Football: Perry's growing stature a spur to bigger things

The Tottenham centre-back faces his old club at Selhurst Park tomorrow aiming to take another step towards England recognition. By Clive White
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THERE'S NEVER been much of a danger of Chris Perry getting too big for his boots. At 5ft 8in, his main problem has been proving that he is big enough to fill them at all. When he was in the reserves at Wimbledon, Ray Harford thought he was too small to be a centre-back and even his new manager, George Graham, admitted: "If Chrissie was four inches bigger, Manchester United would have bought him years ago."

Whatever it was that persuaded Perry to join Spurs, it certainly was not flattery. Graham "sweet-talked" him into signing by telling him he was a "half-decent" player. Never one for massaging players' egos, Graham has, nevertheless, signed a player, who, in harness with Sol Campbell, promises to solve Spurs' age-old problem at centre-back. Trust Graham to be the man to do so. He does love a centre-back, our George, and it will be no surprise to hear he is looking to buy another one.

The deal was struck at Stapleford Park during the League chairmen's AGM, while the "boring rigmaroles were going on", said David Pleat, Spurs' director of coaching. Apparently, Spurs' chairman, Alan Sugar, gets on well with his opposite number at Wimbledon, Sam Hammam, and scraps of paper were passed back and forth between the two men until a fee of pounds 4m rising to pounds 5m with appearances had been agreed.

"Sam was great, to be fair to him," said Perry, who tomorrow faces his old club at Selhurst Park. "He was very supportive. He understood why I wanted to go and he made the deal go through very quickly. He could have held it up."

It was much more than a business transaction for Perry, who had been with the club for 14 years and supported them for longer than that. For 22 years, he lived just five minutes from the club's old Plough Lane ground, where his father and grandfather would take him to watch games. He remembers watching Wimbledon in the Southern League and has even been to watch them since leaving. "I felt I was getting a bit stale at Wimbledon," he said, or as Pleat put it: "He'd become institutionalised at Wimbledon.

"I was guaranteed selection every week, there just wasn't enough competition for places. I needed a kick up the backside and this move has given me one.

Apart from the desire to win medals and generally better himself, Perry, like any young Premiership player, nurses international ambitions and he felt that that was never going to happen while he was at Wimbledon. Yet Perry would not swap his time there for anything. It was the perfect appenticeship, not withstanding his time under Harford, of course.

"I don't think I'd have got my chance as early as I did [19] if I hadn't been at Wimbledon," he said. "It's a great place to learn your trade. Because they don't keep possession as well as other teams, a lot of the time you're defending. But Ray Harford didn't fancy me, he didn't think I was big enough. He didn't want to put me in and it held back my career by a couple of years."

Perry is hoping that a strong axis with Campbell - "one of the best defenders in the world" - will help his England ambitions, although so far they have only played 25 minutes together, on the opening day, due to Campbell's much-publicised injury. As a result, Perry has already had three different partners, but he is optimistic of forging a good understanding with the club captain.

The opportunity to work with Graham was another big attraction. "You look at his record at Arsenal and what he did at Leeds and you think, `he obviously knows what he's doing, I can learn from him'. He's very win-motivated. Everything that is done in training and preparation is geared to winning. I've worked a lot more on my fitness than I ever did at Wimbledon. I probably feel fitter now than I have ever done."

Graham seldom speaks effusively about his players and Perry is no exception, although he did pick him out as his man of the match at Hillsborough recently. Nor is he given to promoting players' international claims and may be even less so after his recent clash with the England manager over Campbell's selection. "He's Mr Unspectacular," he said of Perry. "He's neat, tidy and efficient, but never takes the eye. Sadly, there are defenders geared for international games and there are defenders geared for club football. My priority is for him to be outstanding for Spurs."

Interestingly, Perry says he has modelled himself on the Italian, Fabio Cannavaro, who in terms of physique is another who is not exactly from the old stopper school of defending. Both read the game well and anticipate danger, moving swiftly to snuff it out. Perry is not dissimilar either to Colin Todd, who enjoyed a long England career in central defence despite his lack of height, or Spurs' own Gary Mabbutt, who was seldom found wanting in aerial battles. Likewise Perry, who has suddenly found a predatory instinct with two headed goals in Spurs' last three games. He only got two goals in 167 League games for the Dons.

He is also consistent and hard-working - "a solid citizen," as Pleat calls him - two factors that he felt were important to Graham. "I think that's why he likes Oyvind [Leonhardsen], because no one does as much running as he does," said Perry.

The recent home defeat to Leeds, he thought, proved the point that Spurs are a couple of players short of being championship contenders. "We played against a good side for the first time and we just did not quite have enough to hold on for the point like a real championship side would. We could probably do with another centre-forward because we created double the chances Leeds did. We're looking great going forward. Les [Ferdinand] is very important to us and we missed him when he went off at half-time. He's been on fire for us this season."

Like Graham, Perry appreciates the necessity of getting things right in defence first, though. "Without it you won't win anything," he said. Hitherto it is an area Spurs have paid little heed to, as if to do so would betray the club's tradition for attacking football. Not since Pleat lured Richard Gough for just over a season in the late 80s, have Spurs bought a centre-back of real class, which may have something to do with their inability to mount a sustained challenge for League honours.

Graham's glorious reign as manager at Highbury (until his inglorious ending), all began with the signing of a player called Perry Groves, who played little or no part in Arsenal's ultimate success under him. One senses that if history is to repeat itself at their North London neighbours, this Perry will be playing a big part of it.