When Harry Redknapp was appointed as manager at Queens Park Rangers in November 2012, it was popularly portrayed as a move that would resuscitate an ailing club. The R’s, under the leadership of Mark Hughes, had garnered four points from their opening 13 matches, and were already embroiled in a fight for Premier League survival.
With 26 games to impose his style and will on a disaffected bunch of players, Redknapp’s positive persona was deemed the perfect antidote to Hughes’ austere regime. The former Tottenham Hotspur boss, aided by a January transfer window in which he would be solidly backed by the club’s owner Tony Fernandes, had sufficient time to instigate a turnaround of the side’s fortunes.
Without any immediate ‘new manager’ bounce taking effect at the R’s, Redknapp, who upon taking over had suggested Fernandes had had ‘his pants pulled down’ over various previous deals, was given the go ahead to spend in excess of £20m on Christopher Samba and Loic Remy. Fellow high-earners, Jermaine Jenas and Tal Ben Haim, also joined the Loftus Road playing staff.
For all his efforts and investment, though, Redknapp was singularly unable to steer QPR away from trouble. His 25 Premier League matches at the helm reaped four victories, and a total of 21 points. Successive wins against Southampton and Sunderland offered a glimmer of hope, but proved nothing more than a false dawn. Rangers collapsed over the finishing line, collecting two points from their nine game run-in.
‘Persuaded’ to stay in charge following their relegation, Redknapp’s lone remit for this campaign is to steer the west London outfit back into the top flight. Samba, at a small loss, and Remy on a temporary basis, were hastily sent back out of the door. The manager also chose to dispense with – either permanently or for the forthcoming term – the unfairly maligned Jamie Mackie and, among others, Ben Haim Ji Sung-Park, Stephane Mbia, Esteban Granero, and Shaun Derry.
Just that selection of individuals, taken from a bloated and imbalanced playing roster compiled by a mix of Hughes, Redknapp and ex-boss Neil Warnock, points to a marked lack of stability or cohesion in the R’s managerial and player recruitment since 2011 – the year in which Warnock’s team achieved promotion into the Premier League.
Still unquestionably armed with one of the Championship’s strongest squads, the present boss was quickly back into the market as he sought to forge a group that could bounce back into the top tier at the first time of asking. Bolstered by his club’s receipt of the controversial competition skewing parachute payments that are bestowed on relegated clubs, Redknapp added to his ranks with a blend of trusted former allies, emerging young talents and hardened campaigners.
An overwhelming majority of Rangers’ divisional counterparts are short of the monetary clout to vie for the services of men such as Niko Kranjcar, Matt Phillips, Tom Carroll, Richard Dunne, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, and Charlie Austin. Indeed, for £4m Austin was spirited away from Burnley, the team presently posing the greatest threat to QPR’s’ automatic promotion aspirations.
The 14 goal forward’s sustaining of a shoulder injury in the week leading up to transfer deadline day, caused not only his absence from the two clubs’ meeting on Saturday, but a typical last minute Redknapp splurge on fresh blood.
On Tuesday 28th January, three days before the window shut Redknapp said:
‘The last thing you want to be (is) in a position where you are trying to bring people in on Friday. I don’t need that really. I’d rather train and go home.
‘I wish we had a squad here where everybody was fit and we didn’t need to bring anybody in. We do need to get one or two in, for sure’.
One or two, it transpired, meant five. Redknapp had been unable to resist drafting in the unattached Yossi Benayoun and Oguchi Onyewu – the latter since departed for Sheffield Wednesday after less than three months at Rangers during which he failed to make an appearance – with the market closed for unrestricted business between September and December.
It was no surprise, then, when the 66 year-old opted to go ahead with the late captures of Modibo Maiga, Will Keane, Kevin Doyle and the Brazilian Guilherme Dellatorre – all on loan and all centre forwards – to fill the stricken Austin’s boots. For good measure, Aaron Hughes agreed a short term contract to come in from Fulham and buttress the R’s defensive stocks.
Doyle and Maiga had an instant impact, both scoring in Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Burnley – a score-line at odds with the narrative of Rangers’ campaign. Redknapp’s men have the best defensive record in the Championship, conceding a mere twenty goals in their 28 outings thus far. The strike rate of a side crammed with attacking options is not so impressive. Their 36 goals scored is the poorest return from any of the top eight teams. Only Wigan and Brighton & Hove Albion in the division’s top half have hit the net on fewer occasions.
