`This is my last season on my contract here, and we've got to win something. I've got my own standards, and they've haven't been met'; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: GERRY FRANCIS

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The Independent Online
Tottenham have a lot of injuries right now. Then again they have had a lot of injuries ever since Gerry Francis took over nearly three years ago.

The Spurs manager talks frankly about his record, his frustrations - and why this might be his last season at White Hart Lane.

If you are to believe everything you read then the fact that I saw Gerry Francis smile, and witnessed three top Spurs players having their lunch at the club training ground in Chigwell without injuring themselves, makes it a rare unusual day.

Life at Tottenham Hotspur, it is fair to say, could be better. Burdened with "bit club" tag the north Londoners are, this season, and last, falling way below expectation. They can't score, they've lost their flair for the game, and Francis is beginning to get it in the neck on a regular basis from the media and, indeed, some sections of the home support.

Typically Francis refuses to hide from the issue, and even adds to the pressure by stating: "This is my last season on my contract here, and we've got to win something. I've got my own standards, and they've haven't been met here. It doesn't really matter what's gone on in the past, the fact remains that a club like Tottenham needs to be, at least, in the top six, and playing in Europe every season."

He is not offering excuses which, under his circumstances, he is more than entitled to do. Despite his and Tottenham's so-called slump, the facts tell a different story.

The last time they won the League championship was in 1961, 36 years ago. It seems incredible, doesn't it? In Francis's first season in charge, when he took over in November, 1994 from Ossie Ardiles, he lifted Spurs from fourth from bottom to seventh in the Premiership, and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. He also happened to twice be interviewed for the England manager's job.

The following season, they ended up eighth, both times with higher points than any other manager has achieved at White Hart Lane in the 1990s. On top of this, believe it or not, Francis holds the record for the best first 50 games ever recorded by a Tottenham manager, even better than Bill Nicholson and Terry Venables.

At the start of last season Francis genuinely believed he had laid the foundations for a title challenge. After three games he had lost Chris Armstrong, Gary Mabbutt and Darren Anderton (again) - all to long-term injuries - plus Teddy Sheringham. The season went from bad to worse until, at one point, he had 15 first-team squad players out.

"It got to the stage where I was handing out jelly-babies at half-time to the kids I had to play in the team," Francis recalled with a rueful smile. "If we hadn't have had such a big squad we would undoubtedly have been relegated. In all my time in management I earned my money more last season than at any other time."

Still, Spurs managed to finish in the top half of the Premiership, and looked forward to a fresh start, and another crack at the title this season. Instead, the problems mounted again.

"We lost Steffen Iversen, injured whilst playing for Norway, and now Les Ferdinand, injured on England duty. Anderton's still out and it got to the point recently when I had to play my sixth-choice striker."

At this point Francis stops and holds up his hand. "Look, I really don't want to go on about injuries. Nobody's bothered, and I won't want people to think I keep turning to it as an excuse. If we'd gone down last year people wouldn't have said: `Oh, but they had lots of injuries'. They just would have seen that we were relegated, and I would have been out of a job. The bottom line, regardless of how many players we lose, is that we must win trophies."

For all that, it must be frustrating to be unable to use so many talented players. "Sure, and I have no doubt that my squad, when fully fit, is one of the strongest in the country. It's my biggest frustration that I've never been able to show people what the first team can do."

Then, of course, Spurs also lost Teddy Sheringham, who left for Manchester United in the summer stating he needed to play for a club that could win trophies. It looked very bad for his former employers.

"That's true," Francis said. "But in reality Teddy wanted to stay. He wanted a five-year deal that would see him through to his testimonial. He came to me personally and said that he didn't want to move. The best the club could offer was a four-year contract which, under its terms, was a tremendous offer. He left because he didn't get what he wanted, but when you analyse what he later said about his reasons for leaving Spurs, it just doesn't add up. If he wanted to leave us because we weren't going to win anything, how come he asked for a five-year contract?"

