Tigana puts the accent on style

French revolutionary sees no reason why Fulham cannot reach the Premiership by expressing themselves
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The Independent Online

You're stuck in an undesirable area of a city and you're desperate to get out. So, what do you do? Call an expert negotiator, a man perfectly versed in the delicate art of persuasion, or place your future in the hands of a no-nonsense SAS type, someone who will guide you through the mean streets by the quickest of routes? Such was the predicament facing Fulham Football Club at the end of last season.

You're stuck in an undesirable area of a city and you're desperate to get out. So, what do you do? Call an expert negotiator, a man perfectly versed in the delicate art of persuasion, or place your future in the hands of a no-nonsense SAS type, someone who will guide you through the mean streets by the quickest of routes? Such was the predicament facing Fulham Football Club at the end of last season.

Escaping from the urban jungle that is the Nationwide First Division is proving to be an increasingly arduous task. Blackburn, Queen's Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest are examples of sizeable clubs who have struggled to force their way into the Premiership. According to certain experts, the only sure-fire method for success is to combine a strong defence with an athletic centre-forward. In other words, play it tough.

Midfield, they would argue, is not an area which needs much work, as the vast majority of passes should go straight from the back to the front. No wonder, then, that the appointment of Jean Tigana twitched a number of eyebrows among the Fulham faithful.

The cultured Tigana, all agreed, was the ideal choice once they had reached the promised land; the pragmatic Dave Bassett, most felt, was the perfect man to guide them there first. "We'll see," the new Fulham manager said on Thursday. "I reserve all judgement until the end of the season, although I think people generalise about English football too much. I've studied videos and watched several First Division matches and I don't think it's all kick-and-rush. Sure, some of the teams still play that way, but the three promoted clubs last season all played football."

Tigana added: "Whether in lower-league football or European Championships, it's always the teams wanting to express themselves that come out on top. I may be proved wrong, but I simply don't believe you have to be negative or ultra-safe in order to win. Over the course of a season, the best team always triumph."

As a player, Tigana, who combined tidiness and tigerishness for Bordeaux, Marseille and that magical France midfield of the Eighties, never forgot the significance of ball retention. Without such an asset, the creative forces around him could not have flourished. "Size is one thing, skill is another," he said. "Look at [Gianfranco] Zola, he's a little guy but when he has the ball he's immense. Why? Because people can't get the ball off him and he's in no hurry to give it away." For Tigana the coach, the same rules apply. "Teams that are uncomfortable in possession and are desperate to get rid of the ball will never progress. My philosophy is that power lies with the carrier."

Wise words, but will the Fulham players respond to his demands? Even the most stubborn of leopards have been known to change their spots more readily than Britishfootballers, particularly thoseoutside the Premiership.

"Perhaps this was the case," Tigana acknowledged, "but things are changing. This is the first generation of players who have really benefited from the experience of former professionals, and they're learning. I never had the chance to be educated by a [Raymond] Kopa or a [Juste] Fontaine. Instead, we were being told what to do by people we didn't know. At least these guys are reaping the benefits of our knowledge."

Tigana added: "Not only that, but we had to earn the right to manage. In France, you have to go to school and be taught how to do the job. Just because you were a good player doesn't mean you will be a good manager. My formation has been very thorough."

Despite his impressive credentials - he led Lyon to second place in the French League and Monaco to the title as well as the semi-finals of the Champions' League - Tigana does not feel the need to remind his charges of what he has achieved. It is, he believes, up to them to decide whether they want to progress. And so far, the signs are good. "I've felt a great desire among the players to move forward," he said. "Perhaps the fact that I was also a pro helps, but ultimately I just think they have responded to my methods."

Tigana, who remains exceptionally fit and takes all training sessions himself, says he likes to get close to his players; he is a tracksuit manager. Despite what many French journalists have said in the past, he is someone who treats his players like adults. "If I'm demanding of people, it's because I'm demanding of myself. The things which I expect a player to do are the same things which I have always done myself. People accuse me of being harsh and tough, but I'm a communicator. Don't forget I gave several youngsters their chance at Monaco."

Tigana can stake a claim in the development of the likes of Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry, Fabien Barthez and David Trézéguet, all of whom he blooded young. "I pushed those kids hard," he admits, "and they probably thought, 'God, this guy is severe', but now they thank me for it. I prefer to bump into old players and have them come up to me and say, 'You made us work but it was worth it because I joined Arsenal for £10m', rather than, 'I wish you'd been more demanding'."

Tigana added: "I see the players as my kids. I'm strict with them but I'm also compassionate and understanding. Ultimately, I only have a go at the ones who aren't trying."

Tigana's temper is legendary, especially if players give the impression they would rather be elsewhere. Like many a manager, particularly one with a certain pedigree, the 47-year-old demands respect. It is, he says, the only way to get the most out of a player.

"I see the body of an athlete as a business, with each individual managing his as he chooses. Either he tries to get the most out of it and can have a fruitful career, or he is only interested in doing the minimum, in which case he will not be successful. The Fulham players have been very respon-sive. I'm interested in building a rapport with them, not imposing my views on them. I'm available at any time; the players know that and they seem happy. It's working."

Part of the reason why Tigana's message is getting through so conclusively is the signing of John Collins. Securing the services of the former Evertonian, a man he took from Celtic to Monaco in 1996, has been instrumental. Not only do the two get on well and share the same beliefs, but the other players relate to the 34-year-old. "Buying John was crucial," Tigana said. "First and foremost, he's the ultimate professional, but beyond that, he's the relay between me and the team."

Tigana has also been seeking the advice of his popular signing. Just as Collins felt compelled to when he arrived in Monte Carlo, Tigana has had to immerse himself in his new English lifestyle as quickly as possible. Language, culture and housing are just three of the early challenges he has faced.

"I am integrating myself. I know that a lot of foreigners are seen as mercenaries, but I have brought my family here and am fully committed. I'm not here for the money. Quite seriously, I had plenty of other financially rewarding offers. I even could have taken over the national team [following Aimé Jacquet's departure after France 98]. But that isn't what interests or motivates me. All I ever look for are challenges."

And Fulham is a challenge. Following the euphoria of the Keegan era and the disappointment of the Bracewell reign, Mohamed Al Fayed has pinned his hopes and Egyptian pounds on the Frenchman. "Yes, it would have been easier to take a Premiership club, but I honestly believe we can achieve great things. The club had good years with Keegan. I'm here to continue that.

"All I really want is to build this club up into a credible force. Getting to the Premiership would be fantastic, but the thing that would give me most pleasure would be to leave Fulham in a better state than when I arrived."

The long, tortuous trek through the Nationwide starts on Saturday against Crewe, and Tigana will be in the home dug-out, toothpick in mouth as always, barking orders in Franglais. "We're ready for anything," he says. Another season in the First Division?

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