(Image by kind permission of www.portsmouthfc.co.uk)
Harry Redknapp can close in on the crowning glory of his managerial career to date this weekend and in doing so lengthen his already long chapter in the history of success at Portsmouth Football Club.
When Sol Campbell leads Pompey out at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, they will be embarking on 90 minutes or more where they simply must win because to miss out on the decider now would almost serve to betray what has gone on before.
What the former West Ham boss has done for a previously slumbering second tier club has been truly remarkable. I remember when he returned from bitter rivals Southampton to Fratton Park for a second spell when the team previously mismanaged by Alain Perrin were staring relegation in the face and hearing one Pompey fan on the TV saying something along the lines of ‘Brilliant, he’s brought us up, taken them down and now he’s going to keep us up.’
Well, buoyed probably both by that failure at Southampton and his love for Portsmouth, Redknapp did indeed keep Pompey up that year [2005-06] and has seen two hugely progressive seasons since, culminating with their current spearheading of the best of the rest in The Premier League and this FA Cup semi-final, the reward for knocking out champions Manchester United on their own turf last time out.
I do not like to talk about that spell at Southampton in relation to Redknapp as I feel it was a major blemish on his career. He accepted the job in emotional circumstances, having felt let down by those in charge of the very Pompey side he had led to the promised land. Redknapp’s heart never seemed in it at St Mary’s. Given how tight the bottom four in the top flight were that season [Two points separated West Brom, Crystal Palace, Norwich and The Saints after the final day] and how many better players Redknapp had at his disposal than Messrs Robson, Dowie and Worthington, they really should have stayed up, despite the poor position they were in when he took over.
With the even more, barely believable, dire straits Saints are in now, they will always look back at that Premier League-departing Redknapp spell with regret, though his involvement with the club is well down the list of reasons that they are where they are now – a very sick football club in danger of slipping into oblivion, unless a few players other than Stern John can raise their game. The club was ailing before Harry's arrival and its immune systam has been well and truly overrun since he left.
Anyway, The Saints’ considerable woes are of no concern to their neighbours as their fans head to Wembley this weekend to cheer on by far the strongest squad the club has had in the lifetimes of many of its fans.
Redknapp’s prowess in the transfer market in his time at Pompey has always been the thing of legend from such flair, yet substance-filled, signings as Paul Merson, Patrik Berger and Teddy Sheringham to the equally key additions in terms of promotion and beyond in Matty Taylor and Svetoslav Todorov, all in his first spell in charge. Then there has been the shrewd acquisitioning of the likes of Kanu, Campbell, Sylvain Distin and Herman Hreidarsson on frees over the last couple of years.
In David James and Glen Johnson, his team have two leading contenders for berths in the team of the season. Niko Kranjčar and Papa Boupa Diop are very different but very useful players, while the signing of Sulley Muntari – the match-winner at Old Trafford – was a major coup.
The pièce de résistance of this wheeling and dealing was the recent addition of Jermain Defoe. The striker is cup-tied for whatever FA Cup fate befalls Redknapp’s side, but his lethal form since arriving gives me every reason to believe that, should Pompey secure the European qualification that they are so close to, then they can have a right good go at the Uefa Cup next season. Such a stage would also suit the game of the clearly talented but often underperforming John Utaka.
Last time out against United, Pompey’s defence were the heroes, with James, Johnson, Campbell and Distin all making crucial last-ditch clearances and they could be called on to do so again on Saturday. West Brom may not be as daunting opponents as The Red Devils, but they have plenty of goals in them [Kevin Phillips, Ishmael Miller, Roman Bednar, Robert Koren, Zoltan Gera - to name those who pose the most serious threat to James’ goal]. Harry will know his men will have to be on their toes again.
Pompey’s win over United was a classic smash and grab. Now, they find themselves in the position of favourites, which they are less familiar with, but surely now they cannot let the chance of glory slip. Kanu, for one, would love to knock out his old club on the way to another crack at the Cup, which he won twice as an Arsenal player.
Redknapp has taken Pompey to a new level and that achievement cannot be forgotten. David Moyes is constantly and deservedly applauded for what he has done to raise the bar at Everton, while Martin O’Neill has had nothing but plaudits in his short time at Aston Villa. The fact that Redknapp has taken a club that were playing a tier below these bigger clubs for a couple of decades and sandwiched them in between them in the top seven of the top flight says it all about how deserving he is of similar admiration.
In his time at Portsmouth, Redknapp has not been fazed by great personal slurs, nor has he taken his eye off the task at hand when large carrots, perhaps at Tottenham Hotspur and certainly at Newcastle United, have been dangled in his eyes. His guidance of the South Coast club to this stage has not lost focus and he is perilously close to that prize, with none of the usual obstacles left in his way.
Saturday’s game should mark the penultimate chapter in the story of Portsmouth’s rise under Redknapp, with the final act scheduled for May and geared to set-up a whole new story to kick off in August.
JP Lonergan (Setanta Sports)