A deal he couldn’t wheel

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 14 June 2012

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

Had everything gone to plan, Harry Redknapp would currently be relaxing at the end of another day’s training with the England squad, full of good spirit and looking forward to Friday’s game against Sweden. Instead, he’s clearing his desk, saying his goodbyes, and pulling out of his White Hart Lane parking space for the last time. Perhaps we’ll be given one last interview out of the car window, for old times’ sake, before he’s off to spend more time with Jamie and the Wii. It has been, even by the vertiginous standards of modern football, one hell of a fall. 

Of course, it’s all Bacary Sagna’s fault. Since the Frenchman’s comically unlikely header sparked a 5-2 rout at the Emirates back in late February, virtually nothing has gone Redknapp’s way. Six points came from nine games. The gap between third and fourth shrank, then vanished. St. Totteringham’s Day suddenly popped back into the calendar. And then finally Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea did what they weren’t supposed to do in the Champions League — three times — and by virtue of the Blues’ heroic CL victory in Munich, Spurs were left with a fourth place finish that felt a lot like fifth.

No, wait, let’s blame Fabio Capello. Redknapp’s slump, after all, coincided neatly with the Italian’s resignation from the England job, leaving a vacuum that was quickly filled with a deafening clamor from the English commentariat, who fell over one another to hail Redknapp as the new Sir Bobby Ramsey in ever more breathless and hilarious terms. (One even used the word “cuddly.” Cuddly!) Football teams that know their manager is leaving can be curious, drifting things — see Manchester United, 2001/02 — and the sense that a certain focus had gone was palpable as Tottenham labored.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s Redknapp’s own fault. On Tuesday the Guardian (among others) reported that Redknapp’s negotiations over a new contract were floundering — over both his demands for a long-term deal and his public statements that any delay or uncertainty would affect the players. It’s unlikely that Tottenham’s chairman Daniel Levy failed to notice that this last comment directly contradicts Redknapp’s earlier position — “They don’t care whether I’m the manager next year, they wouldn’t lose any sleep over that or whoever comes.” — when more welcome speculation linked him to the national job.

Ultimately, if you double down on your own reputation, you’d better make damn sure your chairman thinks you’re worth as much as you do.

In the final analysis, Redknapp’s Tottenham tenure is a curious and ambiguous one. While he didn’t get his hands on a big shiny silver pot — losing the 2009 League Cup final on penalties to Manchester United was as close as he came — he did oversee decent league finishes of fourth, fifth and fourth again, mastermind the scalpings of both clubs in Milan, play some genuinely thrilling football and introduced us all to the exercise in sexy, saucer-eyed wonderment that is a galloping Gareth Bale.

Yet so much of that comes tinged with what-ifs and but-fors: fourth place good, losing third place bad; FA Cup semifinal good, 5-1 humiliation by Chelsea bad; Bale good, Bale charging impotently through the middle bad. The positives probably outweigh the negatives, but not to such a startling degree as to make him irreplaceable. And that, perhaps, is the key.

Redknapp’s record is arguably lacking the kind of spectacular achievement that would make his position bulletproof and the months of waiting for him to be offered the England job — in the certain knowledge that he would accept — rather made the idea of Tottenham without him a little too real.

Daniel Levy is not a fool. He will not have spent that time with his fingers crossed, begging the powers that be to intervene and save his manager. He will have been thinking. Planning. Preparing for a life without Redknapp, mulling over the relative merits of David Moyes, Andre Villas-Boas, and doubtless one or two others. For Tottenham, have an outstanding first eleven and a decent squad, and while Redknapp’s a good manager with an intuitive appreciation of how to put footballers together — and, more importantly, keep them happy — he’s no alchemist. This side isn’t about to revert to base metal.

It is perhaps a little unfair to compare Redknapp to the dog in the fable that sees what looks like a juicier cut of meat reflected in the water, opens his mouth to seize it and ends up with nothing. After all, it’s not his fault that everybody bar the FA decided he was getting the job. Yet there is something strangely hubristic about the whole episode: a managerial record less substantial than it appears, a new job offer that failed to materialize and a solid negotiating position that turned out to built on sand.

Ultimately, Redknapp’s fall is not down to any one failing in his performance or in his conduct; there’s no ‘two points from eight games’ smoking gun. But in asking for a three-to-four-year contract at the age of 65, Redknapp was testing Levy’s belief in his ability and his commitment, in the wake of a season that called them both firmly into question. As Charles de Gaulle would have said if he hadn’t been distracted at a young age by politics, the punditry couches are full of indispensible men.

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