Kendall relights the fire

FA Cup fourth round: A famous finalist of the past returns to plot a giant-killing as an old England striker homes in on hope
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The Independent Online
THERE is lot less of Howard Kendall these days, but still plenty to him. Sheffield United certainly believed so when they appointed him manager six weeks ago in defiance of rumours rife in the game concerning - to coin a footballing euphemism - his refuelling habits.

Kendall had heard them and knew that others had too. They were there in the latter stages of his second spell at an Everton in turmoil; he was confronted by them when he went for an interview for a vacancy at Ipswich, the questioning more to do with his drinking than his silverware- spangled CV. Finally, he read them when a tabloid published allegations of alcohol-influenced episodes during an unhappy 79-day stay at Notts County.

That was the day, unable to afford to sue, he decided to make a change. It has proved a braver course of action. "I have always worked hard in my career and I have played hard, but I have always done my job and been successful in it," he insisted. "I have known many other people in our game who do exactly the same thing. But unfortunately if the publicity surrounding my departure from that football club was going to stick, then I intended to do something about it."

He has never said that he is not drinking but, yes, that is the case at the moment, though he doesn't consider it a relevant question. It is clearly germane, however. The new Sheffield United chairman Mike McDonald could hardly have failed to be impressed by his record - the years at Blackburn Rovers, Everton first time around, Athletic Bilbao and Manchester City at least - but it must have been the sight of the bright-eyed figure two stones lighter, defying the grape and the grapevine, that clinched it.

"If I was going to be asked to go into management again, and it was the right club, I wanted to be ready for it," Kendall added. "After all the crap that was talked, I either said 'oh well', and carried on or 'no, I'll do something about it'. People who knew me knew it was rubbish but the word spreads in football like you would not believe. Hopefully now, good things will be spread."

Make that are being spread around. When the draw for the FA Cup's third round was made, Kendall was not even employed. Just over a month later, he finds himself in the thick of a competition in whose history he has played a significant part, as finalist with Preston North End as a 17- year-old midfield player in 1964 and winner with Everton as a manager 20 years later.

Among his early tasks was a trip to Highbury, where in that run of 1984, Everton beat Southampton 1-0 in the semi-final, courtesy of a goal by Adrian Heath - now Kendall's assistant at Bramall Lane. Heath was also the one credited with securing Kendall's tenure with a goal in another cup-tie at Oxford which turned Everton's season around. "Peter Reid forced the backpass that led to the goal," Kendall said. "I also gave him a job once so they can't say I haven't been grateful." Actually, Kendall recalled a glaring last-minute miss by Tony Cascarino for Gillingham in the FA Cup as being equally important.

After Sheffield United's creditable draw at Arsenal came the 1-0 replay win, when the reinvigorated Kendall was seen on the touchline with features alive again. Today a wider audience will see it for themselves in the televised fourth-round tie against Aston Villa, who have the best defensive record in the Premiership.

The Arsenal replay was also notable for the United crowd chanting "ole" as each movement developed more patiently than they had been used to under Dave Bassett's successful-to-a-point stewardship. Most fans of direct teams will defiantly defend their tactics but deep down they prefer the fluency that a sophisticate such as Kendall can bring.

"It started in my first match at Ipswich as a mickey-take, I think," he said. "I played with five across the back because they had been leaking goals for fun and when we started passing it about the travelling fans came up with this. I don't remember ever playing against a Sheffield United side that didn't pass it but they did get labelled with the long-ball tag. When you talk about changing styles, players do that. My first job is to find out if a player is capable of it. I have inherited too many players here and too many of similar standards."

In fact, there were 40 and Kendall set about rebuilding. "I decided not to sit around and let nothing happen. I thought 'let's get in there and shake it up a little'." Bolton's offer of pounds 1.5m for Nathan Blake, to include Mark Patterson in the deal, was too tempting to turn down. It enabled him to sign for pounds 1.2m the gifted but difficult Don Hutchison from West Ham, who "has potential to go further than he has shown so far". In, too, have come the defenders Michel Vonk and Chris Short and have- pass-will-travel Gordon Cowans, now 37.

"I like my teams to have quality in most positions," he said. "They have got to be comfortable with the ball. Most of my training methods are with the ball. I never liked cross-country, but I would play with a ball all day."

In the case of Cowans he made an interesting point. There is a dearth of talent in this country, he agreed, as the result of the trend for direct play during the formative years of young players: it is why old stagers, who learnt when accurate passing was the vogue, are still in demand.

"I think it is starting to change because of the way the top teams are playing again but sometimes it still hard when you go to watch a game in the lower divisions to see whether a player can pass or control the ball with 20 players crammed in the centre circle. I have been to a game where both linesmen had their flags up for offside at the same time."

The FA Cup may offer an exciting diversion and Kendall may be keen to take Sheffield United back into the Premiership, but piloting them to safety from their current position at the bottom of the First Division is the priority. An irony could be that they pass Notts County, whose potential Kendall felt was too limited, on the way down.

"Unbeaten since I came here and still bottom of the league," said Kendall, assessing what he regards as a simple task. "You cut out silly mistakes, be fairly well organised, see some goals at the other end and you win the league." Simple but not easy. "The players are not suffering from over-confidence," he understated. "But they don't think they are a bad side."

"This is a big club," he said. "But it's probably too early for the 20,000 to be turning up every week. The fans have had a lot of promises down the years and I think they are waiting to see if this time they will be delivered."

It is a chance anew for Kendall, approaching his 50th birthday, to deliver. But for the last two years, he may have had more endorsements than Ray Wilkins's for the job of England coach. He was on a shortlist of three five years ago but declined an interview as he did not relish the loneliness of the job, preferring to remain in the day-to-day domain of club management. That has not changed.

"It was nice of Ray to say what he did and I suppose if you put a CV on the table, why shouldn't I be mentioned? But the publicity last year may have meant people thinking 'no, we won't touch him'. I am here to prove that Sheffield United have made the right decision."

The tide turns at low water as well as high. For the leaner Howard Kendall, and a depressed Sheffield United, the lean times may also be turning.