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Football: Time to earn his Spurs

This season Gerry Francis has to deliver rather more than consolidation to keep White Hart Lane happy
Tottenham may have been short of players in recent seasons but this was ridiculous. There, at their training ground last Friday afternoon, standing 5ft 3in - but rising to 5ft 4in in a long stud, mind - was Spurs' new signing Jose Dominguez, heir apparent to the title of the Premiership's smallest participant.

Dominguez's signing, for pounds 1.6 million, enlivened what was looking like just a normal day at the club's Essex workplace despite the anticipation of the new season and today's visit to White Hart Lane of Manchester United. Darren Anderton and Chris Armstrong, after all, had just walked past, shirts unstained by sweat under the hot sun, both still injured.

Changes were evident, though. Quite simply, there did seem to be more bodies about. After a spring which saw the signing of John Scales in defence and a summer which brought the addition of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola, the squad at least gradually approaches the depth required these days for contention for a European place at the minimum. Desperation or inspiration, though?

Certainly some charisma was needed. The criticism these last couple of seasons has been that the folkloric swaggering style of play has declined while ticket prices have soared; that the club is being left behind while those of comparable pedigree race into the distance.

It came even from within. Admitting he had "the hump" at Spurs' lack of progress, Teddy Sheringham departed for Manchester United this summer, returning just for today in the pick of the Premiership's opening round of matches. That edgy element may cloud issues for Tottenham's demanding public but it will mostly be an intriguing guide to the club's potential.

Gerry Francis, who has borne much of the criticism, himself accepts that this is a huge season for him and Spurs. It is two and a half seasons since he relieved Mafeking, when his coaching methods brought discipline and organisation to a team floundering amid Ossie Ardiles's creative naivety. Now, Francis concedes, it is time for consolidation to become concrete achievement.

"It is a very important season for everyone concerned at the club," he said. "Nothing bothers me in football management because you go into it with your eyes open in terms of what you need to achieve. Whether it's Exeter, Bristol Rovers, Queen's Park Rangers or wherever, people want results and success.

"You yourself are trying to improve so that you can get to a big club but there the expectation levels are high. Here you have got to be looking to compete for the championship and all the other honours in the game." He has admitted that if that doesn't happen, "I will have to look at my position."

This afternoon offers interesting echoes. The last time United came to White Hart Lane in August was three years ago, when they won 1-0 to begin the depressing sequence of results for Tottenham which cost Ardiles his job. Francis prefers to draw parallels between his Spurs and the United of seven years ago.

"It took Alex Ferguson four seasons to win the FA Cup and now look what they have achieved. In this day and age, you don't get those sort of chances. A few years ago there were no plc football clubs. I have managed this club under a plc ever since I came here. That situation presents all kinds of scenarios."

Though a successful businessman himself, balance sheets and share prices can seem tiresome for a football man only really at home on a training ground or at ease among his prized racing pigeons.

Francis can be chatty and inquiring once the tape recorder is turned off - "have you seen this Dominguez, then?" he asked in more relaxed tone as the interview ended on Friday - but often appears defensive publicly. He can often bore you with favourable statistics about his period in charge, and insist that his record over his first 50 games was the best of any Spurs manager.

There seems to be a little change now; no more glossing. "My record counts for nothing unless we go out and win trophies," he admitted. Time is the one thing you need in the job and the one thing you don't get, he says, but he knows he has now had a reasonable period.

In transfer dealings it would seem there has been a big change. At first, Alan Sugar and his plc, bitten after Jurgen Klinsmann's one-year wonder, refused to sign overseas "stars" or pay high wages.

Now, Ferdinand has arrived for pounds 6m and Ginola for pounds 2m, both clearly at the market salary rates. Dominguez, 23, a silkily skilful ball player who recalls the sort of old-fashioned dribbler like Jimmy Johnstone that we nostalgics love, might be described as the ultimate Carlos Kickaball that Sugar so resented.

As well as an acceptance of the realities of the modern game, does the signing of an attacking trio also mark a development in approach? With system in place, is more flair and flexibility now in order? Francis returned to the defensive.

"Jurgen Klinsmann, Teddy Sheringham, Darren Anderton, Ruel Fox. I would call all of those flair players. Nicky Barmby too. We have always had them while I have been here. I don't see anything different with the players I have bought.

"They still have to work for the club and the team. There has to be a balance in a team, of tacklers, passers, the skilful; players who can win the ball and give it those who can play. All these aspects make a team and I'm trying to add to it as we go along."

Ferdinand is well known to Francis, who while at QPR began the nurturing process that has eventually produced a dynamic goalscorer. He was certainly overpriced at almost twice Sheringham's fee, but such is the market, such was Tottenham's dire need, with Armstrong's continuing absence a worry, that it was a case of needs must.

Ginola seems different; his distaste for defensive duties rendering him more a chairman's attempt to fuel season-ticket sales than a Francis player. The manager does not see it that way, however. In the way these things often work, Ginola's goal- scoring performance for Newcastle at White Hart Lane last season left a deep impression.

"He always gets past players and causes you problems," Francis said. "He's a good passer and crosser and he can finish. His weakness has been that when he loses the ball, he goes to sleep sometimes. He understands that. We have to help him, to work on his awareness. He's quite happy about that and he's having a go at it.

"But what David gives you on the ball is exceptional, like Cantona for Manchester United. We have to have players who will help him out when he loses the ball but the important thing is to get him on the ball. I see him switching from wing to wing, picking the ball up behind people and running at defenders. He might get man-marked, as Juninho was often last season, and we have been working with him on his movement. I like to think he is flexible in our system."

Francis wants to make at least two more signings. "You see the strength of a side by looking at its bench," he said.

"At times last year it was 'pass the fruit gums' along our bench with all the kids we had to use. In my first full season we were up in the top three or four but as soon as we got some knocks we were short. Before last season, I was pleased with the progress. Then it became catastrophic with injuries." He checks himself, aware that the subject has become so tedious at Tottenham.

"Sometimes it can be a headache for managers trying to keep a big squad happy but Alex Ferguson doesn't seem to mind too much, does he?" Francis added. Back to Manchester United, back to today. Comparisons will be premature between the champions and the one-time United of the South, who have been eclipsed in London of late by not only Arsenal but also Chelsea. It is inevitable that they will soon be made, though.

Diminutive Dominguez will not be back in time from clearing up some domestic arrangements in Portugal to play today but Ferdinand and Ginola will be in attendance and Spurs have some measuring up to do.