Monday, April 30, 2012

Harry Redknapp talks himself out of England job

The last three months have felt like one long Harry Redknapp press conference. The break between interviews has been barely perceptible. At one point I wondered if the Spurs manager had been cloned and there were, in fact, three or four genetically engineered Redknapps conducting interviews simultaneously.

But while Harry has talked…and talked, Spurs have meekly succumbed to teams they would have rolled over in a heartbeat during the first half of the season. The FA’s ‘surprise’ approach to West Brom manager Roy Hodgson only confirmed that they have been watching and listening, too.

Why would the stiff shirts at the FA want an uncontrollable ‘rent-a-quote’ manager who is frequently truculent and defensive under mild pressure when a placid, malleable coach like Roy Hodgson represents a far cheaper, stress-free option? If Redknapp can’t galvanise a talented but underperforming Tottenham outfit what hope has he with the notoriously uncoachable national side?

Given these arguments, the FA’s decision to interview Hodgson for the vacant England manager's position is hardly surprising; that they took so long to arrive at the decision is more curious, considering West Brom’s season of mid-table comfort. The shadow of Harry’s imminent departure has arguably derailed Tottenham’s most promising campaign for 25 years with the club’s players and fans mentally prepared for a new boss since February, only now it appears our late season upheaval was all for nothing and that deadline day swoop for Yakubu is back on the cards.

So where does that leave Spurs? For all his faults and foibles, Redknapp remains Tottenham’s most successful boss of the modern era (in terms of league form) and it’s worth remembering that the club are back in the Top Four with just three games remaining with a budget and a wage bill (£91m-a-year) far less than rivals City (£174m), Chelsea (£173m), United (£153m), Arsenal (£124m) and Liverpool (£114m). Redknapp may irritate when he says Spurs are overachieving but technically he’s probably right.

It’s a little fanciful to expect Spurs to compete at the top table when its marquee players are earning a fraction of the wages paid to lesser lights at rival clubs. For certain players, like Gareth Bale, the wage structure must be broken. Let's not forget Scott Parker could have earned more money playing cheeky one-twos with Joey Barton at struggling QPR.

For whatever reason, Daniel Levy has failed to back his manager in the market over the last four transfer windows. Champions League qualification represented a priceless (and ultimately missed) opportunity to attract high calibre players and this season the Spurs Chairman opted not to even reinvest the transfer fees received for outgoing players. Meanwhile, every other rival strengthened. You cannot blame that on Redknapp anymore than Spurs’ frustrating profligacy in front of goal.

Tactically, Redknapp is no Mourinho, Guardiola, Ferguson or Wenger. But that statement should be self-explanatory. Harry has, however, made mistakes that may cost Spurs dearly at the end of the season. None greater than opening his mouth when it should have remained closed.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tottenham WILL qualify for the Champions League (okay, MIGHT)

Like a paternity test on The Jeremy Kyle Show, one win in nine games does not lie. Maybe Tottenham should scout the programme for new talent, at least those shifty geezers still have some battle left in them.

Spurs’ insipid 0-1 reverse at QPR epitomised the second half of the season; dominating possession without forging enough clear cut chances, no mistake unpunished and that ever-present thankless luck. But as Tottenham fans worldwide descended into a foggy, alcohol-fuelled madness and jammed The Samaritans’ phonelines in search of salvation, it’s worth remembering that Spurs still have a realistic chance of Champions League football.

Newcastle’s remaining fixtures are teak tough; plucky Wigan (away), Chelsea (away), in-form Everton (away) and title-chasing City at home. The true threat remains Chelsea (still somehow one point behind Spurs) who have three routine-looking home matches and an away game at Liverpool whose concentration will be focused solely on a second cup triumph this season. In contrast, Tottenham have winnable home games against Blackburn, Fulham and away fixtures against out-of-sorts Bolton and Aston Villa. But Spurs don’t look like they could win a game of Top Trumps at the moment, the birds from Bend It Like Beckham would probably turn them over (oh how Jermain Defoe would love that scenario).

