x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

One win away from fulfilment

A late bloomer, coach Harry Redknapp is on the cusp of guiding Spurs into the Champions League.

His quick wit is one of his most distinguishing features, but Harry Redknapp's career has been a slowburner. In his seventh decade, however, it has certainly come to the boil, on and off the pitch. The Tottenham manager won his first major trophy at the age of 61, when Portsmouth secured the FA Cup two years ago. It made him the first English coach to triumph in the competition since 1995. Now, the lone representative for his country among the elite of a cosmopolitan division, he is closing in on a greater achievement: a top-four finish.

Victory at Eastlands tonight would ensure it. It would render Redknapp the first English manager to qualify for the Champions League via the Premier League since Sir Bobby Robson with Newcastle in 2002. Tottenham, perceived as one of a "Big Five" two decades ago, have not ended a campaign in the top four since 1990. It would mark the crowning achievement of a career that, as Redknapp is fond of reminding an audience, began at Bournemouth in 1982 with a 9-0 defeat. It was emphatic enough to make him wonder if he would get a second game in management; instead, more than 1,000 have followed, at Bournemouth, West Ham, Portsmouth, Southampton, Portsmouth (again) and now Spurs.

The offers to lead a genuinely big club only arrived late in life. In January 2008, he rejected Newcastle; a decision that, with the benefit of hindsight, ranks among his best. Four months later, he won the FA Cup. Five months after that, Tottenham lured him away from Fratton Park. Given Portsmouth's subsequent downward spiral, it is another indication of a canniness to sense where his interests are best served.

Along with alternating between Portsmouth and Southampton, it has also led to accusations of disloyalty. More serious allegations are the criminal charges Redknapp faces, of tax evasion concerning a payment he received from Milan Mandaric, the former Portsmouth chairman. There is a court hearing later this month and the damage to his reputation is a reason Redknapp is unlikely ever to be considered as manager for England's national team.

Money, whether his own or the club's, is a pertinent issue. Each of Redknapp's previous employers have endured financial difficulties after his departure. They are particularly pronounced in Portsmouth's case. Redknapp, with an eye for a bargain, has pointed out the profits the club made on several of his signings, such as Lassana Diarra, Sulley Muntari, Sylvain Distin, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe, but he also assembled a squad with an unaffordable wage bill.

Transfers are a constant for a man who both resents and cultivates his image as a wheeler-dealer. There is some consistency of thought, however. Schooled at West Ham under Ron Greenwood, a manager with a footballing ethos, Redknapp is an essentially attack-minded influence. He has an admirable weakness for slender playmakers and genuine mavericks - Tottenham's Luka Modric belongs to a tradition that includes Paul Merson, Joe Cole, Eyal Berkovic and Paolo di Canio - and an appreciation of goalscorers. Defoe, the professional predator, has played for Redknapp at three clubs.

His style suits Tottenham's. Just as significant, however, is his gift of the gab. Redknapp's skills lie more in man-management than coaching, one of the reasons Spurs possess such a large staff. Redknapp's colourful turn of the phrase makes him the front man. "John Hartson's got more previous than Jack the Ripper," was his assessment of one of his former players. Once asked about his side's prospects of qualifying for continental competition, he replied: "Where are we in relation to Europe? Not far from Dover." It is a way of deflecting the question.

Now, for Tottenham, the issue is how far they are from Europe's finest, from the possibility of facing Barcelona and Real Madrid. And, witticisms aside, the answer is very, very close. @Email:sports@thenational.ae