Just when it appeared the South Coast soap opera could not get any more surreal, Portsmouth last night appeared to claim they had decided against appointing Harry Redknapp as their manager after a compensation offer of just £50,000 was rejected by Southampton as "derisory".
It leaves Redknapp in the state of limbo he feared after walking out of St Mary's on Friday evening. However, sources at both clubs believe that the Portsmouth chairman, Milan Mandaric, who has grown increasingly angry over the situation, may be involved in a game of brinksmanship with his Southampton counterpart, Rupert Lowe.
It also remains possible that Redknapp will himself pay part of the £175,000 compensation demanded by Southampton and the 58-year-old certainly believes the chance remains of a return to his "spiritual home" Fratton Park. Indeed, last night Redknapp insisted that he was still hopeful of going back to the club he walked out on 12 months ago. There is certainly no way back for him at Southampton, who are prepared to allow him to sit out the final six months of his contract if needs be and are furious with the way he has acted.
Southampton will discuss the appointment of Redknapp's successor at a board meeting - which has been moved to Thursday - and, despite his public declarations that it is too early for him to take over, it is understood that the directors will discuss giving the job to Sir Clive Woodward.
The former England rugby coach does want to become manager at some stage and it had already been mooted that he could take over next summer when Redknapp's contract was due to expire. Woodward's former assistant, Simon Clifford, who was forced out last month after clashes with the club's coaching staff, claimed yesterday that was indeed the plan.
Southampton have already received several high-profile applications for the job but have ruled out the Rangers manager Alex McLeish who, ironically, remains a target for Portsmouth. Interest may be renewed after tonight's Champions' League tie against Internazionale, following which McLeish is expected to be sacked.
Coach Dave Bassett will remain in charge of Southampton for Sunday's match against Luton Town. Whoever is appointed will have to work with Woodward, whose role is to be beefed up while Lowe is determined that, having been overruled on approaches to Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Blackwell in the past, he gets the man of his choice.
Yesterday Mandaric said he would be speaking to the Northern Ireland manager, Lawrie Sanchez, who has been given permission to talk to Portsmouth by the Irish Football Association. "We believe Lawrie is someone who, given proper support, could be a success at our club," Mandaric said. Sanchez has stated that he is willing to combine the two jobs but that may not suit Portsmouth. Mandaric has also set up a meeting with the former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr while interest has also, apparently, been expressed in Burnley's Steve Cotterill.
All would be cheaper options than Redknapp. He had been offered a six-month contract, doubling his £350,000 a year salary with a bonus of £500,000 for keeping Portsmouth in the Premiership and an option to stay for longer.
The fact that the deal had been discussed in such detail makes it all the stranger that Portsmouth are unwilling to pay the compensation demanded. Instead, they faxed an offer to Southampton of £50,000 now and a further £75,000 if they do not get relegated.
However, Mandaric grew increasingly frustrated during the course of the day after he was informed that Lowe, who has made a complaint to the Premier League about the Portsmouth chairman's behaviour, had gone hunting. "He is too busy today hunting the ducks - that's more important to him than the football," Mandaric said.
Lowe, who was in fact on a pheasant shoot, was in contact with his club and insisted he would not negotiate on the compensation figure and was puzzled by Mandaric's erratic behaviour. In a statement Lowe said: "This is the first official offer of compensation we have received from Portsmouth and we have turned it down. Until we reach agreement, Pompey do not have permission to speak to Harry, who is still in our employment."
Portsmouth, in response, claimed they would now "step up their search for a new manager with plans to interview further candidates". Mandaric claimed Redknapp was no longer being considered but, it is understood, that is not the case and an agreement may still be reached today.Reuse content