Walker seeks shelter from the storm

Tottenham will be desperate to resurrect their season when they face Manchester United in tomorrow's third-round FA Cup tie. Glenn Moore talks to the Spurs goalkeeper about team spirit and self-motivation
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The Independent Online
Long after most of the Tottenham players had gone into the warm, Ian Walker was still diving around on the frozen earth at Tottenham's Chigwell training ground yesterday.

"Doesn't he get enough practice in matches," said one watching cynic. "Only at picking the ball out of the net," said another. Having become the butt of such jokes after last week's 7-1 thrashing at Newcastle, one would have thought that Walker would have gone into hiding. Not a bit of it. A quick shower later he sat down, orange juice and yogurt in hand, to explain why he was looking forward to tomorrow's FA Cup third-round tie against the holders, Manchester United, at Old Trafford.

"A game like this can work in our favour," he said. "It depends on our morale and spirit, how we respond. No disrespect to Leicester [whose midweek League game with Spurs was frozen off] but it might have been hard to lift ourselves for that; we could have still been down after the weekend. But United at Old Trafford? If you are not up for that, you might as well not be in the game."

So how is the morale and spirit? "Not too bad considering the defeat and the injuries we have picked up. We're just looking to see who's fit. We need our experienced men for this one." Tottenham had just learned that Teddy Sheringham had joined Chris Armstrong, John Scales, Darren Anderton and Gary Mabbutt on the injured list while Sol Campbell, Steffen Iversen and Rory Allen were doubtful, having been unable to train.

And Walker's own morale? "It's not nice as a goalkeeper to let in a lot of goals but I felt I played well at Newcastle. But you say that to people and they look at the score and say, `Oh yeah?' It was only the fifth goal [Philippe Albert's] which I was disappointed with. I didn't have much chance with the others."

Self-delusion? No. The Independent on Sunday's match reporter had the same view: "Walker more than earned his Spurs. He was Tottenham's best player by the length of Scotswood Road." Walker is quick to accept blame when it's due. "It was different to the Bolton game," he said of the November Coca-Cola Cup tie Tottenham lost 6-1. "That was one of the worst games I played, and I said so. But after a couple of days I thought I had been too critical; I had made a couple of mistakes, not six."

The Bolton game was followed by the home defeat to Liverpool, in which Steve McManaman's innocuous shot hit a divot and bounced over Walker's routine save. "I had felt confident in that game then that happened.

"But it's like my Dad says, things can't be up all the time, there will be downs. It is how you react to them." Walker's dad is Mike Walker, manager of Norwich and himself a former League goalkeeper. They speak on the phone but it is more a father-son relationship than a teacher-pupil one. "After Bolton he rang up to say don't worry about it," Walker said. "Then Norwich got beat five and six in a week and I was ringing him up and saying don't worry. Now we've lost seven - it's like we're trying to outdo each other."

During the "downs", Walker reacts by "looking at the overall picture from when I was young. I look at the goals I had when I was 10 and I have achieved all of them: I play for Tottenham, I've played for England. It's not that bad, is it?

"Now I want to win things with Tottenham and play regularly for England." With David Seaman injured and Tim Flowers' Blackburn place uncertain, Walker is aware that much could depend on the next few weeks. "I think David will be fit for the Italy game [12 February] but it is important to keep your form and for the team to do well. Tim Flowers found himself out of the squad when Blackburn were not doing well."

All of which adds to the importance of tomorrow's game. "If we win, anybody's season can change on one result," Walker said. "If we lose, it puts pressure on us. Realistically it means we then can't win anything, and we have to try and get into Europe."

Challenging for Europe? This is not how the likes of Walker, Campbell and Sheringham intend to spend their careers, and Spurs' recent fortunes have provoked speculation that their better players may be thinking of moving to greener pastures. "I won't be happy just challenging for Europe but I hope we won't just be doing that. I'm really settled here - I've just signed a new contract. We are not far off being a very good side. We're still looking for new players and in Steffen we have signed a very good one who'll be here for years to come."

How much can Walker expect from Spurs? The fans regard them as the equal of Arsenal, but as Gerry Francis noted yesterday: "Tottenham have only won one trophy in 13 years and not won the title in 36. The last two seasons [seventh and eighth] have been their best finishes in the League in seven seasons. When I was manager at QPR they finished 10th-15th."

Damning figures. But Francis is as notorious for massaging of statistics as is the Department of Employment. The last two examples are slightly misleading and the third places achieved by Keith Burkinshaw (1985), David Pleat (1987) and Terry Venables (1990) are never mentioned.

But results are not the main problem as far as fans are concerned. They accept Francis has been restricted by injuries and unscheduled departures by the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann. They regard Alan Sugar as the real reason the club is slipping behind their neighbours. What they blame Francis for is the way Spurs are playing. Their feelings were summed recently when David Pleat said of a Spurs game: "Someone said they could not see the ball - I said look up in the air." He added that Allan Nielsen's long throws and Walker's goal-kicks were all Spurs had to offer as attacking options.

Pleat's own passing side is now a fond memory. Francis insisted: "I've been a manager for a long time now and I've never had had any of my teams questioned over their style of football. I played virtually the same at QPR, with two wingers and talented players like Teddy Sheringham." Yet Walker, when pressed, admitted: "I threw the ball out recently and the fans started clapping."

Which brought us to tomorrow's game. It is not inconceivable that Spurs could win. Away from home they seek to contain and counter. As Middlesbrough found earlier this season, it can be very effective and not unattractive. However, once they have gone behind and have to chase the game, holes appear in the defensive organisation. That is what happened at Newcastle and it could do at Old Trafford.

"It would be nice to have a quiet game," Walker said, "but you don't go to Old Trafford and expect to have a comfortable afternoon. I'll expect a bombardment. That way I'll be ready."