For a man who was about to face the most expensively-assembled football team in history, Harry Redknapp was in a convivial mood yesterday. He joked with a television reporter about joining in training. He made a mock acceptance of Jose Mourinho's offer of a 0-0 draw in the first leg and pretended to leave. Only when he was asked about how he was valued by the hierarchy at Tottenham Hotspur did we see a flash of the Redknapp temper that is never far from the surface.
Asking Redknapp whether he feels appreciated at Spurs might seem like a daft question but it has more relevance than you might suspect. There is a school of thought among some at Tottenham that playing Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League is not Redknapp's achievement but exactly where the club should be. Those people point out that Rafael Van der Vaart was not Redknapp's signing and that he did not have as much faith in Gareth Bale two years ago as he does now.
So back to the question: do Spurs appreciate Redknapp? "If they've got any brains they do," he said. "If they haven't they won't. Getting into the top four is so difficult. When have Tottenham finished above Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United before? I must have missed it, if it happened in the last few years. If Manchester City don't finish top four [this season] after having spent £140m there's something wrong there.
"We are settled right in there [in fifth place] and we have a game in hand over Manchester City. We have had a difficult couple of games but we are only five points behind Chelsea. At this stage in the last few years it has been 18 points or more behind Chelsea. I don't care whether people appreciate me. I really don't care. As long as I know I have done a good job I don't care too much what other people think."
It was an answer that sounded as if it had been uttered in private more than once. There were concerns last season that, having broken into the top four and qualified for the Champions League, Redknapp might find himself exposed at that level. When he was offered a lucrative job in Dubai during the summer he was closer to leaving than some might think. Eventually he agreed a new contract but the stresses and strains remain.
Every time an obstacle has been thrown in Redknapp's way, or a seemingly indomitable opponent blocked his path, he has overcome it. He has beaten Internazionale at White Hart Lane and beaten Milan at San Siro. Tonight he comes up against what many Premier League executives regard as the ultimate test: he faces Jose Mourinho who, even at a low ebb after Saturday's home defeat to Sporting Gijon, is dangerous.
Should Redknapp overcome Mourinho, who has only ever really been tamed by Sir Alex Ferguson among the Premier League's current managerial fraternity, then his stock will rise again. What price that if he goes as far as the semi-finals this year he persuades Bale to stay for one more season and then bows out next summer as the new manager of England? He has virtually assured his place as Fabio Capello's successor and eliminating Madrid, as well as acquittal in his tax evasion trial, would make him a shoo-in.
But as ever with Redknapp there is an unwillingness on his part to relax and enjoy the ride. He was still fuelling the doubt around William Gallas's fitness although he is expected to play tonight. He was also complaining about the injuries to Steven Pienaar, whose groin problem means he has not travelled, and Niko Kranjcar (a bruised foot). Spurs could be down to only six substitutes tonight instead of the regulation seven.
Throughout Spurs' Champions League run, Redknapp has refused to play the role of the starry-eyed manager who is just pleased to be on the big stage. "It's great coming here to play but it is only a good night if you play well," he said. "It depends on the 90 minutes. That's all that matters, it's not about me coming here or the stadium. Real Madrid are one of the great clubs and it is great to be bringing team here but if you don't play well it's not a good night."
When Mourinho faced the Spanish press earlier in the afternoon he seemed to be as much at odds with them as he was with the Italian media before he eliminated Chelsea with Internazionale last season. Currently eight points behind Barcelona, Madrid are anxious that they could be embarrassed again by their rivals in the league. Exiting the Champions League to a club that, to their minds, is not among the European elite would be a crushing disappointment.
That was why when it came to questions about Redknapp, Mourinho was only too happy to change the subject. He laid it on very thick talking about the Englishman as his "friend" who, he could not help adding, had never before been at a club that was capable of challenging in the Champions League. "He [Redknapp] is a good manager for every team or every national team," Mourinho said. "I think no limits for him. Give him a team, give him a national team and he is ready for everything."
For all the bonhomie, Redknapp, like Mourinho, is loth to trust anyone. Both know that in their own way they are under pressure to deal with the enormous expectations that both their clubs have. Both have personalities that cause friction at boardroom level. But if Redknapp triumphs over the next two games, it will be hard for anyone at Spurs to argue that he should not be properly appreciated.
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