Last time I blogged it was about Harry Redknapp and whether Spurs would qualify for the Champions League. How time flies. As I write this, Spurs aren’t in the Champions League and Harry Redknapp is no longer the manager of Tottenham Hotpsur.
I’m still not sure how I feel. My last blogpost was all about Harry; about how he plays the media game, how he always looks out for number one, and always manages to shift the blame for his failures. You might think, judging by what I’d written, that I’d be happy Harry has gone. I’m not. I’m ambivalent at best. More than anything else, I feel disappointed. Disappointed because for all his faults, Redknapp was the best manager I’d seen at Spurs in a long, long time and disappointed because I think that had Redknapp and Levy both handled things differently, it could all have been avoided.
First of all, let’s take a look at some of the reasons Harry Redknapp is no longer Spurs manager. The obvious reason is that Spurs failed to qualify for the Champions League. In a normal Premier League season, finishing fourth would qualify a team for the Champions League. And at the beginning of last season, nearly every single Spurs fan would have settled for finishing fourth. But Spurs didn’t have a normal season. We spent most of the season in the top three, and for large parts of it looked like we could even challenge for the title (my apologies for using “we” for Spurs. It’s presumptuous and annoying but I do it anyway). And frustratingly, our fall out of the top three coincided with the long period of time in which Harry was blatantly touting himself for the England manager’s job – a position he clearly wanted (after leaving Spurs he admitted that had he been offered the job, he would have taken it). It became clear to all but the most blinkered pro-Redknapp fan that Harry had taken his eye of the ball. From the moment England manager Fabio Capello resigned, something wasn’t right at Spurs. In addition, it also became clear from April onwards that there was a slim but realistic possibility that Chelsea would win the Champions League and that fourth place would not be good enough. So, being charitable to Harry you could say that he took the team to fourth, which would normally qualify them for The Champions League. Being unkind, you could say that it was clear for some time that to guarantee Champions League football Spurs would have to finish third, and that Harry’s personal ambition badly hampered the team’s chances of achieving that goal. Would Levy have sacked Redknapp if the team had finished third? Judging by his quotes in the press, Harry thinks that he’d have been fired anyway, but I doubt it. It would have been Tottenham’s highest ever finish in the Premier League and Levy would have faced a revolt from the fans. And I also believe that for all Levy’s faults, he only ever does what he believes is best for Tottenham Hotspur. If he’s wrong, he’s wrong with the best of intentions.
But I suspect that the schism between Redknapp and Levy wasn’t really about the Champions League or Redknapp’s fondness for making indefensible statements to the national press. It was based on the fundamental differences in their approaches to football, which is what I’d like to focus on. Let’s take a look at Daniel Levy.
Daniel Levy is an excellent businessman, who has very sensible and progressive views on how to run a football club. He likes to balance the books and make sure the club is well run and cost effective. The club is in rude financial health, has amazing new training facilities, great sponsorship deals and is exploring a new, larger stadium. Levy has a clear long-term vision for the club.
Now, if you were a progressive young chairman like Daniel Levy, and you were in charge of a top 10 Premiership club, here are some things you might do:
- You would install a young, dynamic manager (preferably one with European experience, who speaks a few languages and is committed to pretty football, rather than a horrible old English manager who likes long-ball football and drinks the wrong wines). This manager would be part of a long-term plan and would be in charge for decades. He’d leave a legacy of success. Think of Arsene Wenger when he first arrived at Arsenal.
- You’d get a Director of Football. Directors of Football aren’t very popular in England, but on the continent they’re ubiquitous. They allow the manager to get on with coaching, whilst the DoF can flip through his massive rolodex and unearth hidden talent from New Zealand to Romania. No more buying overpriced players from Everton or West Ham! Now the whole world is your oyster. The Director of Football is the magical svengali who magics players out of nowhere.
- You would buy young players with a high resale value, meaning that if they did leave the club, you’d have made a healthy profit.
- You’d make the occasional big money marquee signing to send a message out to the big clubs that you’re a serious contender, and to reassure the fans that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.
- You’d build a new, bigger stadium to ensure that money coming into the club through gate receipts actually covered the money the club is spending on players. The club would not be dependent on an Abramovich-style sugar daddy – it would be self-sustaining.
- You’d build new, state-of-the-art training facilities so that the players were always fit and ready.
- You’d invest in an academy so that rather than always having to buy expensive players, you’d have a constant supply of talented, home-grown players, proud to wear the shirt.
