When Jürgen Klinsmann dived his way into the heart of English football

When Jürgen Klinsmann dived his way into the heart of English football

It is 8 July 1990 in Rome, and West Germany and Argentina are contesting the World Cup final. The match is a turgid affair in a tournament which on the whole has produced uninspiring, defensive football. Lothar Matthäus and Diego Maradona are struggling to rouse their respective national sides into life, and there is an ugly, ill-tempered atmosphere to the occasion.

In the 65th minute, Argentina’s Pedro Monzón raises the temperature in the already sweltering Italian capital, chopping down a marauding Jürgen Klinsmann as West Germany look to make the breakthrough. The foul is a late and reckless studs-up lunge which causes Klinsmann to theatrically leap into the air, contorting his body into a variety of shapes in the process, ensuring that the referee hasn’t missed the severity of the foul.

The red card flashes for Monzón who will now go down in the football history books as the first man to be sent off in a World Cup final. Both he and Klinsmann will leave Italy with tarnished reputations in some need of repair. For the German World Cup winner, this will take some time, as he will discover four years later when he takes to the pitch in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur.

At the age of 30, Klinsmann was at the height of his goalscoring powers, boasting a scoring record to rank alongside the world’s greatest strikers. After spending three successful seasons in Serie A with Inter Milan, Klinsmann had moved from Italy to France to play under Arsène Wenger at Monaco where he continued to terrorise defences in Ligue 1. However, Klinsmann found his second season in the principality to be less enjoyable than the first as he began to develop misunderstandings with teammates.

Dissatisfied with the direction in which the club was headed, Klinsmann decided to depart the beautiful surroundings of the Côte d’Azur, but not before paying a visit to Alan Sugar’s nearby yacht in Monte Carlo harbour.

It was on the Amstrad tycoon’s luxurious vessel that Sugar charmed Klinsmann with high-quality cappuccinos and the lure of London to secure the deal to bring Klinsmann to the Premier League. As rumours spread of Klinsmann’s unlikely move to England, football fans rushed to their televisions, frantically heading straight to Ceefax page 302 for confirmation of the transfer.

Due to their reputation for free-flowing, attacking football and success in European competition, Spurs were undoubtedly a club with a stellar reputation on the continent, but it had been 33 years since they had last won the league title, and they’d finished a lowly 15th place the previous season under the management of Ossie Ardiles.

To make matters a whole lot worse, due to financial irregularities they had been struck with a 12-point deduction and an expulsion from the FA Cup for the forthcoming season. So while Klinsmann wasn’t quite Maradona, who was apparently Ardiles’ first choice for a marquee signing, it was a major transfer coup for Tottenham to sign a global superstar of Klinsmann’s standing.

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The German’s positive impact on the morale of the Tottenham fan base was evident as he sampled his first taste of English hospitality at Vicarage Road for a friendly with Watford. The fans mobbed him in an atmosphere that was a pleasant change for the German after the more tranquil surroundings of the French Riviera.

Klinsmann later told FourFourTwo: “One of the reasons I had come to England was the passion of the crowds that I saw on German TV, watching the big Liverpool teams of the 1970s. It was very different to Monaco. I had an amazing coach in Arsène Wenger, but there was not the passion. There, you were not driven by your environment, and you had to develop an inner drive. In England, you run 20mph automatically because of the crowd. You have a lot more drive from them to give it all you have got.”

In England, the German’s reputation for clinical finishing was primarily built on his performances at World Cups where he had rattled in eight goals at Italia 90 and USA 94. Coverage of German or French club football on British TV was sparse in the early nineties, and Klinsmann’s spell at Inter Milan ended the summer that James Richardson would first grace our television screens with Channel 4’s outstanding Football Italia. So on the evidence of these tournament performances, Spurs fans were drooling at the prospect of him leading the line in N17.

Hillsborough would provide the first taste of Premier League action for Klinsmann as Spurs kicked off the season against Sheffield Wednesday. It was here that he would discover the full extent of the fury his apparent habit of simulation had provoked. The Monzón incident and several other alleged dives in high profile matches had seen the British press label Klinsmann an arrogant cheat, and the tabloids made it quite clear that any attempt to con referees would not be tolerated in the culture of the English game. Klinsmann’s welcome was far from friendly.

He had already attempted to make light of the situation at his first press conference, enquiring as to whether there were any diving schools in London. “Making the joke helped begin to alter the perceptions,” Klinsmann recalled. “It came from a German guy I’d met in southern France who’d lived in England for many years. He said: ‘When you meet the media, why don’t you take a backpack and pull a snorkel and goggles out of it?’ In the end, I only said the joke. It just worked.”

If the media appreciated the former apprentice baker’s humorous attempts to endear himself to the public, Sheffield Wednesday fans weren’t quite ready to let him off the hook just yet. Klinsmann arrived at Hillsborough to a cacophony of boos from fans who held aloft diving scorecards. Klinsmann, for his part, took it all in good spirits and was determined to depart the Pennines having had the last laugh.

