It’s the fag end of the football season and once again Tottenham Hotspur appear to be at a crossroads. It is a situation as reliable as hosepipe bans in the middle of a monsoon. And yet again the full picture is hard to discern.
From a position of being the favourite side of neutrals and poised to genuinely threaten a title challenge, Spurs are stumbling towards the finish line, seemingly rudderless, bereft of form, and with the whiff of mutiny in the ranks. Judging by the deluge of comment online, blame lies entirely with the manager once destined for the England job but now seemingly out of the running. I’m not so sure it is all down to him, though. And precedent suggests the situation is more complex than to reduce it to the faults of one individual.
It now appears to be open season on Harry Redknapp, who has been cast as the villain of the piece. It’s quite a turn around. Just a handful of games ago songs were sung begging him to stay at the Lane. Now some of those same fans may be preparing to boo him.
Much of the criticism of Harry Redknapp is valid. He talks too much, says some wrong things at the wrong time, and his qualities as a manager are up for debate. But then we knew this already. His previous managerial form is not exactly a secret.
Prior to arriving at Spurs he had assembled several good sides that progressed under his watch. West Ham and Portsmouth enjoyed some of their better periods in their history. He won the FA Cup, and earned a reputation (deserved or not) as a busy operator in the transfer market. His teams played bright and entertaining football.
Redknapp is no Alex Ferguson, nor an Arsene Wenger, but then not many managers are. Redknapp has a record as a superb motivator, and if the players now are not showing signs of purpose and application, this is one charge that clearly sticks. But too much has been made of his apparent lack of tactical acumen. The idea that a man who has operated in or near the top level of football for over 40 years is clueless is, frankly, clueless. He might get things wrong but not without having some idea. The game just doesn’t work another way.
Rightly or wrongly (and he has angrily denied it), Redknapp has a reputation for being a wheeler dealer, an adept survivor in a business full of sharks and cut-throats. It’s a strategy many in the game utilise, but few seem to attract derision for it as much as Redknapp. He is partly to blame for that, given his tendency to talk – and talk, and talk. Great for the media, less so for fans of his club.
Redknapp says many things, often contradictory. A fan or foe can find what they want from his legion of quotes. For all the belittling of the club as ‘them’ and ‘never having it so good’, you can find examples of much more positive utterances. He has often spoken warmly of the club’s heritage and I recall the heady night after the home win over Inter when his post-match TV interview, featuring an impassioned championing of the way the club plays the game, won a round of applause in the Irish Centre just near White Hart Lane.
How times quickly change. However, it’s not what Redknapp says but what he does that’s really important. Some people attach too much credence to soundbites and take at face value more gnomic utterances that may have their own, less apparent agendas. It could even be argued that Redknapp’s seemingly blunt indifference is preferable to the dishonest platitudes supporters are usually treated to.
What Redknapp has actually done, is, in my view, largely been to the benefit of Spurs. Until the season ends, we cannot say for certain whether it will end on a positive or negative note, but overall his record is very good. This is more articulately argued in the excellent TOPSpurs column, so it is only worth highlighting here the achievements of qualifying for the Champions League and then reaching the quarter finals, with memorable performances and results against top-notch opposition both abroad and at home.
While no trophy has been secured, by modern definitions of achievement Redknapp has been an undoubted success. Not forgetting – however much his critics would argue otherwise – that he helped save Spurs when they were facing the prospect of a relegation battle.
And this is what strikes at the heart of Redknapp and Spurs now. He was brought in as a rescue act to remedy a situation of other people’s making. Enic have a chequered record in appointing managers and must have known that appointing Redknapp, with all the baggage he brings, was a risk – but it was borne out of necessity.
As it turned out he did better than anyone really expected. That presented its own benefits, but also some dilemmas. Redknapp joined Tottenham at the age of 61 and still commutes from his home in Dorset. He was never going to be a long-term overseer of a grand Tottenham project. It was a short-term fix. Enic even suspended their own Director of Football system to accommodate him.
Now those immediate goals are confronted by longer-term issues. The problem with talking about where Spurs are today and may be heading tomorrow is that too much focus is placed on one man. Redknapp did not put together this season’s early winning run nor earn all those wonderful victories of the last four seasons on his own; nor is he solely responsible for the heavy defeats and current poor form. It’s a team game, after all.
To take the example of transfer strategy, it would appear that some fans regard Redknapp’s dealings as disastrous. But this ignores the complexities of how the system might work at Spurs – who does what, what is the true budget, and the effect of wage policy are all unclear. We were reliably informed, not least by Redknapp himself, that Daniel Levy was ‘desperate’ to spend £30m on a striker in the last summer window. Yet against this Levy had previously gone on the record to state this sort of spending was unsustainable.
Then there is the thorny issue of ‘rotation’ and players feeling tired. Redknapp finally quashed this partial nonsense after musing it may have played a part, another indication of the contradictory nature of his comments. It is a simple case of looking at the total appearance figures of players at Spurs and other clubs, and the strength-in-depth of the relative squads, to expose the fuller picture. Similarly, much is also made of Redknapp’s supposed scouting failures, particularly when set against the success of Graham Carr at Newcastle. And yet which club did Carr formerly scout for? It only takes one guess.
And then there are the players. Another end-of-season reliable is that the current incumbents will get away virtually scot free while everyone else takes the rap. The squad at Spurs is supposedly the best for a generation. If Redknapp really did have so little to do with the previous fine form as one school of thought suggests, then it logically follows he is not responsible for the failures. If the players cannot motivate themselves for a push to secure a Champions League place, or overcome teams with demonstrably lesser players, then perhaps more questions need to be asked of those who actually step out on the pitch.
So what’s the whole truth? I don’t know and expect many of Redknapp’s critics don’t know either. How football clubs operate is largely opaque and murky, and definite conclusions are difficult to draw. It does seem that Redknapp’ Spurs career, England job or not, may have either run its course or reached a point where someone has a difficult decision to make. The hope for Tottenham fans is that in the future Redknapp’s reign is looked back on as a progressive staging post on the path to success, rather than a brief spell in the sun or a case of a missed opportunity.
We should all hope it ends on a happy note, with Spurs proving that good management throughout the club can enable it to compete with the vastly superior resources of the Premier League’s wealthier guns. Fans might not like to hear their manager claim that their club is punching above its weight. Prices for season tickets suggest supporters are not getting full value, but put against the opposition Tottenham face and the financial means those sides can call on, it is at least worth acknowledging that Spurs are taking on and matching some pretty powerful opponents.
And if they fail, it is not even a question of apportioning blame. The manager, players, coaches and owners have given it a good go. It might not be quite good enough thus far, but Tottenham as a club is in a better position now than it was when Enic took over in 2001. Harry Redknapp has been one of the major players in that period of time since. He may not have been all good for Spurs but he certainly hasn’t been all bad.