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Football: Quietly glows the Don

When England came calling for their coach Terry Burton, Wimbledon said No. Ian Ridley discovers why
Football has suddenly gone Arsenal about face. Manchester United and Liverpool may be threatening to nose ahead for a two-horse final furlong but the latter stages of cup competitions have a curious look. And last week we even had England's thoroughbred head coach Glenn Hoddle being turned down in an approach to those old nags Wimbledon for their coach.

That coach is Terry Burton, assistant to Joe Kinnear at the club who have done most to stand this season on its head. Wimbledon began with three defeats and a relegation struggle looked certain. Now they are poised for a place in Europe, either via a top-six Premiership place, the FA Cup, which sees them in the quarter-finals, or the Coca-Cola, well-placed as they are for the final after the goalless draw at Leicester.

Burton seems out of place amid the MastoDons, and not just because he stands only 5ft 7in when he takes his boots off (when we met in a pub at Alexandra Palace near his home in north London, you feared for him at such an altitude on one of the windiest days of the year).

He was schooled at haughty Highbury, where he returns with Wimbledon for today's Premiership match against Arsenal. "I'm married to Wimbledon but Arsenal were my first love," he says. "I love going back. People still recognise me, probably more than at Selhurst Park, and that smell in the corridors, just as you associate a certain smell with school, is still the same." Quietly spoken, Burton seems without side or "attitude", untouched - literally and metaphorically - by the craziness of the gang with whom he works. "Never even had half a lace cut off my shoes," he says. "Though I remember the pre-season when I joined the club in 1988 and we were running through Richmond Park. I had heard stories of coaches being thrown in the lakes there and I sensed Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise were up to something. Fortunately in those days I was young and quick enough to get away."

Youth has always been on Burton's side. He was affiliated to Arsenal from the age of 11, became an apprentice and played as a centre-back in the FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1971. He had stopped growing, however, and a switch into midfield proved ineffective. "I was always a talker and an organiser. I was probably coaching at the age of 15," he says. "But when it was coming at me from all sides I was never quite the same player."

He had an offer to join Peterborough but the Islington boy did not want to leave London. At the age of 19, he drifted out of the game, then into non-league football with Epping and Hayes before Bertie Mee brought him in two evenings a week to coach Arsenal schoolboys. Terry Neill then made him youth-team coach at the age of 24.

After seeing the likes of Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Paul Davis and Michael Thomas through the system, he became Don Howe's assistant, before being sacked by George Graham. "He probably thought I was too much of a Don man," says Burton, without malice.

Then he became a Dons man. Howe and Bobby Gould brought him to Plough Lane to establish a reserve and youth system along Arsenal lines and after the next manager Peter Withe's abortive attempt to upgrade Wimbledon, Kinnear and Burton came together to form what has proved one of British football's most enduring, unsung partnerships.

"Peter probably tried to change too quickly the style and methods which had made Wimbledon successful on and off the pitch," says Burton. "When Joe and I were put together it was a a bit like a blind date. I wasn't sure what to expect for a while. But I think we have worked well together. As a No 2 you are always working around the manager. If he is giving them a roasting about working hard, then you probably talk about tactical and technical things. If it's the other way around, then maybe you can be a bit louder."

Was the notorious direct style not a culture shock after the education he had received? "The first thing you have to do at first-team level is to be successful," he says. "If you aren't, you don't get time to change things. Joe was brought up at Tottenham where they probably also had a go if he passed the ball over a certain distance but we had to ignore the criticism. We knew it would have to be evolution rather than revolution."

Burton accepts that the long-ball methods may serve a club well in coming up through divisions, may even surprise for long enough to win a cup, but eventually to sustain a position among the bigger clubs a more rounded game has to be developed. "It has been a gradual process. We have brought in different players with different strengths and qualities than we inherited and we have also had players coming through the youth ranks schooled in a way you would not traditionally expect with Wimbledon," says Burton. He cites Oyvind Leonhardsen's ability to run with the ball and Robbie Earle's technique, notably in scoring against Queen's Park Rangers recently.

"At the same time, we have always tried to keep the same spirit that has always been the strength of the club," he says. "It seems that every group of players has always caught that spirit and wanted to keep it." They would not want as yet to bring in a pounds 5m player as an explosion of the wage structure could be damaging internally. Ten years and a new, growing generation of support may be needed for that.

"But we are looking at a more rounded game. We are hoping that players make the right decisions on the ball at the right times. If it needs to go long, it will. If we get into the opponents' half and can play a give and go around their box or for a better crossing position, then we will.

