Football: Christian in need of lions

Tottenham's new coach is strong on discipline but fans will soon remind him of the need to entertain; Ian Ridley says the first priority of a tough leader will be to stop Tottenham' s freefall
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"A spoonful of this helps the Tottenham go down." (Answer: Alan Sugar).

Rory McGrath, They Think It's All Over, 10 days ago.

"This Christian Gross fella ain't going to Spurs after all - he's picked up an injury."

Arsenal gateman, Tuesday.

"Apparently the obscene material they allegedly found in Gary Glitter's computer is Tottenham's away record."

Richard Littlejohn, Radio 5, Wednesday.

"The Inland Revenue are investigating Spurs. It seems the club have been claiming for silver polish on their expenses."

Traditional, translated from the Latin.

Stereotypically , the Swiss are not supposed to be big on jokes. But Herr Gross will have got the message from the banter doing the rounds recently about the status of the team he will watch in action for the first time tomorrow when Tottenham take on Crystal Palace at White Hart Lane. The new coach, who will not assume full control until his work permit arrives, had his game face on when he arrived at the stadium last Thursday.

His Spurs will be aggressive, he said; they will act not react. The need first is to stop the club's Premiership freefall before any questions about an attractive team can be answered. Discipline and "teamvirk" were the key words, he added. It might even have been Gerry Francis of three years ago talking.

Except that Christian Gross has a few ideas of his own he is likely to impose. At Grasshopper of Zurich, he once presented the team with a picture of a castle and urged them to think of the team as a fortress. "In my work I am introducing a lot of pictures," he said. "The animals are excellent symbols. The lions on the England shirt are symbols of pride. The cockerel on the crest of the Tottenham shirt is, for me, fighting."

For others it means waking up, and the Tottenham players seem likely to be stirred from any reveries, and not only by the emphatic intonation that Gross employs when he speaks as if learnt especially for idling players. Training methods will be revised by his fitness coach Fritz Schmid, whose permanent smile may well mask a sadistic streak, as they seek to establish why the club has been suffering so many long-term injuries. Diet and stretching will become more important.

It is not good enough that Darren Anderton has played only 15 games in two years, said Gross. "And I could add Ramon Vega. In Switzerland he was never injured." Fines for lateness will be implemented. David Ginola may have to give up his 10 cigarettes a day.

And what of the on-field Ginola, who has so far shown the greatest attacking prowess in the team but continues to frustrate colleagues? "Excellent player," said Gross. "There are two situations in football. When you have the ball and when you don't. When you don't have it, you have to get it. Everybody."

Himself? "Give me two or three weeks and everyone will know me," he said, possibly the first manager not to ask for time, having accepted only an 18-month contract, "because you have none in football". Now there was an ominous tone to his remarks, the toughness emerging. Here in the Oak Room it was the last interview of his appointment day, all the stunts and rehearsed speeches were over and those warning, waking bells for the players were sounding. Now he was coming across as the love child of Dr Frasier Crane and Lotte Lenya.

Earlier he had sat in the Bill Nicholson Suite where glory-glory pictures on the wall might have served as inspiration. He had put on quite a show, talking of the wondrous tales of Tottenham he had heard as a seven-year- old and brandishing a travelcard from Heathrow as the "ticket of my dreams". Later, out on the pitch, he would talk of Les Ferdinand becoming the new Harry Hotspur, "a real English warrior".

Some 24 hours earlier all the history on the wall had seemed, by contrast, to be the burden that had finally oppressed Francis as he sat in the same position bravely facing the music where some departing managers might merely have sloped off. An exit door, that would be covered up for Gross, acted as appropriate backdrop for the television cameras.

