Football: Gross keen for clean bill of health

Premiership countdown: The most important man in Tottenham's team this season will not even be on the pitch
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The Independent Online
KUNLE ODETOYINBO might not be a household name in north London, let alone the rest of the country, but he could turn out to be the most significant signing Tottenham Hotspur have made for several years.

At the start of almost every season it seems Spurs have the playing power to compete with the very best, but for at least the past three years their prospects have been blighted by an appaling run of injuries. It eventually cost Gerry Francis his job but Christian Gross, his successor in the White Hart Lane hot seat, is determined to avoid the same fate. Hence Odetoyinbo's appointment last April.

Odetoyinbo holds a masters degree in sport science, not to mention a certificate in nutritional science, and as Spurs' new fitness instructor he will be responsible for ensuring that this season the millions of pounds worth of talent at the club's disposal spends more time on the pitch than it has on the treatment table.

Tottenham have added only one new name to their playing staff - the Italian full-back Paolo Tramezzani - but if others like Darren Anderton, Les Ferdinand and Chris Armstrong can stay healthy, and the Norwegian striker Steffen Iversen returns to full fitness, Gross will be entitled to feel he can make a fresh start after the trauma of last season's flirtation with relegation.

"I'm confident in the quality of the players but we need them to stay fit," Gross said recently during the club's pre-season press conference at the Spurs Lodge, where training facilities have been considerably enhanced over the summer.

"I understand the fans' expectations, and I can guarantee them we'll have a strong team. But it's very important that we make a good start, and then we can look forward. The level is very even in the Premiership. I am ambitious and so are the players - they won't be happy just to avoid relegation again.

"The games here in England are like boxing fights," the Swiss coach added. "Every team, even in away games, is looking for three points and it makes for big entertainment with a lot of passion, but you have to be fit. Kunle has experience of working on a one-to-one basis with different athletes, not just in football, and I'm used to working with fitness coaches. I'm changing our ideas and I wanted him to be here. The players are used now to the methods and the way I like to train them, we just have to keep going and improve our consciousness on the pitch."

Allan Nielsen, the Spurs midfield player and a World Cup quarter-finalist with Denmark, is in no doubt about the value of proper attention to fitness. "I was disappointed by what we did in pre-season last year," he said.

"It wasn't what I was used to, but now it's very well organised. There's a discipline in what we're doing. If the team is in good shape, you're capable of playing better football and you're more free to try things on the pitch."

Nielsen found his own situation compromised by injuries to other players last season, filling in at left-back for the last few games. "I was happy to help out," he said, "but I'm a midfield player and the coach knows that."

Expectations of Nielsen will have risen after France 98, and the same will apply to Darren Anderton. The Spurs fans have been denied the best of the England winger because of injury, and Anderton will be anxious to put that right.

"He's a very important player for us and we don't want him to have any more problems," Gross said. "He can make the game very fast, he's one of these players who likes to play one-touch. He had an excellent World Cup and it was Glenn [Hoddle's] choice to put him on the right-hand side of a five-man midfield, but we won't be playing with five. Maybe he'll play on the right, maybe in the middle."

Gross says Tottenham's options are limited when it comes to signing players, and that they are unlikely to add to the squad ahead of Saturday's first match at Wimbledon.

"The fact that Tottenham are not involved in any European competitions makes it not so easy to deal with the really well-known players," Gross said.

"They're looking on the money side, of course, but they're also interested in playing in Europe. Any new signing must make sense. There is money available, but it must be the right player. It must be the right balance between young and experienced players."

As far as this season's targets are concerned, qualification for Europe would be a start, but if Odetoyinbo can work wonders behind the scenes then who knows?

"Last year we battled against relegation," Nielsen said, "so it's a big step to say we're going to win something. The first thing is to have a good start, get some confidence, score some goals and then anything can happen.

"We want to go as far as we can and play good football as well. I've got another two years left on my contract, and I want to see Spurs in the top five in that time."