Football: Worthington Cup final - Graham on the brink of renaissance

O'Neill's Foxes stand in the way of resurgent Spurs
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The Independent Online
GEORGE GRAHAM was asked about the state of the weather for today's Worthington Cup final. "I can't do anything about that," he said. "I'm good but I'm not that good," and he smiled that enigmatic smile which suggested that he had not yet entirely abandoned ambitions in that direction.

There are some followers of Tottenham Hotspur who might already be prepared to disbelieve him. Within six months of arriving as manager he has taken an ailing, almost moribund club to the Worthington final and the FA Cup semi-finals, compared to which they might assume persuading the sun to appear on demand is a doddle.

If the fans at White Hart Lane gave Graham a grudging welcome, identifying him as they and everybody else did with notable triumphs at their arch- rivals, Arsenal, they have surely forgiven him now. Not only are they winning, they are doing so in style, in the traditional Spurs fashion.

Graham is unquestionably proud and not a little astonished that he has achieved this much so soon since joining Spurs from Leeds. "It is a bonus," he insisted on repeating as he assessed his side's chances in the match against Leicester City at Wembley this afternoon. "But now we're there we may as well win it. The team is playing attacking football and I'm pleased with the way things are going."

The player who is at present on all defenders' nerves, all supporters' lips, and is seen as personifying Spurs' progress is, of course, David Ginola. But Graham has not got where he is today by encouraging the cult of the star. The team is the thing and he knows it is the team he must strengthen if they are to go to other places, of which Graham has experience and craves to revisit, like the peak of the Premiership.

Today's match and the FA Cup semi-final which follows it are only milestones, albeit significant ones, on an arduous journey. Graham was already looking beyond them as he sat beside his rival manager, Martin O'Neill, in the banqueting centre at Wembley on Friday. He reiterated the point he has never tired of making since he first returned to north London last autumn.

"Tottenham Hotspur are a big club who in recent seasons had obviously just lost their way a little bit. They've got the potential to be up there but there is a lot of work to be done. Three clubs stand out and the rest of us at the moment are nowhere compared with them. We have got to get more players and better players so we're getting a better and bigger squad all the time."

Listening to this, O'Neill doubtless realised it was pointless expressing similar sentiments about Leicester City. Winning the Worthington, he said, would help the club to retain players who might otherwise be looking to move elsewhere. It would put them into Europe. But it was still no guarantee.

European competition is what both sides covet for winning today. Without it the League Cup, as it was instituted at the behest of the Football League secretary, Alan Hardaker, in 1960, would no longer be given room in the fixture schedule, except perhaps as a way for small clubs to have the chance of playing bigger clubs and for bigger clubs to take the opportunity of giving a first-team game to untried players. With it, the competition is still worth its place in the calendar.

The true prize on offer makes it inadvisable to expect a classic, open encounter today. Leicester are likely to give nothing away in midfield, absorb what they can and counter-attack. Graham, it is true, has constructed a side apparently built to entertain at Spurs and in any case resents the traditional view that his teams, especially Arsenal, were built only to defend. He said a lot of nonsense had been written and spoken.

"I like attacking football, people trying to score goals and goalkeepers making saves and people going away feeling excited. Some of the most boring games I've seen have been passing games. Passing is all right as long as it's going somewhere."

But Graham also said meaningfully: "It's very rare that you get the star player having a great game on the occasion of a final."

That's it for Ginola, then. And he added: "You rarely get a final that lives up to expectations."

That's it for the match, then.

The Tottenham manager might be pleasantly surprised, but he has not come this far to lose. He arrived at Wembley on Friday dressed all in black. His hair was slicked back and he was pale of countenance. He looked like Ray Reardon, the former snooker world champion, and Reardon always reminded you of Dracula.

George will not be afraid to suck the lifeblood from the match to win it.

Leicester City (probable, 3-5-2): Keller; Sinclair, Elliott, Walsh; Savage, Izzet, Kaamark, Lennon, Guppy; Cottee, Heskey. Substitutes (from): Ullathorne, Parker, Arphexad, Fenton, Oakes, Zagorakis.

Tottenham Hotspur (probable, 4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Campbell, Vega, Edinburgh; Anderton, Freund, Nielsen, Ginola; Armstrong, Ferdinand. Substitutes (from): Iversen, Young, Sinton, Fox, Dominguez, Baardsen.

Referee: T Heilbron (Newton Aycliffe).

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