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Redknapp finally meeting his match
The television camera trained on the manager’s dugouts at Villa Park this weekend transmitted a study in the emotional hell that can take hold at this time of year. Come the so-called “business end” of the season, when the stakes are razor sharp, it was fascinating watching the body language of Paul Lambert and Harry Redknapp, as the game swung this way and that.
The two coaches traded moments of elation and desolation. They were living on the edge of their fraying nerves. There was an enormous weight riding on this game in terms of the Premier League survial mission. You could sense the strange, desperate, nervous energy cascading around the ground, and gripping the men in charge. It was, as Lambert later put it, “electric”.
Electric for him, thanks to Villa’s match-winner and defensive resolve, to hang on. Redknapp, though, felt drained. It’s not over, QPR are not yet out of this capricious game, but it has become a familiar feeling to slip down a snake when they were pinning all their hopes on climbing a ladder. The stress is severe. People point to the high salaries managers receive in return as if that somehow makes it reasonable, but let’s face it, stress takes its toll, whether you are being well paid for it or not.
Relegation duels come with a nail-chewing, stomach-churning atmosphere all of their own, and as Redknapp lived every kick of a helter-skelter 3-2 defeat on the touchline, it mattered little that he has been here countless times before. That experience of guiding a team through stormy seas and back into the calm and sunshine is one of the reasons why QPR concentrated their efforts on bringing him in. Operation emergency. Call for Redknapp. He is an expert at this kind of thing.
His record of escapology includes rescuing Bournemouth, Portsmouth (twice) and Tottenham from unpromising situations at the bottom of the table.
The one time it didn’t work out was at Southampton, where Redknapp’s nerves were put through the mincer every week but there was no happy ending. It is hard to be massively optimistic about QPR’s prospects this time around. The manager sounded downbeat as he assessed and tried to make a promising calculation about what is now required to cling on in the Premier League. "We have to go and win away from home somewhere," Redknapp said. "We have to win at Fulham, we have to win at Reading and we have to win our home games. If we can do that, we can still stay up. It is not impossible."
On the upside, they are playing fairly well, and their run-in puts them up against plenty of teams who are in a position of relative security - neither scrapping against relegation nor battling for a European position.
But if QPR don’t make it, the rest of English football will take a deep breath and watch. It will not be an ordinary relegation. Not for a club that has spent way more than it can reasonably afford on players since new owners brought in a brand of ambition that has a worrying air of recklessness about it.
Redknapp knows all about clubs who get carried away by what can be achieved only to suffer a chronic demise when form turns and the debts need repaying. A glance at the sorry plight of Portsmouth, his former club, tells you plenty about that.
This is not to say that QPR are bound to implode if they are relegated. But it would be foolish not to be seriously concerned about the prospect of financial meltdown. They have too many players on eye-wateringly high salaries, who would be almost impossible to sell, on the books.
Redknapp was highly critical of the situation earlier in the season. "There are a lot of players at this club who earn far too much money," he said. "Far too much for their ability and what they give to the club. You shouldn’t be paying massive salaries when you have a stadium that holds 18,000 people."
As QPR headed back to London on Saturday night it was hard not to reflect on the increased distance between their position in the bottom three and the amount of points they need to make up to get above the safety line. Villa, who are currently safe, are seven points ahead. If QPR had won instead – and it really had the ingredients to be anyone’s game – the gap would have been just one point. The psychology of the relegation head-to-heads are incredibly intense.
Back in December, Villa had also punctured QPR’s balloon. The reverse fixture at Loftus Road was Redknapp’s first home introduction as QPR’s newly appointed savior.
Back then, Redknapp looked devastated that a match which everybody hoped would change the season’s course and bring an instant uplift ended up with frustration. The words he said at the time are still relevant three and a half months down the line. "It always creates anxiety when you are bottom of the league," he said. "Football is like life, it's about confidence. When things are going well you win games you don't know how you won. You think: 'We were rubbish today but we keep winning.' Sometimes you come off and you've played well but you can't get a win. That's how it goes."
Redknapp recalled how one of his manager friends had sent him a message to wish him luck, but couldn’t quite remember the exact religious metaphor that had been mentioned. "Turning fish into…" he tailed off. Turning water into wine? The feeding of the 5000? "Something like that," replied Redknapp.
QPR are still searching for miracles.
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