Football: Ginola: I feel I must help people dream

He was regarded as a luxury item. Today he is the essential ingredient
THE TOTTENHAM faithful are no strangers to inspirational players. Ricky Villa, Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle and Gary Lineker all marked the club's glorious past. And when Spurs last reached Wembley in 1991, winning their only trophy this decade so far, their campaign was led by a Paul Gascoigne at the peak of his powers.

They may not be playing for the FA Cup yet, but for a group of players who only narrowly avoided relegation last year, triumph in the Worthington Cup final this afternoon would be no mean feat. Indeed, there is a feeling in north London, that the class of 1999, inspired by an upmarket shampoo salesman, could capture the first of many trophies.

In the lead-up to the meeting with Leicester, then, the doors to Tottenham's training ground were opened on Thursday. Gathered in a dusty car park were close to 100 journalists. And all were there for one man. It is not often that the likes of Darren Anderton, Les Ferdinand or Sol Campbell can walk virtually unchallenged through a melee of reporters. The managers will say otherwise, but this final is about one man, a French man, David Ginola.

Seen as a luxury player by many, and tipped for the George Graham boot by most, the mercurial winger has actually enjoyed the season of his English life. Stronger and more dedicated, he has dazzled with his skills and goals (not least the winner at Barnsley on Tuesday). This year, Ginola has exceeded everybody's expectations. Except, that is, maybe his own.

"When I left France, I said I wasn't coming to England just to knit," insisted the man who has woven his magic on many English fields over the past four years. "Despite that pledge, and unlike other players, though, I have always been asked to give 150 per cent all the time. I'm not allowed just to perform adequately."

Ginola, who may follow in the studmarks of illustrious predecessors such as Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp as Player of the Year, is well aware of the extra demands on foreigners. "We are always expected to do more in England," he said. "We have to stand out to justify our salaries. I have had to work very hard to make it here, to prove that I was talented."

Ginola has undoubtedly achieved that, and despite being recently touted for a return to France, the player born near St Tropez is now at the heart of the Lane's revival. "I don't know if you can talk of symbolic players," he said during an interview for L'Equipe TV at Spurs Lodge, "but I have had a good season and, in many people's minds, I represent the new spirit of Tottenham."

The fresh Graham harvest is already bearing its first fruits. "Going to Wembley will be a great occasion," Ginola said. "Especially for the fans. Last year, they were unhappy with the chairman, the management and the players. This is just reward for all the hard work we've done in training."

Not that Wembley has been an entirely happy hunting ground for Ginola. The last time he strutted his stuff there, his then Newcastle team were on the end of a 4-0 drubbing by Manchester United, albeit in the Charity Shield. "It wasn't a good day, but you cannot have bad memories of Wembley. Even if you lose, playing there is such an important part of a player's career that the experience alone is fantastic."

Ginola returns to the Twin Towers today in different circumstances to those of August 1996. Not only will he be playing for a cup rather than for charity, but he has moved from the periphery to the core of the action.

Ginola has exchanged the fringe benefits of Keegan's cavalier approach for the artistic responsibilities of Graham's otherwise pragmatic team. According to Gary Lineker, "if Ginola doesn't do anything, then Spurs lack creativity".

What Ginola has lost from playing all-attacking football, however, he has gained in spared heartache. As a key member of the Newcastle team who surrendered that 12-point lead, he has experienced enough of the two extremes to last him a lifetime. "We seemed to lose our grip on the Premiership, both on and off the pitch. It all happened too quickly for the players," said Ginola, who maintains the experience has served him well. "Whatever happened, most people believe we played some of the best football ever seen in this country. I can't be too hurt by that."

Ginola - who has had to cope with France's vilification for supposedly costing them qualification for USA 94 and has been taunted for his catwalk looks and his tumbling tendencies - is not shying away from the current limelight. "My image is good today, but it has been bad in the past and will be forgotten one day. That's the nature of this business."

If Ginola is flavour of the month on our shores, then the French seem to have forgotten him completely. "When I meet people at the airport in France," explained the 32-year-old winger, "they ask me whether I am enjoying retirement." Ginola is more puzzled than hurt by the apparent disregard of his compatriots. "Sure, there is always a bit of jealousy in everyone, but I don't think it's as simple as that. It's certainly not that sportsmen are not recognised in France, it's more that there is real passion here," he said with surprising unconcern. "English people enjoy watching a player for what he is; they don't worry who he plays for. They enjoy talent."

You get the impression that Ginola is finally more at ease with himself. "I feel my responsibility is to help people dream. Everyone needs an escape from their everyday struggles. If we, as footballers who don't have those worries, can give them that outlet, we should."

Even if, by his own admission, the FA Cup is still the ultimate dream - not least because he will be playing Newcastle in the semi-final at Old Trafford on 11 April - he no doubt plans to sprinkle a bit of his magic on the Wembley turf today. And, bearing in mind that his English trophy cabinet is bare, few would begrudge him a winner's medal come 5pm.

Least of all his Spurs team-mates, who all agree he has improved no end as a player. "Last year, I worked very hard to help the club out of a hole. The difference this season is that we are in a better situation. It takes the pressure off."

As to whether he is a better defender, the Spurs No14 is unequivocal: "Let's face it, I'll never be a defensive giant. I'm not made for that anyhow."

He insists that the manager shares the view. "When George Graham speaks to me before a game, he says `David, try to do something magical'." You can bet your trendy vest that, come kick-off, David will be trying.