LES FERDINAND INTERVIEW
After Paul Stalteri scored his injury-time winner against West Ham in March, there was a certain air of satisfaction about Les Ferdinand’s summary of the performance on ‘Match Of The Day’ that evening. Throughout the match he had been on the sharp end of a ragging from former Arsenal star and fellow football pundit Lee Dixon, but Ferdinand was adamant that Tottenham would pull themselves back into the game. He’s a Spurs fan, after all, and he makes no bones about it.
It’s rare for a professional footballer to keep such passion for his childhood club after making a career in the game, but for Ferdinand it has always been Spurs. Where ever he was playing, it was the Tottenham result he looked for first after coming off the pitch and his dream of pulling on a Spurs shirt was the most important deciding factor when he chose to come to White Hart Lane from Newcastle in July 1997.
Although not growing up with any geographical connection to N17, the magical Spurs team of the late Seventies and early Eighties proved the magnet that attracted the young football fan to the club. “My cousin was a Liverpool supporter and we were like brothers at the time but I said, ‘I’m not supporting someone outside London’,” explains Ferdinand almost as soon as we start speaking. “I was born in Ladbroke Grove, so Queens Park Rangers was my closest ground, but when you’re a kid you’re caught by the glamour of a club and at that time Tottenham were the glamour club in London. I said, ‘Right, I’m a Spurs supporter’, and it stuck. I was more or less a Spurs fan on my own because, as I went to school in the Shepherds Bush area, all of my school friends supported QPR or Chelsea.”
Ferdinand will openly admit that he was an armchair supporter rather than a regular at the Lane, but it was a markedly different time for football. “Growing up for me it was difficult to go to the games because my parents had always seen the violence at football grounds and they weren’t too keen on me going,” he says. “They weren’t football supporters so they had no concept of what it was like. All they knew was what they saw on the TV news and what they read in newspapers about football violence, so they felt it wasn’t the ideal place for a young black boy to be going. They said ‘You watch it on the TV’, so I was an armchair follower.”
As a child his heroes were the strikers and the flair players, Tottenham stars like Clive Allen and Glenn Hoddle, but despite this Ferdinand started his secondary school football career as a goalkeeper. “I liked the excitement of being the first black goalkeeper,” he explains, “but too many goals were going past me so I decided to go up the other end and managed to score a few. We had a reserve goalkeeper but we didn’t have a reserve centre-forward and a few of the boys had seen me playing five-a-side in the playground and said, ‘Les can play up front’. I scored a hat-trick in my first game up front and the schoolmaster said, ‘You’ll never play in goal for this team again’. I was converted to centre-forward and I must admit I much preferred scoring the goals rather than picking the ball out of the back of the net.”
Making a slow start to his football career, he played at a non-league level for Southall and Hayes until he was 19 years old, but he never lost the desire to play for Spurs, however unrealistic it may have seemed at the time. “It was the club that I’d always dreamed about one day playing for,” he enthuses. “I can always remember being in Wood Green – I can’t remember what I was doing at this stage, I was probably driving a van – and I saw a few Tottenham apprentices in their tracksuits walking up the High Street. They were proud of the fact that they were Tottenham players, you know. I thought, ‘God, it would be good to play for Tottenham’. I was fascinated by it and held them in such high esteem – I didn’t even know who they were because they were obviously youth team or fringe players in the reserves, but I thought, ‘That’s great’. A few years later I managed to pull on the number nine shirt and I was playing for Tottenham and it was a dream come true.”
Ferdinand’s first big break came when he signed for Queens Park Rangers for £15,000 aged 19, and despite early loans spells with Brentford and Turkish club Besiktas, he stayed at Loftus Road for nine year and scored 162 league goals before moving to St James’ Park for £6 million. During his two-year spell at Newcastle he forged a devastating partnership with Alan Shearer, scoring 45 league goals in just 72 games as the club pushed Manchester United close for the Premiership title under Kevin Keegan. But even at a time when the Magpies were flying high, he still followed the fortunes of his local club and the club he supported. “They were the first results I’d ask about – Spurs and QPR. Terry McDermott used to get sick of it. He said, ‘You play for Newcastle’. I said, ‘Yeah, but we’ve just won, so how did the other two get on?’ It was a bit like that.”