- You would make sure that the club had strength in depth – that as well as having a strong first-team, there was a big enough squad of quality players to ensure that the team was always competitive, no matter how games and injuries took their toll.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because - with the possible exception of the Director of Football – it’s essentially the blueprint that almost any young, ambitious chairman has when he takes over a football club. Whether it’s Newcastle, Aston Villa, Spurs, Chelsea or Liverpool, roughly the same promises are made. Even with clubs like Man City and Chelsea, who are plucked from relative mediocrity by billionaire owners, the same mantra is chanted: “Sure, we’ll invest heavily at first, but in a few years time the team will be packed with cheap, home-grown players”. Even disastrous chairmen who have led their clubs to the brink of bankruptcy (Hello Portsmouth! Hello West Ham!) start their tenures by repeating the same clichés about grass-roots investment, long-term financial stability, investment in local players and endless seasons of sunshine and happiness.
The blueprint above is brilliant. It’s full of sensible, progressive ideas that should lead to long-term success. The problem is this: the blueprint rarely works. Or rather, it works in parts, but rarely leads to the kind of success that is promised. And when it comes to Spurs, Daniel Levy has done an excellent job in reinventing the club, lifting the team out of the mire of 90s mediocrity, and making them competitive again; but the long-term stability and glory he craves still eludes him.
Let’s take a look at the managers that Daniel Levy has employed. When Levy took over at Spurs in February 2001, his first act was to get rid of George Graham. Graham was not popular with Spurs fans, but we won the League Cup under him, which should not be overlooked. But Graham had a few things working against him: He was always an Arsenal man. And he was old-school. He was never the kind of shiny, new continental manager that Levy fancied. So in late 2001 Graham was booted out and replaced by Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle was a Spurs hero and just the kind of young, progressive coach that Levy liked. He’d even played abroad! And for a short while it worked, but by September 2003 Spurs were once again in the relegation zone and Hoddle was sacked. Levy appointed David Pleat as caretaker manager for the rest of the season and set out to find a new manager who could rebuild the club from scratch.
In June 2004 Levy made his move. He installed Frank Arnesen as Director of Football (a position that was unheard of in English football) and made former French national team manager Jacques Santini his new coach. Levy’s sexy new modern Spurs were ready to roll! Spurs had money and a new continental-style set-up. What could go wrong? Everything. Santini was a disaster and left the club after just a few months. Assistant coach Martin Jol was promoted to head coach (This is important to remember. I maintain that had Jol been hired specifically to be the head coach, he’d have had more clout with the board and wouldn’t have been treated so shabbily and the end of his reign). Still, despite Santini’s departure, Spurs still had Arnesen, right? Wrong.
In June 2005 Arnesen defected to moneybags Chelsea. Levy’s grand plan for long-term success had come unstuck in little over a year. Arnesen was replaced as Director of Football by young, bespectacled Frenchman Damien Comolli. Levy continued with his vision of a Director of Football. Jol would take charge of coaching the team and Comolli would sit above him, signing and selling the players; indeed, it’s hard not to see Comolli as the personal embodiment of Levy’s dream. An articulate, intelligent, bespectacled, business-savvy, pan-European man – shave Comolli’s hair off and you’ve basically got Daniel Levy. The Comolli/Jol combination was a limited success; there were successful runs in the UEFA Cup but Spurs narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the 2005-2006 season and never quite recovered. In addition, there were clear tensions between Jol and Comolli, with the former clearly unhappy with some of the players Comolli signed (I’m thinking of Didier Zokora here). Spurs were supposed to challenge for the Champions League in the 2007-2008 season but started badly. In October 2007 Jol was sacked, undone by the Spurs board. Comolli kept his job. Many Spurs fans felt that the wrong man went.
Still, Jol was history and it was an opportunity for Levy to indulge in his proclivity for progressive, continental coaches. The club hired Juande Ramos from Seville. Ramos, working with a Director of Football, had worked wonders for Seville. Here was a manager firmly in the Levy mould. He ticked all the boxes. How could he fail? To be fair to Ramos, he did lead Spurs to the League Cup in the 2007-2008 season but the club’s start to the 2008-2009 was disastrous. Two points after eight games looked like relegation form. So Levy did something unexpected…
In October 2008 Levy got rid of Ramos. He also got rid of Comolli, scrapping the beloved Director of Football post. He installed Harry Redknapp as manager. Redknapp was given money to spend and told to rescue Spurs. He did so. On the final day of the 2008-2009 season, Spurs finished in eighth position, just missing out on Europe.
