Football: Ginola's well of artistry runs dry

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THREE down, two to go, and the Tottenham-Wimbledon mini-series shows no signs of revealing its denouement. The departure of the leading man on the hour with a thigh strain caused by a heavy tackle did nothing to diminish the intensity of last night's Worthington Cup semi-final first leg, but it did remove its only claim on the attention of the uncommitted. Without David Ginola, these are two sides different in style and motivation but comparable in mediocrity.

When Joe Kinnear invited us to devote less time to heaping praise on Ginola and more to admiring the solid yeoman virtues of Kenny Cunningham, who marks the Frenchman when he ventures down the right flank of Wimbledon's defence, the Dons' manager was putting his finger on the eternal division in English football. The battle between the artists and the artisans was being waged long before the appearance of the foreign imports. In the Sixties there were plenty who believed the qualities of such fearsome battlers as Dave Mackay or Tommy Smith contained more of the true essence of football than the lightweight wizardry of George Eastham or Alex Young, and no doubt such debates were going on in earlier decades. White Hart Lane has the tradition of being a happy hunting ground for the latter breed, with Ossie Ardiles (whose meetings with Smith were the stuff of legend) pre-eminent among them.

No doubt Ginola is aware of this heritage, although it would be unreasonable to expect him to appreciate its precious place in English football history. And so devoid is the present Tottenham team of players of skill and artistry that he could hardly have been presented with a clearer opportunity to assert himself. His time at White Hart Lane may come to be seen as the defining passage of his career, something to overshadow at last the dreadful error that cost his country a place in the 1994 World Cup finals.

Too early to say, of course. But Ginola may have sensed his opportunity in the hunger of the Spurs crowd for a successor to John White and Glenn Hoddle. He may already have concluded that they will forgive him all manner of fecklessness on the pitch if he balances his faults with those moments of magic that appear to have turned a game. George Graham, of course, will not so easily forgive him his trespasses, and Ginola's will be one measure of the manager's success in his new surroundings.

Very little in the first half of last night's match stirred memories of the great Tottenham teams of earlier days, thanks to Wimbledon's effective use of a double line of defence, denying Ginola options as he took possession in what should have been the space behind the two strikers, Chris Armstrong and Steffen Iversen. He won a corner n the seventh minute and was bundled over for a free-kick on the touchline 10 minutes before half-time, and set Allan Nielsen on his way with a swiftly struck ball from the centre circle five minutes later, but otherwise his promptings were unremarkable. With the forwards offering little in the way of interesting runs, it looked as though he might have to do the whole thing himself once more.

Graham's presence in the dug-out from the start of the second half may or may not have been the inspiration for the game's first true moment of grace, when Ginola directed an elegant back-heel to Nielsen, an invitation to slice open the Wimbledon rearguard that his fellow midfielder was unable to accept. Three minutes later he repeated the trick, this time from a deeper position, sending Steffen Freund on his way into Wimbledon territory to set up an attack that culminated in a reflex handball by Cunningham to Ginola's attempted diagonal pass into the area.

After 56 minutes Ginola set off on a dribble from the left touchline. Up on tiptoes like a Baryshnikov, he swayed lightly as Cunningham retreated before him. Just outside the area the Wimbledon defender was reinforced by two colleagues, one of whom, Robbie Earle, dispossessed the Frenchman with a powerful and perfectly timed tackle which, after removing the ball, deposited Ginola on the ground. He got to his feet, but grimaced as he rubbed his right thigh. Two minutes later he was looking at Graham and shaking his head, asking to be taken off. As he left, he paused to deliver a comment to Kinnear, presumably a Gallic analysis of Wimbledon's contribution to art and entertainment. On a night like this, you'd have to agree.