Yet a win against Blackburn next Sunday via fluke or fantasy football and suddenly the game’s archetypal fancy dans are back in the hunt again. Surely this dire run has to end? This is the best Spurs team for decades…managed by the future England manager, right? I’m not so sure ‘Redknapp to England’ is a sure thing (cue groans and hurled beer cans). Harry is at least partly responsible for transforming a talented Tottenham outfit from Champions League certs to ITV4 also-rans in nine weeks while his increasingly bizarre press conferences have illustrated, yet again, with crystal clarity that he’s a loose cannon in front of the media. Does that fit the profile of someone the FA, renowned for its control freakery and ‘safe’ managerial appointments, will opt for as the next man to lead the national team into the footballing abyss?

Among many Spurs fans, Harry has borne the brunt of the criticism for the club’s dramatic downward spiral. Certainly, the shellackings against Arsenal and Chelsea rank alongside our worst results of recent years, but it’s worth noting the players’ part in this sudden downfall. They have been psychologically brittle in the face of mild pressure and almost laughably shot shy in front of goal (four blanks in the last four away games make grim but telling reading).

Farcically, the club only have one recognised striker on their books beyond the end of this season (Defoe who, at his age, is understandably eyeing one last big contract elsewhere) and Chairman Daniel Levy’s reluctance or inability to buy a proven scorer through four consecutive transfer windows is hard to defend. His tedious transfer window brinkmanship does not lend itself to stability. The ease with which Newcastle picked up the prolific Papiss Demba Cisse mid-window clearly illustrates that this path is avoidable and unnecessary.

Maybe we should take inspiration and solace from Fabrice Muamba’s miraculous recovery. Effectively dead for 78 minutes, the Bolton midfielder was coaxed back to life at White Hart Lane, an illustration that no-one should ever stop fighting until the curtain finally falls. Fabrice didn’t give up with less favourable odds and neither should we.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Yid’s In America

Like Arsene Wenger, I didn’t see it. While Spurs were imploding at Wembley against Chelsea, I was at Marlins Park in Miami watching the aforementioned Marlins beat the Houston Astros 5-4, relying on a fragile data connection to update me on the unfolding debacle across the Atlantic.

In early January, I had intentionally booked a much-needed break to South Beach to coincide with a potential FA Cup semi-final, all but guaranteeing Tottenham’s progression to the final four. It was a selfless act for the good of north London’s right-minded people. Should Spurs win and I’d missed it, we would be in the final, but were they to suffer a sixth consecutive semi-final loss I would rather be anywhere than stuck in human traffic on the slow trudge back down Wembley Way.

At 1-4 down, I turned to my girlfriend who was attempting to eat a ketchup-smothered hot dog and comprehend baseball’s bewildering rules system. “Bastards,” I said darkly, repeating the word seconds afterwards for dramatic effect. “They are slowly killing me inside. Another piece of me has died today.” She nodded solemnly and returned to her hot dog.

Minutes later my dad was moved enough to send his first ever text message. In bizarre, scrambled English it made the grimmest of reading: “Thamk god yu on holiday n did nt see it. Bad.” Slowly the full scale of the atrocity filtered through to my seething smartphone in Florida. The Chelsea ‘goal’ that failed to cross the line (the second the Russian billionaire’s team has enjoyed in just 12 months against Spurs), more bewildering tactics and bad luck along with the scandalous abuse by some Blues ‘supporters’ that forced the abandonment of the minute’s silence for those lost in the Hillsborough disaster.

Presumably the nation’s media have printed pen pictures of those sick Chelsea ‘fans’ who chanted ‘murderers’ like they did for the alleged homophobic abuse of the heterosexual Sol Campbell at Portsmouth a few years ago? They didn’t? Oh, I see. English selective morality at its finest.

The two sporting events I witnessed during my break in Miami could not be in greater contrast to the poisonous scenes unfolding back home. In America a fan’s custom is valued (I know! It sounds fantastical) and every attempt is made to make the spectator experience more enjoyable while stadium rules are enforced in a light-hearted rather than patronising way.

