Santini aims to add rigour to passion of Premiership

The outgoing France coach tells Nick Bidwell he aims to revive flagging Spurs just as he restored Gallic lustre after last World Cup
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Anyone who has spoken at any length with Jacques Santini in the past few weeks would not have been startled by the news that he had accepted the challenge of breathing some much-needed life into Tottenham Hotspur.

Anyone who has spoken at any length with Jacques Santini in the past few weeks would not have been startled by the news that he had accepted the challenge of breathing some much-needed life into Tottenham Hotspur.

Not normally one to allow the press to come too close, the 52-year-old had proved more willing to bare his soul recently, voicing his dissatisfaction with the French Football Federation's unwillingness to offer him a contract extension taking him up to the 2006 World Cup - a position which forced him into decamping to White Hart Lane.

The French stance was not without its logic. On the eve of the last World Cup the Federation had extended Roger Lemerre's contract, only for France's first-round exit to compel them to sack him and award him more than £300,000 in severance pay. The Federation president, the avuncular Claude Simonet, genuinely believed he was being prudent. However, in Santini's case this amounted to a vote of no confidence.

Simonet has claimed that Santini's impending move to North London was based solely on Spurs' offer to triple his wages from the £28,000 a month he receives for coaching France. But if a new deal had been put before him this spring, he probably would have signed. As it was, the French selectionneur felt that his achievements since taking over from Lemerre in August 2002 - one defeat in 23 games - had not received due reward.

"Individually and collectively, we have reacted in the right way to the disappointment of 2002," he said. "We won eight out of eight qualifiers, which is no easy task, and played convincingly in friendly victories in Belgium and Germany. The confidence and the image of the team have been restored."

Certainly, Tottenham's new technical director, Frank Arnesen, did not have to be especially persuasive to lure him to London. A former midfielder or central defender with France's leading side of the 1970s, St-Etienne, Santini is a self-avowed fan of British football and speaks fondly about his visits to the UK: a trip to Scotland with the French youth team for the 1970 European Championship, European ties in 1977 against Liverpool and Manchester United, and St-Etienne's 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in the 1976 European Cup final at Hampden Park, in which he hit the bar with a header. "In those days, they still had square posts in Glasgow. With round ones, it might have gone in," he said.

In his 12 years at St-Etienne (1969-81), he won four French championships and two domestic cups and also had the good fortune to perform in one of France's few football hotbeds, a place where full houses and vociferous backing were de rigueur. He should find the Premiership a home from home.

"The atmosphere in English grounds is extraordinary," he said. "It's what always strikes me when I go to England to watch my French players, and the passion of the crowd even comes through on TV. I was recently watching a recording of Leeds against Leicester and even though it was a relegation game, the stadium was full and vibrant. That's one of the things I like about English football. You can count on loyal support whatever the position in the League."

So what should Spurs' long-suffering fans expect? They will discover a thoroughly uncomplicated coach whose guiding principles are solid teamwork and tactical discipline.

"While I have tried other formations on occasion, my basic philosophy is 4-4-2 and rigorous organisation," he said. "With every side I've been in charge of, I've looked to find the right balance. I want players in their best positions, everyone to know their defensive responsibilities, good movement and to make the most of our attacking potential."

Uncompromising and combative - "I never give in" - he does not carry passengers. If established names do not deliver they are eased out, and wherever he has coached - at Lisieux, Toulouse, Lille, St-Etienne, Sochaux, Lyon and France - he has never been afraid to give youth its head. He does not conceive his job as a popularity contest. Egos and reputations come second to putting the most effective unit on the field.

"Football is a collective sport," he said. "When it comes to choosing between a good individual and the group, I'll always pick the group."

An example of his single-mindedness came on the last weekend of the 2001-02 season, when Lyon faced Lens in a title decider. Most coaches would have played their first-choice XI. Not Santini, who concluded that the ball-playing Brazilian centre-back Edmilson and the talented but fragile playmaker Eric Carrière were not suited to the intense battle ahead and dropped them. It was a huge risk but Lyon won 3-1 to take their first French title.

Keeping players on their toes is a Santini speciality. At Lyon, he would often wait until an hour before kick-off before informing them who would be starting, while squad rotation is another mantra. "It's my opinion that if you want to win things, you can't relentlessly stick with a first XI from the first to the last day of the season. Players get tired, form fluctuates. I was criticised a lot for rotating the team at Lyon and some players needed time to be convinced, but it worked."

Would-be rebels at Spurs would do well to take note of Santini's reputation as a disciplinarian, and for bearing grudges. Despite his public excuses, Nicolas Anelka was never going to be recalled after angrily refusing an 11th-hour call-up to the squad in November 2002, while the French internationals Vikash Dhorasoo and Tony Vairelles were frozen out of the Lyon squad following a heated clash with Santini three years ago.

Although he denies it, Santini has made great strides in his public relations since becoming the France coach. These days he is a much better communicator, affable and relaxed as he talks about his team's Euro 2004 opener against England in Lisbon on Sunday.

"For me, England are one of the favourites along with Italy, Holland, Portugal and ourselves," he said. "There are two England teams, the one which beat Turkey at home and then drew in Istanbul, and the one which appears in friendlies. I know which one we will face in Lisbon. An England team with Campbell, Cole, Gerrard, Butt, Scholes, Beckham and Owen will be very competitive. They are usually ready for the big games.

"Some have said our game with England will be very tight. I don't agree. It's not in the nature of the English or French teams to calculate. We both like to go forward, to impose ourselves. With so many of our players at English clubs, it's going to be a very special 90 minutes. England will not want to lose what is essentially a derby."

He singles out Paul Scholes as England's danger man, and when informed that the Manchester United midfielder is a target for criticism on the other side of the Channel, he said: "It's always so. You're never a prophet in your own land."

Santini has some headaches of his own, notably the poor end-of-season form of Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid and widespread calls to drop the ageing captain and centre-back, Marcel Desailly. Santini refused to say whether Desailly will start in Portugal, but offered a staunch defence.

"The only thing I can say is that every time I've called on Marcel, he's not let me down," he said. "That has to be the acid test. My thinking was the same when Fabien Barthez was out of the Manchester United side. Their performances for France have always been good and they deserve to have my confidence. As for Zizou, he tells me he has been in a physical trough but that he will be back to full fitness at the start of the European Championship."

In the wake of their dreadful World Cup, the France players and management were charged with tactical inflexibility, complacency and being more interested in raking in sponsors' cash than performing to their potential. Two years on, Santini said, things will be different.

"We are going to Portugal to win," he said. "Anything can happen in a tournament. That's the law of sport. But we have legitimate ambitions to defend the title we won four years ago. We have a talented squad with a good combination of experience and dynamic youngsters, and I feel the players are strong mentally. Many of the squad remember how they were attacked after the last World Cup. That will ensure that we stay humble and concentrated.

"It is, of course, to our advantage that we have a number of wonderfully gifted players. Thierry Henry is just one of these. He has to be the best attacker in the world at the moment. He is the complete front-man, always active and able to create and score. I was disappointed he was not voted European Footballer of the Year last December, but 2004 could be his year."

Come August, Santini and Henry will find themselves on opposing sides. But now they have a common cause - putting France back on top of the continental pile.