Those who cannot learn from history, so the aphorism goes, are doomed to repeat it and Tottenham were taking no chances during the week. On the last occasion they were one win away from fourth place, and Champions League qualification, in May 2006, the team stayed together in a London hotel the night before their crucial encounter against West Ham, an arrangement that allowed a vomiting bug to spread, well, like a vomiting bug tends to. On Tuesday night, however, the club's players slept in their own beds and flew to Manchester on the morning of the game. There was a real risk of not being able to get airborne on account of the lurking ash cloud but they had a train booked just in case. As unlikely, and unfortunate, as another bout of nausea would have been, they were taking no chances.
It's unlikely they'll take any chances, either, when it comes to their Champions League play-off tie, due to be played in the latter weeks of August. Since last season, the qualifying stages have been divided into a 'Champions' and 'non-Champions' path and Tottenham will be in the latter alongside the likes of – as things stand across Europe – Zenit St Petersburg, Basel, Dynamo Kiev, Braga, Ajax, Sampdoria, Sevilla, Werder Bremen and Auxerre. The good news is that the draw will be seeded, with Tottenham unlikely to play the sides from Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia by virtue of their UEFA coefficient. It won't be easy but you can be certain that Harry Redknapp and Daniel Levy, Tottenham's chairman, will ensure the squad is sufficiently beefed up so that the north London club avoid the fate of Everton and other clubs from Europe's major leagues who failed to turn a fourth place finish in domestic competition one year into Champions League group stage participation the next.
Yet if Tottenham can avoid the slip, which they should, it will represent a significant shift in English football's landscape. As a club, they have spent more in net terms in the past three seasons – £75 million – than anybody other than Manchester City. Figures like those have led some to dismiss Tottenham's achievement in breaking into the Big Four (how, after all, can they be viewed as underdogs when they've spent so much?) but those who think that way are missing the point. If either one of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool were to spend £75 million over the course of three seasons they'd probably get three world class players for it, footballers who come with practical guarantees.
When Tottenham, or any club outside the Premier League's top four, spend such sums they end up with expensive possibilities from eastern Europe (Dimitar Berbatov, Luka Modric, Roman Pavlyuchenko), a gaggle of English talent that the Big Four don't want (Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Jermaine Jenas, David Bentley) and a clutch of youngsters who might or might not make it (Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Michael Dawson, Danny Rose).
In effect, clubs outside the Champions League places spend more money but get an awful lot less bang for their buck than those in the top four, precisely because the world's best players want to play in European football's premier competition. They are forced to buy in quantity, not quality, leaving a club like Tottenham scratching around to try to break into the Champions League places without actually possessing players good enough in their ranks, on paper at any rate, to achieve it. And not only that. When Tottenham have struck gold with their speculative signings, the likes of Michael Carrick and Berbatov for example, those players have been taken off them by those Big Four clubs with the carrot of Champions League football to offer. Which has left a club like Tottenham having to take more gambles with significant money to try to replace them. And so the cycle starts all over again.
Except this time, Redknapp has managed to break it. He has been helped, undoubtedly, by Liverpool's demise but he has shown some significant managerial ability to raise Tottenham from a position where they were bottom of the league 18 months ago, to a spot above all others in the chase to grab Liverpool's European passport. There have been two main branches to the 63-year-old's success, one that has reputedly earned him a seven-figure bonus. The first is his ability to get the best out of players. In the domain of sport, and this applies to practically all sports, the ability to manage people properly is a quality that is often overlooked but Redknapp has proven how crucial it can be.
In Bentley, Bale and Pavlyuchenko, the Tottenham manager inherited £40 million worth of 'talent' that was seemingly worthless to him. But over the course of the season, he has rehabilitated all three: Bentley has developed into a clever presence on the right by being encouraged to focus on the simple things; Bale's talent is now beginning to bubble to the surface after Redknapp's decision to take him out of the spotlight for six months to allow his body to fully develop; and Pavlyuchenko, having been sat on the bench for six frustrating months, has taken his opportunities on the pitch with a vigour that few knew he possessed.
There are other examples, too. The often surly attitude of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, a full-back not all that interested in football, has been indulged by Redknapp and has produced some fine performances as a result. Aaron Lennon now looks before he crosses the ball rather than simply firing it across the six-yard box, while Michael Dawson, given a leadership role by his manager this season, looks every inch an international centre-half. It might be taking things a little too far to credit Redknapp for Heurelho Gomes's rebirth but he did bring Tottenham hero Tony Parks in as goalkeeping coach in the days after he arrived at the club.
That leads to the second branch of Redknapp's success as Tottenham manager: he is not afraid to involve others in his management team. Parks sorted out the Gomes problem and in Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond, Redknapp has an assistant and a first-team coach obsessed with the tactical detail he himself is perhaps not that worried about. Bond's contribution, in particular, has stood out in recent weeks. He is, in essence, the team's defence coach and the discipline and shape that the entire side, from back to front, showed in their victories over Arsenal, Chelsea and City is down to framework he has provided for them.
In addition, Tim Sherwood has worked with the midfielders and Les Ferdinand has done two days a week with the strikers. It is a comprehensive management set-up, with many different voices involved; Redknapp deserves praise for having the confidence to employ so many good men around him, as opposed to being worried that one might usurp him.
The club are now primed to build on the position they've earned. Thumb your way down through the most recent Deloitte Football Money League – compiled at the end of last season – and you'll find Tottenham in 15th position with a turnover of £132.7 million. Go back up through the list and you'll discover that they are the highest placed team on the money list never to have competed in the Champions League. With the first sod of turf having been turned on the new training ground this year, and planning permission being sought for a new 56,000-seater stadium at White Hart Lane, the north London club – virtually debt free it must be stressed, a rarity in the league's upper echelons – have the infrastructure in place, or almost in place, to compete amongst European's elite.
Most importantly, though, after years of trying to come up with the right mix of players, and the right man to lead them, Tottenham now have a football team which mirrors their off-field potential, which should have Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal worried. Those clubs have operated under the presumption, as Liverpool did, that Champions League qualification is guaranteed but that might be about to change. Look at it this way. Man City have the money to seriously compete going forward, Liverpool will too if they can sort their ownership and managerial problems out and now, Tottenham have the tools to be challengers at the top end of the league on a regular basis. Four into four goes perfectly but six into four doesn't. Praise the end of the cartel. And let the musical chairs begin.
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