'I was astonished. Nobody knew there was a problem. Then Santini came to see us, and told us he was leaving'

After a particularly turbulent week for the club, Paul Newman talks to Tottenham's Nourredine Naybet, who will be marking 'the best player in the world' in today's north London derby
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The Independent Online

Nourredine Naybet has played for clubs in five different countries, captained his national side for 10 years and won more than 100 caps. Having played under more coaches than some of his Tottenham Hotspur colleagues have made first-team appearances, he usually knows when someone is about to jump - or be pushed - off the managerial merry-go-round.

Nourredine Naybet has played for clubs in five different countries, captained his national side for 10 years and won more than 100 caps. Having played under more coaches than some of his Tottenham Hotspur colleagues have made first-team appearances, he usually knows when someone is about to jump - or be pushed - off the managerial merry-go-round.

The events of last week, however, when Jacques Santini left White Hart Lane after just 13 matches in charge, caught even the worldly-wise Moroccan by surprise. "I was astonished," Naybet said. "We trained last Friday, though [Santini] wasn't there. Nobody knew there was any problem. Nobody. Then Santini came to see us and told us he was leaving. He said he had a family problem in France. I was amazed. He'd seemed fine. He'd been calm, happy."

As they prepare for today's visit of Arsenal, the stability and success enjoyed by Tottenham's oldest rivals contrast starkly with their own turmoil. Arsenal have won three championships since Arsène Wenger took charge at Highbury eight years ago. In that period Tottenham have finished no higher than ninth in the Premiership and have had seven different managers.

When Naybet joined Tottenham in the summer after eight hugely successful years in Spain with Deportivo La Coruña there was certainly no sign of the upheaval to come. He met both Santini and Frank Arnesen, the sporting director. Keen to play in England, Naybet did not need much convincing that Tottenham were the right choice.

"The club's known throughout the world," he said this week during a break from training at Spurs Lodge. "It has a great history. The prospect of finishing my career at Tottenham was a very exciting one. I could have gone elsewhere. A club in Qatar wanted to sign me. There were also Spanish clubs who were interested, though Deportivo didn't want to sell me to anyone else in Spain.

"I hoped that I could help Tottenham recover a bit of their past glory. I knew it wouldn't be easy. There have been a lot of changes. You need to work at it every day. A lot of things go into building a successful team. Things don't happen immediately. I believe you must give a coach time to build a team."

If Santini had a problem with the Tottenham coaching structure - he was said to be unhappy that transfers were the responsibility of Arnesen, who had brought in a former colleague, the Dutchman Martin Jol, to work as Santini's assistant - Naybet was unaware of it. The 34-year-old defender thought there was nothing wrong with Tottenham's start to the season that would not be corrected by a goal or two. Although Spurs conceded only three goals in their first eight games, the non-productivity at the other end of the pitch - they have scored just eight times in 12 league matches - appeared to undermine confidence. Santini's last three Premiership matches ended in defeat.

"The defence was solid from the start of the season, but if you're not scoring goals that's a problem that spreads through the team," Naybet said. "But Santini was never defensive in his approach to the game. He never said that we should play more defensively. We always played a conventional 4-4-2 system. It's hard for a coach, because no matter what he says in training, when it comes to the match it's down to the players, down to their intelligence. They have to work things out in their heads. They have to see what's going on around them and make their own decisions."

The right decisions were clearly not taken the day after Santini's departure when Tottenham suffered a fourth successive defeat, losing 3-2 at home to Charlton. Naybet, however, insists that the players have to take responsibility. "We didn't play like that because Santini had left," he said. "It was nothing to do with that. We just let in some stupid goals. They had three chances and they scored from them. We're professionals. That's all part of life as a professional."

Has the mood among the players changed since Jol, an apparently more relaxed and communicative character than Santini, was handed the managerial reins on Monday? "It's the same thing," Naybet said. "We're professionals. Whoever the coach is we need to give 100 per cent in our work. We work for the club, not for a particular coach."

Naybet agrees, however, that the early signs are promising under Jol, who got off to a winning start at Burnley on Tuesday in the League Cup. "Above all that was a good result for our morale," Naybet said. "Every coach has his own system and I think there will be a difference, which I've sensed already. The new coach will have us playing in more of a Dutch style - the way that teams like Ajax play, with a lot of movement and passing.

"It will be a very pleasing style of football. It will also be in the best Tottenham tradition. From what I've seen of Tottenham in the past and from what Moroccan friends of mine who are Tottenham supporters say, the club's style has not been typically English. It's not direct football. The tradition at Tottenham is to play entertaining football, to play a passing game, to play one-twos. That's what the Tottenham fans want and I agree with them. The fans come to watch Tottenham to be entertained.

"The thing you notice above all about English football is the passion of the fans. They're extraordinary. They're the best thing about English football. They have such huge pride in their teams. They love their club. They always get behind their team, even when they're losing. In Spain it's very different. They like you when you're winning. Here the fans are always behind you. Thousands of them go to away games. They're incredibly loyal."

Naybet knows the White Hart Lane faithful would be perfectly happy if the entertaining football started tomorrow after the scrappiest of victories today. "My Moroccan Tottenham friends tell me that this is the biggest derby match of all. They say there's huge rivalry and always a great atmosphere. I know that for both sets of fans winning this match means everything. But the fact that it's a derby doesn't mean anything to me. The only thing I want to do is to win, because we've lost four in a row and if that run goes on our confidence will go."

