Football: Second spell is sweeter for Le Saux

`It is a constant battle throughout my career in keeping the balance between calm and collected but also competitive'
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The Independent Online
A CHILL day in the west London wastelands and White Van Man is out in force, parked up with the Escorts and Mondeos alongside a windswept playing field near Heathrow.

They are there to spot footballers rather than planes and there is a high-calibre collection the other side of the fence as Graham Rix puts Chelsea's multi-national squad through a practice match.

The football is better than Wednesday's snore draw between Spurs and Wimbledon in the Worthington Cup although the players' kit is unusual. Of the 22 players only five are not wearing tracksuit bottoms, woolly hats or gloves. Three are young fringe players, the others are Dennis Wise and Graeme Le Saux. "Well hard, and a small blow for England," thinks White Van Man.

Tomorrow afternoon, when Chelsea play Arsenal at Highbury, Le Saux will again prove that, contrary to the abuse he receives from opposition supporters, there is nothing soft about him.

The Jersey-born England international has become one of the integral characters in a fixture which has prompted three red cards and 33 yellows in the last five matches and 16 months.

"They are quite lively matches," reflected Le Saux when we met over bowls of pasta, prepared by Chelsea's Italian chef, in the training ground's functional canteen on Thursday. "It is a sign of both clubs doing well, there is a lot at stake and last season [when they met in the League Cup semi-final] we played them more times than was healthy. It led to personal battles."

Le Saux's were with Lee Dixon, who was dismissed in the September meeting following two incidents with the Chelsea player. "I think on the pitch we are both quite feisty," he said. "I don't know him at all off the pitch but have known him as a player for a long time and maybe you do get a bit of history. I go and play against him knowing what I have to do to win my battle and vice versa.

"They are generally honest encounters. There is nothing particularly nasty about them; we are both competitive."

Le Saux's own feistiness has attracted adverse attention although his sending-off, a fortnight later, for a spat with Blackburn's Sebastien Perez, was only his second red card and his first for nine years. That, and a minor ruckus with Paul Ince - more verbal than physical - were factors in his recent omission from the England side, yet he was recalled for the win against the Czech Republic and will be in Thursday's squad for the game with France on Wednesday week.

One theory is that Le Saux's aggression is a response to the terrace taunts, many of which question his masculinity, but the player himself discounts this. He has not changed: his and football's profile has. "The Arsenal games, for example, are big games, they are televised, it concentrates attention on them," he noted.

"When I first started playing, the main occasions I was booked was when I lost possession and chased back so hard to get the ball back that the ref would say it was a malicious tackle because the way you are going back looks aggressive. That's me being honest, I've made a mistake and I've got to get back."

This scenario will be familiar to Chelsea fans even now, and Le Saux added: "Defence is not a position where, if things are getting heated, you can back away, drift inside or change your game to suit the atmosphere. You have to stand up and face it."

And the abuse? "I know I get a lot of grief but I've always tried to look at that as a back-handed compliment - they wouldn't single me out if I was a bad player - that's what you have to say [to yourself]. There are times when the game's stopped and you hear things and you just have to ignore it. As a young player I wanted to play up to the crowd because you are all part of the same experience but sometimes it is so offensive it is not worth recognising they are there. They go on about kicking racism out of the game but when you hear some of the things said in front of children you think, `what hope is there?'

"But I don't think it shapes the way I play. I've always been like that. It is a constant battle I'll have throughout my career in keeping the balance between being cool, calm and collected but also competitive."

He then provided an example of an early failure to find that balance. "My dad would tell you that when I was a kid in Jersey we would go to the beach in summer and there was a cafe about half a mile from our spot. We would go off and get an ice cream, my older sister, my dad and I, and we used to run there. They were obviously quicker than me - I was about three and my sister five - and if they got too far ahead I used to have a tantrum because I couldn't physically keep up.

"If you don't have that drive and ambition I don't think you can get to the top of this profession. That's what gets to me, when people make flippant remarks about footballers and money. They assume we are only in it for the money but proper players would play irrespective. It is a great advantage and we wouldn't turn it down but you don't sit in the dressing-room thinking this match will earn me `X' thousand pounds: you go out to win the game.

"I earned virtually nothing for four to five years, I lived in digs, didn't have a car, I didn't think anything of it. I'm grateful for not having had everything on a plate. Now I have reasonable values and hopefully am socially aware and can integrate with people without feeling better than some or worse than others."

With respect to the rest of his profession, not many footballers would describe themselves as "socially aware" and Le Saux has always had to live with the tag of being an "intellectual" among footballers. This led to his being largely ostracised in his first spell at Chelsea - though the example of Pat Nevin showed him he could be his own man - and coloured some relationships at Blackburn.

He seems much more at home in the modern Chelsea's polyglot dressing- room and admits the camaraderie will be one thing he will miss when he gives up playing.

That will not be for a few years yet and, though management is unlikely, he is undecided whether to play on down the leagues, stay in football in another capacity, or go into the media. The latter would seem quite likely and he has done some journalistic work, including a ghosted column for The Sun, which seemed an odd choice for a reader of liberal broadsheets.

In response to my question why, he could have talked about wanting to reach the masses and later mentions the need to keep his name in currency - the deal was agreed during a long and career-threatening ankle injury - but the honesty he referred to earlier resurfaces as he admits, sheepishly: "Yes, I'm a hypocrite. It was for the money. I felt I could justify it to an extent but it was a tough decision. I hope I have values and I went home and thought, `I don't feel good about this.' I never felt I sold my soul, I got on well professionally with the guy who wrote it and I wasn't scandalous and didn't slaughter people, but I always felt a bit uncomfortable."

Though a good talker, comfortable with the self-analysis involved, Le Saux's mind is now turning to this central London home where his month- old baby, Georgina, waits with Mariana, his wife. Fatherhood is supposed to calm people down, which may come in handy tomorrow.

"We've been a little bit lucky against Coventry and Oxford," noted Le Saux of Chelsea's last two games, "but you have to take something from it and the fact we can have a poor game and still look reasonably tight is encouraging. We are more resilient this year and that is the difference between us this year and in recent years."

A 21-match unbeaten Premiership run is testimony to that, as are the white vans parked up in hope and admiration on Sipson Lane. Will they still be there in May?