Football: Anderton follows route 96

A player cursed by medical bulletins is spurred by the news that his World Cup odyssey is back on track: Steve Tongue charts the rocky return to prominence of a winger with wings to spread
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The Independent Online
HE hates the nickname "Sick-note", and understandably so, with its connotations not only of physical frailty but of being first to drop out as soon as the going gets remotely tough. The rather pallid baby-face - 26 going on 16 - does nothing for the image either.

Now, having convinced one of his former heroes, Glenn Hoddle, that he is a better bet than another, Matt Le Tissier, for football's ultimate challenge this summer, Tottenham's Darren Anderton has the chance to prove to sceptics that he is something more than the softest of southern softies.

For once, everything seems to be in his favour. His fitness tested, and proven, after the call to arms for Spurs' grim struggle against relegation, Anderton would appear to need only 90 more minutes free of setbacks against Saudi Arabia on Saturday to get his name on a boarding-pass to France.

"If I can make it and be involved in the World Cup, it will go a long way to making up for what has happened in the last two years," he said this week. "It was a bit of a shock when I heard the good news that I was in the squad of 30, although I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping it would happen.

"A month ago, I thought I had no chance. I couldn't get in the Spurs team, let alone play for England. So it's great to be in a position where I have a chance to be involved. I've been surprised by how fit I feel, but I've been working hard at it and it has paid off. I know I could be a bit sharper, but that will come. At least I feel very fresh and should be fresher than some of the lads who have had a long, hard season. If someone had said to me on Sunday that my season was over, I would have been very upset. I don't want to go away and have an eight-week holiday. I want to play football."

There is a notably close precedent for all this. Two years ago, problems with a hernia kept him out of the game from September until mid-April, when he returned for Tottenham's last three matches and went on to play in every England game during Euro 96.

A wretched series of injuries to just about every part of the lower body meant missing huge chunks of the two subsequent seasons. Once again, however, he was back to start Spurs' final three games and now another major tournament beckons - or should that be Beckhams? Unlike 1996, when Terry Venables had tried a clutch of players wide on the right (Dennis Wise, Rob Lee, Steve McManaman, Steve Stone), David Beckham has made himself the regular incumbent. But Hoddle's ringing endorsement last week significantly stressed the extra options offered by Anderton.

He was backed up yesterday by a former team-mate of both men, and of another important figure in the equation, Paul Gascoigne. Gary Mabbutt, resigning himself to the leaving of the Lane after 16 seasons at Tottenham, has seen Anderton appear in a whole variety of positions and believes that both he and Gascoigne can play a role this summer.

"I probably think Darren's best position is behind the front two, though he can play in the middle of midfield or out wide. Because he works so very very hard, he's an asset wherever he plays." Having spent a full year out with a broken leg in 1996-97, Mabbutt saw plenty of Anderton in the treatment room and witnessed a resolution that outsiders might imagine his club-mate to lack.

"He knows what he wants and he's gone through a lot of work individually. When you're injured for a long while and on your own, it can be like knocking your head against a brick wall. He's been very single-minded, he's a player who gets on with it. Of course it's frustrating at times, but he's been very determined.

"Because he's done a lot of work with a fitness coach and been working very hard for a long while, it's not as if he's struggling. He's come back fully fit, enthusiastic and raring to go, where other players might be feeling they're not at their best after a long season. As with Gazza, the big stage is set for him.

"His return to our team was certainly very important in the fight against relegation and clearly showed what we'd been missing over the last few years - players who can create things and bring a new dimension which we'd been lacking."

Those qualities were ignored a decade ago by Southampton, the home-town club he supported as a boy, and for a while it seemed that Portsmouth, the old enemy at the other end of the M27, might regard that willowy frame as insufficiently tough. It was his own team-mates, with the caring sensitivity found in football dressing-rooms, who introduced the "sick-note" label, but his former manager Jim Smith recalls Anderton winning the cross-country races as well as the sprints in training.

"Physically he might have needed building up, but his lack of strength was only because of youth," Smith says. "He could play and he was an athlete. I was very fortunate when I went there that there was a group of talented young players, and Darren was the outstanding one. I had no doubts in my mind that he'd go all the way."

As a 20-year-old Second Division player, he almost went all the way to Wembley, scoring late against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Highbury, before Ronnie Whelan's cruel equaliser and Liverpool's victory on penalties in the replay. Portsmouth could not keep him and that summer Tottenham paid pounds 1.75m plus Paul Walsh.

Their manager Terry Venables kept the faith despite an unsettling start to life in the big league, and for his first game in charge of England, in March 1994, gave a first full cap to Anderton. "I can't honestly remember anyone having a better international debut than Darren," Venables said afterwards.

By the end of Venables' first full season, 15 months later, only Alan Shearer, David Platt and Graeme Le Saux had played in more matches for him. The sick-notes seemed to be a thing of the past and Manchester United's admiration was so high that they almost prised him away from Tottenham. Anderton stayed, delighted by Gerry Francis's stated aim of building a team around him in central midfield. Then everything turned the shape of a huge, squidgy pear.

Twice summoned by Venables' successor Hoddle, he twice withdrew, but was not forgotten. Anderton willingly visited faith healer Eileen Drewery, whom he credits with curing his hamstring problems a year ago, and an impressive performance for the England B team against Russia last month was good enough - unlike Le Tissier's - to get him back into the fold.

"People have always been questioning whether Darren will be able to do it," says Mabbutt. "I'd just tell them to put on the video of Euro 96." Press the "stop" button before Anderton shoots against a post in extra- time of the semi-final against Germany, and it is possible to imagine a happy ending all round - both then and now.