A cocktail of attacking thrills mixed with defensive ineptitude made for a barnstorming spectacle in Sheffield. Klinsmann had been a lively presence on his debut and his big moment arrived with Spurs leading 3-2. A floating cross from Darren Anderton found the unruly blonde mane of the striker who perfectly executed an unstoppable bullet header that flew past a stranded Kevin Pressman.

However, it is the celebration that will stick long in the memory as Klinsmann led his teammates into the infamous dive routine that was a brainwave of Teddy Sheringham’s. “Sheringham had the idea,” Klinsmann later said. “‘If you score today, we’ll all dive.’ The wonderful thing was that the rival fans even laughed about it.” If the Spurs fans were excited pre-season at the prospect of Klinsmann lining up for them, they were now in dreamland as they witnessed his abilities first-hand in the 4-3 victory.

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White Hart Lane now had a new hero in Klinsmann, an instinctive penalty box assassin who tirelessly ran the channels while being capable of producing spectacular moments. Following the escapades at Hillsborough, Klinsmann served up an early goal of the season contender in his home debut for the club, pouncing on a Sheringham knock down to dispatch a thunderous scissor kick against Everton which was followed once again by the dive routine.

A major contributing factor to Klinsmann’s early success was down to the partnership he had formed with Sheringham. The German had played alongside greats such as Matthäus and Rudi Völler, but Klinsmann labelled Sheringham as the most intelligent player with whom he shared a pitch, the England striker’s deeper role providing the perfect foil for Klinsmann’s more predatory striking style.

Ardiles had created an exciting Spurs side with a line-up that was almost guaranteed to concede goals at a similar rate at which they were scored. Klinsmann was one component of a group that was dubbed the Famous Five, the quintet also consisting of Sheringham, Anderton, Nick Barmby and the Romanian winger Ilie Dumitrescu. Ardiles’ cavalier approach to tactics may have been admirable and thrilling to watch, but it created an incoherence that left the club hovering around mid-table.

Sugar’s patience with the Argentine was wearing thin, and a Coca-Cola Cup defeat to Notts County was the final straw for the Tottenham chairman who proceeded to relieve Ardiles of his duties. Klinsmann later expressed his regret for his former boss saying, “I felt incredibly sorry for Ossie. As a team, the only thing we were missing was a consistency in our defensive approach.”

Gerry Francis had recently departed Queens Park Rangers and took over the reins at White Hart Lane, immediately delegating greater defensive duties to the Famous Five in the hope of turning them into a more resolute force.

With half of the season gone, Klinsmann was proving to be the world class performer so many expected him to be as he racked up goal after goal in the league campaign. However, it was in the FA Cup, with Spurs now reinstated in the competition, that some of his fondest memories were formed.

Two goals contributed to Sunderland’s exit in a superb performance at Roker Park in the fourth round, before helping fight back from a two-goal deficit to emerge 6-2 victors in a bonkers match at The Dell to knock out Southampton. Liverpool at Anfield awaited them next in the quarter-finals, and it was a showdown that would provide arguably the finest moment of Klinsmann’s Spurs career.

A teenage Robbie Fowler had broken the deadlock early on before Sheringham equalised with a sweeping strike from a Klinsmann assist. In the 88th minute, with a replay looming, Spurs pushed for a winner. Sheringham was found in the Liverpool box and produced a delightful flick to release his strike partner who now only had David James to beat. The rest was a formality as Klinsmann buried the chance to sweep Spurs into the semi-finals.

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His ecstatic teammates mobbed the hero of the hour as Francis and the Tottenham bench produced jubilant celebrations, while the Liverpool stands were stunned into silence. An emotional Klinsmann lapped up the adulation of the away supporters, and even the Kop stood to applaud a Tottenham side who now seemed destined for cup glory.

Spurs arrived at Elland Road for the semi-final as firm favourites against Joy Royle’s Everton, but their dreams of silverware were left shattered after they were torn apart in Yorkshire. The Toffees stunned Francis’ men by battering them 4-1 on their way to eventually lifting the cup themselves. Klinsmann had converted the Spurs penalty in the tie, but he had been left devastated by the failure to reach Wembley for the final.

The quarter-final winner at Anfield may have proven to be the high point of Klinsmann’s Spurs tenure, but he continued to fire in the goals, finishing the season with a phenomenal 30-goal haul which came via an assortment of scissor kicks, headers, simple tap-ins and unstoppable free-kicks. The achievements of that first year rank alongside any debut season in league history, and Klinsmann’s devastating form saw him crowned Football Writers’ Player of the Year to cap a remarkable turnaround for a player who had been so lambasted by the newspapers on his arrival.

