A pilgrim's progress

David Platt has played at home, abroad and for England. Now he would like to do the same as a manager; Ian Ridley talks to the Arsenal midfielder who came back to win a medal
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The Independent Online
DAVID PLATT slipped it into the conversation almost as an aside. He recalled the words of an old friend - Sammy Chapman, then of Wolves - who said he had taken too much out of the game not to put something back. So although Platt does not need the money, the world's most expensive footballer wants to become a manager. "I want to manage in England and abroad," he said before pausing. "And I want to manage England."

The season's end might open a few minds and loosen a few tongues but no one, it appears, wants to become England coach at the moment. Platt has seen it all, including the downfall of his former mentor, Graham Taylor, but he is still willing to endure its burdens.

And he seems well qualified. "I have learned that you can stand in front of a TV camera and say 'no comment' in more words," he says. "I have never told lies, though I might not have told the whole truth . . . You can still be honest without telling the whole truth."

Platt is the consummate media professional. He automatically moves the tape recorder a little nearer to ensure it picks up his voice properly. Before last month's England match against Bulgaria, he endured a pre-match press conference though the team had just been announced without his name in it. And he never once wonders out loud how long an interview might take.

There is substance beneath what many people criticise as surface blandness; any player who writes his own autobiography must surely have some depth. It is just that he is wary with words, so well versed is he in the ways of some of the press. Hence that pause before talking about the England job.

In reality, there is still too much to achieve as a player yet for him to be planning to succeed Terry Venables. He turns 30 in June, but that age, thanks to better diets and medical know-how, is no longer the watershed it once was for a player. He also joined Arsenal for pounds 4.75m from Sampdoria on a contract that has three years left to run to win an honour in England.

Reaching the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final was no surprise given the club's hard-Arsed mentality in knock-out competition in recent years. And to many Arsenal have done well to be as high as they are in the Premiership. The team is in transition, and Bruce Rioch's first year of managership there has led to conflict with the board over who buys players and disagreements with Ian Wright.

"Possibly," Platt said, "but we haven't done as well as we hoped and expected to. Going back to the beginning of the season, we all had high expectations and I am sure the fans did too. There was a feeling that it wouldn't just be me and Dennis Bergkamp joining. If we don't qualify for Europe, it has categorically not been a good season."

Tomorrow night's derby against Tottenham brings together two of the clubs - Everton and Blackburn are the others - competing for a Uefa Cup place. It is "a massive game for us" says Platt. It says much about the current hierarchy that the four at the top of the table monopolising the honours have established a passing, progressive game. What will it take for Arsenal to join them?

Each word of Platt's response is considered as he ponders that painful condition of being picked up on by the tabloids. "I believe you need to bed things down. Manchester United and Liverpool have done for several years now," he said. "For ourselves to move up into the top tier we have got to go past the realms of buying just the two players. That's not a slur. I'm not having a go at the team. I am talking about putting strength in."

A two-hour conversation with Rioch in Genoa convinced Platt that they shared a common view of the game, probably that Arsenal would develop into a passing team, and that he remained an attacking midfield player. It has not been so lately, Platt minding the store in the holding role he disliked at Juventus.

"It is tactical, not physical," he insisted, the knee injuries that caused two lengthy absences this season now properly healed. "I still believe I am a player who can score goals if the space is created in front of me and I am still fit enough to be able to hit it." He is, he says, just doing a job until reinforcements arrive.

Platt's heart and knack of scoring goals - 26 in 55 internationals - may yet see him play a part in the European Championship finals this summer, in which he believes England's chances are high. Ince and Gascoigne are likely to keep him out of the starting line-up, and Robert Lee may have eclipsed him this season, but it will be a long tournament - England hope so, at least.

Though he may have been supplanted in Venables's thoughts with more skilful ball-carriers and precise passers emerging, it is clear that he remains a believer in the coach's methods and can expect selection again for the squad announced this week for the match against Croatia on Wednesday week.

An inflexible 4-4-2 formation is outdated, says Platt, who also explains Venables's split-striker system well, pointing out that those with good goal records in the international game - himself, Bergkamp, Roberto Baggio - come from deep. "The game warrants changes, both for individual games and during games, because everybody is physically fit, mentally aware, strong of character and technically gifted," he said. "You need something to give you a tactical edge and only by switching things around can you do that."

As for his own position, he says he would simply be happy to be a part of the Euro 96 squad when three months ago surgery on his cartilage might just have meant the end of his season. Neither does he have any space in his head, he adds, to ponder a successor to Venables, though it is not a case of a younger or more experienced candidate. "It will be about who really wants it."

On the evidence of almost a full season back in England, Platt believes that the game here is more enlightened but remains tactically adrift of Italy; we can mistake excitement for quality. "We play very, very quickly - sometimes too quickly - in the wrong areas. When everything's right and everyone's in position to attack, there's nothing quicker than Italian football."

Kevin Keegan has especially impressed him this season, he says, both for Newcastle's approach and his own honesty. There are similarities. Even though Keegan's talent was the more marked, like him, Platt has made the most of his abilities through positive personality. How would he sum up his own?

"I learn from all experiences; I take a great deal out of everything," Platt said. "I pick things up quickly and I think deeply. I haven't got the talent of Le Tissier or Gascoigne in terms of being able to take players on, but I know what I am good at and I do it. And I do what the manager tells me. It's all that."

All that has got him a long way, and although there is much to be done still with Arsenal, it may not be too long before he is the manager looking for a David Platt of his own. He laughs at the suggestion that it might be more prudent to buy his own club. Perhaps he is contemplating Terry Venables's position after all.