When the Romanian forward Ilie Dumitrescu
arrived after the 1994 World Cup, along with Jurgen Klinsmann, they came
to a team who were six points behind the rest even before a ball had
been kicked. Manager Ossie Ardiles had been given the ammunition to
fire Spurs back up the table and his attacking philosophy was suited to
the use of these players, but there still remained doubts at the back,
where Spurs were traditionally missing a dominating presence.
A few games into the season, a private jet
arrived at a small airfield carrying a man who could have become a
pillar of the defence for a long time, but the hope soon turned to salt,
as Gheorghe Popescu didn’t become the talisman we had wished him to be.
Having started his career at Universitatea
Craiova before moving up to crack Romanian side Steaua Bucharest for a
short time, “Gica”, as he is affectionately known, made a name for
himself in his home country. He returned to his first club before he
moved abroad to PSV Eindhoven in 1990, where he made great progress
under Bobby Robson.
Back in Romania, he quickly became known as
“Baciul”, which translates as 'The Leader' and it is this quality that
Ossie had seen in him that lead to him signing the defender. His
addition to the side was hoped to bring some stability to a rear line
that had been under fire despite the much-famed “Famous Five” attack.
Gheorghe’s ability to bring the ball out of defence and play as a proper
sweeper in the system was seen as a double whammy in shoring up the
defence and also adding to the style in turning defence into attack.
Popescu’s reading of the game could not be
doubted and he saw things earlier than many others, thus leading to many
a pass he made going astray, as the recipient had not guessed his
intentions. He often was able to break up attacks before they had even
started and even though Tottenham were to go through a poor spell, he
still showed he could defend at a different level to Kevin Scott, Stuart
Nethercott and the young Sol Campbell.
His arrival saw him slip straight into the
team for the 6-3 away win at Watford in the Coca-Cola Cup and then make
his League debut at home to Forest. Having lost the previous League
games at home to Southampton and away at Leicester, Tottenham needed to
get back on winning ways, but, with Stone having a stormer, Spurs went
down 1-4. It was a big blow from which it was hard to recover and a
trip to Wimbledon was going to be a war. Darren and Teddy’s corner
routine worked a treat, but an equaliser left Tottenham searching for a
winner. As the ball was worked from the left, Klinsmann rolled a pass
across the edge of the penalty area and arriving to thrash the ball low
along the floor and past the keeper was … Popescu. His eye to get
forward was not diminished by the responsibility of the defensive duties
and his passing was perceptive and accurate to the extent that he could
have been Glenn Hoddle, as he produced a body shape to hit rangy
But like accusations made against our
current manager, the Romanian was said to be less than fond of the
physical side of the game. He was rumoured to be less than enamoured
with the training regime and the fact that the games came thick and
fast. This especially came to the fore when Ardiles was moved out of
the boss’ office and in came Gerry Francis. The new coach’s lack
experience of foreign play meant that he fell back on the staple diet of
British training. Running, running and running. Popescu fell out of
favour along with his compatriot Dumitrescu.
contribution to the rest of the season can be
gauged by his goals. When Spurs beat Newcastle United at home, Teddy
got a hat-trick and set up Gica with a neat one two for him to slip the
ball home from inside the box. The only other goal in his 23 matches
for Tottenham marked him down as a player who will be long remembered.
While it had no bearing on the season as a whole, his goal against
Arsenal will make him a Spurs hero. Picking the ball up in his own
half, it was played out right to Anderton, who sprinted down the line
and squared it for Popescu to stroke the ball past Seaman to give
Tottenham a 1-0 win in their first game of 1995 (see left).
Tall, elegant and stylish, this was never
enough for the new man in charge and Gica didn’t even get to the end of
the season before being sold to Barcelona, where he was re-united with
Bobby Robson. He became a UEFA Cup winner in his two seasons there and
fitted well into the Spanish side.
On leaving Barca, he linked up with
countryman Gheorghe Hagi (perhaps the only more famous Romanian
footballer) at Galatasaray, where he joined Nayim in Tottenham history
by scoring the final penalty in a shoot out v Arsenal in UEFA Cup final,
to deny them a European trophy.
Four years down the line, he moved to Italy,
where he turns out for Lecce in Serie A. He is still scoring goals
despite his advancing years.
The team Popescu came in to at Tottenham was
not the one he left and his departure was the first of a few of that
team that could have gone on to great things for the club. Maybe his
own game was not suited to the was that football is played in England
and his fluid and languid style flourished on the continent, where the
slower pace means that the physical side does not take such a toll on
the players. Having said that, Gica is still playing for his country at
the age of 34 and he has 100 caps, despite falling out with various
coaches during his 14-year international career. If only he had been so
willing to stay even a quarter as long at Tottenham.