Football: Interview - Les Ferdinand: Ferdinand fired up for good times

Premiership: Some observers thought pounds 6m fee was too high but Spur s' fit-again forward feels he can repay investment
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS odd to suggest that his time spent as a steam cleaner, a van driver, and a painter and decorator can be put to good use now as he battles to re-establish himself as one of the leading strikers in English football. But this is what Les Ferdinand, once one of the most feared footballers in the penalty box, uses to help in his fight to fulfil the promise Tottenham Hotspur believed in when they forked out pounds 6m for him two and a half years ago.

Since that move from Newcastle United, where Ferdinand had hitherto enjoyed much success first without, and then with Alan Shearer, his reputation as one of the most lethal finishers in the business has, together with his body, taken a bit of a pounding. Other strikers have either leap-frogged over him in the jostling for international selection or, in the case of a certain Michael Owen, emerged during his absence.

A frustrated Ferdinand currently finds himself injury-free, which is a bonus judging by the past two seasons, but not a guaranteed starter in the Spurs first team. At the age of 32, some might feel his best days are now past him. The man in question, however, begs to differ.

"Maybe a few years ago that might have been the case, but players have been educated in terms of looking after themselves, and with the right diet, nutrition and exercise regime, I see no reason why I should not be playing at the highest level for a good four or five years," he explains, as we sit in one of the Tottenham dressing-rooms.

"Having the kind of background I've had - coming through relatively late, and with all those manual jobs beforehand - has helped me both as a player and a person. I look around the Tottenham squad today, and there are many youngsters here who only know about football. They just don't seem to be as hungry for it as I believe they should be.

"Some of them might be in for a shock later if things were to go wrong for them in their careers, like injuries, or loss of form. I've never forgotten my days driving a van, steam cleaning, or painting. The majority of my family still do those kind of jobs. I appreciate what I have. I've been lucky, and it's because of this that I've been able to come through the past two and a half years with my confidence intact.

"The experience and memories I have from playing in successful sides - Newcastle, England, and to a lesser extent, QPR - have kept me going. I want to get back to those days. I don't want to have already reached my peak."

Unlike some players I could think of, Ferdinand's refreshing honesty means he does not hide behind any excuses when it comes to his Tottenham career to date. He is more than happy to hold his hands up. "The supporters know what I'm capable of because they've seen me produce the goods elsewhere.

"But they haven't seen me do it in a Tottenham shirt and they have every right to reserve their judgement on me until I succeed. People felt pounds 6m was a lot of money for a player of my age, and at this moment you'd have to say, with my record at Spurs, it was too much. But I aim, of course, to change that."

He insists his confidence in his own ability remains high but, like any striker, he needs to start scoring some goals. "Kevin Keegan once described me at Newcastle as a monster who needed to be fed. David Ginola and Keith Gillespie on the wings, and Peter Beardsley behind me used to do the feeding.

"Tottenham have obviously struggled in the past two seasons, and any striker will tell you he needs good service in order to score goals. It's been very frustrating. I've sat on the sidelines, watched a few chances go begging, and heard commentators say: `If Les Ferdinand had been playing he would have had a field day'. Then I get a chance to play and nothing seems to come my way.

"I've been a 25-goals-a-season man at every club I've played for, except Tottenham. My goals-per-game ratio here has been appalling. Last season I scored five goals. I thought: `What the hell's going on here?' But I honestly believe it's beginning to look up for me. I've come off the pitch recently and thought that only a goal had been missing from an otherwise good performance. I just need an extended, injury-free run."

For a man with Ferdinand's recent record, an injury-free run might be a lot to ask for. Does he consider himself these days to be one of those players daubed with the negative tag of "injury-prone"?

"I don't really know," he replies, having given the subject some thought. "I know there are some players lucky enough to have never experienced a major injury, and there are others who never get off the treatment table. I guess it's just the way I play the game. I'm always in the thick of things, and I'm liable to fall awkwardly, or get clattered by a goalie or defender. It's happened too much for my liking, though, and I hope that this time I can get on with playing. I've come a long way from the White City Estate and I've achieved a lot, but there's no way I'll be satisfied until I've done myself justice at Spurs."

Coming a long way includes a fitful England career: something, of course, which Ferdinand finds frustrating to analyse. "Right now, I have no desire to play for England," he admits. "If I start banging in the goals for Tottenham then it might come for me, but I've never felt I was given a fair crack of the whip at international level.

"I always saw myself as a second-choice striker, always on the fringe looking in. Sure, I played a few times, but it was almost always because someone else was injured. I had a bit of a run under Graham Taylor but, other than that, I've been in and out. Terry Venables didn't believe a Shearer-Ferdinand partnership could work. Keegan obviously did at Newcastle."

Still things, as Ferdinand rightly accepts, could be worse. At Tottenham, George Graham seems to be turning the corner for the club. "It's looking like George will be part of the fixtures and fittings here for quite some time," is how Ferdinand puts it. "All the players know he wants to bring new faces in, and we're hoping we're not the ones he wants to replace. We've endured the bad times, so we want to play a part in the good ones we know are not far away."

Like, for example, a cup win at Wembley. This is possible in the FA Cup, where Spurs visit Leeds in the fifth round, and also in the Worthington Cup, where they are a victory at Wimbledon away from reaching the final. Incredibly, a semi-final is as far as Ferdinand has ever ventured.

"I've never played at Wembley for any club, and never won an English cup," he admits. "I played for Besiktas when they won the Turkish cup, but it's not quite the same, is it? My trophy cabinet contains a few England caps and the 1996 PFA Player of the Year award, of which I am very proud. But there are no winner's medals. There's not a lot to show for what I've done. I'd like to put that straight while I still have the time."

Maybe his chance will come this year. Tottenham's fortunes are beginning to look up under Graham. Ferdinand is hoping the same can be said for him.