Football: Anderton the colt shows good breeding: Tottenham's winger features strongly in Venables' plans for Denmark on Wednesday. Joe Lovejoy reports

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ANY DOUBT that Terry Venables is ushering in a new era and a new generation will be dispelled next week when the first Darren plays for England. And play he will. Darren Anderton, Tel's Tottenham protege, has only to keep body and soul together this afternoon, when Sheffield United threaten their union, to be assured of his debut against Denmark on Wednesday.

Venables has not actually confirmed it, but he is dropping enough hints to make it an open secret that the leggy winger will win his first cap, less than a week after his 22nd birthday.

The Christian names and the hairstyles may change, but good traditions die hard, and old timers of any vintage would recognise the path that brought Anderton to the top. Schoolkid playing on local park is spotted by wizened coach in flat cap and makes it all the way to Wembley. Hollywood would love it. After Rocky, meet Cocky.

The man of the moment knew he had it in him, even before Alan Ball peered out from under his racegoer's headgear and squeaked 'Sign him up'.

Portsmouth's scouts and coaches had watched and written off the coltish adolescent, and it took Ball, manager at Fratton Park at the time, to overrule them all and give Anderton the apprenticeship he had previously been refused.

The Lion of '66 remembered it vividly. 'Look at Darren now and imagine him as a lad of 15, coming up 16. He was like a baby colt. He couldn't get his legs out of the way and they wouldn't do what his brain wanted them to, but he had this long stride and a good engine.

'He looked a good athlete but an ugly one. He could beat people by just loping past them. He probably doesn't know this (he didn't) but I'd been monitoring him for some time, and some days you'd look at him and he'd appear to be exhausted almost before he'd started. He was a tall, gangly kid who had outgrown his strength, but I could see he was a developer.

'That's what I've always looked for in young players. Others pick men-boys - lads who are shaving at 13 and are too strong for the others - but when the rest catch up physically they've lost the advantage, and they're not players.

''Darren was the other sort. I said to my staff: 'This boy has got ability. I want him to be given a two- year apprenticeship.' '

Not a bad judge, old 'Bally'. Six years on, Venables says of Anderton, the man: 'He can play wide, he can tuck in, he can play up front or he can handle a roving commission. He has an impressive range to his passing, crossing and finishing and, now that he's stronger, he's no pushover in the tackle any more.'

Tom Finney mark II, then. And there's more. 'He's got that ability to pick out the right pass very early. He gets half a yard on his man and puts in the early cross which is invaluable to a striker. He doesn't check back unnecessarily - and he's a good dead-ball kicker, too.'

How could any coach leave out such a player? The answer, of course, is that Venables won't.

No one is more certain that Anderton will play than Jim Smith, his old mentor at Portsmouth. Ball may have given Darren Jnr his apprenticeship, but it was Smith who gave him his chance in the first team, and turned him into 'Golden Bollocks', as the senior professional among English managers now calls him.

'I'm sure he'll play,' Smith says. 'I think he'll be nervous early on, as he was when he first went to Tottenham, but he does seem to have matured. I watch him on the box now, and I can see it in the way he's taking on more responsibility.

'It will be a major occasion for a young kid, making his international debut, but he'll have good players around him, and if he starts right, he'll be OK. He's a confidence player.'

That confidence increased in leaps and bounds during Portsmouth's run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup two years ago, when Anderton sprang to prominence with eye-catching, televised performances against Nottingham Forest and Liverpool.

Smith says: 'I always thought he would be an outstanding player, but that it was that Cup run that taught him that he could do it. He was Golden Bollocks that year, all right. He scored his goals on telly, and that's always important, isn't it? Seriously, he's a good player. He did it for me against Orient and at Middlesbrough in the early rounds, and that's how you judge a player. You want people who can do it - have the courage to take them on - away from home. Darren did that.'

For the man himself, it has been quite a week. His 18-year-old brother, Ben, who is on trial with Tottenham, broke a leg, he was picked for England for the first time, and on Wednesday he failed with a penalty which would have given Spurs their first Premiership win of 1994. Amid all the drama, the birthday passed almost unnoticed.

'There's a lot happening, and I'm not getting much rest at the moment,' he said, pointedly, during the interview that interrupted his day off, and delayed work on trimming a golf handicap of 10.

The international call had come 'totally out of the blue', but he would not be fazed by selection on Wednesday. 'The way I look at it, if the opportunity arises, then I've got to try to enjoy it, because it's everything I've worked for. I'll try to go out and take it in my stride.'

There were debts of gratitude he felt compelled to acknowledge. 'If it wasn't for Alan Ball I don't think I would have a professional career. I wasn't going to get an apprenticeship until he saw me play two weeks before they were handed out. It was that close.'

Then there was Jim Smith. 'He was brilliant. I remember when he first arrived at Portsmouth it was six weeks before the start of the season and he said: 'You're all starting from scratch. If you want to be in the team, you've got to prove to me that you're good enough.'

'The way it worked out, we started with four teenagers and a couple of others making their debuts. He put in six inexperienced players, which must have been a hell of a risk.'

If it was a gamble, it paid handsome dividends, Liverpool needing a replay, and then penalties, to deny the novices a place in the FA Cup final. Anderton scored in a memorable semi-final, drawn 1-1 at Highbury, when his performance convinced Venables that he had to have him for Spurs, even at pounds 1.7m.

Smith was right about the effect of it all. 'I've always believed in my ability, but that Cup run made me think that I could go on and be successful at a higher level. We had a bit of success and I enjoyed every minute of it. I wanted more.'

The move to Tottenham that followed had him worried for a while. 'I was injured to start with - I had a hernia, which didn't help - but basically I was only 20, and it took time to settle. Terry helped me immensely. I was having problems, but he never lost faith. He just said: 'Keep working hard, like you do, and it will all fall into place.' '

It did. 'I've grown stronger, physically, and I've definitely improved as a player. I'm a year older, a year wiser and a lot more confident. Playing with, and against, better players has helped me, and I'm really enjoying my football now, despite things not going well for Spurs.'

Even relegation clouds can have their silver lining, and Anderton feels he is benefiting from a new role he has been given in extremis. 'I regard myself as a right winger, but this season the manager (Ossie Ardiles) has urged me to come inside and search for the ball. He's given me the freedom to go where I like, and he wants me to have the ball as much as possible.

'Sometimes, if you're stuck out wide, you don't see much of it, and it can be very frustrating. Ossie says 'If you're not receiving the ball on the wing, just go and get it'. As a player, that's what you want to hear. You want to be involved as much as possible.'

If he is allowed such latitude on Wednesday, the roving brief will be the envy of Chris Waddle, who spent much of his truncated England career in arms-akimbo pique, starved of possession and forbidden to stray from the touchline.

There are marked similarities between the two men, in gait as well as playing style, but Anderton says he is not conscious of any. 'I can't see it, but others do, and it's a flattering comparison because he's one of the best players in the country. It goes without saying that I look up to him.'

Admirable or not, Waddle is 33, and unlikely to make it through to the finals of the European Championship in two years' time. The king of wingers will be dethroned by then. Long live Darren the first.

(Photograph omitted)