The next season, Redknapp did even better, with Spurs finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history. In the 2010-2011 season, Spurs defied all expectations, reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, beating Inter Milan and AC Milan along the way. Tottenham couldn’t quite match that form in the league, finishing fifth and missing out on another season in the Champions League. That brings us up to the 2011-2012 season, which is where we began, all those paragraphs ago.
So let’s take a look at how Harry worked during his time at Spurs, and how it contrasts with Levy’s philosophy. If Levy was always planning for the long-term, then Redknapp was always focused on the present. Redknapp was never interested in running a club; it was all about the first team.
Levy’s philosophy involved signing big names, but was really built on unearthing young gems and slowly developing them into first-team players. It was about ensuring success for the club at every level. In contrast, Redknapp appeared only really interested in players who were ready now, who could slot straight into the team. If that meant signing 32-year-old William Gallas or 40-year-old Brad Friedel, promising them huge wages and putting them straight into the team, so be it. Harry wasn’t worried about whether they’d still be around in a year or two, as long as they could do the job now. (Redknapp’s history of signing older, experienced players on huge, long-term contracts had a very unhappy ending for his former club Portsmouth. On the verge of liquidation, the club is still paying astronomical wages to players Redknapp signed. He should not be wholly blamed for this – it was the Portsmouth owners who needed to ensure the bills could be paid). Redknapp’s philosophy, certainly when it came to buying players, was always short-term. He wasn’t particularly interested in nurturing young talent or unearthing undiscovered talent. (It’s no coincidence that Tottenham’s most valuable players over the 2011-2012 season were mostly signings Redknapp had nothing to do with: Bale and Modric predate Redknapp and Van der Vaart was a deal brokered by Levy and delivered to Redknapp. Redknapp can take credit for Scott Parker, I’ll give him that).
Harry cared about winning games. He didn’t appear very interested in the youth team or the reserves (very few reserve players ever broke through to the first team and made Premier League appearances). He wasn’t interested in financial prudence. He was interested in who could slot straight into the first team and make a difference. It was an enormously short-sighted, unsustainable model. The only was problem was, largely speaking, it worked.
Conventional wisdom tells us that football clubs should build slowly, plan for the future, have stable management and invest in youth. The “Levy way”. But let’s take a look at which teams finished the 2011-2012 season with silverware. Man City won the Premiership with a team rammed full of ready-made, experienced footballers, all on huge wages. Aside from Joe Hart, the promising youth players of yesteryear were discarded. Chelsea started the season the Levy way, by hiring a promising young manager in André Villas-Boas and planning for long-term success. Then, half-way through the season Abramovich got nervous, sacked Villas-Boas, promoted Roberto di Matteo and reverted back to type. They then won the Champions League and the FA Cup with a team full of old, experienced, highly paid superstars. Chelsea and Man City didn’t win by being sensible, sticking by their managers, investing in youth and having a long-term vision; they won by spending shitloads of money on big-name players, whose egos and salaries were bigger than the manager’s. Football is a funny old game.
Redknapp’s last season with Spurs was an odd one. As I’ve said, Spurs finished fourth, which would normally constitute a success. They also finished with a hugely unbalanced squad, consisting of just one recognised striker in Jermain Defoe. (Redknapp had signed Adebayor on a one-year loan at the start of the season, had sold Roman Pavlyuchenko and replaced him with Louis Saha, also on a short-term loan deal). In addition, Redknapp’s focus on the first team meant that the rest of the squad appeared alienated and frustrated by their lack of playing time.
The bitter irony is that somewhere between Levy’s long-term planning and Harry’s understanding of what makes a good first-team squad, a good balance was achieved. Last season was the closest I’ve seen to Spurs actually winning the league. (From the very first game of the season I was thrilled to see Brad Friedel in goal – of all Redknapp’s signings, Friedel was my favourite. For the first time in years, we had a goalkeeper I totally trusted. He was a short-term solution, but he was marvellous).
Redknapp simplified Levy’s grandiose visions and delivered a winning team, and Levy kept Redknapp’s financial excesses in check and made sure the squad consisted of more than a load of pensioners. For four years, Spurs had a combination of chairman and manager that actually worked, which is why I feel so disappointed that Harry has left.
It also explains why I’m undecided about the appointment of André Villas-Boas. He ticks all the Levy boxes. He’s young, continental, progressive and has a long-term vision for the club. He’s everything that Harry isn’t. I want him to succeed. But in Hoddle, Santini and Ramos, I can’t help but think I’ve seen it all before.