Ruel Fox: Gross was ‘too advanced’ for Spurs; Graham ‘fobbed me off’
Christian Gross may be looked back upon as a joke figure by most Tottenham fans, but Ruel Fox will always prefer the Swiss manager to George Graham.
In five years at Tottenham in the second half of the 1990s, Fox played under three different permanent bosses with three vastly different personalities.
The winger joined Spurs after shining in the Premier League for Norwich City and Newcastle, where he now admits he “probably should have stayed for another season”.
A move to Tottenham was an appealing prospect on paper and offered Fox a chance to move closer to his home and family in Ipswich. But he soon realised Spurs were a different prospect to either Norwich or Newcastle.
“I have fond memories of my time at Tottenham, but it’s tinged with the feeling that the team never fulfilled its potential,” he says. “Everywhere I had gone up until then the club had progressed and moved on to another level. Spurs just seemed a bit stuck.”
Tottenham certainly had the players to compete with teams like Newcastle. But despite the presence of Sol Campbell, Darren Anderton, Teddy Sheringham and, later, David Ginola in their ranks they lacked the necessary consistency to compete at the top end of the table.
Gross ‘kind of like Wenger’
Signed by Gerry Francis, Fox finished his first season with 12 goals. However, when Francis left, he was replaced by unknown Swiss coach Christian Gross.
An often-ridiculed figure widely viewed as one of the worst managers in Tottenham’s history, Fox had a different take on Gross: “I liked him.”
“He had a really interesting approach to training – kind of like Arsene Wenger. The problem was the team never took to it. Personally, I didn’t think he was a bad manager, but it was all too advanced for the club at that time.”
A two-time Swiss Super League winner with Grasshopper, Gross had introduced himself in a bizarre press conference in which he branded an underground train ticket, describing it as the “ticket to his dreams”.
Christian Gross. The infamous moment when he said ' I want this to become my ticket to the dreams.' Oh dear… pic.twitter.com/CVscGhFeFn
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) April 4, 2014
It made him an immediate laughing stock, but Fox had some sympathy, highlighting the incident as an example of how the language barrier often meant Gross struggled to get his point across.
Even so, many at the club felt the Swiss manager tried to change too much too soon.
“One of the first things he introduced was double training sessions, morning and afternoon,” Fox says. “A lot of the players weren’t having it. They were used to training being done by 12 o’clock so they could go off for the afternoon.
“Christian was a thinker. He’d do training sessions with practice games involving two balls on the pitch at the same time, to make you aware about positioning in terms of attack and defence.”
Despite the innovations, many were unconvinced.
“It was a mental block as much as anything,” Fox says. “You had this unknown manager telling these big personalities at the club what to do and they weren’t having it. They weren’t saying it, specifically, but you could tell with their body language.”
When new signings like Ramon Vega and Moussa Saib struggled to bed in and Tottenham flirted with relegation, it was only a matter of time before Gross was given his marching orders.
‘He wasn’t having me’
While plenty were happy to see Gross depart, Fox again felt otherwise, particularly after George Graham was unveiled as his replacement.
“As soon as George Graham came in, I could tell he wasn’t having me. It wasn’t anything personal. It was the same with Ginola and a few others. Graham was a very defensive coach so I knew I was in trouble.”
Fox was in and out of the team under Graham. But eager to work under the Scot, he approached him privately, asking what he needed to do to get into his regular first-team plans.
“He just fobbed me off,” Fox says. “Told me to stick to what I was doing. Talked to me like I was a trialist.”
The low point came in 1999 after he helped Spurs reach the final of the League Cup.
“I played in every round in 1999, including the semi, but was left out for the final. Not even on the bench. For no apparent reason. It wasn’t down to poor form either because I had been playing a few games up until then.
“I stayed professional, but I didn’t like the way he treated me. There was no reason for it, no falling out. He didn’t take me aside or speak to me. George’s view was, if you didn’t like it, tough.
“That still stings because he denied me a medal. I was offered one but refused it because I didn’t play.”
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Even then, Fox vowed to stay and fight for his place in the team only to have the decision taken out of his hands.
“I loved a lot about Spurs, but things behind the scenes weren’t right,” he says.
“David Pleat came in as director of football. I remember having a chat with him and telling him I was going to stay at the club and fight for my place. He was happy with it so I went back to training.
“Then out of the blue they put out this list of players they were going to let go in a matchday programme and my name was on there. It was a sneaky move. They could have just come to me and told me they were going to let me go. It wasn’t right.”
Falling out of love with football
Keen to leave Tottenham, Fox was all set on retiring.
“I had fallen out of love with football. A few people got in touch like Sam Allardyce at Bolton, but I had had enough, even though I was only 31.
“Then Gary Megson, who I played with at Norwich, called me up. He was managing at West Brom and wanted me to come down for a season to play or coach or whatever I wanted to do.”
Megson made Fox West Brom’s captain and built the team around him. Fox revelled in playing regularly in the second tier and taking on a senior role at the club.
“It was great to be the experienced pro helping out the young players.”
He also enjoyed a front-row seat for the infamous Battle of Bramall Lane, a fiery encounter between West Brom and Sheffield United abandoned after red cards and injuries reduced the Blades to six men.
Having been ruled out of the game, Fox watched the madness unfold from the Baggies bench.
“There was always a bit of needle between the two teams. West Brom played decent football whereas Sheffield United were a Neil Warnock team, where it was all about getting the ball forward.
“I remember before the game, Gary told me I wasn’t going to like what I saw. He was right. It was carnage. Late tackles, off-the-ball incidents and a referee totally losing control of it all.
“It just got out of hand. There were just scuffles throughout the game and the two managers were constantly winding each other up.
“I’ve never experienced a football game like that in my life. There was disbelief in the dressing room after the game. One of our players got headbutted. It didn’t even feel like football. It just felt like they were fighting on behalf of the two managers who hated each other. It was like a gang thing.”
There was a happier ending to Fox’s time at West Brom, though, with the midfielder captaining the side to promotion into the Premier League.
But rather than stay and help the Baggies back in the top flight, Fox decided to go out on a high.
“It was great for me and the perfect way to finish my career,” he says. “Gary put the belief back into me, but I was commuting from Ipswich every day and beginning to miss home.”
Now back in Whitton running fitness clubs, Fox is content with life back where it all began.
“It was one of those things when you finish football you think you are going to travel around the world for the rest of your life, but it doesn’t happen,” he says. “I’ve always been a homegrown person.”