Among the many anti-bullying rules posted on the wall in Tottenham Hotspur's academy building – "no happy slapping, no nasty texts" – there is one calling upon the club's young players to say "no to sarcasm". Waiting there for Harry Redknapp to arrive yesterday the thought occurred that while he should have no trouble adhering to the ban on happy slapping, he might be hard pushed to avoid the sarcasm.
Sarcasm has been Redknapp's stock-in-trade for a long time, long before he pointed out that his wife Sandra would have made a better job of that back-post chance missed by Darren Bent against Portsmouth in January. It is a necessary defence mechanism to cope with the stressed-out life of a modern football manager. With the Carling Cup final looming, Redknapp could be forgiven for thinking that he needs this game like he needs a hole in the head.
Sir Alex Ferguson has the luxury of being able to pick his second- and third-rank players tomorrow, and indicated yesterday that Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson will start. Unfortunately that option is no good to Redknapp, he opted to play his second string in the Uefa Cup on Thursday night and they could not beat Shakhtar Donetsk. So it is with his strongest side that he goes to Wembley tomorrow, even though Spurs' fight against relegation is far from over.
Redknapp was doing his best to make it sound like he is looking forward to Spurs' defence of the trophy, although conversation did drift back to the Premier League game against Middlesbrough on Wednesday that is so crucial to his season. Nevertheless he acknowledged that the victory over Burnley in the semi-final second leg had an effect on Spurs' league season. Having thrown away a three-goal lead from the first game, Redknapp said, were it not for Spurs' extra-time goals that secured an aggregate win, the "shame" of defeat could have derailed his season.
"That was as angry as I have been since I have been here," Redknapp said. "I was very, very low. Imagine how low we would have been if we had gone out. We would have been in desperate trouble because I don't know how we would have recovered. It would have been the shame of it all. Of being 4-1 up and going out the competition. That's difficult to recover from."
While Spurs have staggered into the final, Ferguson's team have swaggered there. Ferguson may have lost Rafael da Silva to injury but on the same day he can announce that Luis Anderson and Gary Neville are back. Redknapp, on the other hand, awaits a familiar late injury test for Ledley King tomorrow morning, the Spurs defender's preparation for a final having been the same as any game. One warm-up is all his knee will allow him to do and so Michael Dawson, who was left out the squad last year, waits to see if he gets his chance this time.
Last season, the effect of the Carling Cup on Spurs was very different. They came off a semi-final victory over Arsenal intoxicated with the confidence of the new Juande Ramos regime and beat Chelsea in thrilling style at Wembley. Later on the players were otherwise intoxicated as photographers caught them making a messy exit from no less than Ilford's premier nightclub. They were celebrating, or so they thought, Spurs' arrival as one of the big teams in English football.
Should they overcome the odds tomorrow, Tottenham's players will not be filling the roped-off areas of any of Essex's leading nightspots. This time, Redknapp said, they will be heading straight back to the hotel to prepare for Wednesday's game and no-one will be fooled into thinking that one Carling Cup winners' medal equals a place at English football's top table. Did that mean Redknapp will have to venture out into Ilford on his own? "Is it grab a granny night?" he asked. "I'm even too old for that."
Robbie Keane, Wilson Palacios, Carlo Cudicini and Pascal Chimbonda are cup-tied. While Redknapp fretted over his options, Ferguson was making a virtue of his. His confidence in the likes of Jonny Evans, Gibson, Welbeck and Rodrigo Possebon, was, he said, "100 per cent". Luis Nani, whose progress has been fitful this season, is up against Park Ji-Sung for a place. It will not be United's strongest side but it certainly will be a strong team.
"We know what our priorities are and that will reflect in my team because we have a game against Newcastle on Wednesday," Ferguson said. "The priority, as always, will be the League and the Champions League. The League Cup is a bonus. We hadn't planned to be in the final when we put the young players in. We thought 'Yeah, get a run, get to the quarter-final, semi-final, whatever, let's see what they're made of'."
It will be Ferguson's 25th major final as a manager and the unspoken part of yesterday's build-up was that it could be the second of an unprecedented five trophies this season, starting with the Club World Cup in December and, potentially, ending with the FA Cup, on 30 May. No manager would seriously set out to win them all – and Ferguson dismissed the possibility yesterday – but with a squad as strong as his there is always the chance it might happen.
"The British mentality is that, whatever it is, they want to win it," Ferguson said. "They've got this competitive streak in the nature of this country - supporters, players and directors. You have to win all the time. Therefore if you have got the League Cup game, they want to win that. Of course you can't win them all."
Ferguson is a friend of Redknapp although it is well known that in private the United manager told his players in May 2005 that he wanted to condemn Redknapp's Southampton to relegation on the last day of the season. Ferguson wanted payback for Redknapp helping to deny him the League title with West Ham 10 years' earlier. So no matter what their situation, both will find it hard to treat the Carling Cup with detachment – or sarcasm.
Road to Wembley: Conquered foes
Middlesbrough (h) 3-1
QPR (h) 1-0
Blackburn (h) 5-3
Semi-final First leg
Derby (a) 0-1
Derby (h) 4-2
Newcastle (a) 2-1
Liverpool (h) 4-2
Watford (a) 2-1
Semi-final First leg
Burnley (h) 4-1
Burnley (a) 2-3 (aet)Reuse content