As I type this, Tottenham Hotspur are fifth in the Premier League. With four games to go before the end of the season, there is a good chance that they will finish outside of the Champions League places. Indeed, it’s not impossible that Spurs will finish sixth, behind Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea. For a team that has spent most of this season in third place, and that was close to topping the table at times, this would a very disappointing end to the campaign. Whether Spurs finish third or sixth; whether the season is a triumph or a failure, only one man is really responsible: Harry Redknapp.
I’ve always liked Harry. Before he came to Spurs, I always admired the way his teams played football and the way he handled players, getting the most out of them. I wasn’t always fond of his wheeler-dealer schtick, but I liked his enthusiasm and irreverence. Since he’s been Spurs manager I’ve managed to take a closer look at him, and some of the shine has worn off. I still think he’s a good manager, although the last few games of this season will determine just how good.
Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify how I see the role of a football manager. It’s different overseas, where there is more of a director of football/coach set-up, but in England, as far as I am concerned, the manager is God. The whole identity of a club is determined by the manager. Obviously, a manager is limited by the finances at his disposal, but beyond that, he has complete control. The manager should be in charge of selecting which players to buy and sell, training the team (alongside coaches), selecting the tactics for each game, developing the players – both mentally and physically, man-managing each player so that they are used to their full potential, picking the team on the match-day and making tactical changes and substitutions when necessary. The manager should have a plan for the long-term, understanding their objectives for the season and how they will use their squad to realise those objectives. If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. The manager has to take control. When Roberto Mancini was criticized for his handling of the Carlos Tevez affair, he found an unlikely ally in Sir Alex Ferguson, who backed the Italian and reiterated his belief that the manager remains the most important figure at a football club. Sir Alex Ferguson is a good example of how a football team is moulded in the identity of a manager. Players (and owners) come and go but every Manchester United team remains defiantly Ferguson. Even when the players aren’t great, the team still reflects Ferguson’s identity and embodies his desire for victory. Mediocre Man Utd teams regularly beat the best Spurs teams.
Harry Redknapp has been in charge of Tottenham Hotspur since October 2008. He has been in control of the team for nearly four years and has done a lot for the club. As he is fond of telling the press, when he joined Spurs they had 2 points after 8 games and were propping up the table. He has done well with the players at his disposal and has been backed in the transfer market when needed. The current Spurs squad is very much a Harry squad, composed of players he has brought into the club (Friedel, Parker, Defoe, Gallas, Adebayor, Saha) and players who were already at Spurs, but who who he has moulded into his style of play (Bale, Lennon, King, Assou-Ekotto). There remain a handful of players who Redknapp clearly doesn’t rate but who he can’t get rid of (Dos Santos, Bentley). But it is very much Harry’s team. When the team plays well, as it has done regularly over the last few years, it is due to good management by Harry, and when the team plays badly, it is because of bad management by Harry. That is how football works. Win, lose or draw, it is because of Harry.
When a team is playing badly and losing games, one of the mantras repeated by football fans and pundits is that the players have to take responsibility – that the manager can’t go out there on the pitch and play the game for them. This is a fundamentally flawed statement. Of course the players have some responsibility, but the ultimate responsibility always lies with the manager. It is his responsibility to pick the right team over the course of the season to ensure that players remain fresh, to ensure all the players understand their roles on the pitch, to motivate players and protect them from pressure, to inspire and lead them. If the players are nervous or tired or flat, this is a failure on behalf of the management.
