Most people remember England's Euro 96 campaign for Gazza's goal and the dentist's chair, Psycho going... psycho, Gareth Southgate, another heart-wrenching defeat to the Germans. France 98 is the tournament of Michael Owen and David Beckham each for different reasons. No one can think about them without hearing the Lightning Seeds. But I haven't met many who remember first and foremost, as I do, how brilliant Darren Anderton was.
It seems hugely unfair that "Sicknote" is the defining nickname for a career that spanned 19 seasons and 563 professional matches. People thought me quite sensible in the mid-1990s, when Anderton replaced David Howells in my affections; inspiration usurped diligence. Now they double-take when I call him one of my favourite English players in the last 20 years. Instead of filling in the gaps, memory seems to have made them broader. In his 12 years at Spurs only three were severely blighted by injury (1995-98 – in the other nine he averaged 34 appearances). There's no denying that Anderton's groin enjoyed celebrity status but he's too readily remembered as a casualty rather than the excellent – sometimes magnificent – player that he was.
"People are always very nice," he says, "but they'll always remember the injury thing. That's all that was talked about." Even when Anderton was still playing – he was the last of the 1996 semi-final XI to retire – it followed him. "I never came across a player who could run further in pre-season. I felt able to play at the highest level but the perception was that I wasn't fit."
I get to speak to Anderton because he's released a book, Takenote!, to change that. In the final chapter he writes: "I tried my nuts off and made every effort to show I was a complete team player." It's a shame he feels moved to make such assurances. The Anderton I remember ran endlessly (the whole pitch at full sprint to stop Argentina scoring in the 81st minute in 1998) and brought a class of touch and vision to Tottenham's right side that hasn't been bettered since.
His link-up with Teddy Sheringham was especially brilliant. In 1996 it was Anderton's cute ball that set up Paul Gascoigne's even cuter goal against Scotland. Everyone remembers Gascoigne's almost moment in extra time against Germany, but Anderton hit the post moments earlier. He was four inches away from being the nation's hero.
"For eight years, whenever I was fit, I started for England," he says, proudly. "It wasn't like I was picking up five-minute cameos here and there." Anderton walked into the 1996 and 1998 starting XIs having missed most of Spurs' season in the build-up and both Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle (not a bad judging panel) rated Anderton above Beckham on England's right wing. "People were always wondering if I should play or Becks," says Anderton, who was abused by supporters when he started the 1998 World Cup while Beckham sat on the bench. "But Hoddle wanted to play us both." When he did, against Colombia, the pair (with Beckham inside) commanded the right side of the pitch and both scored superb goals.
It helped that Anderton never needed time to find his feet. He changed the game on his Portsmouth debut at 18 and was Player of the Year in his first season at Spurs. He was Man of the Match on arrival at Birmingham and scored on his Wolves and Bournemouth debuts. For all his injuries, Anderton could get match fit fast. He had long spells out, lurching from one injury to another, pulling his hamstring on the way. Spurs fans were irked at seeing more of him in an England shirt than his club kit and a pay wrangle in 1999-2000 didn't go down well after a four-month achilles lay-off. Anderton was only 28 and people were talking about pay-as-you-play deals. They fathomed his reluctance as greed, but the book debunks that theory.
"I never spoke about why I missed more games than I should have done. I don't want to slag people off," he says. Talk to Anderton for even ten minutes and it's obvious how much he cares about Tottenham, despite a catalogue of backroom cock-ups. "I played on through misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and I played with a lot of injuries. It's only fair to me that people know."
Spurs had paid £2 million for a 20-year-old Anderton in 1992 (the British record was just £3.3m) and later paid handsomely to keep him out of Fergie's clutches. The club wanted its top earner playing but was chronically short-term in its thinking. The book details a botched hernia operation and a covered-up groin tear in Anderton's first injury-hit season. Christian Gross insisted he was imagining another tear in 1997 – Anderton played two matches and was then out for four months. "When you have a scan you want the correct information, not to have things hidden in order to keep you playing."
There's an endearing simplicity to Anderton's view. He just wanted to play football, represent England, go to a World Cup. Spurs helped him do those things and in return he would have stayed. He famously turned down Man Utd while at Spurs, and would have signed a contract that halved his wages in 2004 if they'd let him. He didn't want to play defensive football at Birmingham and he didn't like sitting on the Wolves bench either.
The drop to England's third and fourth tiers with Bournemouth wasn't how he'd imagined his swansong and Anderton could have played in the Premier League for longer. His game didn't rely on the boundlessness of youth; unlike Michael Owen, who recently admitted he peaked at 18, Anderton's qualities endured until his retirement at 36. It must be tempting to look at Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes still playing and wonder "what if"?
"The regret isn't that I didn't go to Manchester United [in 1995], it's that the injuries might have been better," he says. "I would never change my decision. My reasons for not going were correct. I was happy at Tottenham, I'd had the best season of my life and I thought we were going to go on and be a good team. I just regret the treatment of my injuries and the way as a club we underachieved."
Tottenham never organised a promised testimonial but perhaps Bournemouth offered a more fitting finale. He flourished back on the south coast and his goodbye was an 88th-minute winner against Chester that helped set the Cherries towards safety. The goal was reminiscent of his equaliser against Sweden 13 years earlier – a rifled volley – and he was mobbed with the same delirium. "It was a sad day because it was the end. But the way it ended – people will always remember that."
From WSC 286 December 2010