RELIEF POURED off David Pleat like sweat. The defeat of Derby had ended his seven-match stint in charge of Tottenham, and with it, possibly, a long and distinguished managerial career, but he was not about to go quietly before handing control to George Graham.
The Graham era officially starts today. If it is true it will mean the primacy of pragmatic values over purist ideals, Pleat's parting shot before returning upstairs as director of football proved that at least one idiosyncratic heart still beats within White Hart Lane.
The verbal equivalent of his much-replayed manic dance across Maine Road after Luton had escaped relegation, Pleat's emotional scattergun fired out indiscretions, insights, wit and wisdom. "We like a tackle at Tottenham," he chortled in acknowledgement of the debate over Spurs' soul. "We're not all pansies."
Christian Gross was "a gamble too far", he suggested, and could not understand the players' jokes. Footballers are "simpletons" who do not play "for the jersey" but to "maintain their careers". As for his replacement: "I want George to do well because I feel we've lost style and credibility."
Compared with the Double-winning side of '61, or the Hoddle/Ardiles class of '81, that is certainly true (though the decline might not have been so pronounced had Spurs not ousted Pleat on spurious moral grounds 11 years ago). But the acting manager's efforts - four wins, two draws and only one defeat - ensures that morale will be buoyant when Graham takes training this morning.
Graham's inheritance is superior to that which Howard Wilkinson left him at Leeds. The first side he sent out there was littered with players who, just two years later, are not pulling up any patios with Carlisle, Hull, Blackpool and Wrexham.
Espen Baardsen must have impressed the watching Graham with his adhesive handling; besides, from Rune Hauge to Gunnar Halle, Graham seems to like having Norwegians around. The back four, or rather three of them, may be more hard pressed to meet his exacting standards.
Ramon Vega raised an arm to claim offside inside 20 seconds, prompting Derby's fans to ask whether they were Arsenal in disguise. Vega and the full-backs gave the kind of performance players tend to put in for a new gaffer - Gross and Gerry Francis are entitled to wonder why they did not produce it consistently for them - but may find it difficult to develop their impersonation of Tony Adams et al.
Sol Campbell is the exception, the rock around which Graham will build much as he did with Adams and Lucas Radebe. He not only proved impossible for Derby's attackers to by-pass but he also organised that collector's item, a tight Spurs back-line, and settled the contest by heading his third goal in as many matches from David Ginola's free-kick.
Ginola is the most gifted of Graham's new charges, but then so was Charlie Nicholas at Highbury and he replaced him with Perry Groves. The Frenchman had a fitful afternoon, with the more workmanlike virtues of Allan Nielsen exerting greater influence. Meanwhile, Les Ferdinand put himself about in a way that was a revelation to many supporters.
Derby's Jim Smith had already been a player-manager, at Boston United, for three years before Pleat donned his sheepskin coat with Nuneaton Borough in 1971 - when, coincidentally, Graham's wiles were helping Arsenal emulate their neighbours' Double. Smith agreed that Spurs had become regarded as a soft touch. "I'd imagine George will bring people in," he said, "but he's got the basis of a very good team."
The caretaker concurred, pointing to the strong potential spine of Baardsen, Campbell and Steffen Iversen. It remains to be seen whether Pleat is around to see the revolution take shape. Graham's hands-on style is likely to leave insufficient scope for a tactical acumen which, as he showed on Saturday, could still be profitably deployed in a Premiership dug-out.
Pleat, who is younger than the Scot, insisted he would be staying. He said it, however, with a self-mocking lack of conviction, and when the Nottingham boy was pressed as to whether Derby had seen his managerial swansong, he reiterated Graham's revealing remark on being asked a month ago whether he might swap Leeds for the Lane: "Never say never."
Goal: Campbell (60) 0-1.
Derby County (3-4-1-2): Hoult; Carbonari (Burton, 89), Laursen, Prior; Delap, Carsley, Powell, Schnoor (Eranio, 80); Bohinen (Sturridge, 73); Wanchope, Baiano. Substitutes not used: Kozluk, Poom (gk).
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Baardsen; Carr, Vega, Campbell, Edinburgh; Fox (Clemence, 86), Anderton, Calderwood, Neilsen; Ferdinand, Ginola (Armstrong, 72). Substitutes not used: Berti, Iversen, Walker (gk).
Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).
Bookings: Derby: Laursen, Schnoor. Tottenham: Neilsen.
Man of the match: Campbell.