Football: Pleat the overhaul overlord

Ian Ridley talks to Tottenham's director of football about his vital mission; The other comeback: An old boy's return to Spurs, upstaged by Klinsmann, may make a bigger impression
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The Independent Online
David Pleat interrupts the conversation. "Look at that. Great goal by Carbone. Very clever player." It is Christmas Eve in what has been quite a week for Tottenham Hotspur and the club's new director of football is watching a compilation of goals on television. At the very least, Spurs can be sure they are getting an enthusiast who loves, and lives, the game.

Pleat's appointment naturally took a back seat amid the return of Jurgen Klinsmann to White Hart Lane but it could well prove to be of more significance in the longer term. The club have indeed appeared in need of modernisation and strategy after some knee-jerk reactions in recent years as they attempted to keep up with comparably sizeable Premiership clubs. "This might be the way of the future," says Pleat. "I think you will see more and more clubs creating this kind of job."

It is a position Pleat was offered by the Spurs chairman Alan Sugar three years ago but, then at Luton, turned down. He was not quite ready to give up the day-to-day involvement with players to return in a more administrative role to the club he had coached with distinction and in the club's stylish traditions to third place in the old First Division, an FA Cup final and a League Cup semi-final. All in the one season of 1986-87.

Now, his spell at Sheffield Wednesday recently terminated, the timing is more opportune. Unlike before, already in place is a coach he believes he can work with, in the Swiss Christian Gross - "everyone deserves a chance; no one should be abused before they have shown what they can do," says Pleat - and the role is more specific.

"I had a chat with Christian Gross and Mr Sugar and the definition of duties is clearer," adds Pleat. "There are more people into this kind of role, at Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and Fulham, with Jock Brown, Frank Arnesen and Kevin Keegan.

"I will be an overseer, an adviser and I will liaise with the board. The problem with most boards is that they meet only a few times a year and the only times they talk football are the wrong ones, emotional times, when the first team has either won or lost. My responsibilities are at all levels but I will be supportive of the manager and offer my opinion if it is needed."

Such are the demands of the modern Premiership, Pleat believes, that eventually the bigger clubs will hardly be able to avoid appointing a director of football. When he takes up the job in a few weeks' time, he will begin a review of Tottenham's scouting network at home and abroad, both of players and opposition, as well as considering plans to set up the club's academy for young players, a requirement now for Premiership clubs.

"I don't think it is physically possible for one man to do everything at a big club," he says. "There is PR, press, coaching, watching players and transfers. It may still happen at Colchester or Carlisle but in the Premiership with its demands and exposure, its intensity, I think a coach can only be responsible for preparing and motivating one group of players."

Tell that to Alex Ferguson, you think, a man who seems to possess several hands when it comes to having fingers in all the pies that make up a modern football club. But even he has needed help, as Pleat points out.

"I was with Alex recently and he was telling me about his third year at Old Trafford," he recalls. "They had just had six losses and two draws and and he felt he was in trouble. He went to Sir Matt Busby, who told him not to do anything differently, that it would turn. Alex had a buffer, a man who had empathy with the dressing-room. I would like to think I will be that for Christian."

It will surely help that Pleat's in-depth knowledge of the English game should complement Gross's overseas approach. Indeed, Pleat's standing as one of the domestic game's most approachable and communicative characters as well as one of its most incisive observers can only be to Tottenham's benefit.

Pleat's brief, too, will include easing the pressure on Alan Sugar, who has found himself thrust personally into the spotlight more often than he enjoys with the recent departure of Gerry Francis and arrivals of Gross and Klinsmann. "He wants someone with a football background who can tell people what his position is," says Pleat of Sugar. "He has tried to explain in the past, like with the Carlos Kickaball stuff, but has found it being misunderstood."

Pleat will not, he says, feel like poacher turned gamekeeper when it comes to sitting in on board meetings. At Luton, he was a regular attender once he had established his position at the club. "Like many managers, I used to resent waiting to be called into meetings and after a while, when they were trying to cement my position after I had been there some time, I sat in on every meeting."

He knows, however, the way football works. "I'm not foolish enough to think that if they want a meeting at the house of the chairman without me they will do so. I'm sure they had one at Sheffield Wednesday," he says with that sometimes mischievous sense of humour that prompts a knowing smirk on his face.

Pleat knows, too, the way football doesn't work. "I've got to be focused on this job and I'm determined to make it successful," he insists. "There are important decisions to be made. We need good scouting, the best youth network. We need a top person to run the academy, there are assistant coaches, physios, nutritionists to appoint.

"No one knows what is around the corner. If Ron Atkinson can come back to Sheffield Wednesday as manager after all that happened there in his first spell then anything is possible. Sometimes in football there seems to be no rhyme nor reason, things are done on a whim. But I do think this appointment has been clearly thought out."

With Jurgen Klinsmann's expensive recruitment, in time for today's London derby, you may wonder. But Pleat should offer value for money.