Football: No compromise for champion of beauty: Ardiles takes West Bromwich Albion to this weekend's play-off finals with his sights set beyond the First Division: Phil Shaw meets the Argentinian manager who is a firm believer in the Beautiful Game

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The Independent Online
PELE is not expected to attend tomorrow's Second Division play-off final at Wembley, though he will be there in spirit if Ossie Ardiles has anything to do with it.

Ardiles, whose West Bromwich Albion team must overcome Port Vale to clinch promotion for the first time since 1976 - two years before he earned a World Cup winner's medal - is under no illusions that the likes of Gary Strodder and Daryl Burgess are blessed with the god-like genius of the man from Brazil. But it is not for want of trying.

'You must aim to be the best or you have no chance of reaching your full potential. That's why I ask the boys to try and play like Pele,' the 40- year-old Argentinian explained. Since the road to Utopia runs, in Albion's case, via venues like Wigan and Exeter, Ardiles is used to seeing eyebrows raised sceptically when he expounds this theory.

'Too many players don't do as well as they should in the game because they don't have the confidence in their ability or their potential to improve. But a lot of the limitations are in the mind rather than the feet.

'If I ask you to do a bicycle kick, you'll probably say 'I can't'. But if you tried and worked at it again and again, I guarantee that even you (meaning your paunchy reporter) will be able to do it.

'But it doesn't prove you're a good player because you can do that. Some people who are extremely clever with the ball would be better to work in a circus rather than football. Being a good player means more than tricks.'

For most of his contemporaries - with the honourable exception of the other half of the old Tottenham dream ticket, Glenn Hoddle, who leads Swindon in Monday's First Division final - 'good players' are those who can get 'a result'. Ardiles likes to win as much as anyone. The difference is that he still believes in the Beautiful Game.

In his first managerial post, purism prevailed over pragmatism when Swindon won a place among the elite, only for the prize to be prised from their grasp because of a previous regime's fiscal misdeamours. With Newcastle, he was in danger of taking a divided, destitute club into the former Third Division when he was suddenly sacrificed to facilitate the Keegan revolution.

A year on, Ossie's Dream again has a chance to become reality and for that British football should be thankful. He has fashioned another fine, attacking team, who outscored everyone in the four divisions with the exception, ironically, of Newcastle.

Albion might now be celebrating automatic promotion but for a mid- season slump. It seemed they desperately needed some of the robust physicality of Stoke, the eventual champions, who beat them three times, or Stockport, who thumped them 5-1. Other managers would have erred on the side of expediency. Not Ardiles.

'I will never compromise my principles, whatever division I'm in. People think you need more of this (clenches fist and grunts), but I don't believe it for a minute. You must be able to compete, and be strong, but that doesn't mean you compromise. We play lousy football occasionally, sure, but we just carry on.'

Sometimes the idealist in Ardiles gets carried away - 'I want total football, I want too much,' he conceded - which is when Keith Burkinshaw comes into his own. The Yorkshireman, who brought the little midfielder to Spurs 15 years ago, is now his No 2 and keeps the boss's feet on the ground.

When the pair took over from Bobby Gould a year ago, Albion were in 'disarray' according to Ardiles. 'We had 40 professionals, many of them over 30, earning the biggest wages in the division. And a lot were basically not good enough. So we made changes in personnel, while changing the style completely.'

They now play in a way not unrelated to Tottenham's traditional push and run. The fans seem to like it; gates are up by 2,500 a game to an average of 15,000-plus, and Albion will take around 40,000 to Wembley.

Many of those supporters were in open revolt against Gould, who never shook off the Wimbledon stigma, and a Hawthorns board riven by in-fighting. After his experiences at Newcastle, the words 'frying pan' and 'fire' sprung to mind, but Ardiles stepped in willingly. 'I fancied my chances here very much. At the moment we are in the Second Division, but I consider our natural habitat to be much higher. Our support is superb, our potential huge.'

Potential, as Dave Bassett once observed, gets you the sack, raising expectations to artificial levels. And while there are many respects in which Albion are still a big club, major purchasing power is not one. Ardiles has yet to manage a club with real financial clout. 'Just my bloody luck]' he said, laughing.

Just as well, then, that he and Burkinshaw have proved adept at spotting bargains. Ian Hamilton, a midfielder with a touch of Hoddle about him, came from Scunthorpe for pounds 160,000; Steve Lilwall, an attacking left-back, was unearthed at Kidderminster for pounds 30,000; and Albion are to pay Newcastle pounds 100,000 for Andy Hunt, who has proved while on loan to be the ideal partner for 37-goal Bob Taylor, a Gould signing.

Encouraged by promises of further funds, Ardiles recently pledged himself to Albion. That was important to the fans, who were uneasy on seeing his name, like Hoddle's, touted as a possible successor to Terry Venables at his beloved Tottenham.

Ardiles calls the speculation 'inevitable' in view of the 'nice football' they played at White Hart Lane and their success in management. 'I want to go as high as possible in my profession, and not only be in the top division but fighting for the championship. I hope I can achieve that here.'

The Premier League, in which he sees too many teams using the goalkeeper as playmaker, needs Ardiles to succeed soon. Victory tomorrow would be a huge step forward, although John Rudge's Port Vale are no kick-and-rush merchants themselves and beat Albion twice this season.

The match, Ardiles predicted, would be 'beautiful but tough'. In that phrase, with its echoes of Pele, is encapsulated a complete football philosophy.

(Photograph omitted)