Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This is Another Entry About Football

I am Tottenham. Through thick and much thin I have supported them and in many ways the last 50 years have abstractly mirrored my life and Tottenham's fortunes. Lots of high points, but blighted by what seems like far more low points.

I remember standing in the Norwich City end at Wembley stadium when Ralph Coates won the League Cup in 1973, the second time Spurs had lifted the Mickey Mouse trophy in 3 years. I remember sitting by the radio listening to the news that Spurs had been relegated to the old Division 2 and I remember them beating Bristol Rovers 9-0 at White Hart Lane and some new kid on the block called Colin Lee scored, I think, five of the goals. But I also remember sitting in a car in Far Cotton listening to the old Radio 2's Sports coverage, knowing that their last game of that only season in Division 2 had to either finish as a draw or a win for my team or they would face another season in the lower league. In those strange days of radio when there was no Premier League and just about any team could win anything, the commentary was from The Dell, Southampton's old ground, and they needed a win to be promoted in Spurs' place.

It finished 0-0 and we returned to the top flight and my memory extends even further because I remember them signing Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa from the new world football champions Argentina. It was going to be heady days for my team.

A couple of FA Cups and a European trophy was all that they could muster, but it was still something to put in the trophy cabinet and they established themselves as a top 10 side; pretty much where they had been since winning the double in 1961.

By the mid 1980s I'd all but given up on football. The national team were still something of a joke (no changes there then), I could barely tell you the name of any of Spurs players and there were other, more distracting, things to occupy my time. The late 80s and early 90s were no better; even when I did take an interest in football again - such as the 1991 FA Cup final - I often spent more time hiding behind the sofa or getting smashed out of my face than actually paying any attention to it. I think the thing was, I was fed up of the seemingly eternal averageness of my team. The expectations that constantly were dashed when they'd get humiliated at home by Burnley or Coventry City. For years it just seemed like Spurs were there to make up the numbers.

I vaguely remember looking at a newspaper in 1983 when I was in the Canary Islands. It was after 3 matches and Spurs were top of the table. I remember it so vividly because it was something I couldn't ever remember seeing before.

Then my burgeoning friendship with Roger and Derrick - both huge football fans - started to influence my interest. The first half a dozen years we were friends I pretty much showed little or no interest in football; yes, I would watch the football results every Saturday and check the paper daily for results, but frankly they went in one way and straight out of my head in another second. Then Euro 96 came along and England were playing as hosts and even though they only showed glimpses of brilliance it rejuvenated my passion for football and over the next 15 years it has become a dominant force in my social life and, I suppose, has re-emerged as a hobby - following my team again, passionately.

The main problem between the start of the 1996/97 season and a bleak November night in 2008 when Juande Ramos was leading Spurs to a sixth defeat in eight games, which saw them at the foot of the table with just 2 points from a possible 24, was that Spurs were pretty much worse than they had been when I gave up caring about football. Instead of being a top 10 team, they were now a bottom 10 team; this once great team reduced to being an occasional bit part player in a relegation battle. Sralan Sugar employed a succession of managers with no idea or no real ability, and even returning legend Glenn Hoddle did worse than former Arsenal manager George Graham; the latter actually won the League Cup - the only real bright star on the Tottenham horizon since 1996.

But then along came Harry.

The thing that makes Harry's success at Spurs all the more impressive, in my opinion, is that he still has the nucleus of the team he inherited; there have been a few additions, but an entire team's worth of players were brought in by Martin Jol or Ramos, via the much-maligned Daniel Commoli. Good and potentially great players acting like 11 strangers on a large expanse of grass were quickly turned into a new and pretty much different beast - at times Spurs looked simply irresistible. From bottom to 8th by May; Spurs form improved, Harry lost a League Cup final, but the team had announced its arrival.

The following season Harry achieved the thing most Spurs fans believed was nothing more than a faint hope - the team finished 4th and qualified for the Champions League, where just about everyone in the world thought they'd get a good spanking. He steered them to a QF spot and while Real Madrid exposed the gap between class quite easily, Spurs were closing that gap and quickly. However, the emergence of Man Citeh and the toils of playing in the Champions League meant Spurs missed out on a second visit and 5th place appeared to be the best we were ever going to achieve - because, let's be honest about this, Arsenal and Chelsea are much better sides...

I expect most Spurs fans, by the beginning of August, were pretty much dreading the coming season. All the Luka Modric business; discontent amongst the fringe players and barely any noticeable activity on the transfer front; what was hoped to be a season of building on the last looked destined to be another one of failure and dashed hopes. Losing 1-5 to Man Citeh and then 3-0 to Man Utd probably didn't have a positive affect on the fans' collective health. Two matches in and Spurs were bottom of the Premiership, again. Had Harry done all he could?

Harry bought Adebayor in on loan from Man Citeh and splashed £5m on Scott Parker, which raised eyebrows everywhere as the midfielder was 31 and had no sell-on value; plus he had been brilliant in a crap West Ham side, he wasn't really as good as everyone thought he was. Fast forward to now: Spurs are 3rd, not just barely but by 10 points. They are actually closer to the leaders than they are to 4th. they are playing the most breathtakingly scintillating football the Premier League has ever seen - and that isn't me saying that - and wheeler-dealer cockney geezer Harry Rednapp is so odds-on favourite to replace Fabio Capello that most bookmakers have suspended betting on it.

