Darren Anderton: Man Utd wanted me but Alan Sugar locked me in

Tottenham Hotspur v Watford Tottenham Hotspur's Darren Anderton celebrates penalty, 02 January 1999

It takes a brave man to reject Sir Alex Ferguson, but Darren Anderton had little choice when in talks with Manchester United about a move from Tottenham.

You could be forgiven for forgetting just what a talented footballer Anderton was in the 1990s for Tottenham and England, given he is mostly remembered for never-ending injury woes.

However, on his day he was a joy to watch. The attacking midfielder rose to prominence with second-tier Portsmouth, for whom he helped reach the FA Cup semi-finals in 1992, scoring at Anfield to help force a replay against Liverpool.

His displays that season caught the attention of plenty of top-flight clubs, and he eventually joined Tottenham.

Despite a tough start to life at White Hart Lane, Anderton had the backing of manager Terry Venables, who he cites as a “second dad”. Eventually he found his feet, and by 1994 the same manager handed him his England debut.

The following year Anderton scored the goal of his career in an England shirt, a thumping half-volley in the 90th minute to secure a 3-3 draw with Sweden at Elland Road. And it was following that performance he first became aware of interest from Manchester United.

Speaking to the Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? podcast, Anderton says: “That was when United came in. After that game was when Pally [Gary Pallister] went, ‘Do you fancy coming to play for us?’ as we were all having a game of snooker back at the hotel. He just said, ‘Can I give the gaffer your number?’

“‘Yeah, why not?’ It was a little bit daunting to be fair. It was more daunting for my brother, who answered the phone.”

Ferguson had caught wind of a release clause in Anderton’s Tottenham contract and was intent on landing the player.

“The next day I went and saw Sir Alan Sugar and he didn’t let me leave his house without signing a new contract to get rid of that clause. It was a bit panic stations. Jurgen Klinsmann had said he wasn’t going to stay, Popescu was going to Barcelona, Nicky Barmby wanted to leave.”

Tinge of regret

Anderton admits he slightly regrets not moving to Old Trafford, but he was more than content in north London.

“I regret not winning all those trophies and playing in that team would’ve been amazing, but at the time I was so happy at Spurs,” he says. “Euro 96 was coming, I didn’t want to go somewhere else and maybe have a bit of a struggle and not be part of that.

“That summer they did get rid of Hughes, Kanchelskis and Ince. I thought, ‘Well I’m in the right place here.’

“Spurs fans were really great with me when I first went and really struggled. I always remember that and this was two and a half, three years in and I wasn’t ready to jump ship.

“That was the summer Alan Hansen came out with, ‘You’ll never win anything with kids’, so no-one knew what was coming. Of course I’d have loved to have played in those teams. They were great teams.”

Working for Sugar

Anderton’s relationship with then-Tottenham chairman Sugar was somewhat up and down. The player was given a lucrative contract to ward off the interest of United and he also appreciated Sugar’s straight-talking nature: “You always knew where you stood with him though, that’s the thing I did like.”

But The Apprentice host did not consign his influence to the boardroom.

“He’d come in when things hadn’t gone well and grunt at you,” Anderton says. “He used to be in the dressing room quite a lot. There was a room in the back of the changing rooms.

“He’d come in, Gerry Francis would be there and before the games he’d always go in and have a chat with the manager. It was a little bit strange. I don’t think that’s normal and that almost undermines the manager when the chairman is doing that.

“I remember once, I’d be out for probably six weeks with a groin injury. I kept re-tearing it and it was slowly getting there. The team were really struggling and he phoned me asking if I would go on the bench in order to give the crowd a lift.

“I’d only trained for a couple of days but said, ‘yeah I’ll do it’. I remember getting to the game that morning and Gerry Francis saying, ‘You don’t have to do that. I’m sorry he’s phoned you.’

“Within 15 minutes we’re 3-0 up so Alan Sugar thinks he’s a genius. He thinks it has worked, the place is buzzing. Second half Sheffield Wednesday go and score two goals.

“It’s now 3-2 and he brings me on with five minutes to go. I was trying to kick balls and could almost feel my groin going. It was the longest five minutes of my life.”

Later, when Anderton was once again in impressive form and nearing the end of his contract, Sugar leaked details of an Achilles injury the midfielder had suffered to the Daily Mirror in order to put other clubs off trying to sign the midfielder on a Bosman.

“I ended up calling him. ‘What the f*ck are you doing? I’m absolutely gutted here, devastated, almost in tears through injury. Now I’ve got to read about it and it’s my owner who’s putting it out there.’

“We were going at it. I remember at the time I’d started seeing a girl and she was sat there asking, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, it’s the owner.’ ‘You can’t speak to him like that, can you?!’”

England career

While Anderton’s career was continually interrupted by cruel injury luck, he still managed to win 30 caps for England and established himself in the side for Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup.

To this day, Euro 96 is defined by one of the great ‘what if?’ moments in English football – Paul Gascoigne coming heartbreakingly close to scoring the Golden Goal which would have seen England beat Germany in the semi-final.

What often gets forgotten is that Anderton came agonisingly close to scoring the winner earlier in extra time, only to see his close-range effort come back off the post.

Most galling, however, is the fact the post denied us the chance to witness what would have been the greatest moment in the history of football.

“It would have been amazing because we had a little celebration to just run off down the tunnel. It would have been the first Golden Goal. That was the shout, although it was at the other end so it might have been a long run.”

This piece was originally published in January 2018.

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