Pleat looks to end Spurs' miserable derby return

Tottenham hope for first win at Highbury in a decade today as the gap with Arsenal grows ever wider
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George Graham remembers it well. "We had Tim Sherwood and Stephen Clemence, who was a young lad then, in central midfield. They were up against Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit and they did really well for us. We went two-up, with Sherwood getting the second, before Vieira got one back. We were hanging on a bit at the end but we deserved it."

Graham is replaying the last north London derby Tottenham won. The fourth anniversary was yesterday. Graham was still the Spurs manager. It is the only derby Spurs have won in almost eight years, a period spanning 16 matches to before Arsène Wenger took over at Highbury.

Rivalries require a rough equality of competition to thrive. The bitter truth, for Tottenham fans is that Arsenal supporters now look for Manchester United first when the fixtures are released. It would be embarrassing to lose to Spurs, but damaging to do so to United.

"Arsenal," adds Graham, "are at a different level now. They have proved over the last decade and more that they will be serious contenders for the championship every year. Tottenham have just been in for the cups."

Bernie Kingsley, the Tottenham activist and editor of the Cock-a-Doodle-Doo fanzine, adds: "The frightening thing is how quickly it has happened: within the last 10 years while the Premiership has been going. There is now an enormous gulf."

Tottenham's condition was cruelly summed up by a feature in theDaily Mirror this week which paired female celebrities and Premiership clubs. Examples included Bolton Wanderers and Coronation Street's Deirdre Rachid - "Lancashire institution who surprises her fans just by being there year after year, though overshadowed by more glamourous neighbours. Fond of foreigners. - and Liverpool and Madonna - "Top class back in the 80s and early 90s and blew all the competition away. Now living off past glories."

Tottenham Hotspur were Joan Collins. "Hasn't done anything for decades but still acts like a big star. Best days are behind her despite injection of young talent."

In a phrase we are talking faded glamour, as apt a motto for Tottenham as the official Audere est Facere ("To dare is to do"). They last won the title in 1961 and have not seriously challenged for it since 1985. Since the Premiership began, Arsenal, who have never been forgiven for muscling in on Tottenham's patch 90 years ago, have won eight trophies including two Doubles. Spurs have won the Worthington Cup. The last major trophy came in 1991 when Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker inspired them to the FA Cup.

The thought of Gascoigne and Lineker's modern equivalents, David Beckham and Michael Owen, playing for Tottenham is inconceivable. This summer's recruits, which the club could ill-afford, having already recorded a £7m-plus pre-tax loss, were an injury-prone striker from relegated West Ham (Frédéric Kanouté), a promising but raw striker from FC Porto (Helder Postiga), and a First Division striker from relegated Brighton (Bobby Zamora). All, necessarily given Spurs status and resources, were gambles. That on Postiga already looks like failing.

It was not always thus. In two of the Premiership's opening three seasons Spurs finished above Arsenal. The previous 16 derbies, dating back to 1989, resulted in six Tottenham victories to four for Arsenal.

Kingsley blames bad management in both the dug-out and the boardroom. Alex Fynn, an author and football consultant who has worked for both clubs, agrees. Tottenham, he said, became the first commercially orientated club as early as the mid-Eighties under Irving Scholar. Scholar had visionary ideas but pushed them through too quickly for the time. The plc diversified into areas such as women's knitwear. The idea was to support the football side. Instead the football club bailed out the plc. Subsequent chairmen, including the current regime, "did not understand the club's heritage and the football business". In addition "they appointed managers who were not up to scratch". Arsenal, meanwhile, appointed the right men and backed them.

Graham, who has managed both clubs in this period, agrees with the latter point. "Arsenal back the manager and let him get on with it," he said. "Tottenham need to do the same." Since Graham became Arsenal manager in May 1986 only two other men have managed the club. That same month David Pleat became the Spurs manager. Eight managers since and he is back as caretaker.

A serving board member, Pleat prefers to credit Arsenal for what they have done right, rather than apportioning blame at Tottenham. He compliments Arsenal's "cleverly selected, stable management". He adds that Arsenal have also benefited from good identification of foreign talent, some of which (Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Petit) resulted in windfall profits. By contrast, Spurs lost Sol Campbell, to Arsenal, for nothing.

Finding the right manager is critical. In his new book, The Glorious Game: Arsène Wenger, Arsenal and the quest for success, Fynn reveals Arsenal initially turned down Wenger in favour of Bruce Rioch, changing their mind a year later. Wenger had previously come to the attention of Spurs but they did not pursue their interest.

"With hindsight, the other lot made an inspired signing when they brought in their current manager," said Kingsley. "The really galling thing is they are playing the type of football we are renowned for. We are neither doing it in terms of results nor playing that kind of football."

At present it is hard to see Tottenham competing equally with Arsenal again, but Kingsley harbours two hopes. One is that Spurs find their own Roman Abramovich, the other that Arsenal over-reach themselves with the proposed move to Ashburton Grove.

He said: "If the new ground means Arsenal go bankrupt we'd be delighted, as we would be if Abramovich gets arrested or bored."

It could happen, said Fynn. "For the first time the board have prioritised building a stadium over building the team. It is a self-inflicted potential disaster. Even if they get the loans they need the debt could cripple them. They are trying to keep up with Manchester United, but there is only one Manchester United. They will always be the most profitable club. Arsenal should invest in their genius manager and gifted team."

Graham, too, is concerned. "Arsenal have been a very well-run club that doesn't go out on a limb financially. This is probably the first problem they've had in many a decade. I hope they don't catch a cold."

Unlike Fynn and Kingsley, Graham does not, however, believe Spurs' only hope of catching Arsenal is if the latter decline. "There are several clubs with fan potential, like Everton, Newcastle and Aston Villa. They just need a financial influx to get up there. That is difficult to find but if they did they would get the gates to sustain it. But," he added, thinking of another one of his former clubs, Leeds United, "you cannot mortgage the club."

"Tottenham are not just a big club in the past," insisted Pleat. "We have a fine stadium and very good support which has been maintained in difficult times. Arsenal are well clear but we have to believe things will change."

Graham added: "The manner in which I left was a disgrace, but it is a fabulous club. They get 36,000 every week and if they were successful they would be queuing down the street. But they need to look at their whole set-up. It is 42 years since they won the title, 42 years!"

Back to this afternoon. Do Spurs, who have not won at Highbury in a decade, have a chance? An XI drawn from both clubs might feature one Spurs player, Stephen Carr.

"Arsenal have better players, some of them world class, and if Spurs try and take them on with a technical game they have no chance," said Graham. "They have to get among them and be organised in defence. But it is a one-off, a derby."

"Wenger's secret," countered Fynn, "is that he doesn't treat it like a derby so the team don't get involved. Only Ray Parlour really appreciates what it means."

Pleat said: "We'll give it a good go. We won't travel in fear or with the burden of being favourites."

The final word goes to Kingsley: "A nil-nil would be a fantastic result." So much for Danny Blanchflower's "Glory Game".