Which brings us back to Harry Redknapp. One of the reasons I like Harry less now than when he first took over at Spurs is because I understand what motivates him. What motivates him is doing the best thing for Harry Redknapp. In many ways that is understandable, but it is an unedifying sight. I’ve watched countless post-match interviews with Harry and have come to marvel at how he deflects attention away from his own failings. When Spurs play against Man City or Chelsea Harry is quick to highlight how much money these clubs have and how Spurs can’t compete. When Spurs lose to Stoke or Norwich, Harry isn’t quite so keen to dwell on the financial disparity. When a player he brought to Spurs has done well, he will highlight how he had to persuade the chairman Daniel Levy to buy him (see Scott Parker). He ensures that when things are going well, credit goes to Harry and when things are going badly he manages to shift responsibility onto players or other figures at the club – he throws up his hands and claims that he is helpless. He has given almost no credit to Daniel Levy for ensuring that Luka Modric remained at Tottenham after the Croatian attempted to jump ship to Chelsea. In the recent slump Harry has often talked about the failings in the squad, whether it is tiredness or lack or height, as though he’s not directly responsible for those failings. He is the manager. He has been the manager for 4 years. If the players are tired or playing badly it is because he hasn’t managed them properly. If the squad is lacking depth in certain positions, it’s no one’s fault but Harry’s.
In some ways I don’t entirely blame Harry for the way he deals with the press – you don’t survive that long in football management by giving the media and fans enough rope to hang you with.
And despite Harry’s attitude irritating me, it hasn’t really upset me too much because over the last four years, what has been good for Harry Redknapp has nearly always coincided with what was good for Spurs. That all changed in February 2012. A day after Harry was cleared of two counts of cheating the public revenue, England manager Fabio Capello quit his post. Harry was instantly installed as favourite to replace him and a media campaign to appoint Redknapp as England manager sprung into action.
Of course, Harry himself refused to commit himself either way, because being Harry he wants to keep him options open. He could have issued a “come-and-get-me” plea and stated that he wanted the England position. He could have stated that he wanted to stay with Spurs. He did neither. He left as many doors open as possible. And almost immediately, Tottenham’s season turned to shit. Of course, according to Harry, the dip in Tottenham’s form has nothing to do him being linked to the England job. Because, according to Harry, none of his decisions ever have any negative impact on the team. Over and over he has stated that the players aren’t affected by the uncertainty hanging over the club, as though not knowing who the manager will be next season or whether your manager will even last until the end of the season won’t get into a player’s head. A lot of football is mental. The difference between a great player (Fernando Torres for Liverpool) and a poor player (Fernando Torres for Chelsea) is rarely physical. It’s an accumulation of doubts, fears, lack of self-belief and self-confidence. Players are affected by what goes on around them. Of course they are.
I’m not suggesting that Spurs’ recent slump is entirely down to Harry flirting with the FA. There are plenty more issues. But what unites all these issues is that as manager, Harry is responsible for all of them. As I’ve said before: this is Harry’s team.
Earlier in the season, when Spurs were 3rd and making an almost-credible push for the Premier League title, Harry Redknapp repeatedly stated that it was possible for Spurs to win the league – that the club had the players and resources to do it. I suspect, because I’ve heard it so many times before, that if Spurs do finish fifth or sixth, that Harry will swiftly rewrite history and claim that “we can’t compete with the Arsenals and Chelseas of the world” and that finishing sixth is a wonderful achievement. Because that’s what Harry does: he always paints a picture in which he is blameless.
I was thinking recently that Spurs need a leader: not a leader on the pitch, but a leader in the dug-out. Because no matter how good a manager Harry is, he isn’t a leader. Being a leader involves a certain degree of self-sacrifice. It means standing tall and taking responsibility for your actions. It’s not about being liked by the press or players. It’s not about jumping ship when an opportunity arises. It’s about committing to a cause and leading by example.
This article isn’t an attack on Harry. I still like him. I think he’s a good manager. Over the last couple of years Spurs have played some extraordinarily good football. He has done a lot for Tottenham Hotspur. But Tottenham Hotspur has also done a lot for him. Despite a potentially damaging court case hanging over him, in 2008 Daniel Levy gave him the manager’s job and the budget and support to succeed. It was this support that put Harry in the frame to be England manager. As much as Spurs owe a debt of gratitude to Harry, so he owes something to Spurs.
I hope that Spurs qualify for the Champions League. I hope that Harry Redknapp has the skill and experience to pick the right team for the remaining games, and the passion and craft to motivate and inspire the players to victory. I really do. And if he fails, I don’t want to hear his excuses.