Can Harry mix it with the big boys?
With a 100 per cent record, Redknapp has every right to be confident at Spurs. But as he faces United today and Chelsea next week, his hopes of a top-four finish will face a true test
Saturday 12 September 2009
The words had to be virtually dragged from his mouth, but eventually Harry Redknapp had to bow to the inevitable.
"A top-four finish is possible," said the Tottenham manager, when asked for the umpteenth time whether his collection of bright young things could gatecrash the Premier League's established elite. "We've got to aim to try and do that and it's time for someone to do it, so why not Spurs?"
On the face of it, Redknapp's admission appears little more than stating the obvious. Tottenham are one of only two clubs to boast a 100 per cent record in the top flight and sit proudly alongside the other, Chelsea, at the league summit, their sparkling football having amassed points and plaudits by the bucket-load.
Yet Redknapp's bullishness yesterday marked a telling shift. Before now, any enquiry over whether Tottenham could achieve Champions League qualification for the first time in their history had been met with the sort of dead bat Paul Collingwood would be proud of, with answers tending to marvel at the manifold talents of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
But no longer. Expectations are mushrooming at White Hart Lane and if Spurs can extend their unbeaten start for another two games – at home to Manchester United today and at Chelsea a week tomorrow – even the most battle-hardened sceptic would be forced to take note.
It has been, by any standards, a staggering transformation. Less than a year ago, when Redknapp was parachuted in from Portsmouth, White Hart Lane was a dark, fretful place.
The north Londoners had amassed two points from eight games under Juande Ramos, were entrenched in the relegation zone and had just been beaten by Stoke in a farcically inept display, the nadir of which featured goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes breaking down in tears.
When he assembled his battered and bruised players in the dressing room for his first game at home to Bolton a week later, Redknapp could hardly believe what he saw.
"It was a fearful atmosphere," he recalled. "There was no confidence and there was an air of nervousness. The players were very low: they had had a really bad start, they were reading things about themselves which weren't very pleasant and obviously that was having a big effect on the mood about the dressing room."
Spurs struggled on until January but it was not until Redknapp was given the chance to reshape his squad in the winter transfer window that the revival began to gather pace. Wilson Palacios arrived from Wigan to add steel to midfield, Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane returned to lend a serrated edge in attack and Vedran Corluka, the highly rated Croatia defender, was prised from Manchester City.
The new arrivals came at a cost – Redknapp's outlay in January amounted to £42m and he spent another £20m during the summer – but the price was worth paying.
"The transfer window in January was the big turning point," he added. "Suddenly we had a much stronger group of players – confident lads who were playing well for their countries and who were really strong characters.
"Guys like Wilson Palacios have been so important for us. He's in early to training, he appreciates being a professional footballer and that rubs off on other people. He gives us something we haven't had before, maybe."
Yet Tottenham's renaissance has not simply been down to chairman Daniel Levy's chequebook. Redknapp has also rehabilitated players who looked broken men a year ago, piecing together their crumbling confidence and helping them fall back in love with the game.
There are success stories in every corner of the Tottenham squad, from the muscular displays of Tom Huddlestone to Benoît Assou-Ekotto, a hitherto unsung left-back whose 20-yard thunderbolt frazzled Liverpool on the opening weekend.
Then there is Aaron Lennon. The winger was the personification of Tottenham's flakiness under Ramos, a player of dizzying potential but who could be neutered if an opposing full-back so much as frowned at him. Redknapp took Lennon under his wing, massaging his ego and ordering the rest of his squad to make him their preferred attacking outlet.
The effects have been dazzling, with Lennon's rampant display for England against Croatia on Wednesday apparently ending the question of who can become David Beckham's long-term replacement. "I like to think that Aaron has played for me," Redknapp said.
"I've always encouraged him. He can tear people to pieces if he gets on the ball and it doesn't do you any harm to be told that kind of thing. His confidence is sky-high but so is everyone's. We believe we can give anyone a game at the moment."
United have been warned.
Thorn in his side: How Redknapp has frustrated Ferguson
Bournemouth 2 Man Utd 0
FA Cup third round, 07/01/84
Harry Redknapp's Cherries surprised the FA Cup holders at Dean Court. United had only lost once in the league away from home all season but Milton Graham and Ian Thompson scored for a side that were sitting third from bottom of the Third Division and missing their captain John Beck.
United recovered to win the Cup the following year.
Man Utd 0 West Ham 1
FA Cup fourth round, 28/01/01
Champions United were expected to stroll into the fifth round after a year's break from the Cup, but a determined rearguard action, led by Stuart Pearce, kept the home side at bay. Paolo Di Canio struck late on, helped by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez's bizarre decision to stop playing and instead appeal in vain for offside.
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The title race was blown open as United again crashed to defeat on the South Coast. Benjani's shot was parried by Edwin van der Sar and Matt Taylor tapped in the rebound to put Pompey ahead at half-time at Fratton Park before a late Rio Ferdinand own goal extended the lead in the 90th minute after a mix up with Van der Sar. John O'Shea found time to score a late consolation for United.
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FA Cup sixth round, 08/03/08
Redknapp again inspired his underdogs to knock Ferguson's favourites out of the Cup. Ghanian international Sulley Muntari scored from the spot after Tomasz Kuszczak brought down Milan Baros with 12 minutes remaining. The Pole was later red-carded, leaving centre-back Ferdinand to take over in goal amid farcical scenes.
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