Football: A hot spur for a man in the cold

Alex Hayes meets the reborn Norwegian ready for Dons reunion
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The Independent Online
BUYING A squad player and turning him into a first-team regular is just about the hardest task any manager can undertake. Not only is it hopelessly difficult to judge the player's true level of fitness, it is also impossible to know whether he still possesses the same desire he had when he was playing week-in week-out. But if George Graham harboured any such doubts before he plucked Oyvind Leonhardsen from Liverpool reserves in August, they have long since disappeared.

Having made his name at Wimbledon - who play host to his new team, Tottenham, in today's Premiership match - during the early Nineties, Leonhardsen was then transferred to Liverpool for pounds 4m in the summer of 1997. After playing little more than a bit- part under the stewardship of Roy Evans, he languished in Gerard Houllier's second string for six months. While such a fall from grace might have punctured the spirit of many, the Norwegian international insists he never questioned his own ability. "I think I learned a lot during my time in the reserves," he said at the Spurs training ground on Friday. "I may have been playing at a lower level, but I knew I was still the same player, if not better. You just don't become a bad player overnight."

Whether or not it is due to his Scandinavian roots, it remains that Leonhardsen never lost his cool during those bad Merseyside days. "I just decided to concentrate on my fitness," he said. "If that snub had happened to me when I was younger, I probably would have gone into the manager's office to ask him what was going on, but this time I was determined to stay focused in case I got another chance."

That break came when Tottenham offered him regular football again six weeks ago. And, finally back in demand, the 29-year-old did not take long to pack his bags and make the journey south. "Houllier bought a couple of midfielders during the summer, so I knew I was back down the pecking order," Leonhardsen said. "I felt that however well I played I wouldn't get in, so I was very pleased when Spurs came for me. I wouldn't have signed for a small club, but I knew this was a good opportunity."

The lure of European football and the attractions of London helped Leonhardsen make his decision, but Graham's presence should not be underestimated. For a player who is equally comfortable going forward as he is tracking back and defending, a Graham team is the ideal place to be. "Spurs practise a more attacking style than Liverpool," he said. "It's not all long balls, but it is more direct. There's no doubt that the way his [Graham's] teams play suits me."

Today's match will serve as a double reunion for Leonhardsen. Not only will he be facing many of his old Wimbledon team-mates, he will also line up against his mentor and former international manager, Egil Olsen. "Egil promoted me from the Olympic team to the main squad for his first match in charge, so I guess it will be a bit strange to play against him. He's a very clever manager and I respect him a lot. He's taught me so much."

Olsen, who took over from Joe Kinnear in the summer, has nothing but praise for the Spurs midfielder. "The fact that Oyvind has come back so strongly doesn't surprise me. He's very serious. He's not smoking or drinking and he'll try anything to become a better footballer. We used to joke he was the best player in the world without a ball. He's always had great stamina but now he's improved his ball skills too. He's never been in such good form."

Whatever the nature of the occasion, Leonhardsen insists that he will not be particularly emotional. "I had a good time at Wimbledon and the club has a special place in my heart because I went there when I first came to England, but it's just another game now."

It promises to be an intriguing tie. The two sides met no fewer than six times last season and Wimbledon failed to win a single match. But, after initially struggling to adapt to Olsen's zonal system, the Dons will have been encouraged by their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last Saturday. "They did find Egil's style hard at first but they'll be on a high after the result against Man U," Leonhardsen said. "And when they're finally all in tune, they'll be very hard to beat because the 4-5-1 formation is incredibly difficult to break down."

Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, Leonhardsen insists it is actually an attacking system. "The idea is to get hold of the ball and break very fast in numbers," he explained. "People think Egil is defensive- minded but nothing could be further from the truth. He's one of the most attacking coaches I've played for. He's forever studying the opposition and compiling statistics. He knows what works and how to implement it on the pitch."

Tottenham will be hoping they are one variable the old mathematician has misjudged.