If Darren Anderton had known, when he elected to leave Portsmouth for Tottenham in the summer of 1992, that his first nine years at White Hart Lane would yield one Worthington Cup winner's medal, it is fair to say that he might have been a tad underwhelmed. Worse, the other club interested in his services at the time were a promising northern outfit called Manchester United, who in the same period also won the League Cup once but added the little bonus of seven Premiership titles and a European Cup.
The gap between the two remains substantial, as the recent epic encounter between them proved, with United able to allow the home side a three-goal start and still win with ease. But at least Spurs are on the up, a united if not a United club once more, playing a style of football to please their demanding patrons and going into this afternoon's game at Leeds with four successive victories behind them. Anderton is fit and well, which has too often not been the case in the past, and sometime after the final whistle at Elland Road, he will learn whether there is room for him in one of Sven Goran Eriksson's squads for the first time, a year after winning the last of his 29 England caps.
So he is not especially inclined to dwell on what might have been in tandem with David Beckham at Old Trafford. Terry Venables, who conducted negotiations on behalf of Tottenham, has never received sufficient credit for what must have been one of the great sales pitches of all time, persuading him to join a club in desperate financial straits, that had just sold its best two players, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker, and sacked Peter Shreeves as manager after finishing 15th in the table (Manchester United had a bad season and were only second).
Anderton rationalises his decision with a mixture of touching optimism and chronological inexactitude: "I just thought we would have a good season. Teddy [Sheringham] and Nicky Barmby were here. Man U sold Ince and Kanchelskis and Hughes [a year later] and I thought we had a good chance of doing stuff over the next few years. Unfortunately we lost a few players and then I got injured and that was that."
And within a year Venables was gone as well, the loser in his exhausting power struggle with Alan Sugar, who had famously demanded while watching the young Barmby excel in a training session: "Who's that geezer? Well flog him – that'll pay for the South Stand."
The best possible boost to an international career was, however, having a fan in Venables. His first match as England coach, against Denmark in 1994, brought a first cap for Anderton, of whom the manager said: "I can't honestly remember anyone ever having a better debut than Darren." It was the start of a strange record for his country, with regular runs of games interrupted by huge gaps as one injury after another cropped up; thus he played in every match in the European Championships in this country in 1996 and, under Glenn Hoddle, at the 1998 World Cup, but has had periods of two years, 18 months and now one year without a cap.
Whether or not he gets to Japan and South Korea, those two tournaments will provide some memories to warm the winter nights of old age. It is not generally remembered that his contribution might have been all the more dramatic, with a pivotal role in the penalty duels that ended so cruelly.
When Gareth Southgate missed against Germany at Wembley in 1996, it was Anderton who was standing, "shaking a bit", in the centre circle waiting to take the next kick. He could have been the star of a Pizza Hut advert; or put England through to the final. Against Argentina in St Etienne two years later, he was down to take the fourth kick, but had been taken off and replaced by David Batty, who would be guilty of the fateful miss.
"The European Championship was something special and we probably should have won it," he recalled. "And a World Cup is everyone's dream to be involved in." Is he dreaming of the next one, then? "You never know, we'll see. Things are going quite well at the moment and I'm pleased with the way I'm playing. I think it might be too soon for this next match, but I'm concentrating on being fit and I'm nearly 100 per cent now. At the moment, England would just be a bonus really."
In Hoddle, you sense he has something of a soulmate, with a mutual admiration increased by the injury problems both have suffered and Anderton's open-mindedness in agreeing to see the faith-healer Eileen Drewery when a troublesome hamstring strain was at its worst. "I would still go if I felt the need to, but I haven't for a while," he said.
He is certainly playing with a confidence which is currently reflected by the whole team, benefiting as much as anyone from the introduction of Teddy Sheringham, Gus Poyet and Christian Ziege to his area of the field.
"They're all good footballers, that's what I like. First and foremost they can pass the ball well and they play the game like I like to. I've always set targets but, with all that's happened, I don't take anything for granted now. I'm happy playing and I'm at a great club. I feel things are going to improve."Reuse content