Pleat sustained by his passion for progress

For David Pleat, today's visit by Spurs could bring back memories. But as Glenn Moore discovered, he has never been one to look back
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The Independent Online
When Tottenham arrive at Hillsborough today David Pleat, the Sheffield Wed-nesday manager, can be forgiven if he reflects, however briefly, on what might have been. If he does it will be just for an instant, then he will quickly set his mind to the immediate future and seek to change one of the League's most impressive records.

Spurs have lost at Hillsborough only three times in the last 25 years and Pleat recalls that when he was Tottenham manager "Wednesday was always regarded as a lucky ground". Pleat's spell at Spurs produced some of the best attacking football of the last two decades - and some of the most unpleasant headlines. Having guided the club to third in the League, to the FA Cup final, and the Football League Cup semi-finals in 1986-87, Pleat was sacked after allegations about his private life were splashed on the tabloids.

A combination of public scandal - Arsenal fans were soon wearing T-shirts reproducing the relevant Sun front page - and the desire to bring back the newly available Terry Venables to White Hart Lane, meant the board equivocated. Pleat, whose life was now being lived in the full glare of the media, resigned.

"I could not survive the pressure that was being put on me," he said this week. "But I do not look back upon the time with any sadness or bitterness. I remember the club with pure happiness. They are a marvellous club which has, over the last 30 years, had the best attitude to attacking football in the country, But, since Bill Nicholson's Double-winning side in 1961 they have not won the trophies their football creativity deserved.

"Nothing is forever and I do not look back, I only look forward. You would expect me to say that, but I do not refer to anything that I felt was unfortunate or unfair in my time there. I always get a good reaction from the fans when I go there, they were wonderful to me. I could have gone back last year but it was not quite right."

What was "not right" was the lack of day-to-day involvement with players. Spurs may be close to Pleat's heart, but coaching and developing players is in his blood. On Wednesday night, instead of watching Blackburn blunder against the sophisticates of Spartak Moscow, he was watching Wednesday's reserves.

They beat a very experienced Liverpool side (including Molby, Clough, McAteer and Walters) 4-3 and the following morning he was still bubbling with enthusiasm for the match. "It was a wonderful game. I get a lot of enjoyment from that, and from our youth team. They are unbeaten in six games and there are three or four players for the future there."

Pleat's priorities have been evident from his first actions in taking over from Trevor Francis. While leaving the senior coaching staff unchanged he has added Mick Walker - the former Notts County manager, who developed Tommy Johnson and Mark Draper - and Danny Bergara, previously manager of Stockport County, to the youth set-up.

To the first team he has introduced Mark Pembridge and Marc Degryse, adding hustling young legs to an ageing, lightweight midfield and some sharpness to an underachieving forward line. "I am still assessing things here. We have one or two players who are the wrong age, but still do a valuable job. We have too many bodies, we have some good players who are not getting into the reserve side quick enough."

As well as looking to bring players through, and buy new players - "we have not targeted anyone else yet" - Pleat, like a succession of Wednesday managers, is waiting on David Hirst's injuries. "They have not bought a highly rated forward here for some years because Hirst has been the great white hope for so long. I intend to give him every opportunity. He should be fit to play against Tottenham."

It is hard to recall now that, had Wednesday sold Hirst to Manchester United three years ago, Alex Ferguson would never have bought Eric Cantona. Talk about what might have been.

Pleat has been an eloquent spokesman for the Endsleigh League during his exile with Luton and he remains concerned about the widening gulf. "It is getting greater and will continue to do so. While Premiership players are generally comfortable, Endsleigh ones are fighting for contracts and money. It is tougher in the Endsleigh.

"But the Premiership has different pressures. There is more analysis, there is a great intensity of coverage, it is like being in a goldfish bowl. In the Endsleigh that only applies at the big-city clubs with high expectations, like Wolves and Sunderland. In the Endsleigh three losses is a poor spell, in the Premiership it is half-way to a tragedy."

Wednesday could easily have lost their first three games under Pleat. Their opening fixtures were Liverpool, Blackburn and a Newcastle side Pleat clearly admires - "a lot of pure quality, they play the way I like to play". But they beat the champions and, with another four points from the last six now sit ninth, a better start than for some years.

Pleat is one of the managers operating with three central defenders partly because, in Dan Petrescu and Ian Nolan, he has two suitable full-backs. "Petrescu is the best full-back in the League going forward while Nolan is a very fine athlete. He recovers so well.

"There are several clubs playing this way," he added, "but only Chelsea, with Ruud Gullit, do it with a sweeper and markers. Newcastle might when Philippe Albert is fit."

Both players are foreign but, said Pleat, "we do have such players, we just do not encourage them. It is a position which can set the tempo of the game and some of our midfielders could play there, Ray Wilkins could at QPR. I think Chris Waddle could play there, if he tackles and copes in the air."

Waddle in central defence! Now there is a prospect to excite spectators - and opposing forwards. Will he try it? Maybe, Pleat has always been an innovative tactician. His Tottenham side played a lone striker and five midfielders, and scored 109 goals in the season, scoring four or more on nine occasions.

"We had the right players. We had an elusive winger in Waddle; Glenn Hoddle in the free role he always wanted; Paul Allen ferreting on the right; Steve Hodge adding balance on the left; Ossie Ardiles anticipating and starting attacks and Clive Allen, a lazy forward but a supreme finisher. He was a marvellous front man on his own." (Allen scored 49 goals that year and was players' and writers' player of the year).

Gary Mabbutt, Tottenham's own survivor from that side, recalled that team this week. "It was the best squad in my 13 years here," he said. "It was unfortunate David was only with us a short time. Who knows what would have happened? We could have gone on to great things and David could have been one of the greatest managers in Tottenham's history. He was a very good tactician, he knew the game inside out and he does his homework. He will do good things for Wednesday."

They need them. Wednesday's present, although it features Premiership status, a magnificent stadium and solid support, does not match its past. They won the League Cup four years ago but have not won one of the two major trophies for 60 years. But Pleat, as has been noted, is not one for dwelling on the past.