Harry Redknapp was late in to training at Harlington on Monday morning, his trek from the south coast reduced to a crawl in the gloom of the M25. The gridlock offered time for contemplation to the swish of the windscreen wipers as the rain pattered down, though, for once, it might have been wiser to forget. Queens Park Rangers prop up the Premier League, their points tally a miserable four with over a third of the season spent. "Embarrassing," said the manager once the traffic had cleared. "This is going to be hard. A real challenge."
And yet it is one he has accepted with typical relish. It is a little over five months since Redknapp was summoned by the Tottenham chairman, Daniel Levy, and his employment terminated, a fourth-place finish having failed to yield the desired return to the Champions League. The months since had been spent on the golf course, flirting with football in an advisory role at AFC Bournemouth or in punditry, before a two-way struggle for his services flared last week. Ukraine wanted him to revive a faltering World Cup qualification campaign, potentially at England's expense. QPR's owners sacked Mark Hughes and, sensing they might lose their saviour apparent, swiftly offered up a return to the top flight. Redknapp watched his new charges muster rare resistance at Old Trafford on Saturday before they eventually succumbed to familiar failings.
Theirs is a desperate situation. A squad flung together over three splurges in as many transfer windows by two
different managers feels imbalanced, blunted by the loss of a pair of former England strikers to long-term injury and undermined by a porous defence. Rangers have not won away from home in the league for more than a year, their overall record one of weak underachievement damning an experienced squad struggling to accept life in a relegation battle. Derby accumulated only 11 points in 2007-08 but even they had more, six, at this stage of the campaign.
The 65-year-old is at least used to walking in on a crisis and has initially been a firefighter in each of his last four jobs, but his admission that this is his greatest challenge to date was telling. David Beckham sent a text on Saturday wishing him luck. Levy telephoned offering the same. He may need it.
Ideally the revival will spark at Sunderland on Tuesday, the new manager's first task to coax spirit from a team whose confidence feels brittle. "People keep saying we have a good team, but how do you only have four points at this stage?" he said. "Something's got to be lacking. It's different to Tottenham where I went eight games into the season [in 2008 when they were bottom with two points] but they had a squad full of ability. Here, we are short but we know what we have come into. We have to find a way to bring the group together and win some matches.
"They should be embarrassed by our position. You can talk to players all day and those who aren't playing will blame those who are playing. Those who are in the team will blame somebody else. But something has got to be wrong. An excellent manager has got the sack, and I've got to put this right quickly. We need effort and people having a go. I've got no time for people losing the ball and throwing their arms up in the air, or standing around with their hands on their hips. We're in a relegation battle. We've got four points. It's their fault, nobody else's. I need to see people chasing, working, running and closing down." This is back to basics though, after the year he has endured, that might just suit Redknapp.
The veteran, accompanied again by Kevin Bond and Joe Jordan, might privately be wondering how it has come to this. That is not a slight on QPR, who are an ambitious club backed by rich owners who envisaged this campaign being one of consolidation rather than toil at the foot. But, back in the early spring, Redknapp had been competing for the title. He had been considered the favourite to succeed Fabio Capello as England manager, particularly after he emerged acquitted from his tax evasion trial at Southwark crown court. And then, within weeks, it all slipped out of his grasp and he found himself cast into the wilderness.
He has tended to stay away from Premier League games since, preferring instead to pop down to the Fitness First Stadium to chat with counterparts in the lower leagues: the man who receives texts from Becks is more than happy shooting the breeze with the likes of Dagenham and Redbridge's John Still. "If I turned up at games people would think: 'What's he doing here? He's after my job.' I loved pootling along to Bournemouth, having a cup of tea with the managers. A bit of reality.
"I guess the whole year has been a bit bizarre, how it all finished up for me at Tottenham … but that's life. The day Roy [Hodgson] got the England job I didn't go and lock myself up in a room. It's only a game, only a job. The night Daniel sacked me at Spurs I didn't want to jump off the climb in Bournemouth. No grudges. I went and played golf."
That did not tally with the picture he had painted moments earlier of a manager who is "knocked for six" every time a game is lost, but such are the contradictions in Redknapp. His assertion that he had not discussed transfer targets for the mid-winter window should also be taken with a pinch of salt, though it is clear Rangers should be happy to have him. Had they dawdled, he might have been attending a press conference in Kyiv as Oleh Blokhin's replacement.
"I was excited about it and spoke to Andriy Shevchenko, and would have taken it had this not come along," he said. "Sure, the England game [in September 2013] would have been difficult. But, if I'd been in charge, it's not as if you can say: 'Oh, it doesn't matter if we don't win.' I would have been sent down the salt mines.
"But now I'm here, and I've not come for a short-term fix. I want to build a side. Look at West Bromwich Albion: it took them three or four years, but they have found players who complement each other. You can't just throw a group of players together and say: 'There's a team.' It just doesn't work that way. No, this really is a challenge." Rangers must hope the recovery is kickstarted on Wearside.
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