer."

Since that Uefa Cup final, Tottenham have been sliding relentlessly towards mediocrity. Within weeks of guiding the club to European success, the then manager, Keith Burkinshaw, had a disagreement with the board and left the club. That was followed by the rift between Alan Sugar and Terry Venables in the early Nineties, and more recently by the awkward times under David Pleat and Glenn Hoddle. Meanwhile, the trophy cupboard has remained bare of the game's biggest prizes. There have been no more European titles and not a sniff of a chance in the League. Instead, Spurs have relied on domestic cups for silverware, although it has been 13 years since they last lifted the one that really counts.

"What has happened here needs to be repaired," admits the calm and impressive Arnesen, who won 52 caps for Denmark. "We have to get results first and then, as quickly as possible, get the team playing the way we have all come to expect of a Spurs side. I have noticed for many years how they play, even when I was a kid. But it is all about striking a balance. When we at Anderlecht lost to Tottenham in 1984, they had very skilful players, but also [Arnesen smacks his fist into the palm of his other hand] there was Graham Roberts behind the front players. Attacking players like Jermain Defoe are nice to watch, but behind him you need midfield players with legs who can win the ball. Not everyone can play pretty."

Arnesen, 47, who took up his new role on 1 July following 10 successful years in the same position at PSV Eindhoven, is slowly becoming aware of the size of the task ahead of him. "This is a big job because the competition is big," he says. "But on the other hand, I think that with the club's tradition, the name and the fans, players like to come to Tottenham. It's my job, and Jacques' job, to give the players a positive feeling again. That's what I always did at PSV. I know it's a big challenge, but that is why I said yes."

In sharp contrast to Tottenham, Arnesen's fortunes have soared in the past 20 years. A year after that Uefa Cup final defeat he joined PSV, where he won three Dutch titles in a row as well as the European Cup in 1988. Once he retired, Arnesen wasted no time in gaining his coaching qualifications and was soon back in the PSV fold as assistant manager to Sir Bobby Robson. During his two years in the job, PSV won the league title and the Dutch Super Cup.

Despite his coaching abilities, it soon became clear that Arnesen's real strength lay in transfer dealings. Since the Dane was moved upstairs at PSV 10 years ago, the club have won 12 domestic trophies and qualified for the Champions' League every season. Those results were largely due to the players Arnesen discovered. How's this for a Who's Who of modern football: Jaap Stam, Philip Cocu, Arjen Robben, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Bolo Zenden, and, of course, Ruud van Nistelrooy.

"Frank showed great judgement when he went out and signed Ruud," says Sir Bobby Robson of the £2.3m deal that brought the Dutch striker from Heerenveen in 1998. "Even though PSV knew they were going to lose him and that they couldn't hold on to the player, they at least have money [£19.8m from Manchester United] to do more for the club."

Arnesen has demonstrated that he has an eye for good young European players, but his greatest transfer coup came in 1994 and involved a little-known South American teenager with braces and puppy fat, called Ronaldo. "People knew that there was this special kid in Brazil," recalls Arnesen, who speaks five languages, "because they had seen him sit on the bench during Brazil's victory in the 1994 World Cup. But no one knew how to get him."

Having found out that Ronaldo was "owned" not by his club, Cruzeiro, but by a consortium of wealthy Brazilian businessmen, Arnesen jumped on the first plane to Rio with a respected Portuguese agent and set about persuading the various shareholders to sell their piece of the player. "It was a mad adventure and a really strange experience," he says, "but that is the way they do things over there, and doing things their way meant we signed one of the best strikers the world has ever seen."

Ronaldo, for his part, is full of praise for Arnesen and his methods. "I consider him to be extremely important, and in so many ways he has helped me," the Real Madrid striker said recently. "He was the only one who did not doubt me at PSV and, without him, I wouldn't be where I am today. He knew I was very young and needed the chance to make my mistakes. And he gave me that chance - even putting his own job at risk because of his faith in me. I would love to play for him again."

So can Tottenham supporters suddenly expect to be entertained by similar stars of the future? "I would love to say yes," says Arnesen, who somehow doubts Ronaldo will be joining the club, "but gems are harder than ever to find these days because all the big clubs have much broader worldwide networks. Having said that, it is my responsibility to find new talent, and I believe I have the knowledge and contacts to take this club back to where it belongs."

So far, the club have recruited Paul Robinson from Leeds, Sean Davis from Fulham, Pedro Mendes from Porto and Erik Edman from Heerenveen, while Nottingham Forest's Andy Reid remains a strong target. The rebuilding, though, has only just begun. "I will never say to the fans: 'Give us time, give us this'; that is not up to me," Arnesen says. "What is up to me and the coaching staff is to try to turn the fans around. It's up to us to progress. We can't do everything overnight because we have to be careful, be professionals and look into it. But we do have to improve every year until we are in a realistic position where Tottenham ought to be, and then we must stay there."

With Arnesen flicking furiously through his contacts book, the coaching has been left to Santini. "Jacques is an excellent coach with a very good track record," Arnesen says, "and I am sure he is the right man to help the young players develop and the older ones perform better." However, one wonders how the partnership will work. After all, the former director of football, Pleat, and manager, Hoddle, not only did not see eye to eye, but actually rowed in opposite directions. "There might have been problems with this system before," Arnesen concedes, "but Jacques and I are two Europeans working in a typical European framework.

"At PSV, I had five coaches in 10 years working alongside me [including Sir Bobby Robson, Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink], so I am used to this structure. And Jacques is also used to this structure as a director and a coach [Santini held both roles at Lyon]. We've talked a lot about exactly how it is: me with the transfers; him with the players on the pitch. We are combining our strengths."

Arnesen, whose 13-year playing career took him from Ajax to PSV, via Valencia and Anderlecht, has been encouraged by the way in which the two men have interacted thus far. "Communication is the most important [thing]," he says. "You always have to talk to each other. There must be communication between Jacques and me on a daily basis, because the sooner we have full confidence in each other the sooner the team will improve."

Arnesen is too shrewd to make any rash promises, but one senses he believes that the club are, at long last, equipped for the rigours of the Premiership. And while he insists that victory against Liverpool on Saturday would be nothing more than "the first of many steps towards returning the club to the top", there can be no hiding his personal determination to start the season with three points. "I've waited 20 years for my big return," he says, "so I'd like to leave White Hart Lane a happy man this time."