Football: The painful maturing of Darren Anderton

Euro 96 saved the stylish Spur's 'lost' season after serious injury had given him time to reflect on his life in football. He talked to Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
The news that Darren Anderton withdrew last night from Glenn Hoddle's first England squad should come as no surprise. It is typical of his jinxed year. Even the most innocuous subject brings forth a tale of woe.

When we met, shortly before he strained his troublesome groin once more, I began the interview with a standard piece of small talk.

"So where did you go for your holidays, Darren?"

"Antigua."

"Sounds nice."

"It was a nightmare. We'd only been there two days when we found there was a hurricane on the way and we had to leave."

It figures, he must feel he had been tempting fate even leaving the country. All last season it was there on the Teletext: "Anderton hopes to be back in three weeks". It was there in September. It was there in December. It was still there in March.

Eventually it was true and Anderton came back after his serious groin injury, briefly for Tottenham, more obviously for England. But even the good moments had a sting. He made Euro 96 - then had a stinker in the opening game. Steve McManaman became the star and, when Anderton did get a chance for glory, deep in semi-final extra time, his shot came back off the post.

"The season was a write-off, then, Darren?"

"It was a bit of a nightmare [a favourite Anderton word] but I was fortunate enough to play in the European Championship. I wish I had played all season and been in better stead for it but I can look back and be happy I played in it and that we done so well. Because of that the season was not a total write-off.

"Euro 96 was great after the first game, that Switzerland game was probably one of my worst games. The last three games I was really pleased with. A lot of people said things which were not very nice but that is up to them. I am a team player and I play for the team. Sometimes people don't see that, but the team appreciate it.

"After the Holland game one paper said I did not look fit - I do not think I have ever run so far in my whole life and that is the fittest I have felt. It is like when you start a season and when you get to the fifth or sixth game you feel, 'yeah, you are getting there'. I felt great that night, I ran miles. To have that thrown at me was a bit of a joke. A lot of the work was off the ball. I'm proud of playing for England and I work myself into the ground."

Anderton's latest injury means he will have to delay fulfiling a long- held ambition. Even before Hoddle was named as England coach, Anderton had admitted: "He was one of my heroes. I'd love to play under him." Now he adds: "There is going to be a lot of competition for places. It is going to be interesting because he used full-backs in the wide positions at Chelsea while Terry Venables used me and Steve McManaman."

At Tottenham this season Anderton is playing in the centre, alongside David Howells. "I prefer it there, you are more involved. In the summer there were a couple of games when I was so frustrated at not getting the ball. You might wait 15, 20 minutes and, when you do, you feel 'I must do something or I'll get slaughtered by everyone'. That is part of the frustration in playing wide, you want to do well but when you get frustrated you start having a nightmare."

Tottenham came eighth last season, effectively without Anderton who played just four full games, and part of four more. What are this year's aims? "We have got be looking at qualifying for Europe as a minimum, we have a lot of good players here and Gerry has got us playing as a team. We are hard to break us down, Chris [Armstrong] and Foxy [Ruel Fox] are lightning quick and Teddy [Sheringham] has a great brain. On the break we can be lethal, that is why we did so well away from home. This year we will be hoping to build on our home form."

Anderton's judgement is illustrated by this year's form: an away win at Blackburn, a home draw against Derby. Today they play host to Everton, whose strengths away are similar to Spurs.

In the light of his subsequent injury his next words are poignant. "Of course I want to win things but all I want to do this season is play. People could have given me all the money in the world last year but it would not have made me happy, I just wanted to get out there.

"The uncertainty was the most frustrating thing. It became a joke. Every time someone asked: 'When will you be back?' you would reply 'three weeks'. Three weeks later you'd be making the same reply and they'd say: 'But you said that three weeks ago.'

"It would have been better if I had been told six months at the start. I could have gone on holiday for a while. As it was I was coming in every day for treatment, to try and run and do this, do that. It did not feel like a rest to me, I was going to work every day. Most days after Christmas I was working myself into the ground, trying to get fit. Then I would get little setbacks. It was hell.

"It has definitely made me more mature, more able to appreciate the good things like the summer. I appreciate being a footballer. That's all I wanted to be."

As we talk, at Tottenham's new Chigwell training ground (handy for Alan Sugar, less so for his mainly Hertfordshire-based players) Anderton is constantly stretching and flexing his leg. The squad have been doing Gerry Francis' notorious 'fun run' and Anderton is wary of stiffening up in the wind.

A few young lads came over for autographs, one anxious father asked: 'Are you fit, all right for Saturday?'. Anderton replied: "Yes,'' adding almost under his breath "I think''. Like most footballers, he was not 100 per cent fit. It is too early in the season to be match-fit, too close to pre-season to have shaken off all the aches and strains.

"Touch wood everything is OK now," said Anderton, adding with unknowing foresight. "I still have to build the muscle up. The groin has come under a bit of stress through playing games again."

Last season's misery was not helped by the nagging feeling at the back of his mind that it could all have been so different. A few weeks before the season began - and before his injury - Manchester United had tried to buy him.

"It was difficult when I was not playing for seven months and they were doing the double, but I don't regret not going, to be honest. A lot of people stuck by me when it was not going well and that means a lot to me.

"Things had gone well for me the previous season and, although United's offer was not put on the table to me, I think if I had pushed it I could have gone. They were the best team in the country at the time but that is the way I am. I love it at Tottenham, I am settled where I am living, and I thought we would have done very well last year. United had just sold three of the top players in the League and people did not expect them to do so well.

"Gerry was probably the main reason I stayed. He wanted me to play centre- midfield and he could make me into a better player.

"Ossie [Ardiles] was great, and football was enjoyable playing with him, but he used to say 'you are all good players, go out and play'. The 11 best players in the world are not going to make the best team, it depends how players gel together. We'd either be great or awful, now we have a consistency we have not had here for ages. Gerry has got us playing as a team. There is a lot of expectation here."

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