A winger's central casting

Tottenham and England expect as a young player of presence is spurred by visions of the future
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The Independent Online
THE SUN is shining, the trees are in bud, and the blue BMW convertible is sitting in the drive, its top down, its engine still warm. In the street his brother and a mate are kicking a ball. As he sits in the cool of his five-bedroom mock-Tudor home, their voices and the thud-thud are the only sounds he can hear.

So, on this golden afternoon in Hertfordshire, three days before the third FA Cup semi-final of his short career, is there anything Darren Anderton doesn't like about the footballer's life?

He thinks for a moment. "Nothing in particular," he says. "I just wish it could last a bit longer, that's all. Playing till you're 45, say. That'd suit me."

His hand goes to his left knee.

"Well, injuries. That's boring. You're sat there on the treatment table for a couple of hours a day while the lads are all out training, playing games. You just want to get out there. When I was out for eight weeks with a torn groin at the beginning of this season, it was a nightmare. The team were struggling, it looked as though the manager could be getting the sack, and that's the way it worked out. I liked him and I wanted to come back and help if I could. I had to sit there and watch it. It was frustrating."

Has he seen Ossie Ardiles - the manager in question - since Spurs dismissed him last November?

"Not really, no. I don't think anybody has. He hasn't been back to the club to watch the matches or anything like that."

Sad, isn't it?

"Yes, it is. But that's football."

The hand massages the knee.

"Ligament," he says with a small wince. "It's dodgy."

Dodgy for Sunday's big game?

"Touch and go."

And he stares out through the window, listening to the sound of the impromptu kickabout. That's where he'd be, if he hadn't spent the day on the treatment table. But it's hard to imagine frustration getting the better of Anderton, a calm 23-year-old of impressive physical presence (an inch over six feet, a pound or two under 12 stone, clear brown eyes and a firm, square chin), an unassuming personal charm and an intelligence barely obscured by the usual footballer's clichs.

He is a good spokesman for the young professionals, explaining the pressures that get the better of some of his contemporaries.

"You get people wanting to start something," he says. "The problem is drink, usually. They want to say something to you so that you turn round and say something back, and then an argument or a fight starts and they can go back and tell their friends. But if someone comes up and abuses me, I just laugh."

But it's probably not too hard for you, being a placid person?

"Yeah. Which is lucky. But there's a lot of players out there who're young and doing well for themselves, and people are jealous. It's a shame, but you learn to expect it."

Graham Paddon, who has known him since his teens, says that there are two Darren Andertons. "He's a smashing lad," Paddon explains. "When you meet him, he seems shy. But with people of his own age, he's actually an extrovert."

Paddon was youth coach at Portsmouth, under Alan Ball, when the 16-year- old Anderton came to the club's twice-weekly School of Excellence sessions.

"Darren was one of a number of lads with potential," he remembers. "As it turned out, when we made our final selection of nine boys to join the squad, he was the ninth. He was a gangly lad and we thought he might be a late developer."

His progress was hindered by an early ligament injury. "That kept him out for three months. But in the new year he got into the team and established himself."

The theme of a slow start recurs throughout his career, particularly after three good years in the Portsmouth first team had earned him a £2m move to Spurs at the start of the 1992-93 season. To begin with, the tall 20-year-old looked lost on the big stage. "Doug Livermore, who was Spurs' assistant coach, used to ring me up about him," Paddon says. "I told him that he'd be all right if he was given time."

After fewer than a dozen games for his new club, another injury intervened. This time it was a hernia, which cost him two months.

"I'd been nervous to start with," Anderton says. "My second game went quite well, but then the injury got worse, and my girlfriend and I didn't really settle where we were living. But we moved here, I got fit, and it started to take off. That's the way I am. It takes me a time to settle to anything, really."

Except, curiously, at the highest level of all. A year ago Terry Venables, the man who had brought him to Tottenham, called him to England's colours. It was Venables's first game as the national coach, and Anderton's international debut. Facing Denmark at Wembley, there was no slow start this time.

"Funnily enough, that was the quickest I've ever seen him take to any of the sides he's been in," Graham Paddon says.

"It went well throughout," says Anderton, who was given the man of the match award after the 1-0 win and had a shot kicked off the line.

Was there one moment that night which told him he'd be all right?

"Yes. Early on, I flicked it over one player and lobbed it over the next, and I think the crowd quite liked that."

They have been liking it ever since, through five more caps. Left out of the starting line-up only through injury for the games against Romania and Nigeria, he is clearly among the players most vital to Venables's plans in the run-up to next year's European Championship, and he is enjoying the reunion with a coach whom he first met after a fifth-round Cup tie at Fratton Park back in 1991, when Spurs put out Portsmouth on their way to winning the trophy.

"I came on as sub when the score was one-all, with about half an hour to go. We lost 2-1, and as we were going into the changing room Terry came up to me and said, `Well played, son.' The next time I spoke to him was when I went up to White Hart Lane to sign for them. He's a good coach. When he says something, players relate to it. They understand it. Sometimes a manager will say something and you'll think, `Well, I don't know about that.' But with him you think, `Yeah.' Whenever I go back to him now, I learn something. And being a nice man, he makes you want to play for him."

Anderton is proud of the "really good upbringing in the game" he received at the hands of men such as Ball, Paddon, Jim Smith and Venables while going through the conventional apprenticeship, and the transformation of Spurs' fortunes engineered by Gerry Francis in the wake of Ardiles's departure is a source of obvious pride.

"It's been strange," he says. "We won our first two games of the season, and everything was looking great. Then suddenly we had a few bad results. We lost at Notts County in the Coca-Cola Cup, which was a disaster, and a week later Ossie got the sack. When Gerry came in, he worked on our system more than anything. Before, we were playing with five attackers, plus the full-backs bombing up. So when it broke down, there were just three left at the back. It was exciting to play in but I don't think we were going to win anything that way. Gerry said, `Right, when we lose the ball we defend like this, and when we've got it we go forward like this.' Since then we've been hard to break down. The only time we didn't really do it was last weekend, against Southampton, when we conceded four goals. We'll have to put it right on Sunday."

His tweaked ligament permitting, today's match offers Anderton a chance to erase the disappointment of two losing semi-finals, with Portsmouth against Liverpool in 1992 and with Spurs against Arsenal the year after. Against Everton, he could be seen either as an outside right, the role in which he came to prominence and which he fills for England, or in the centre of midfield, where he has functioned for Spurs since the loss of Gica Popescu, who may return this afternoon.

In Tottenham terms, it is a piquant contrast. On the wing, the lanky Anderton reminds people of Chris Waddle; in the centre, his passing leads to comparisons with his own hero, Glenn Hoddle. If Venables wants him on the right for England, that's where he'd prefer to play. But he likes the involvement of the central role. "Being a wide man is sometimes a horrible position," he says. "There are times when you might not get a kick for 15 or 20 minutes. You're relying on other people to get you the ball. In the middle, you feel involved even if the other team are attacking."

Outside, in the heat of the late afternoon, the thud-thud continues, an invitation to join in. He walks out of the front door, leans against the wall and watches, flexing his knee. It's a treat to witness his frustration. Here, for once, is a man who knows exactly how fortunate he is.