David Pleat has said in the past that football management is "an awful job, a horrible job, yet the best job in the world". The apparent paradox explains why he has been happy to take a step back from it over the past six years as Tottenham Hotspur's director of football, but is visibly enjoying being back in the hottest of seats following the brutal sacking of Glenn Hoddle only six matches into a new season.
The concept of a director of football is new enough to the English game to be ill-defined, and equally misunderstood. Harry Redknapp, while in charge of West Ham, used to yearn at stressful times for such a job - "hundred grand a year to sit in a nice office and watch a couple of games a week" - yet after a month of doing just that at Portsmouth admitted that he was bored silly: "the most unrewarding year of my life". In such situations, there is inevitably a possible source of conflict with a less experienced young manager, making mistakes as he learns the trade, and a temptation for the board to realise that they have a safer pair of hands available, filling in forms and writing reports.
So the Pleat hands were back on the tiller for a Carling Cup tie at Coventry last Wednesday - hardly the choppiest of waters to negotiate - and will remain there for the potentially trickier voyage to the City of Manchester Stadium this afternoon.
"Working as a manager has given me a nice reminder of the buzz you can get out of football when you win a game," Pleat said. "We all love the game, and nobody feels more proud than when they get a win at the end of 90 minutes, it is the best feeling in the world. In training on Friday morning I went through a free- kick routine that I used to use in 1983, which is still valid even though free-kicks have changed nowadays. It used to be a case of players using their imagination to try to work something clever, but now it is usually just a shot at goal."
The Spurs players have responded well, as players tend to in their situation: some out of guilt for having let the previous incumbent down; some out of relief that he has gone; all out of a desire to push their own case. At Coventry, Pleat, 58, was fortunate to have Robbie Keane and Gus Poyet fit again, and helped himself by switching to 4-4-2, giving Goran Bunjevcevic the anchor role in midfield.
Jonathan Blondel, a young Belgian he admires more than Hoddle did, was less of a success on the left of midfield, and Tottenham were still far from impregnable at the back, Pleat's old winger Chris Waddle warning: "The two centre-halves were colliding continuously. If they go to Manchester City and defend like that, they'll get beat."
But the man acting as caretaker for the third time, as he did when Christian Gross and George Graham left, is satisfied so far: "It was an honest response from everybody who worked to get the result at Coventry, and I think Glenn Hoddle and John Gorman would have been pleased with that. The players will be reminded of the differences between playing against a First Division club and one from the Premiership, and they will realise how big a game it is. They also know how important it is to get up this league, so there will not be a problem in terms of them motivating themselves."
Once the really enjoyable work in a tracksuit is done, the director of football hat still has to be donned: "I was back in my office and somebody came in to get me to sign a chit to pay for the repair of something that went wrong in the multi-gym. It's going to cost £90 plus £40 labour, and I had to sign it off, so I am still involved in the everyday running of the club."
He once again refused to be drawn on his own ambitions. Tottenham could do worse than turn again to the man who took them to third place in the League and the FA Cup final in 1987, but will feel that they can also do better, if only because employing a manager for the second time so rarely works (see Graham Taylor at Aston Villa, Howard Kendall at Everton, Ron Atkinson at West Bromwich Albion).
Pleat, returning to Luton Town in the Eighties, made a better fist of it than most, under difficult financial constraints, but it is easy to see why a Martin O'Neill, an Alan Curbishley or even a Raddy Antic would look more attractive. The best Pleat can probably hope for is an extended run and O'Neill's tactfully stated commitment to the Celtic cause on Friday will have helped. Virtually guaranteed a Champions' League place every season, and victory in 85 per cent of domestic matches, the Celtic manager is in a comfort zone he will be reluctant to leave unless Gérard Houllier is moved upstairs at Liverpool.
Hoddle, meanwhile, might reflect on the truism that what goes around, comes around, in trying to understand the vitriolic press he has received. "I couldn't care two monkeys what you think," he once told a group of newspapermen, which is a common view among football managers, but one that most elect to keep to themselves.
Those welcoming his sacking, however, were out of tune with the majority of Tottenham's paying public, who on Wednesday offered up regular choruses of "Glenn Hoddle's blue-and-white army", as well as hymns to his signings Robbie Keane, Frédéric Kanouté, Rohan Ricketts (scorers of an outstanding goal each) and the promising Helder Postiga.
There will undoubtedly be more of the same at the City of Manchester Stadium this afternoon, when anyone waiting for songs of praise to the Enic army, or Daniel Levy the king of White Hart Lane, should not hold their breath.Reuse content