By the time Les finally made his Spurs debut he was a 30-year-old England international with a wealth of experience at the highest level, but coming to White Hart Lane was still the achievement of a boyhood fantasy. “It was realising that dream,” says Les. “I think everybody knows that I had the opportunity to stay at Newcastle. Alan Shearer got an injury the weekend I was supposed to sign for Spurs and Newcastle tried to cancel the deal. They came down and spoke to my agent on the Sunday because I was just about to meet with Alan Sugar. Although it was tempting, the fact that Tottenham had always been my boyhood club was the deciding factor that made me want to go and try my luck at Tottenham Hotspur.”
Making his debut for Spurs was a very special moment for Ferdinand and he still sounds excited just talking about the experience. “I remember pulling on the shirt and thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, this is what I dreamed about’. I’ve always said that in football there are special places – stadiums with a great atmosphere. Newcastle has one of them and Tottenham’s is another. Speak to any player in the professional game and ask what stadium they like going to and they’ll say Newcastle, they’ll say Old Trafford because of its size, but Tottenham is always up there.”
During his period at the club, it wasn’t just the stadium that stood out – he played with some great players too. “I enjoyed playing up front with Teddy Sheringham,” says Les. “He’s such an intelligent player and we had a good understanding. David Ginola too, who is the most talented man I’ve ever played with based on sheer football ability. Sol Campbell at the back was always a rock and Darren Anderton was a good passer – people don’t appreciate this, but as a centre-forward you look for your midfield to find you, and to find you early. I was privileged in my early days to play with Ray Wilkins at QPR and whenever he’d got it, bang, he’d looked for his centre-forward. Darren was one of those players as well and you think what a phenomenal player he would have been if only he didn’t have the injuries that he had.”
In a long and respected career that included gaining 17 England caps, Les Ferdinand’s only piece of competitive silverware came when Tottenham beat Leicester City to win the Worthington Cup in 1999. It proved a moment to savour. “You just cherish a moment like that because it had taken so long to come,” he says. “I’ve had some nice individual goalscoring accolades and won the PFA Player Of The Year Award, but the game is not about the individual, it’s about the team – that’s what’s it’s all about.”
Three years later Ferdinand was not so lucky a second time at Wembley, losing the same cup to Blackburn Rovers. “You work so hard to get there and sometimes people say you’d rather go out in the semi-finals or the quarter-finals than get to the final and lose, because it’s such a great day, such a great occasion, but there’s such a downer after it if you lose.”
As for his biggest high while at the club, it turns out it was a match in which Ferdinand did not even play. “It was when we beat Chelsea by five goals in the semi-finals of the Worthington Cup in 2002,” says Les. “I played in the first leg at Stamford Bridge but the following week I tweaked my neck in training when I went up to head a ball. My neck just locked out and I remember having treatment for two or three days, even on the day of the second leg, trying to free this nerve. But I believe that in life things are meant to happen and everything happens for a reason. We went on to win the second leg 5-1. That was nice, sticking one over on Chelsea.”
Growing up as such an avid Spurs fan, when he was a professional and Les finally got the chance to meet many of his boyhood heroes, there was still one encounter that proved a bit special. “I’d admired Glenn Hoddle so much as a player and then to actually meet him,” says Les, hardly able to contain the excitement. “Sometimes you meet people and they say, ‘I don’t know what to say to you’ and you think, ‘But I’m just a normal guy’. I can understand that though, because I was like that when I met Hoddle. Although you’ve seen these guys and I’d even played against them in my time coming up, just meeting them and being in their company – you pinch yourself and think, ‘Is this really me?’”
With such a passion for the club, and with five and a half years of his playing career spent at White Hart Lane, on his regular trips back it sometimes takes him a little while to take his seat after saying hello to a few old faces at the club. “A lot of people have moved on since my time there, but when I come back now there’s Nick in the car park, plus a couple of the girls who used to look after the players’ bar, there’s a host of people really. Every time I come back I miss about 15 minutes of the game because I go to say hello to everybody.”
But there is still one lingering regret that Ferdinand harbours about his time at Spurs. As a great player and a prolific goalscorer for many clubs, he would have liked to have scored far more goals for the club that he loved the most. “This was the club I’d always held in awe and wanted to play for and if there was any club I really wanted to score goals for, it was Tottenham,” he says. “I’d been at Queens Park Rangers and scored goals, I’d scored lots of goals at Newcastle and I even went to Turkey with Besiktas and scored lots of goals. When I came to Spurs I would have given up all the goals I’d scored everywhere else just to score loads and loads of goals, but it didn’t really happen for me. I had a lot of injuries and I also felt that there was a lot of turmoil – in my time at the club I went through five managers and a change of board. That was the only thing that really disappointed me. I felt this club needed to get back on track because it IS a big club and the fan base is unbelievable.”