Before watching the NBA’s Miami Heat defeat the Charlotte Bobcats at American Airlines Arena, fans were shown a video on the big screen listing the arena’s regulations. Instead of a solemn, prison warden style message encouraging people to confidentially inform on nearby swearing fans, spectator rules were sung by a middle-aged sportscaster in the manner of Barry White. “Oh please. Oh please refrain from imprompah language,” he crooned. “Imprompah language!” echoed a falsetto backing singer. Essentially, the same message as White Hart Lane but presented in a fun and humorous way. Maybe if our football stadiums didn’t treat fans like gibbering idiots they would not behave like them.

Several days later, we walked out of Marlins Park to find a man who the stadium had employed for the sole purpose of hailing departing fans a taxi. Twenty yards away there were free shuttle buses to take others to the nearest metro terminal. At both basketball and baseball events, every stadium employee, without fail, engaged us in friendly conversation and said they hoped we enjoyed the game.

These goodwill vibes clearly have the desired positive impact. I didn’t hear a single swear word uttered at either event yet fan participation was vocal, supportive and constant (unlike White Hart Lane vs Norwich, for instance). All children under 12 were invited to ‘run the bases’ on the pitch immediately after the Marlins game. The young Marlins fans could barely contain their excitement and it made me reflect rather grimly on my experiences in our stadiums back home.

Our custom and loyalty is sickeningly taken for granted and, in the fallow times of recent months, this makes a defeat like last Sunday’s even harder to stomach.

“Bastards.” They know we’ll be back.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Harold Redknapp's Easter Miracle

For those who have only been attending Spurs matches for the last four years, this is how it used to be at White Hart Lane. Crap. A skilful but defensively brittle team, playing lazy, half-arsed football, only to be outmuscled by spirited, less talented opposition. Maybe that should have been our Latin motto Audere est facupthirdus.

This week the club decided in its infinite wisdom, and without consultation or transparent explanation, to overhaul the loyalty points system. I have been a Tottenham home (and since 1999 away) season ticket holder for twenty years (equivalent in army time to three or four tours in Helmand Province) and felt my inner pain and deep-seated personal issues were adequately reflected in these ‘loyalty points’.

Yet under next year’s scheme only the last four years will be recognised meaning a fan who has jumped on the bandwagon to watch four of Tottenham’s best seven Premier League seasons is, in theory, equal to someone who has watched Spurs meekly surrender in every corner of the land and survived the Gary Doherty era with just a stutter and a lazy eye. It’s an interesting definition of loyalty.

No doubt some of these nouveau fans were among those heading for the exits on 80 minutes. I can only assume Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis were at home entwined in a hot tub eagerly awaiting their heroes’ return. Maybe there should be extra ‘loyalty points’ for those fans who choose to stay to the final whistle?

Norwich played with the aggression of a recently divorced wife and displayed equivalent theatrics. I’ve had girlfriends less tactile than Grant Holt. Continually gripping a defender’s shirt, he barges around the penalty area like an unpenalised Kevin Davies and might have earned a penalty against the shadow of Ledley King, but equally conceded one for trying to mount Ryan Nelsen in the second half. Referee Michael Oliver’s poor grip on the game was epitomised by the man in black halting a Spurs move and playing Norwich into a goalscoring position with a ginger flick of his feet.

The continual appeals and gamesmanship from the away side, for me, surprised and detracted from an impressively tenacious performance that took full advantage of a listless Spurs display. But one win in eight games does not lie and it is a damning indictment of the diminishing quality of the Premier League that Spurs somehow still find themselves in fourth position. The greatest Easter miracle for approximately 2012 years. I'm sure Harry will want to take credit for that.

Few will favour Spurs in next Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea after this unexpected debacle. But anyone who has followed this damned team for over four years (yes, we weren’t established in 2008!) will tell you that’s exactly when the bastards are most likely to turn on the style.