Even on the brink of facing Milan in San Siro tonight, Harry Redknapp could not resist. Asked whether this was the beginning – or perhaps the end – of a golden era the Tottenham manager pointed out that the "owners" of the club had a choice: they can either invest more in his team or treat this Champions League as an interesting but one-off diversion.
By the owners, he really means Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, who has significant shares in Enic, Tottenham's parent company, and with whom Redknapp has always had an intriguing relationship. Redknapp rescued Tottenham from the dire straits they were in when he took over in October 2008 and in return Levy has backed him with funds, although within certain limitations.
With Milan looming in the Champions League it cannot have been ideal for Redknapp that on the final day of the transfer window last month, Spurs' business concerned a £250,000 bid for Phil Neville rather than the £35m offers they had earlier contemplated for the likes of Giuseppe Rossi at Villarreal.
Nevertheless, Redknapp has kept his counsel and it was for the first time last night that he pounced when he was asked whether this kind of night among Europe's football elite was the start of a new dawn at the club. "It depends how people want to take it on," Redknapp said. "The opportunity is there. It's like everything, you have to keep improving if you want to compete with the top clubs.
"If you want to bring in top players we can achieve whatever we want. The owners want to compete. They hold the key even more than I do as a manager. The transfer window came and we were trying to buy a top player but we couldn't find the person we wanted. If the right people came along they would finance it. And if they did the sky is the limit for Tottenham."
As far as the sky is concerned, the clouds have felt conspicuously low in the last five days – results aside – as Spurs have had the confirmation that they will not be moving into the new Olympic Stadium – or their proposed rebuilt version of it. It has been a reminder that there are still severe financial restraints in place.
They did not make a move in the transfer window and perhaps Redknapp's frustration just started to overflow yesterday because of the absentees through injury tonight. There will be no Gareth Bale and as for Luka Modric, even if he starts, he is not completely fit. So far this season Spurs have outstripped all expectations in the Champions League but there has been a seat-of-the-pants, chaotic feel to it.
Much will be asked of Peter Crouch tonight to be the battering ram against a Milan defence to give Rafael van der Vaart the room to play. Crouch was left on the bench by Rafael Benitez when Liverpool played in the 2007 Champions League final against Milan and only came on as a very late substitute when the game was virtually lost. Crouch is one of the few at Spurs with experience of the Champions League beyond this season.
It was instructive that Redknapp said yesterday the one team he did not want in the knockout round was Copenhagen, by far the weakest team in the draw and certainly Spurs' best chance of progressing. Lose and that would have represented, in Redknapp's words, a "big downer". If Spurs have to go out then he would rather it was to European aristocrats like Milan – with no shame attached.
There was a rare audience last night with William Gallas who has been here before and won against Milan with Arsenal in March 2008. Gallas has been a revelation for Spurs this season and he brings with him the kind of experience that Redknapp knows he can count on in these games. Having said that, he needed to be told that Antonio Cassano is ineligible tonight. "I didn't know that," said Gallas. "I don't follow football."
It is Spurs' defensive record, especially when they shipped four goals against Internazionale in San Siro in October, that caused Gallas concern. Could they play more cautiously? "Good question, I don't know. I think we have to see that with the boss. At the moment, I don't know which tactic we will play. Only he [Redknapp] will know if we can do it or not."
For Redknapp, tonight is not just about showing that Spurs can live with the best, it is also about nudging Levy in the direction of investing in the summer in the way that the Spurs chairman never has done in the past. Not necessarily extravagantly but certainly heavily and breaking the club transfer record that is somewhere between £15m and £20m.
"I think they would spend it if the right targets came up," Redknapp said. "To have Champions League football for the first time at Tottenham this year, they've realised this is where we all want to be. You've got to keep investing if you want that, and they're willing to do that. It's just up to us to find the right targets in the summer.
"There's nothing between us and Arsenal. We're right there on the coat-tails of Manchester City. We're sitting above Chelsea. We're not a million miles off Manchester United. A few years ago we would have been 18 or 19 points adrift. Last year it was down to the wire whether we finished above Arsenal. So the gap has closed massively. I think we're now a team that can genuinely look to be a top-four team every year if we want to keep progressing, and I think the owners want to do that."
European cup record: how they compare
26 Times qualified 2
217 Matches 14
53 Drawn 2
49 Lost 5
376 Goals scored 39
193 Goals conceded 24
Winners (7) Best Semi-finalists