Harry has his detractors, but most of those people either only think they understand football or are partisans. The potential of Harry Rednapp became clear when he was at West Ham. Not only did he turn them into a really good side, who for a while looked more than capable of breaking Arsenal's grip on top London club, but he had this uncanny ability of turning matches around. During Harry's time at the Hammers, he has the highest rating of turning a half time deficit into points. It was not as comfortable as you might think going in 2-0 up at half time against West Ham, because Harry had a knack of changing things around and transforming an underachieving team. Admittedly, he also had a knack of letting leads slip, buying dodgy Europeans and of course dubious financial irregularities, but he has done remarkably well with modest teams. To say I was over the moon when Spurs hired him would be an understatement.

Under Martin Jol, Spurs found a new gear. He assembled a better team, gave the players belief and almost achieved the impossible, but a dodgy lasagne put paid to what seemed like a nailed on Champions League spot. Oddly enough and slightly ironically it was West Ham who stopped us from getting into the big league. But it seemed the directors didn't have as much faith in BMJ as the fans and players did. Despite two consecutive 5th place finishes, the board were looking for a winner; a manager with a track record of turning teams from also-rans into winners. That man was Sevilla's Juande Ramos, so after a bad start to the 2007 season, BMJ was sacked at half-time during a match against Getafe in the UEFA Cup and despite winning the League Cup, ended up finishing mid table and looking ordinary.

And that brings us back to Harry. It is he who has turned Spurs into one of the top 3 teams in the country and it hasn't been a fluke. The signs were there, it just needed a man to get two things from a side that has lacked them for ever - consistency and belief. And now he's going to go, just as Spurs still have an outside chance of lifting the title and on the brink of what can only be considered as great times. I believe Harry will get England playing sweeping football; covering the pitch and dispensing with the long ball unless his side is 1-0 down with ten minutes to play in a major final. People who say they will keep things they've posted on line about how Harry will fuck up to prove how right they were, could find themselves in a situation that requires avoiding usual Internet haunts for a few months or maybe even forever.

But what of Spurs? The press has only really breezed over the impact of losing Rednapp. A couple of papers are suggesting that David Moyes is a shoo-in to replace the future England saviour; but while I have a lot of respect for the Scotsman, that would be a bad move by the club. What Spurs have to do if they want to remain genuine challengers for both the league title and the Champions League is to push on now they're established. The only way they can do that is to ensure that they hold onto Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Rafael Van Der Vaart and make funds available to be able to pay all the players the kind of money that the champions pay their players. The only teams these players would want to go to are Barcelona or Real Madrid if they believed that Spurs were capable of becoming the next major force in Premiership history.

But not only do they have to smash the wage structure, they have to be prepared to pay Emmanuel Adebayor the kind of money a world class striker deserves. If the difference means winning a title or just finishing in the top 4, then Spurs need a player of Adebayor's quality: the Spurs team with him playing well is arguably the best team in the world; just look at the demolition of Newcastle on Saturday. Spurs really could have won that match 8 or 9-0; but once they got 4-0 up they treated it like a training ground game - such is the confidence of this bunch of players.

The next Spurs manager needs to be a Jose Mourinho, a Gus Hiddink or a Joachim Löw. managers who will love their players as well as turn Spurs into the kind of team Man Utd have been at times since SAF took charge. But one of those guys, plus demolishing the salary scales and signing four or five other players would require something like a £200m investment into the club, on the strength the new man and his charges can emulate what Harry did and go one better. Leeds United and Newcastle have both been on the cusp of what Spurs (and to some extent Man Citeh) are on and one of them has been in the third flight of English football for three of the last five years and the other got relegated, despite having a team too good to go down.

It's a tough call for Daniel Levy and Spurs' owner Joe Lewis, especially considering a top three finish would guarantee entry into the Champions League proper. That is lucrative enough, but losing Harry would get a couple of million in compensation as well and the inevitable sales of Gareth Bale to Barcelona for £50m+ and Luka Modric to Man Utd for £35m would mean the new manager might have £100m to spend on replacing the nucleus of the team. Werder Bremen's Marko Marin might be a pretty hot prospect to fill Modric's shoes, but there isn't a player in the world who can compare to Bale at the moment; not one who would cost less than the boy himself. Then there's the problem of a new striker; Spurs claim they simply cannot afford to pay Adebayor's wages, even if they get him for nothing, so this suggests that whoever the manager is, he'll have to bring in a striker, maybe two, who might not be the required class to even sustain a position let alone push on.

The main problem for Spurs is that their success has brought about this situation; had Roy Hodgson been given the time at Liverpool and turned them into title challengers, it would be he whose name would be at the top of the list. I think I'd be right in saying that even if Harry doesn't appear to have the trophies to back up his credentials, he is the only English manager to break into the top 3 of the league this century and that probably has to count for something.

The summer is going to be an interesting time; will Spurs have their man in place to seamlessly step into Harry's shoes the moment he dons his England blazer? Or are they going to see if they can poach a manager from the Euros, shortening the time for preparation? Can the club match its ambition or are we Spurs fans going to suffer possibly the worst false dawn ever?

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