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Football: Ardiles now older and wiser

Croatia Zagreb's coach has changed his style since his managerial misfortunes in England.
A MORE suitable place than the Theatre of Dreams it is hard to imagine for the return of a dreamer like Ossie Ardiles, English football's original favourite foreigner. Playing the game the way Manchester United do, and the way he himself did as a player, represented the Holy Grail for the little Argentinian, who suffered so much in his search for it as a manager in England.

Few coaches this season in the Champions' League will look forward to a visit to the home of the European champions with as much relish as Ardiles does. "Old Trafford has always been one of my lucky grounds, I'm looking forward to it enormously," said Ardiles, who takes his new club, Croatia Zagreb, there on Tuesday in the opening match of Group D. He would be the first to concede that his luck was in before United established themselves as the force they are today, but he is unconcerned.

Ardiles has waited five years for this day, to be centre stage once more in England, which he still regards as his adopted home, having a house in Hertfordshire and both his sons, Frederico and Pablo, at university there. He even gave up his coaching job in Japan - after being awarded the accolade of manager of the year last December - in order to experience "the real thing" again in Europe. Not that he would say it, of course, but one senses that he hopes that Zagreb is a stopping-off point on his journey back to England.

Most men would have been soured forever by his experiences at Newcastle and Tottenham, and Ardiles admits that it took him a long time to recover from the shock of his sacking at White Hart Lane because he was "Spurs through and through". He has never been a bitter man and, of course, he was ever the diplomat, from the day Tommy Smith "introduced" himself in a League Cup tie at The Vetch with a tackle designed to send the little Argentinian straight back to Buenos Aires. "Tommy very nice man, very nice player," said Ardiles memorably.

Kevin Keegan, he believed, "benefited" from the young players like Steve Howey, Lee Clarke and Steve Watson, whom he brought through. Newcastle had been a "wonderful experience" - unlike his beloved "Tottingham". Surprisingly, he said he would never have taken the manager's job at Spurs if he had known what he was in for. "Before I arrived at Tottenham I didn't have any enemies among the football fraternity," he said, "but when I left I had quite a lot, really. The Alan Sugar-Terry Venables situation was incredible political. It was a terrible place to manage, it was impossible. It was like a big fire and I was the fireman who had to put it out. When Glenn [Hoddle] took the job at Chelsea rather than Spurs, I thought he was crazy, but I soon realised he had made the right decision.

"All the players were Terry Venables players, in fact the majority of them didn't want to play for us. Spurs were also the club to hit, so it was a kind of no-win situation. Alan was very confrontational with the FA, the League, other clubs. He learned more in his first year than he did in all the rest. Now he is a different person."

His timing as a manager, unlike that as a player, has always been a bit awry, usually through no fault of his own. He steered Swindon into the Premiership only to immediately suffer a double relegation at the hands of the FA because of other people's wrong-doing; at Newcastle, the money men arrived the moment he left, having been the only manager among the last half-dozen at St James' Park not to have a penny to spend on players; while at Spurs, the FA's six-point penalty, which had partly prompted the club into taking the drastic action it did when sacking Ardiles just three months into the season, was rescinded within a month of his departure.

He returns to England still besotted with the game, but older and wiser, he said. "Maybe Japan changed me a little bit," he said. "Before, it was really important to me that my team had to play good football. Now I'm more pragmatic. Here it's like Italy, you have to earn respect with every game you play. We drew our last game away from home and it was a kind of mini-crisis. In England it's more of a long-term situation. But I don't feel I have anything to prove to anyone in England."

Playing United would make a change from trying to break down massed defences, as his team has to do every week in the Croatian League. He will not, though, be playing with five forwards - home or away. He concedes that United nowadays are a harder team to play against because their threat comes from a variety of sources but, typically, the dilettante in him refuses to accept that they are a better team without Eric Cantona. "I don't want to think about how good they could be if Eric were still there. I would always have him in my team."