Football Commentary: Tottenham face demands of relegation warfare

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The Independent Online
UNFAIR dismissal? Blessing in disguise, more like. While Terry Venables was enjoying the BBC's hospitality, courtesy of Match of the Day, his old Tottenham team were locked in their dressing-room, exchanging a few home truths.

The suspicion that Spurs may have done the new England coach a favour when they sacked him last summer was reinforced by the scale of their FA Cup defeat at Portman Road on Saturday.

Beaten 3-0 by an Ipswich Town team who are no better than ordinary, the rest of their season offers nothing more appetising than a grim struggle to preserve their Premiership status.

Too good to go down? Don't you believe it. With just one win in their last 14 games and morale at rock bottom, they bear all the hallmarks of a relegation team.

Nothing if not frank, Ossie Ardiles admits Ronnie Rosenthal, his stop-gap signing from Liverpool, is not the answer. That has to come 'from within ourselves', he said.

Their reaction in adversity on Saturday left him questioning whether his players had the stomach for the fight. In the manner of beleaguered managers everywhere, he has abandoned talk of style and skill and sounded the time-honoured call for character and commitment.

'We are not prepared to fight hard enough,' he said. 'We look like a team waiting to be beaten. We are not prepared to earn the right to play. There is no urgency to win the ball back - no desire to fight when the other team have it.

'We are all trying to shift the blame, looking for excuses, which is extremely dangerous. We have to show a lot more determination.'

Fair comment, but it is also reasonable to question whether the mild-mannered Argentinian - motto 'Play, play play' - has what it takes to instil such qualities in players in need of them, or to find them in those who may have temporarily mislaid them.

At Newcastle, when the going got tough, and they were in danger of relegation to the old Third Division, they dispensed with Ardiles in favour of Kevin Keegan. The transformation bordered on the miraculous.

In fairness, it should be remembered that Spurs won well at Newcastle on opening day, and were a promising fifth in the table when their attack was emasculated by the loss of the England striker, Teddy Sheringham. A second debilitating injury also deprived them of their most influential defender, Gary Mabbutt, and it is not entirely a mystery why they now stand 15th in the League, perched precariously above the trapdoor.

The reasons, though, constitute a poor excuse. A couple of injuries should not imperil a club of Tottenham's standing. Just as significant - maybe more so - has been the disappointing form shown by the players Ardiles has brought in. Colin Calderwood and Jason Dozzell look overpriced at pounds 3m the pair, and David Kerslake, at pounds 500,000, can do no better than a place on the bench.

Small wonder, in such circumstances, that Alan Sugar, who faces a hefty bill for ground improvements, should be reluctant to plough more of his personal fortune into an ailing team. Ardiles says there is more money available, and that further reinforcements can be expected before Sheffield Wednesday's visit on Saturday, but the word is that he has no more than pounds 750,000 to spend.

Invested wisely, it might conceivably be enough to make a difference, but the need is short-term - a Reid or a Robson to bolster a flimsy midfield rather than another Kerslake.

A powerful, authoritative centre-half - another Ruddock - would not go amiss, either. Lacking height and, more culpably, organisation, Spurs were wide open at every set-piece, and conceded two soft goals from corners. Ardiles had a good word for it. 'The way we defended was infantile really.'

Ipswich had done their homework, and punished the weakness with ruthless efficiency. John Wark said their manager, Mick McGiven, had watched Spurs and had come back with tales of their vulnerability in the air at dead-ball situations.

Wark, a wily old campaigner with the experience Tottenham are crying out for, had tested Ian Walker at the far post before he set up the first goal, rising unchallenged to nod down a Neil Thompson corner for Ian Marshall to thrash the ball in from six yards.

Another corner, another goal. Boncho Genchev was the taker this time, David Linighan winning it in the air with a header deflected in by Gavin Johnson's close-range nudge.

Steve Sedgley summed up Spurs' response. 'We went a couple of goals down and there was nothing there.' Nothing, that is, except comprehensive, damning defeat.

Ipswich, stronger and more competitive, could easily have had a couple more, but were happy enough with 3-0, the third rifled in by Thompson, left to right.

Spurs might have had some small statistical consolation right at the death, when Nick Barmby's point-blank header brought a spectacular save from Craig Forrest, but 3-1 would have flattered them. Apart from a couple of elusive runs from Darren Anderton, their contribution was negligible.

Yes, Ardiles was worried by the situation. His players would be at a disadvantage in a dogfight, he said. Unlike the others in the scrapping zone, they were not used to the special demands of relegation warfare.

'We've not been involved in this before. The others have, and they know what is needed.'

Out of the FA Cup and in trouble in the League, Tottenham need a new song to replace 'Ossie's Dream'. Altogether now: 'Spurs are on their way to Endsleigh . . .'

Goals: Marshall (53) 1-0; Johnson (65) 2-0; Thompson (85) 3-0.

Ipswich Town (4-4-2): Forrest; Stockwell, Wark, Linighan, Thompson; Slater (Palmer, 73), Youds, Williams, Johnson; Marshall, Genchev. Substitutes not used: Kiwomya, Baker (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-5-1): Walker; Austin, Calderwood, Nethercott, Edinburgh; Anderton, Dozzell (Campbell, 80), Caskey, Samways, Sedgley; Barmby. Substitutes not used: Kerslake, Day (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).