In with the old, in with the new

September 12, 2006
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Forget Groundhog Day, this was more like Groundhog Hour. For a while on transfer deadline day, it appeared that every 60 minutes, Portsmouth would sign a midfielder.

GettyImages / CliveRoseSol Campbell: Sticking the boot in.

Every stereotype of Harry Redknapp, the wheeler-dealer who occasionally rails against that image, was being reinforced.

By the time William Gallas and Ashley Cole squeezed through a closing window, Portsmouth's total of summer acquisitions was up to 10.

Rodolph Douala, Manuel Fernandes and Niko Kranjcar were the final three midfield additions, joining David Thompson and Ognjen Koroman, not to mention the January recruits Pedro Mendes and Sean Davis. Coming shortly after the British population passed 60 million for the first time, it prompted the thought that most of them were competing for places in the midfield at Fratton Park.

Besides an excess of midfielders, Redknapp's rather imperfect 10 provided a typically eclectic assortment. Kranjcar and Fernandes, two of Europe's emerging talents, stood in stark contrast to the experienced English trio of David James, Sol Campbell and Andy Cole.

If not evidence of a reverence for the elderly, Redknapp is no stranger to recruiting those in their footballing dotage.

Like many managers who appear to have a mental wish-list of ideal signings, age acts as no deterrent if it is his first opportunity to afford them. James, Campbell and Cole are the successors to Paul Merson and Teddy Sheringham at Fratton Park, who, in turn, were preceded by Stuart Pearce and Nigel Winterburn at West Ham.

Not that the merits of experience will be questioned at Fratton Park. Five thirty-somethings featured in the 4-0 thrashing of Middlesbrough. A defence bolstered by Campbell and James is the only one in England that is yet to concede. Even Kanu, another of the contingent of veterans, is among the Premiership's top scorers. Vindication has come quickly for Redknapp.

So far, it looks like a happy ending to a typically eventful summer, just as the last days of August marked a belated return to type from the transfer addict.

A reported £30 million kitty was hardly disturbed by spending which, for much of the summer, did not rise above £2 million. With money seemingly no object, Redknapp, usually found lamenting unaffordable players, adopted a different tune, bemoaning the difficulty of making signings - something of a first in a managerial career nearing 1,000 games

To his critics, Redknapp's expertise lies in exaggerating the difficulty of his situation, thus presenting his achievements in a still more favourable light. Yet the necessity of improving a squad who could not muster 40 Premiership points in either of the last two seasons is valid. The need for strengthening is not in doubt; it is the approach that is instructive.

Indeed, so clear is the distinction between the ageing Brits and youthful imports that it feels as though separate transfer policies have been spliced together.

The finances have come from the Russian-Israeli owner Alexandre Gaydamak, but whether his intention was to fund a final payday for a trio who figure highly on the Premiership roll of honour is another matter. Quite apart from the limited resale value of some of Redknapp's recruits, it hardly suggests an emphasis on the long term.

And while initial overspending tends to be a feature of footballing benefactors' regimes, Portsmouth certainly appear guilty of it. James, for instance, had expected to drop a division to secure a return to the south next summer.

Pompey may be still more culpable in the deal for Cole, apparently paid £25,000 a week at City and handed an extra year as well as a £15,000 a week pay rise to move south. It seems rather unnecessary largesse for a player who, while a consistent goalscorer, is in decline.

When he debuts, the latter could complete a £500,000 partnership strike partnership with Kanu, boasting a combined age of 64. Few would have predicted that earlier in the summer when, in the height of heady optimism, it appeared an alliance of two from Jermain Defoe, Nicolas Anelka and Yakubu was feasible

GettyImages / CliveRoseRedknapp's ability to fall out with his bosses should not be underestimated.

If Kanu's reinvention as a goalscorer is distinctly improbable and unlikely to last (he scored seven goals in 53 games for West Brom), nevertheless his skill and eccentricity mean he represents a typical target for Redknapp.

If age and low transfer fees are the principal causes of surprise surrounding the strikers, the surfeit of central midfielders is more unexpected, especially as most were recruited by Redknapp.

Mendes, whose brace against Manchester City was the catalyst for Portsmouth's surprising survival, and Davis provided an injection of strength to the spine; O'Neil, a rare homegrown talent, announced himself as a Premiership player last year.

While the new additions indicate 3-5-2 may be an option, it is also possible that Fernandes and Kranjcar, defensive and attacking players in the centre of the pitch respectively, could form an entirely new midfield axis.

Just as Portsmouth have alternative midfields, they possess an excess of managers. Gaydamak's director of football is Abraham Grant, formerly in charge of Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Israel. It all suggests an outbreak of déjà vu on the south coast: the recurring quarrels between managers and directors of football at Fratton Park dates back to Redknapp's days in the stands behind Graham Rix in the dugout.

Another interpretation is that is a battle of the superagents: Grant and Gaydamak are associated with Pini Zahavi, Redknapp with Willie McKay, supplier of French and African talent, often with an inconvenient inclination to move on.

Conflict with chairman and interference from directors of football has been a constant in Redknapp's recent history; multi-million pound investment certainly has not. With Portsmouth at their wealthiest ever and outstanding at the start of the season, Redknapp's admirers must hope this is an entirely new script. There are other precedents from the past he would not want to revisit in his personal Groundhog Day.

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