Arsenal themselves have recorded only two victories in their last seven matches - both courtesy of their reserves in the League Cup - but Naybet insists: "Every team has a dip in form every now and then. For me Arsenal are an excellent team. Over the last two or three years they've been reaping the benefit of all the work that Arsène Wenger put in over the previous five years or so. They are very well organised. They're strong in all areas, but their greatest strength is their team play. There are no weak links in their football."

As a defender, Naybet has particular respect for Arsenal's forwards. "Thierry Henry for me is the best player in the world. He has everything. He's the complete player. He's the perfect example for young players. Dennis Bergkamp is a legend. He's a very intelligent player. I played against Jose Antonio Reyes a couple of times in Spain [when Reyes played for Seville]. He's excellent. He made a good choice in coming to Arsenal, because their style of play isn't typically English. It's more of a European style."

Naybet, however, will not be overawed by Arsenal. Indeed, on the last occasion he met Wenger's men, in the second group stage of the 2001-02 Champions' League, the Moroccan and his team were applauded off the Highbury pitch after giving their hosts a footballing lesson. The Spanish side beat Arsenal 2-0 both home and away, Naybet himself scoring the second goal at Highbury. In the first group stage that season Deportivo had also done the double over Manchester United - Naybet scoring a 90th-minute winner in Galicia after Deportivo had trailed 1-0 until four minutes from time - though Sir Alex Ferguson had his revenge with victory over the Spanish team in the quarter-finals.

Deportivo went one better last season, when they reached the Champions' League semi-finals after a remarkable campaign. They qualified from the group stage despite an 8-3 thrashing at Monaco - "it was such an extraordinary match that we started to laugh about it after the game" - and went on to beat Juventus and Milan in the knock-out phase. A goalless draw away to Porto in the first leg of the semi-final was followed by a 1-0 defeat at the Riazor, with Naybet sent off late in the game for receiving two yellow cards.

"We hadn't done our homework on the opposition," Naybet said. "We didn't know enough about their game. Porto had done a lot of work analysing our game and that was the difference. Mourinho's an excellent coach. The trouble was that after we'd drawn the first leg in Portugal everybody expected us to win - the fans, the staff at the club, the players, everybody. Everyone was making preparations for the final before we'd even got there. The club's great dream has been to win the Champions' League. We'd won everything in Spain - the league, the cup and the super cup. We'd been playing in the Champions' League for five years and to lose like that was a huge blow."

The summer seemed the right time to move, though Naybet nearly came to England four years ago. "Manchester United were interested in signing me," he revealed. "It was the year we won the championship [the 1999-2000 season]. They had a problem with their defence and they saw me as a leader, someone who could organise them at the back. They even hired a private jet to take me from La Coruña to Manchester. I had discussions with Alex Ferguson. We talked about a lot of things, including my contract.

"We resumed talks the following day, but Ferguson wasn't there because he'd had to go to Switzerland - I think it was for a manager of the year function. If he'd been at the talks that second day I think I would have signed, but we didn't have time. There was a deadline to sign in time to play in the Champions' League and we didn't make it."

It was another British manager who had originally persuaded Naybet to go to Spain. Having left Morocco as a 22-year-old with three league championships at WAC Casablanca under his belt, Naybet spent a year in France with Nantes and two under Carlos Queiroz at Sporting Lisbon before John Toshack, who was yesterday appointed the Wales manager, signed him for Deportivo.

"He had some friends at Sporting who recommended me," Naybet said. "He'd also seen me play himself. He was an excellent coach. He had a great personality. He loved football. He liked personalities on the pitch. In Spain people call him 'Naybet's father' because I had a very good relationship with him."

While Naybet learned much from Toshack, language lessons were clearly not included. He speaks Spanish and French as well as Arabic, but, as yet, little English. His knowledge of the rest of the Tottenham squad also appears limited - he struggles with some names and is surprised to hear that Frédéric Kanouté, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe were all at the club last season - but it has clearly not hampered his progress. He established an immediate understanding with his fellow defensive newcomers, Erik Edman and Noe Pamarot, as well as established players like Ledley King. "On the pitch you don't need to talk because football's a universal language," Naybet said.

Once Arsenal are out of the way, Naybet's attention will turn to Morocco's friendly next Wednesday against Burkina Faso in Rabat. It will also be a chance to catch up with his family: Naybet's wife has stayed in Morocco while he has been looking for a home in England and living in a hotel.

Arguably the greatest defender in African football history, Naybet has played for Morocco in five African Nations' Cups - they lost to Tunisia, the hosts, in this year's final - and two World Cups. After losing all three games in the United States in the 1994 finals, Morocco were unlucky not to progress beyond the first round in France in 1998, when they finished with an emphatic 3-0 win over Scotland but were denied by Norway's improbable victory over Brazil. They are currently second in their qualifying group for 2006 but Naybet is confident they can play in Germany.

After captaining his country since 1994 and winning 106 caps, has he contemplated international retirement? "You'd have to ask people in Morocco. I always want to play for my country - and I will do until my country no longer wants me," he said. "I'm used to all the travelling. It's just a question of organising your life properly so that you have time to recuperate."

It was that professionalism that persuaded Tottenham to pay £700,000 for Naybet in the summer. The evidence so far is that it was money well spent.

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