Harry Redknapp likes a challenge – as long as, Newcastle supporters will suggest, it is within commuting distance of the South Coast – so he was not to be deterred from accepting the freedom of Portsmouth yesterday by the little matter of his walking away from the city's football club at the weekend.
Redknapp, predictably, was met by boos and cries of "Judas" at Portsmouth's Guildhall – where he was being honoured for Portsmouth's FA Cup win last season – but his reception was far less daunting than the task facing him tonight.
As a student of the Turf ,the new Tottenham manager knows his way around the form book but he is unlikely to be paying much heed to it when it comes to his first North London derby.
If Tottenham's current form is worrying enough compared to Arsenal's, Sunday's win over Bolton notwithstanding, past form is even more gruesome. Spurs have won one league match in 24 against Arsène Wenger's Arsenal teams, and that was in the last century. Redknapp, meanwhile, has only once been able to offer commiserations to Wenger in 22 managerial contests between the pair, also in 1999. These are two extraordinarily one-sided records, even if Wenger was at pains to repeat the old canard that in a derby match form means nothing.
A few miles across the M25 corridor Redknapp, prior to his trip to Portsmouth, had issued a call to arms, insisting Spurs were every bit as big as Arsenal, potentially, and it was his job to bridge the gap. But he recognised "the first goal is to make sure we stay in the Premier League". This, he insisted, was well within the squad's grasp.
He added: "When I went back to Pompey, Dejan Stefanovic said to me, 'Gaffer, we've got no chance'. Here it is more like, 'How the hell did we get into this mess with these players?' I'm out there and looking at them passing the ball for the first 20 minutes on Sunday and thinking, 'My God! They're knocking it about fantastically'. That is different altogether to what I walked into at Portsmouth. It's about making the players believe in themselves again. Players like David Bentley, Jermaine Jenas, Luka Modric are international players. We've got to get them back to what they should be."
Wenger, when asked about Redknapp's qualities, mentioned his experience, his passion for the game, and his ability in the transfer market. There will be some purchasing by Redknapp but he insisted money was tight and he would, as usual, be looking for bargains. He was also considering asking former Tottenham players Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand, as well as Tim Sherwood, to help out on the training pitch. "They have information to pass on to younger players," he said.
Looking ahead to tonight, he added: "It was important we won on Sunday and that gave the whole place a lift. The atmosphere is good and all the players have got a smile on their face."
Ledley King, he said, would start whenever he was fit, which is unlikely tonight, as he has played twice in the past six days. However, of his fellow centre-halves Michael Dawson is banned and Jonathan Woodgate is struggling with a groin injury. Gareth Bale can return from suspension.
Wenger said that he would rotate his team, especially the strikers, to ensure they were fresh for next week's Champions League tie with Fenerbahce – which confirmed this is just another game for him, if not Arsenal's fans. Bacary Sagna, Kolo Touré and Denilson are all back in contention for a start.
Wenger's one defeat to Redknapp concluded with Patrick Vieira being dismissed and banned for spitting at Neil Ruddock on his way off, and the Arsenal manager calling West Ham's Paolo Di Canio a cheat.
A repeat of such drama would earn Redknapp – who for all his talk of Tottenham's glory days was an Arsenal fan as a youth – instant hero status at White Hart Lane, a substitute, perhaps, for his faded star at Portsmouth.
"My timing has never been good but I have every right to go back," he added of accepting his award. "I know what a good job I did. Most managers leave clubs because they're in a mess. They are playing in Europe against Milan."Reuse content