IT WAS David Ginola's 32nd birthday on Monday - but Joe Kinnear was not about to wish him many happy returns, certainly not on the eve of tonight's "return", which, the third in five meetings spanning a month, comes just one step from Wembley and as such represents arguably the most crucial game in Wimbledon's history since the 1988 FA Cup final.
Some might say that it is even more important, since a good result at White Hart Lane in the first leg of this Worthington Cup semi-final would leave them tantalisingly close to achieving their dream of qualifying for Europe - something that was denied them 11 years ago, following the defeat of Liverpool, due to the ban on English clubs.
So, having identified the principal danger to that ambition - Ginola - Kinnear, in the best Crazy Gang fashion, was maintaining his critique of the performances of an opponent who continues to dominate these exchanges, partly because of Kinnear's contentious remarks.
Yet all the while he blames everyone else for focusing too much on one individual. Ginola, for one, would no doubt be only too happy for Kinnear to move his spotlight elsewhere.
Nor was it just the written media who came in for criticism when Kinnear and his opposite number, George Graham, got together for a pre-match lunch that developed into a sparring session that must have made the steak pie difficult for them to digest. To be fair to Kinnear, the wine bar of the former Tottenham manager, Terry Neill, in Farringdon was hardly neutral territory.
"He [Ginola] must have run at Kenny [Cunningham] 40 times and went past him just four times," said Kinnear, with reference to last Saturday's FA Cup tie between the two sides. "I watched Match of the Day and we saw flashes of Ginola at his best, but we didn't see Kenny overlap and get in about 28 crosses, did we, because you're all brainwashed to what's going on."
In a dining room where the walls were covered with shirts donated to the restaurant's owner, it seemed the last place for Kinnear to repeat his disapproval of the decision of the referee Dermot Gallagher to ask Ginola for his shirt after last Saturday's game.
Graham naturally defended his man, and also the referee. He defended Ginola's attitude, too, since he had been at the club. "To be fair to him, he's one of the few players at the club who has never missed a day's training - mind you, we do supply shampoo."
There has always been an element of friction in games between the Spurs and the Dons - a classic confrontation between the haves and have-nots - but for Kinnear, as a former Spur, they seem to have a special fascination which only intensified when Alan Sugar overlooked his obvious claims and appointed Christian Gross as coach last season.
Whatever he may have thought of the Swiss, there is no doubting his respect for Graham. The Tottenham manager, however, was not in a particular reciprocal mood, denying that there was anything "unique" about Wimbledon's famous spirit. "I think all the outstanding sides have a good team spirit," he said. "Any team that I've managed has always had great spirit, going right back to my Millwall days. It's one of the reasons why a team like Wimbledon have been able to evolve, they've always had great team spirit - in the past that is - apart from Hartson, they've always bought players from non-League and lower divisions."
It was Kinnear's belief that the purchase of John Hartson (who is ineligible for tonight's game) for pounds 7.5m from West Ham sent out a message to other quality players that Wimbledon might be a club worth joining. "I would never have done the deal if it jeopardised the club. We would have gone down another route. I've seen the calamities that have happened at Palace and other clubs. It can rebound on you, it might even have been happening at West Ham - they seemed to want their money very quickly."
In defending his expensive new acquisition, Kinnear indicated that not too much else about Wimbledon would be changing. "I've liked target men ever since I was at Spurs and played with Gilzean and Chivers," he said. "The kid's only 23. If we look at the line leaders around, most of them are getting a bit long in the tooth. Whether the game is going to be played with two dwarfs up front, I don't know, it might be the way forward, but it's certainly not the way I want to play."
Unlike some other clubs, Graham professed to have great respect for the League Cup - although he could not at first remember whether it was two or three teams he had taken to finals in the competition. "Certainly Wimbledon or Spurs, in their present situation just now, would be delighted to win this," he said.
"We're not really interested in it - we're just concentrating on the European place," Kinnear interjected. Touche.
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