Pleat puts gospel of flair to the test

Simon O'Hagan speaks to a manager happy to be back in the top division
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The Independent Online
DAVID PLEAT did not go and watch Newcastle United at Bolton Wanderers last Tuesday, even though his Sheffield Wednesday team meet them at Hillsborough today. "I was worried I might end up admiring them too much," he said. "In terms of flair and improvisation I think they're the best in the Premiership. I might have got a little bit worried. I didn't want them affecting my thinking."

Not many managers would be prepared to lavish such praise on the opposition before the kick-off, but for the 50-year-old Pleat, newly returned to the top level nearly eight years after he left Tottenham Hotspur, a feeling for what is good in the game has always co-existed with the narrower concerns of where the next three points are coming from.

Having had to make do for so long with lower division football, at Leicester City and then back at Luton Town, where he had previously been manager from 1978 to 1986, Pleat could hardly have wished for a more exciting, or indeed daunting, re-entry to the Premiership. Defeat on the opening day at Liverpool was followed by a 2-1 win at home to Blackburn. And now Newcastle.

This, of course, is exactly the sort of thing Pleat came for. "I needed this to inspire myself," he said. "I had to move. I'm challenged here. I'm under the microscope." It might have happened last season when Tottenham Hotspur were lining him up to replace Ossie Ardiles. But the role was not hands-on enough. "I wasn't prepared to divorce myself from the winning and losing," Pleat said.

Wednesday, though, represented "the perfect opportunity", although Luton's compensation claims soured the move somewhat. Pleat says his relationship with Luton is still good, and if there are those who think he let them down he will defend himself saying that the 15 years he had there represents considerable loyalty. "And they got two transfer fees out of me."

So is Pleat doing anything differently now? "I've always wanted to play passing football," he said. "I'd hate to see our midfield players running up and down the field without making contact and becoming an attritional, physical team. I think we can play football with what we've got here. We have a few problems. We lack left-sided players. We may lack a bit of legs. We might have a bit too much age in certain areas. But every club has areas it can improve. You'll never find a manager who'll say he's happy with everything."

Pleat says there is money at the club, although his two summer signings smacked more of shrewdness than extravagance. John Pembridge, a midfielder, came from Derby County for pounds 900,000 and is described by Pleat as someone who "sets himself very high standards and gets disappointed when he fails to meet them". And in Marc Degryse, the Belgian international bought from Anderlecht for pounds 1.5m, Pleat has someone "with a sharp brain" who when he gets into the team - he has missed both the matches so far because of an ankle injury - is likely to play just behind the front two, "or perhaps the front one".

Which leaves the question of Chris Waddle, whose 34-year-old legs aren't getting any younger. "Chris is a humble and sensible professional," Pleat said. "We've talked, and his future depends on how he stays with the pace and whether he gets restless if he loses his place in the team."

Whatever Waddle's future - and a move into management now seems more a matter of when than if - the man himself is behind what Pleat is trying to do at the club . "He wants people to have courage," Waddle said. "He doesn't want us to go round wishing that we'd tried something we hadn't." That might have happened to Pleat himself,until he decided to something about it.