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Amid the fog of confusion and recrimination, suddenly a slight glow of hope has emerged at Portsmouth.
As Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion continue to flounder at the foot of the Premiership, Harry Redknapp’s side face Arsenal on Saturday seeking a third successive victory that, with neither of the West Midlands sides in action, would lift them level on points with fourth bottom and salvation.
When he left Portsmouth last season and took their bitter rivals Southampton down to the Championship, it was mischievously suggested Redknapp was operating as a double agent. When he then returned to Portsmouth halfway through this season and their form deteriorated, it seemed perhaps he was still working for Southampton but under such deep cover that he had got them relegated as a blind. Either that, or he was actually still in the pay of Bournemouth, the club with which he cut his managerial teeth 20 years ago, doing a rather brilliant job of destabilising all football on the south coast.
The decline of Redknapp’s sides seemed inexorable. When he was appointed at Southampton in December 2004, they were third from bottom; by the season’s end they had slipped two places. When he returned to Portsmouth, a year less a day after joining Southampton, they had taken 10 points from the first 15 games; but the first 13 games under him yielded only eight points.
The sense of ambivalence – anger at his betrayal coupled with relief that at least he was not as his successor Alain Perrin had been, a hapless Jerry Seinfeld lookalike who dressed like a travel rep – turned to anger. But as defeat followed defeat – and there were seven in eight games before the recent upsurge – Redknapp remained resolute, shuffling from foot to foot, staring at the floor and muttering about how hard it was to rebuild a team in January.
If he had never gone away, of course, there would have been no rebuilding to do, but that is not to deny the lunacy of Portsmouth’s transfer policy over the past year. Perrin brought in 10 players last summer, most of whom seemed as bewildered as their manager. Redknapp has made clear he was less than convinced by their quality and selected only two, Andy O’Brien and the Danish full-back Brian Priske, for Saturday’s victory over West Ham.
Redknapp himself then signed eight players, funded by new co-owner Alexander Gaydamak, against whose father Arkady Israeli police this week recommended charges of money-laundering be brought - in the January transfer window. It is hard enough for one rider to change horses midstream without an entire battalion doing it with him. Troublingly, the flagship of Redknapp’s signings, the Zimbabwe forward Benjani Mwaruwari, purchased from Auxerre for a club record £4.1m, is yet to get off the mark.
“He’s going through a difficult spell and needs to win people over,” Redknapp said. “Maybe his confidence is suffering a bit, but he looks terrific in training.”
After a poor first game, Mwaruwari looked superb at the African Cup of Nations, so the hope for Portsmouth fans must be that once he is settled he will reproduce that kind of form.
Gelling, of course, is not just a problem for Mwaruwari, although the past two victories perhaps suggest things are, for some of the recent arrivals, notably midfielder Pedro Mendes, beginning to click.
Pessimists, however, will note that the two victories have come against sides distracted by FA Cup commitments. West Ham manager Alan Pardew, with an eye on his side’s quarter-final two days later, omitted six regular first-teamers from the team that lost to Pompey last Saturday.
To their credit, neither Steve Bruce nor Bryan Robson, managers of the other two relegation-threatened sides, criticised Pardew, but it would be an injustice if they were to be relegated because of scheduling. Football, though, is rarely just.
Portsmouth would not complain – indeed, it would be in keeping with this ludicrous, tortuous season – if grace were ultimately to be bestowed by an unaccountable outside force.
A pattern, after all, is emerging: over Easter weekend they meet Middlesbrough and Charlton, who will have been tired by facing each other in their Cup quarter-final replay the previous Wednesday. Luck, it would seem, is beginning to smile on Redknapp once again.
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