For all the injuries, Francis has spent pounds 30m. "Yes, I've spent pounds 30m. But that's been to recoup the pounds 20m-worth of players I have lost."

What does that mean? "At the end of the my first season I lost Jurgen Klinsmann to Bayern Munich for pounds 1.5m. I replaced him with Chris Armstrong, for pounds 4.5m. I also lost Nicky Barmby and Popescu. I lost Teddy and replaced him with Les Ferdinand, for pounds 6m. What I'm saying is that I've been forced to replace, rather than looking to build."

On top of all this, the last thing Francis and Spurs need is an Arsenal team riding high in the Premiership, and scoring goals seemingly at will.

"Yeah, I know," Francis said. "It doesn't help matters. But it's for us to sort out, and the way to do so is to win matches. I could be negative about it all, but I'm looking to beat Derby in the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday, and Sheffield Wednesday in the League on Saturday. It's as simple as that."

Four years ago, the man who had captained England and Queen's Park Rangers and managed Exeter, Bristol Rovers and Queen's Park Rangers manager was ready to turn his back on football. He had, quite simply, had enough, and was looking forward to a financially stable future, with his young family.

"When I left QPR I'd given 13 years as a player, and four as a manager to the club. The reasons why I had to leave, after everything I had done for the club, and what the club did to me, by going behind my back and taking action without talking to me, was just about the last straw for me in football. As far as I was concerned, I was finished with the game."

A telephone call from Alan Sugar changed everything. "I knew that I'd had some success with clubs who didn't really have a chance of winning anything, but now here was a club who were supposed to win. I was always selling at Rovers and QPR, but now I could go out and buy the best players. The irony was that I didn't have a penny for nine months, but, nevertheless, I know I would have regretted not taking the offer up."

Does he regret it now? "No, the first two years were fine, but, recently, it's been a struggle, and it would have been nice to have put out my best team. It would be good to get a lucky break. Whoever manages Tottenham in the future, I hope he has more fortune with injuries than I've had."

That sounds a bit like an epitaph. I ask him a rotten question. Is he worried that the sack is looming? "I was sacked at Exeter, so I know what it's like, and it doesn't bother me. If Alan Sugar sacks me tomorrow then that's fine. You won't get any complaints from me because it's their decision. This has always been our arrangement from the start. On the other hand, neither would I expect any complaints from them if, at the end of my contract this season, we win the FA Cup, and I still decided to quit. All I can do right now is my job, and do it well."

I ask him about Kevin Keegan's initial explanation for leaving Newcastle, after looking across at his friend's anguished face as Newcastle were putting seven goals past Spurs last season. "What Kevin meant was that, despite the score, the game could so easily have been different. We certainly had enough chances. It was a low point at a time when we were struggling. Kevin realised that it could have been him, and there's always a next time.

"I saw Jock Stein two days before he died. He looked an ill man. Kenny Dalglish has needed a couple of breaks away from management. So what I'm saying is that managing a football club is a very professional job, and one that's not always enjoyable, but it's something you feel compelled to do, and do well."

So what of the immediate future? Francis appears determined to ride the storm. "Contrary to popular belief, we are actually on a run of four wins, and four draws in our last 10 games. We've only lost twice, and one was in the last minute at Newcastle.

"So we're not exactly on a bad run, are we? The supporters must stay with us in what is seen to be a difficult time for us. That's absolutely vital. OK, so the League title looks a long shot now, but who's to say, if I can field close to my strongest team, that we can't win one of the cups? Who's to say we won't end up in the top six of the League, and qualify for Europe?

"It's very important that we do, which is why we must win our next two matches." He pauses, and then adds: "You see, there's a certain time limit at a club like Tottenham. You know what this season is? It's the last chance."

As Gerry Francis sees me out, that last phrase sticks in the mind. Last chance. It may be his last chance for Spurs, or it very possibly could be the club's last chance with Gerry Francis.

It may even be both.