Football: Slick Spurs ahead of schedule

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The Independent Online
HIS NICKNAMES have included "Stroller" and "Gaddafi" - but the Tottenham players could be forgiven if they start calling George Graham "Aladdin" now that some of his cup magic is rubbing off on them.

Graham has led Tottenham to the League Cup final after less than four months in charge at White Hart Lane - just as he did to Arsenal in his first season at Highbury. If the manager who collects silverware like a cat burglar can now add the Worthington Cup to his already impressive CV, his players may start to wonder if Graham really does have a magic lamp in his trophy cabinet.

Twelve years ago he took Arsenal to Littlewoods Cup success in his first season in charge at Highbury - and now he may emulate that feat with Spurs just six months after returning to north London from Leeds, after Tuesday's semi-final aggregate victory over Wimbledon.

Graham said: "This competition has been good for me personally. I work hard at my job at every club I manage and I think I've done reasonably well. I hope it will continue here."

Considering his past achievements - six major trophies in eight years at Arsenal - the Worthington Cup may still seem like small beer, but the 54-year-old Scot has hardly started his job of rebuilding Tottenham, and this Wembley date is just the beginning of his plans for the club.

"I have to admit this has come quicker than I expected," he said. "I thought it would take a year to 18 months to inject my principles and character into the club, and I still think there is a lot of work to do.

"But this is good for the club and good for the fans. The supporters needed it badly and I'm pleased for them as much as anybody. This is a big club with good traditions. We are going to Wembley, and everybody is absolutely delighted.

"Before the game at Wimbledon I said to my team that there are too many outstanding players here who have never been to Wembley with their club side and that they should put that right. There is a lot of quality at Tottenham, but it has been lying dormant."

Les Ferdinand, whose powerful performance helped Spurs graft a 1-0 win over Wimbledon in the second leg of the semi-final, is delighted that Graham has led his team to the brink of more glory.

"George has come in and made a lot of difference," the England striker said. "Someone said to me that George has been to eight Wembley finals and now that magic has rubbed off on Spurs a little bit.

"You look at George and his past record with clubs, and then you look at how he has got us well organised and working as a team. There is a lot of confidence here now and we don't give goals away easily. Some people will say this is only the Worthington Cup but there is still a Uefa Cup place up for grabs and we are delighted to be at Wembley. You saw the way the fans came on to the pitch at the end of last night's game. They were saying to me that they have wanted this for years.

"The players want it too. After last year's disappointing season we were determined collectively, and as individuals, to do something about it."

Perhaps the biggest change under Graham - not surprisingly - has been the way Tottenham have tightened up defensively. They are now difficult to score against, and have conceded just three goals in their last nine matches.

Ferdinand added: "Since he came, George has been saying that we had been under-achieving and so he is delighted with the way we have responded to him and that we are not leaking goals.

"If you look throughout the team there is competition for places, and that is what you need at a club like Spurs. It keeps you on your toes, and that is probably why we have made it to the final."

The 32-year-old added: "I need some medals to have something to show for my time in football. We are also going well in the FA Cup and now we have got to one final we want to get to another. It is a great incentive and a great habit to get into."

The Wimbledon striker Efan Ekoku said: "We've just got to bounce back, simple as that. We can still make it into Europe by finishing in the top six in the Premier League.

"Obviously it hurts. Losing to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final just a few weeks after the Leicester defeat two years ago was very painful, but this feels just as bad.

"At this club, though, we are famous for our resilience and you can bet your life the players and Joe [Kinnear] will come up smiling again. There's not much to say at the moment.

"We can't keep saying we are unlucky. The only way is to lift ourselves up again for the last third of the season and finish on a high."

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