Francis had first offered his resignation to Sugar after the 1-0 home defeat by Leeds on 1 November. Sugar asked him to reconsider but it seems the chairman began making inquiries about a new coach. Ottmar Hitzfeld, who led Borussia Dortmund to the European Cup last season, was apparently contacted but put Spurs on to Gross, his successor at Grasshopper. When Francis repeated his desire to go after the 4-0 defeat by Liverpool a fortnight ago, Sugar spoke to Gross on the Monday. A week of negotiations with Grasshopper, who get to play a friendly at White Hart Lane as part of the deal, were concluded last Monday and Gross met his new assistant Chris Hughton, who replaces Roger Cross, on Tuesday in Zurich.

The curious thing was the similarity of situation as well as location. Francis arrived to staunch the haemorrhaging of goals under Ossie Ardiles. At first his organisation worked, Spurs rose to seventh from fourth from bottom and reached an FA Cup semi-final. But the summer saw Jurgen Klinsmann, Nicky Barmby and Gica Popescu depart and the momentum was lost.

Ultimately, Francis sought to introduce the grace that Spurs fans demand but without having been able to recognise and attract the appropriate talent. Jose Dominguez and Ginola represented panic buying last summer. Francis, a pragmatic coach, was baffled by it all in the end. Actually, he had been in the beginning.

"I remember driving home after winning a match 1-0 when we were third in the table and hearing people on the radio saying there was not a lot of flair there," said Francis. "But the top sides grind out results. It's a mixture." He went on, with probably more genuine personal recall than Gross: "I remember the '60/61 Double team and all the creative players like Greaves, White, Medwin and Jones. But I also remember Norman, Mackay, Baker and Henry who were happy to knock the ball into touch if need be."

You couldn't help feeling sorry for him, and Alan Sugar clearly did. The chairman was genuinely reluctant to let Francis go and added that the job had become too much for one man, which was why he was implementing the system favoured three years ago when he first approached David Pleat to be director of football and wanted the Dutchman Leo Beenhakker as coach.

"He tried to entertain instead of keeping to his principles," said Sugar of Francis. "Had he stuck to the principles he had when he first came here, such as a strong defence, we wouldn't be in this situation." As he eyed Gross the next day with as much interest as anyone, it was evident he was contemplating the tiresome process of building a working relationship as comfortable as that he had with Francis. "It's all a gamble," he admitted.

Francis's departure, Sugar believed, was largely engineered by the media but that is hardly so. After the Liverpool defeat, for example, this correspondent wrote that Francis should give himself more time now that players were finally fit. Accusatory mail arrived here from the Tottenham fancy suggesting they had suffered him long enough.

So what does Gross inherit? A team not half as bad as their league position suggests but clearly deficient in confidence and mental toughness. In the first half at Liverpool, the balance of the team looked better for the return of Anderton to the midfield and Steffen Iversen up front, even if both tired. Once the first goal went against them, their hearts sank.

Most football followers have a soft spot for Spurs, because of the team's history, which is exactly its problem now. At least Gross should galvanise. Initially, there may be resentment among players to different methods, as there was at Arsenal with Arsene Wenger and Blackburn with Roy Hodgson, but if some success arrives, all will be accepted, as players do.

Gross's first assessment is likely to tell him that two from Gary Mabbutt, Colin Calderwood and Vega to accompany Sol Campbell should be good enough in defence. Up front, meanwhile, two from Ferdinand, Iversen and Chris Armstrong, should find sufficient goals while Ginola, braver than painted, can be a potent provider. The real problems are at full- or wing-back, on both flanks, and in central midfield where more consistent creativity allied to industry alongside the admirable anchor David Howells and potentially overburdened Anderton. Such players do still exist at reasonable value; Manchester City found Gheorghi Kinkladze for pounds 2m.

But the likelihood is that Spurs fans will have to endure more entrenchment before any return to those glory-glory days. Then, if he does not grasp it from Sugar, Gross will surely get the message about the importance of entertainment. Otherwise, for this man whose name is real headline material, it will be Christian burial.

The supporters, in turn, might have to come to terms more readily and less romantically with the modern game, which is quicker than ever before and less accommodating to individualism. Even their followers must admit that though a Swiss may seem a strange choice for the task, the immediate aim is to get Spurs out of neutral.