Phil Shaw: Harry Potter earns his Spurs

'WE KEPT going and never gave up." Until a fortnight ago, such an appraisal of Tottenham Hotspur would have ranked alongside Barack Obama announcing "No, we can't" among the quotations you were least likely to hear this year. The words represented Harry Redknapp's verdict after the second of two stunning late recoveries by Spurs, the first snatching a draw from the jaws of a gubbing at Arsenal and the other turning seemingly certain home defeat by Liverpool into three poi

Seven points in seven days was a striking start for the boyhood Arsenal fan after he forsook "my last job" for "a job I couldn't turn down". Players who had begun publicly to question Juande Ramos' methods began claiming Redknapp would make White Hart Lane a fortress. Spurs' 4-0 rout of Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Cup on Thursday, featuring a hat-trick by Darren Bent, was another step in that direction.

And yet the Premier League table before today's game at Manchester City shows them still in bottom place. If the position seems bizarre for a team who saw off Liverpool and drew at Chelsea and Arsenal, it should be noted that they took two points from 24 in their worst start since the Titanic sunk in 1912. The Lane was more like a bouncy castle than a fortress. Unfortunately for Redknapp, his impact – which appeared to stem from a combination of the players' positive response to his motivational skills, their relief that Ramos was history and sheer good luck – has been offset by wins by Stoke, Wigan, Bolton and Newcastle, all clubs in the bottom third.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For now, Redknapp will stress, such teams must be regarded as relegation rivals. Spurs' fans habitually spend summer dreaming of a return to the glory, glory days and autumn wondering where it has all gone wrong. The change at the top has encouraged hope of a prosperous winter and a springtime finish in or around the European places. But while Redknapp is aware of "the Tottenham way" – the purist principles which date back beyond Bill Nicholson's double-winners of 1961 – he also realises they must scrap like Stoke and battle like Bolton.

Yes, Spurs are a "big, big club", as Redknapp puts it, yet the European Cup semi-finalists of 46 years ago have never so much as qualified for the Champions' League in which Arsenal take progress for granted. Martin Jol twice led them to fifth place in the Premier League, only to be fired by chairman Daniel Levy when the ensuing campaign began poorly. Redknapp has as strong a squad as the Dutchman, with the conspicuous exception of the forwards Ramos lost during the close season, Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane, and is reportedly interested in bringing Jermain Defoe back from Portsmouth in January. He may also be looking for a goalkeeper – Heurelho Gomes looks too erratic – and for a leader to pull together all the disparate talents in Spurs' side.

Until the transfer window swings open, however, he must ensure that they are clear by the time the relegation trapdoor slams shut. That means deploying all the man-management ability fostered in 25 years in management, as well as the coaching prowess often overshadowed by the image of the charismatic Cockney wheeler-dealer that understandably irks Redknapp. The rehabilitation of 16m midfielder David Bentley, who was consigned to the stand for Ramos' swansong at Udinese after describing Spurs' form as "a bit shit", is an obvious example of his capacity for imbuing players with his own confidence.

Ramos, for all his success in Spain, was even less fluent in English than Berti Vogts was with the Glasgow vernacular. Bent, who personifies Spurs' resurgence with five goals in Redknapp's four games, called the former Sevilla coach's training ground "a horrible place". The 16.5m striker added pointedly that the players could have "proper conversations" with his successor and "know what he's on about".

Redknapp, whose quarter-century in management includes two relegations but no top-five finish, has presumably not gone to Tottenham at the age of 61 to preside over mid-table mundanity. He regularly bemoaned the resources available at Portsmouth, both in terms of finance and footballers, though he did leave them with the FA Cup, a competition that helped give Spurs their aura. Only the hardest Arsenal heart, surely, does not dance at the sight of Ricky Villa's slalom through the Manchester City defence before scoring the 1981 final winner at Wembley.

When the clubs reconvene at Eastlands, City supporters will hark back weeks rather than decades to the 6-0 rout of Pompey in one of Redknapp's last games in charge. He went into that match on the back of three victories yet ended up bemoaning their "worst-ever" defending. The chances of a repeat must be considered slender, not simply because Spurs are performing with character, if not with a panache befitting their self-image, but also because Mark Hughes' side have shown that becoming the world's wealthiest club does not buy you results at Wigan or Bolton.

Technically excellent but terminally soft-centred: coincidentally, the criticisms of Spurs, before they stumbled on the novel idea of not giving up, increasingly apply to City. With only four points separating the sides, another manifestation of 'Arry Potter's touchline wizardry could suck another big, big club into the struggle to beat the drop.