It is eleven years since a Redknapp managed Portsmouth blitzed their way to the old First Division title, in the process restoring the South Coast club to the top flight after a fifteen year absence. That promotion winning unit, inspired by the sublime Paul Merson enjoying an Indian summer in a new environment, was full of experienced heads. Pompey, playing thrilling freewheeling football, founded on the solid base provided by Hayden Foxe, Arjan De Zeuw and Gianluca Festa, romped their way through the season, scoring 96 times as they went.
The reality of today’s English second tier is a league decidedly more competitive than that which Portsmouth topped. There is money swishing about – albeit nothing to compare with Premier League income – that simply wasn’t there in 2002. More pertinently, the talent drain from the top flight, brought about by its clubs’ financial might and the subsequent influx of footballers from abroad, has resulted in Championship outfits securing players who would previously have been off limits.
Redknapp, though, even allowing for his use of a three man backline at Pompey, is adopting much the same approach in his bid to take QPR out of the Championship as he successfully employed at Fratton Park. Doughty, wily centre-halves, Dunne and Clint Hill are mainstays in the Rangers’ eleven. Full backs, Assou-Ekotto and Danny Simpson’s strengths, like Matthew Taylor in particular in that table topping Portsmouth team, lie in their attacking capabilities.
For Merson, read Kranjcar. The Croatian free spirit’s leg work is primarily carried out by Joey Barton and Gary O’Neil; the same duty fulfilled in Redknapp’s 2002/2003 line-up by Kevin Harper and Nigel Quashie for the ex-England international.
There was even in that Portsmouth team, as with Austin at Rangers, a hefty reliance on one man to prosper in front of goal. Svetoslav Todorov was Division One’s leading marksman. The Bulgarian’s 26 goal input was fourteen more than the number delivered by Merson, the player second in the club’s scoring charts.
Yet, even with gun striker Austin contributing often and decisively, something is amiss in this R’s set-up. Expected to steamroller their way back up, Redknapp’s men are instead cut adrift from leaders Leicester City, and buried deep in a real scrap with Burnley, Derby County and Nottingham Forest to grab the vital runners-up spot.
After their 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers last week – the encounter in which Austin suffered his season ending injury – Redknapp bemoaned his charges’ inability to produce any ‘fluent football’; going on to say that Rangers’ performances were becoming ‘disjointed’. The overriding plus for the boss, he stated, was the team’s capacity to emerge triumphant from ‘scrappy games’.
Nevertheless, this isn’t how it should be under the man who, when his Spurs side was captivating the nation with its pulsating football, was thrust forward as a leading candidate for the job of managing England
There have been flashes during his fifteen months in Shepherd’s Bush, of the fearless, dazzling style favoured by Redknapp. Last season, he coaxed from Andros Townsend the formidable attacking talent that had formerly lain dormant and, which now released, has the winger as a key component of Roy Hodgson’s England squad.
This term the Londoner has overseen a domineering victory over Bournemouth and, more recently, saw his side comprehensively outplay Ipswich Town at Portman Road. Those were the type of displays and results which exhibit the gulf in class that exists between QPR’s collection of players and those of the majority of their Championship rivals.
Redknapp’s record of taking Spurs to 4th, 5th and 4th placed Premier League finishes in three full campaigns at their helm is conclusive evidence of a man able to construct teams to compete at the highest level. Similarly, guiding the north Londoners to the 2011 Champions League quarter-final was a distinguished effort.
Nevertheless, the manager who led Portsmouth to FA Cup glory in 2008 had nothing tangible to show for his time White Hart Lane. Opportunity knocked; a League Cup final in 2009, and progress to the last four of the 2010 and 2012 FA Cup competitions but, on each occasion, Redknapp’s sides were found wanting. The semi-final defeats at the hands of a badly struggling Portsmouth, and then thrashed 5-1 by Chelsea, were especially sore blows.
Pursuit of silverware has been pushed to the bottom of the agenda at Loftus Road. A 4-2 humbling on their own turf by League One MK Dons in last year’s FA Cup, was followed by a home defeat against another third tier outfit, Swindon Town, in this term’s League Cup.
Redknapp’s only concern is escaping a division that he hasn’t been involved in since an unhappy spell at Southampton ended in December 2005. Unable in the preceding season to halt the Saints’ slide from the Premier League, Redknapp was in charge for four months of Championship football at St Mary’s. A team that, in common with that under his current command, struggled for goals was firmly ensconced in mid-table when he left to return to Portsmouth.
With plans established for a new stadium to cater for 40,000 supporters, and given the owner’s unremitting backing for his manager, the requirement is pressing for QPR to regain its top-flight status.
Away from the Premier League spotlight he also craves, Harry Redknapp is perhaps facing one of the biggest personal challenges of a fascinating career. How this engaging character comes through it might reveal just how good a manager he is.
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