Spurs must make purists purr

FA Cup third round: Injury-ravaged Tottenham visit the Theatre of Dreams desperate for release from the nightmare
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The Independent Online
It may seem to Tottenham Hotspur that they are saddled with quotations. "The game is about glory," said their former captain Danny Blanchflower, the man who led them to their last league title - the Double indeed - in 1961. "It's about doing things in style, with a flourish."

They will read it and weep around White Hart Lane these days. Glory and style seem distant concepts as Gerry Francis, having systematically and sensibly aborted Ossie Ardiles's charge of the light brigade, now labours after two years in the manager's job to take them more than half a league onward.

Today, injury-ravaged, Spurs limp into Old Trafford for what remains, just about, one of the English game's classic encounters, in the FA Cup third round. The cocks of North London, supposedly the United of the South, are scarcely the equals of Manchester United these days, however. A draw, especially without Teddy Sheringham, who turned an ankle in training last week, and Darren Anderton, would represent quite a result.

The two are the most successful clubs in FA Cup history, having won the trophy 17 times between them. "Manchester United and Spurs do have the same style, the same beliefs," Blanchflower also once said. "Basically, we believe in attack. We go out to win the game; we don't go out not to lose it."

Significantly and symbolically, though, United have overhauled Spurs in the last two seasons to make it 9-8 in Cup triumphs. Another symbol of Tottenham being left behind: to general grumbling, they had run out of the No 10 in the Spurs replica-shirt shop in the first week of this season. You couldn't imagine that in United's megastore.

The Blanchflower philosophy should act as a spur for Tottenham, as badge of honour rather than burden of expectation for a club of such noble image and intent. And Francis is nothing if not positive; to hear him put a gloss on last week's 7-1 defeat at Newcastle was to be tempted to rewrite the headline to "Spurs in eight-goal thriller".

He was obviously doing his best again when we came to Tottenham's new training ground at chilly Chigwell, in Essex-girl Birds of a Feather country, last Friday to put to him the fans' recent crowing. Given the broken-wing state of his flock, with the new Norwegian striker Steffen Iversen having been sent home with flu and pounds 17.5m worth of talent in Sheringham, Anderton, John Scales and Chris Armstrong also absent injured, you couldn't fail to have sympathy.

As ever, Francis was well prepared in defence of his record (played 106, won 45, drawn 35, lost 26, he announced proudly) but the head cockerel's plumage was ruffled at the suggestion that criticism centres more on the absence of the traditional swagger in Tottenham's gait. He had been annoyed when a former Spurs manager, David Pleat, ventured as much recently after his Sheffield Wednesday team had taken a point from them.

"I have been a manager for a long time now and never had any of my teams questioned about style of play," he said. "At Queen's Park Rangers, I was above Tottenham every year. My team here is virtually the same as QPR, with two wingers." He went on to list the current and emerging talent, one of whom, the 19-year-old striker Neale Penn, could start today.

Indeed with Ian Walker in goal, Sol Campbell in defence, allied to Sheringham and Anderton, Spurs should not only be in the hunt for prizes but also ooze class. Francis has a point, too, when he says that Tottenham's record under him - eighth and seventh in the Premiership, an FA Cup semi-final - represents progress and compares favourably with any Spurs manager in the last decade.

The caveat is that new signings appear these days one degree below top quality, with the best choosing to go elsewhere. Chris Armstrong came because Les Ferdinand would not; Ruel Fox and Andy Sinton were surplus to Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday. Jurgen Klinsmann, meanwhile, desperate for a championship medal that he thought Bayern Munich might more probably achieve, Nicky Barmby and Gica Popescu could not be prevailed upon to stay and Francis's trawl of the continent has yielded only sound Scandinavians. The modern equivalents of Ardiles, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker seem out of reach.

In addition, the 6-1 defeat at Bolton in the Coca-Cola Cup and the Newcastle result do not bode well for a coach whose reputation is for defensive organisation despite his claim of "good little runs" either side of the Bolton game. Neither will equating QPR to Tottenham endear the manager to the Park Lane end, nor statistics at a club famed for fantasy rather than fact.

Alan Sugar, after the Klinsmann affair, has made it plain he is no longer interested in one-season celebrities, but he insists that Tottenham can be a championship team in three years; he declares, too, that he would pay a top post-Bosman free transfer pounds 30,000 a week. Only recently, however, has transfer expenditure exceeded income.

It seems that the chairman, currently on holiday in Florida, is keeping his own nerve and retaining faith in Francis. "Alan spoke with various people at the club and said he was pleased that it was a fighting game," reports his personal assistant Nick Hewer. "He just put it down to one of those things. Alan believes that the type of football Tottenham play is entirely for Gerry. People say many things about Sugar but one thing that is clear is that he supports his own men and will come out fighting on their behalf."

Though Sugar grows weary of criticism, still unforgiven for sacking the FA Cup winner Terry Venables in that summer of '93 - more Old Bailey than Eddie Baily - Hewer says he would be "amazed" if the owner were to walk away from the club.

"It is no longer an Alan Sugar thing, it is a Sugar family enterprise," says Hewer. "The fact that he has had a tremendous return on his investment is of minor interest. It is an enterprise he will look after for the family." That includes sons Daniel and Simon, both in their mid-20s, the former working at White Hart Lane in marketing, and smacks of the Edwards dynasty at Old Trafford.

It could be the only similarity today between two clubs once intertwined in the romance of the game. Was it only a year ago that Spurs beat Manchester United 4-1 on their way to third place, in early January, in the Premiership? That team - Anderton was missing then, too - werealso considerably weaker in theory than that fielded in recent weeks, several players now relegated to the reserves.

Given the state of health of his team, Francis's stewardship probably does not deserve to be judged on today's result, even if it signals the season's end in terms of pot-hunting. But when all are fit again, and Spurs set off in pursuit of the European place they last enjoyed 13 years ago, unrest will turn to revolt if traditional guile and grace are not restored. Important players, too, may decide it is time to move on.

"Than the famous Spurs there is probably no more popular club in England," a historian wrote in 1906. "Did they not recover the Association Cup for the South? Did they not play pretty and effective football? Are they not scrupulously fair? Are they not perfectly managed?"

Another badge rather than burden; questions that require answers again. Should the professionals at Spurs dismiss the old-fashioned purists in this hard-nosed modern game - all about winning, apparently - they should remember that fine words and great expectations are not heaped upon the mediocre.