Football: Spurs miss the message in Gross' survival talks

Coventry City 4 Tottenham Hotspur 0
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The Independent Online
Phil Shaw

Coventry City 4

Tottenham Hotspur 0

As clarion calls go, it was not exactly eve-of-Agincourt stuff. "Barnsley," declared Christian Gross, looking ahead to Tottenham's next six-pointer, "is a game we haven't the right to lose."

You knew what he meant. It was just that the more Tottenham's new Swiss- German coach talked, the more you feared for his prospects of surviving. Gross repeatedly referred to "changements" and did not understand "collapse", even though he had just witnessed another.

Now a lack of communication skills does not preclude good management; Kenny Dalglish won the Double at a time when he needed sub-titles on television. But the Liverpool of the mid-1980s, unlike the present-day Spurs, were a great team who required neither motivating nor castigating and were practically beyond coaching.

Gross is reputedly full of self-belief. On the evidence of his first three post-match press conferences, the hard part will be conveying it to Spurs' squad, let alone to potential signings. Given the extent to which the stereotypical German is embedded in the British psyche, it is easy to imagine the players being less than receptive to his ideas.

He insisted they were in good shape (as opposed to being fit to wear the shirt). They were working hard in training, showing good spirit and responding positively to him. The snag about football, as Keith Burkinshaw once mused from the White Hart Lane hot seat, is that Saturday always comes around.

The previous weekend, Spurs had shipped five goals in the last 43 minutes to Chelsea. This time, having been thwarted by the woodwork and the agility of Coventry's debutant Swedish keeper, Magnus Hedman, it was three in the final 27. Heavy defeats were not unknown in the Gerry Francis era, though the most recent, 7-1 at Newcastle United, at least came against an attack spearheaded by Alan Shearer.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of Spurs' defensive demise was that Coventry are already anticipating a relegation battle to the season's last day. Coming into this match on the back of three defeats, they lost Gary McAllister when the game was goalless and had not troubled Ian Walker before Darren Huckerby broke away to score the first.

Just when they were digging in for a narrow win, Gary Breen was allowed a second stab at the ball following a free-kick and doubled the lead. As Spurs seemed to tire and lost the discipline and organisation for which Gross is renowned, Marcus Hall and Huckerby scored with embarrassing ease. It took two fine saves by Ian Walker to prevent Coventry equalling the 5-0 rout of then-champions Blackburn, in 1995.

Asked which areas he hoped to strengthen, Gross replied: "Everywhere." One suspected it was his way of expressing reluctance to discuss specific people or positions. The worrying thing is that Spurs could indeed use a complete overhaul. When David Ginola, prancing round like a panto prince complete with pony tail and navy cycling shorts, is arguably your most industrious player, then you know you are in trouble.

Here was one Christian in urgent need of several lions. Coventry, steeped in such struggles, had plenty. Roland Nilsson and Dion Dublin displayed leadership qualities in McAllister's absence, with Paul Telfer taking on the captain's creative chores to great effect. And in Huckerby they possess a striker who, should he ever ally intelligence to his pace and finishing prowess, could be an awesome player.

Even so, Gordon Strachan's problems may actually appear more acute than those of Gross come the new year. The recurrence of McAllister's knee injury puts Coventry's one top-class performer out for six weeks. During that time there is the small matter of visits to West Ham, Chelsea and Liverpool (in both League and FA Cup), not to mention home fixtures with Arsenal and Manchester United.

Goals: Huckerby (42) 1-0; Breen (63) 2-0; Huckerby (85) 3-0; Hall (88) 4-0.

Coventry City (3-5-2): Hedman; Shaw, Breen, Burrows; Nilsson, McAllister (Soltvedt, 32), Telfer, Whelan (O'Neill, 87), Hall; Huckerby, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Haworth, Gavin Strachan, Ogrizovic (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Calderwood, Mabbutt, Wilson (Clemence, 70); Fox, Anderton (Iversen, 52), Nielsen, Sinton (Edinburgh, 70); Ginola, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Allen, Bardsen (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Booking: Coventry: Telfer.

Man of the match: Nilsson.

Attendance: 19,499.

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