Just before kick-off in today's game against Portsmouth at White Hart Lane, Tottenham's captain, Ledley King, will gather his team-mates round him in a huddle and remind them of their responsibilities for a predicament of their own making.
The assumption had been that once Harry Redknapp arrived as manager and Spurs won 16 points from eight games to reach 15th place in the table, any lingering fears of catastrophic relegation had been banished. Yet results since mid-December tell a different tale; failing to win any of their past five matches in the League or to score a goal in the most recent three, against Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Wigan, has landed them back in the bottom three.
A reputation as a cup club may have been enhanced during the same period – this week they should convert a 4-1 lead over Burnley into another Carling Cup final place before taking on Manchester United in the FA Cup next Saturday – but King is realistic enough to acknowledge that they have fallen down where it matters most.
"After the manager first came in we picked up some very good results, and we seem to have come off the boil a little bit," he admitted. "It's probably why we were down there in the first place. We've not worked hard enough at times, let cheap goals in, and that's cost us. We should be doing a lot better than we are. But if we're here at this stage of the season we're obviously not too good to go down, and if it keeps going the way it is we'll get relegated. So we have to pull our fingers out and turn it around."
Glory, glory days in cup competitions mean less to the former England defender than other Spurs players. As he is unable to play more than one game a week, or even train properly, because of chronic knee trouble, Redknapp has saved him for League games – unlike Juande Ramos, who bizarrely often pursued the opposite policy, as if the Uefa Cup would define Tottenham's season.
King, who was used as a defensive midfielder in last Sunday's defeat at Wigan, believes he can cope tactically with slotting in and out, although physical fitness is something else. "I understand the game, it's more the fitness side that's a disadvantage. It can be tough. You're putting yourself on the line when you've not done any physical work all week."
The unspoken thought from a quietly spoken man was that one or two team-mates might need to show similar qualities rather than relying on ability alone. "For as long as I can remember at the club we've had players that can beat any team, but not consistently beat the teams around us. We're unbeaten against the top four but losing to teams around us who are battling. We have to toughen up and grind out some points."
Portsmouth, under Tony Adams, can hardly be categorised as a top side; following the postponement of their home game against Manchester City last weekend they have not played a League game since the end of December, and from seventh place when Redknapp left they have slipped so low that a fifth successive defeat today would leave them below Tottenham. But the circumstances of the game and all the rivalries it is encumbered with should ensure that there is nothing low-key about the occasion. Quite the opposite.
Local police will be listening carefully as respective supporters vie to insult Sol Campbell and Jermain Defoe. Both clubs are insisting that action will be taken against fans who overstep the mark verbally, as has been the case with the Tottenham followers arrested and charged following the appalling abuse suffered by Campbell in the League game at Fratton Park in September.
The reception for Redknapp will be more difficult to predict, although he is likely to attract more goodwill than bad. Despite an insensitive blunder in taking a job at Southampton, of all places, within a few weeks of initially leaving Portsmouth, he won most fans over again by saving them from relegation on his return, then earning ninth place in the table – the club's highest since 1955 – followed by an even more impressive eighth and winning the FA Cup.
Taking two assistants in Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond with him to Tottenham, who now have almost as many coaches as National Express, was unpopular, but no more than the sort of thing managers do these days.
Pound for pound, Redknapp has been one of the most successful managers in England in recent times, and was unable to resist the temptation last week to remind Portsmouth of how much money he made them in buying and selling players such as Lassana Diarra, Sulley Muntari and Defoe.
"Portsmouth have got sucked into it like the rest of us," he said after putting the Prime Minister straight on a few things at Spurs' training ground on Friday. "They're a good side with good players. I ought to know, I signed them all."
With Sol Campbell – "A great signingfor me" – among their number, Redknapp is as appalled as anyone at the vitriol the player continues to receive eight years after leaving White Hart Lane. So is King: "As a young player, I looked up to Sol. He played in the same position as myself, came from the same area in the East End of London. I looked at him and said, 'If he can do it, there's no reason I can't'. Boos are part of the game but there's a line, and it's been crossed a few times."
Once the players cross the white line in front of Tottenham's main stand today, Redknapp will trust them to focus on the game and hope that supporters of both sides maintain a modicum of decorum. "It's football. People move," he said. "I'll be sitting on the bench there with Tony sitting on the other side and we'll have a cup of tea after the game."
Unlike the days of Redknapp's youth, watching Arsenal with his dad, there is unlikely to be any similar fraternisation in the stands.Reuse content