These days Les Ferdinand is a season ticket holder and gets to White Hart Lane when work commitments allow. Like any other fan he is entitled to his views on the Martin Jol era, but on the whole he seems rather satisfied with Tottenham in 2007. “I’ve been very impressed with the current team,” he says. “I expected them to push on a little bit better than they have done since last season, but obviously Michael Carrick leaving was a big miss for them – you don’t lose a player like that without it having an effect on the team. But I still feel we are in good shape and I’ve been so impressed with Berbatov. When Jermain Defoe came in after Robbie Keane was unfortunately injured he created a great partnership up front with Berbatov. Being a centre-forward it’s always the first thing I look at. I think they’ve got a good understanding going. I’ve been very impressed.
“On the right hand side Lennon has been growing and growing and he’ll be an absolutely phenomenal player if he continues in the same form that he’s showing at this moment in time. I like Zakora in the middle of the park and Jermaine Jenas is always steady – I think we’ve got a good team and the one thing the club has got now, with the manager, is stability. The club have shown faith in the manager and in his staff, Chris Hughton and Clive Allen. Martin Jol is a good coach and I hear nothing but good things from the players about him, so the club have got a good base now and all they need to do is build on that. The players they’ve brought in have all slotted in quite well and the club is heading in the right direction.”
Ferdinand’s formal connection with Tottenham has not ended entirely as despite all his many media commitments he has become an ambassador for the Tottenham Hotspur Foundation, a scheme accorded charity status aimed at developing a huge range of community activities. A little closer to home, although his own parents did not share his love of football, it seems that Les Ferdinand has passed on his love of Spurs to his 19-year-old son. “We were talking the other night and he said to me, ‘People ask me who I support, but it’s very difficult because all I’ve ever done is support where my dad’s been playing’. But now he says he does look out for the Spurs result first.”
FERDINAND'S TOTTENHAM GOLDEN GOALS
Les Ferdinand selects his most memorable Spurs goals…
v Manchester United (a)
May 16, 1999
“I’ll always remember the goal that I scored at Old Trafford against Peter Schmeichel. It was the year that Arsenal and Manchester United went into the final game of the season level pegging – and if we’d have beaten United at Old Trafford, Arsenal would have won the league. I lobbed the ball over Peter Schmeichel in the first-half and apparently the Arsenal supporters were singing my name. It must have been the first time a Tottenham fan’s name was sung at Highbury. The trouble is I couldn’t celebrate, because I was thinking that if I celebrated scoring the goal and Arsenal won the championship I’d get lynched. It would be the end of my Tottenham career. This is what’s going through my mind and after Andy Cole and David Beckham scored I’d never been so relieved in all my life.”
v Aston Villa (h)
August 27, 1997
“I always remember scoring a header against Aston Villa early doors in my career in Spurs – I think it might have been ‘Foxy’ who crossed it and I managed to get a good header. I thought, ‘Cor, I hit that with some power’. It flew in the back of the net.”
v Leicester City (h)
November 25, 2000
“I scored a hat-trick against Leicester at White Hart Lane that I always remember.”
FERDINAND'S TOTTENHAM MANAGERS…
In six seasons at the club, Les Ferdinand played under four managers and two caretaker managers.
“Gerry Francis was only there for a short space of time after I got there and a little while after that he decided to quit as he’d had enough of football.
“He had some great ideas on the training field. It has been said that there was a lack of discipline at White Hart Lane before he arrived and he came in with a really disciplinarian attitude and changed a lot of things round, but we didn’t get results. I always believe that, as a manager, if you’re going to change things people need to see results. That didn’t happen and he lost the players pretty quickly.”
“I liked working under George but I just felt because of his Arsenal connections it was always a partnership that was doomed. I understand why Alan Sugar went and got him, because at the time he was the one with the best credentials to try and move Tottenham forward. But he could have won the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup all in one season and if he’d started badly the following season the supporters would have wanted him out.”
“Glenn came in, changed the way we played and after a few months got us playing in the way that Tottenham supporters like to see their teams playing, which was great and everyone was enjoying our football, but he did become very difficult for the players to work with.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007