Many of us in life are frequently tempted by the old ruse of “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, only to find after a while that things were not what they appeared. This seems to occur often in the soccer world as clubs constantly strive to improve only to find later that the change was for the worse rather than the better. English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur this week named ex-Chelsea boss Andres Villas Boas as their replacement for fired manager Harry Redknapp. At first glance, my thought was that the London club had taken a step back, but on second thoughts, it might not prove to be such a bad move after all.
Harry Redknapp’s managerial career has always been full of twists and turns and could never be called dull. The ex-West Ham player who had played on the same team as 1966 legends Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, cut his managerial teeth at Bournemouth and West Ham, followed by successful spells at Portsmouth and not so successful at Southampton. When he was appointed Spurs manager in 2008, the club were in a shambolic state and headed for relegation from the English Premier League. Two seasons previously, Chairman Daniel Levy had dumped Dutchman Martin Jol in favor of Juande Ramos, whose expertise had guided Spanish club Sevilla to the UEFA Cup title, the Copa Del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. Ramos’s style was seen to be an energizing force to a squad that had become sloppy during Jol’s final days at White Hart Lane, but after some initial success, things had taken a turn for the worst. Tottenham had started the 2008 season badly, a trend that would also continue under Redknapp’s reign, and were drifting just above bottom place in the League when Levy finally pulled the trigger and fired Ramos bringing in Redknapp to replace him. What followed was some of Tottenham’s finest days as the club slowly worked their way up to a level that had them embark on a rip roaring run through the Champions League Group stages two seasons ago, and also challenging for the League title last season. Redknapp’s reputation had risen to a point where he was regarded as the “best English manager” and many considered him a lock for the England job when it became available again.
However, there has always been somewhat of a dark side to Redknapp’s career that in the end, contributed to his downfall. Earlier in his career, he had caused all kinds of trouble along the South Coast of England by switching allegiances back and forth between fierce rivals Portsmouth and Southampton, followed by accusations that he had been a part of “bung” payment deals to agents in order to court favor with players he wanted to sign. Finally. last year he was forced into court accused of tax evasion by creating offshore bank accounts with former Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric. All these charges were eventually thrown out of court, but I think the damage had already been done with Chairman Levy.
Following on the back of his acquittal, Spurs had been considered as possible title challengers, or at least, a certain Champions League place qualifier for next season. They had been setting the hottest pace in the League for several months up to Christmas and only a bad start against the Manchester clubs had kept them out of first place. They had been described by Man Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson as having “a stronger squad than us”. However, rough waters lay ahead and once England manager Fabio Capello packed his bags and quit his job, Redknapp’s name was everybody’s hope to fill the vacancy. Unfortunately, that coincided with a catastrophic run of form which saw them fall way behind City and United in the title race, and finally at the end of the season, saw them lose third spot to Arsenal. Worse was to come. Their London rivals Chelsea had reached the Champions League Final and under new rules, would grab the fourth qualifying spot for next year’s competition from Spurs if they could beat Bayern Munich in the Final. We all know the rest. Redknapp still had another year left on his contract but no new deal was forthcoming as is usual in those circumstances and it seemed all too much for Levy who systematically fired Redknapp just after Chelsea’s famous victory.
Andres Villas Boas had also undergone a tumultuous season with Chelsea. Newly appointed at Stamford Bridge at the start of the 2011-2012 season following Carlo Ancelotti’s firing by Russian owner Roman Abramovich. Villas-Boas inherited an aging squad who had been successful under Ancelotti but the owner’s obsession with winning the Champions League had led to the Portuguese’s appointment following success at Porto in Portugal. Memories of Jose Mourinho were firmly at the top of every Chelsea fan’s mind as the new season started, but it was clear from the start that things were now much different. Villas-Boas recognized the squad’s reliance upon the old, crusty veterans and started to wean some of them out of their starting roles, and as a result of the player backlash, results began to suffer. Chelsea were soon off the pace at the top of the League and struggling to keep up in Europe. Player power became more resounding as resistance began to grow against his methods. Finally, in a desperate attempt to salvage a declining season, Abramovich fired Villas-Boas in March 2012. Understudy Roberto Matteo took over and immediately the older players were re-instated and results, particularly in Europe, began to turn around. We all know how it ended with Chelsea winning both the FA Cup and the Champions League trophy in the same season even though their League position left them out of the top four for the first time in years. The feeling at Chelsea was that he had tried to change too much too soon and incurred the wrath of both the players and the fans as a result.
I have always felt that if you want to fundamentally change something about your life, make sure that it’s for the better, or don’t do it at all. I know that’s easier said than done and we can never be sure of success 100% of the time, but on first impressions, this appointment of Villas-Boas to the Tottenham hot seat, looked like a move backwards. Redknapp had produced a quality squad which played intensely attractive football, and proved successful without actually winning trophies, while Villas-Boas was more of a pragmatic personality, much like his fellow countryman, Jose Mourinho. I wasn’t sure that this fit would work with the Tottenham squad, but having thought about the possibilities and having looked at what might lay ahead, I think this might just be a positive move for everyone concerned, except Redknapp of course. Tottenham had looked jaded coming down the stretch last season and their younger players seemed to lose their edge. They had some injuries to deal with but their losses to both Manchester clubs showed that they were not ready to challenge for the title just yet.
Villas-Boas will bring an element of control and focus where Redknapp had created a sense of passion and energy. Provided he can win over the fans and that he has learnt his lessons from the Chelsea debacle, he might just surprise some people. Successful teams need a little bit of all those qualities but I think given enough time, Villas-Boas will at least, keep Spurs contending, and may just take them to the next level that so many of their fans expect.