"If you play one way, teams get to recognise it. You have got to have something up your sleeve to counteract it. We have kept up a good supply of set-piece goals but we have also scored some terrific ones from open play. There has been more beating people, putting people out of the game with a drop of the shoulder."

Not that Wimbledon are unrecognisable from the excessive outfit of yore. Arsene Wenger appeared quite shocked at his introduction to the Dons when Arsenal drew 2-2 at Selhurst Park. Wenger can expect a stoked-up opposition this afternoon for a game they need to win. With the visitors having a splendid record at Highbury and bearing in mind Arsenal's poor disciplinary record (happily, Wimbledon's is among the best in the Premiership), it will be tough in more ways than one.

"We are still looking to get the ball behind defences. We still like to turn defenders," says Burton. "But when teams drop deep and there is no space behind them, what do you do then? That's where the players who have come in over the last five years have changed things." Still, they would not want a Franck Leboeuf, he admits. "We still look for a defender who can defend."

Beyond the spirit, Burton believes that Wimbledon's ascent has also been based on a sound scouting network that finds undervalued players and enhances them. "It's also making decisions. A lot of people looked at the likes of Marcus Gayle, Kenny Cunningham, Robbie Earle, Efan Ekoku and Ben Thatcher without being prepared to buy them. We knew they would do for us."

About that lost England opportunity, you sense in him a disappointment that the Wimbledon owner Sam Hammam refused permission, though officially Burton toes the party line. "It was a tremendous honour to be asked but I talked about it with Sam and Joe and, apart from the prestige, there would not be much in it for the club. My priority is with Wimbledon and while it would have been nice to work with the best players in the country, I'm satisfied with the ones I am working with."

He also seems satisfied with being a No 2. "I think a good one is more important than ever, with all the pressures on the manager. I wouldn't want any of the admin or anything. The pleasure for me is in working with players and bringing young ones through."

Is he surprised by Wimbledon's impact this season. "In one-off games I always felt if we got things right, we would be a match for anybody. Doing well in the Premier is another matter. What we lacked in the past was consistency but this year the players have come of age a bit, as three defeats in 32 games show. Sometimes you look at them and think they have done as well as they can do but the next game, back they come again. They keep surprising us." And us.

Changing perceptions of Wimbledon FC

What they used to say

Everyone was drunk the night before, every single one of us was down the pub. Probably what won us the FA Cup final. Alan Cork, ex-player, 1991.

I know what people thought about Wimbledon then and now but don't expect me to criticise. They were a great bunch of lads whose commitment was incredible. They were the naughty lads, the upstarts. But they brought the best out of me. Bobby Gould, manager, 1992.

We have to remain the English bulldog SAS club. We have to sustain ourselves by sheer power and the attitude that we will kick ass. We are an academy. We find gems and turn them into finished articles. Before we go down, we will leave a stream of blood from here to Timbuktu. Sam Hammam, the club's owner, 1992.

Sam did no credit to the club at all. He wrote absolute filth all over the dressing-room wall. Billy Bonds, manager of West Ham, 1993.

The best way to watch Wimbledon is on Ceefax. Gary Lineker, 1993.

Gary Lineker has all the charisma of a jellyfish. Wimbledon players in signed statement.

Yes, they have changed. They're now kicking the ball 50 yards instead of 60. Mike Walker, Norwich manager, 1993.

What they say now

Yes, I had heard they had changed their ways. Today they were really traditional. For our defenders it was a heading session. For their defenders it was a kicking session. They deliberately avoided to play. Arsene Wenger, Arsenal manager.

I have to say it would be great to see Wimbledon in Europe. Usually a small squad of players travel abroad followed by several thousand wild- eyed drunken fans, wrecking wine bars and having running battles with the police. If Wimbledon get there it would be the other way around. Frank Skinner.

Wimbledon are a well- coached and organised team. They are light years away from their image of old. A few years ago it was different. They are still very competitive but they don't have that belligerent attitude towards officialdom and other players. Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager.

They do the same things very simply all the time. They don't take any risks. I never saw a back-four pass to each other less. And even when the full-backs get the ball wide, they don't really go forward. That's what makes them so hard to attack. Bo Johansson, manager of Denmark.

There was a time when we felt the whole world was against us, the media, everyone. Now we have the chance, not just in terms of achievement in winning something, or qualifying for Europe, but of credibility. Hammam.