Stevenage spirit checks Redknapp's progress
Stevenage 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0
Just before he left Stevenage yesterday, Harry Redknapp was told that the Football Association chairman David Bernstein had been in the crowd here to watch Tottenham Hotspur held to a draw on a dog of a pitch, in an FA Cup fifth-round tie bursting with passion and short on quality.
Given that Bernstein happens to be on the look-out for a new England manager and given that Redknapp happens to be the runaway favourite to get the job, it seemed daft not to ask whether they had spoken. Redknapp, as is his way, delighted in playing up to the moment. "I think he was impressed with the football," he replied ironically. "He was probably asking, 'Who's this geezer?'"
Who indeed? Redknapp has lived a charmed life from the moment that Southwark Crown Court jury came back 12 days ago to deliver a not-guilty verdict in his tax-evasion case. Yesterday was the first time in a while events have not gone his way but win the replay and the quarter-final draw at home to Bolton Wanderers looks appealing. The bookmakers make Spurs joint favourites with Liverpool to win the competition.
Bernstein was in the crowd simply because as chairman of the FA he likes to watch matches in his organisation's competition. He will no doubt have appreciated that on a small, uneven pitch against a well-organised, hard-running League One team, Spurs will have been satisfied that they have the opportunity to take Stevenage back to White Hart Lane on 7 March.
His team were poor yesterday but Redknapp was also well-aware of the potential pitfalls. "I expected it to be tough," he said. "I came here knowing how hard it would be. To be fair the pitch was bumpy and bobbly, it was difficult to play football. Nothing surprised me. I thought it would be tough."
It was a magnificent performance from the team from Britain's first post-war new town but then they have become accustomed to such success in recent years. Stevenage have been promoted twice in two years to take them from non-league football in 2010 to a position where they are in the League One play-off positions. Since 2007, they have won the FA Trophy twice.
That success was achieved under their former manager Graham Westley who left for Preston North End last month but under Gary Smith they look just as competitive.
Yesterday their best performance was from the central midfielder Michael Bostwick who did as much as anyone to prevent Scott Parker from running the game but there were fine performances throughout the Stevenage team.
Redknapp played three centre-backs, a rare formation in English football these days. He did it to cope with the power in the air of Stevenage's strikers Chris Beardsley and Darius Charles, a converted centre-half.
Luka Modric was absent having picked up flu at the end of last week, although it is debatable whether even the little master himself would have been able to control that muddy ball on such an uneven surface. More worrying for Redknapp was the injury to Emmanuel Adebayor in training on Friday which is not the ligament damage it was initially thought to be but is nevertheless still a concern.
Factor in Benoît Assou-Ekotto's "small operation" at the start of the week, and that Niko Kranjcar, a second-half substitute yesterday, had not trained for five days and this was a Spurs team that was somewhat stretched. Ledley King was on the bench but Redknapp said the captain was not fit enough to play any part and was simply there to make up the numbers.
The replay will be a very different story and Spurs, with their non-involvement in European competition, are better placed to deal with it than others. At Stevenage the pitch was right on the minimum dimensions which denied Spurs any space down the wings and by the end it was noticeable that the sophisticated visitors had resorted to the long ball.
"Yeah, we did start lumping it," Redknapp said. "No, it wasn't part of the plan. I think the lads weren't comfortable passing the ball on it [the pitch] and we ended up going long, which was something we wanted to avoid. They pressed us and made it hard. We usually pass the ball, don't we?
"Without a doubt they earned the replay. It's a good club isn't it? It was a good Cup tie in terms of the atmosphere. The crowd weren't nasty, they came out and enjoyed the day. There was no one singing filth. That's what it's all about, isn't it?"
There were fine performances from Jon Ashton and Mark Roberts at the heart of Stevenage's defence who survived one penalty appeal from Louis Saha that the referee Phil Dowd turned down. The former Arsenal academy player Luke Freeman on the left wing also looked like a decent player. On the opposite side, Lawrie Wilson posed a threat throughout.
Saha had a goal disallowed on 55 minutes when the ball struck Parker on the goalline in an offside position. Other than that Spurs were largely restricted. Gareth Bale, operating in a more central position, had a shot saved a minute after half-time but otherwise he did not get much of a sight of goal. At the other end Joel Byrom had a couple of decent efforts.
Smith, the Stevenage manager, has had success before, winning the MLS Cup with Colorado Rapids in 2010. "That was a fantastic achievement and it was a moment in my life that I will never forget," he said. "It is comparable [with yesterday] but both games are slightly different. You can't look past the atmosphere and the sheer passion of the FA Cup. It is a wonderful competition and I am really pleased we are still in it."
It is a short trip south to White Hart Lane for the replay where all those Stevenage locals who have a fondness for Spurs will have their loyalty tested. Stevenage's is a lovely FA Cup story but the competition is undoubtedly opening up for Tottenham.
Stevenage: DAY 6/10; HENRY 6; ASHTON 6; ROBERTS 7; LAIRD 6; WILSON 7; BOSTWICK 8; BYROM 7; FREEMAN 7; CHARLES 5; BEARDSLEY 6
Spurs: Cudicini 6; KABOUL 6 NELSEN 6 DAWSON 6; ROSE 4; BALE 6; LIVERMORE 5; PARKER 6; WALKER 5; DEFOE 4; SAHA 5
Substitutes: Stevenage May 5 (Beardsley, 66), Cowan (Charles, 73), Edwards (Freeman, 87). Tottenham Hotspur Kranjcar 5 (Walker, 64), Lennon (Rose, 81).
Booked: Stevenage Byrom.
Man of the match Bostwick.
Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Stevenage 43% Tottenham 57%.
Attempts on target: Stevenage 7 Tottenham 5.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
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