And it wasn’t just on the pitch where Klinsmann was changing perceptions of himself. Despite being a World Cup winner and one of the greatest players on the planet, Klinsmann arrived in N17 with a humble attitude, forming strong friendships with several of his teammates such as Gary Mabbutt. He also resisted the temptation to take to the roads in a Ferrari or Aston Martin, instead preferring the comfort of his beloved 1967 VW Beetle, as he and his wife fell in love with London, relishing the opportunity to live in the capital.

Spurs fans’ hopes of a bright future with Klinsmann as their talisman were abruptly dashed, however, as the striker announced he would be leaving for Bavarian giants Bayern Munich after just one season in London. His departure from White Hart Lane infuriated Sugar, who famously tossed a Klinsmann shirt to the ground during an interview, claiming that he wouldn’t even wash his car with it. After the initial shock, the majority of Spurs supporters took the news a little better than their chairman and were grateful for the excitement their greatest frontman since Gary Lineker had provided.

With Klinsmann back in Germany and continuing to demonstrate his remarkable goalscoring prowess in the Bundesliga, Tottenham’s form was patchy. Francis’ side struggled for consistency, missing both the goals and the influence that the great German had brought to the team. As their league position continued to plummet, Francis resigned in December 1997 to be replaced by Christian Gross.

Gross had caught Sugar’s attention through his success at Grasshopper in Switzerland, and the new boss introduced himself to English football by flashing his London underground ticket at his media unveiling proclaiming that it was the ticket of his dreams. Those dreams would never come true, though, as things quickly turned sour for the Swiss. The Spurs side was a mostly different one to the 1995 team but was not without talent. Sheringham had departed, but the likes of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola had been brought in to help fill the void.

Unfortunately for Spurs, Gross’s appointment failed to lift the club’s fortunes, and their poor form left them hovering just above the relegation zone. Christmas was approaching, and without an improvement in form, the prospect of a drop into Division One was turning into a frightening possibility.

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Spurs were struggling for goals, so Sugar turned to his old acquaintance. The acrimony between Sugar and Klinsmann, now at Sampdoria, had evaporated in the years since the German’s first spell at the club and Klinsmann made a heroic return to White Hart Lane with the intent purpose of scoring the goals that would stave off their first relegation in 20 years.

There is a widely-held perception that Klinsmann did indeed make the difference and save Spurs from the drop, but a closer look reveals that Klinsmann’s influence may not have been entirely positive. Manager and striker developed a disagreement over tactics and tension was high behind the scenes. Gross took exception to his striker’s interference and any plans for Klinsmann to stay beyond the end of the season looked doomed. In truth, he had struggled to replicate his top form, and with his contract expiring that summer, the end was nigh for him at the Lane.

Those predatory goalscoring instincts hadn’t deserted him, though, and he would still provide a touch of class that Spurs had been lacking. Klinsmann scored the first goal of his return in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool, and he followed up with eight more, the highlight of the German’s second era at the club undoubtedly arriving at Selhurst Park.

Wimbledon were the victims of a 6-2 hammering that secured Tottenham’s Premier League status with Klinsmann scoring four goals on an afternoon that he described as one of the most exciting in his 16 years as a professional. After rifling in his final goal for Spurs, and indeed club football altogether, against Southampton, Klinsmann retired from the game entirely that summer after the 1998 World Cup.

Klinsmann’s 1997 return had spawned a few pleasant moments, but it is the breathtaking football of his first spell in the Premier League that still brings a smile to the faces of Tottenham supporters when they reminisce about the Klinsmann days. It wasn’t just the navy and white half of north London that appreciated the chance to see one of the world’s great players take to English stadiums either. He arrived as the pantomime villain with many desperate to see him fail but departed with the admiration and respect of fans and media the country over at a time when it was a rarity for the league to have a genuine world star performing at the peak of their powers.

With Eric Cantona being the only overseas player to have made a significant impact in those early days of the Premier League, Klinsmann’s positive experience helped pave the way for other superstars from the continent to excel in England. The likes of Gianfranco Zola, Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp and Juninho would soon arrive on British shores as the league progressed into the cosmopolitan hub that it is today.

Tottenham have been treated to an array of strikers who sparkled at White Hart Lane, from Jimmy Greaves and Martin Chivers to Gary Lineker and Teddy Sheringham. All were supremely gifted goalscorers and influential figures, and the fact that Klinsmann is held in similar regard to such esteemed company after just 18 months in a Spurs shirt displays the dramatic impact he made on the lives of people who were desperate for a hero to lift the gloom at a troubled time for the club.

Whether Klinsmann did purposefully exaggerate his reactions to fouls is still open to debate. But when the words ‘Klinsmann’ and ‘dive’ are now mentioned together, the image conjured up is no longer one of him and Pedro Monzón at the Stadio Olimpico, but rather a group of players at Hillsborough jubilantly sliding to the ground in the slipstream of the man who had won the hearts of English football fans.

By Aaron Attwood @ajattwood

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