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By Ben Pearce, Tottenham correspondent
Friday, December 28, 2012
There is rarely a dull moment at White Hart Lane but, even by Tottenham’s standards, 2012 was more eventful than most – and Harry Redknapp and Andre Villas-Boas will probably agree as they look back over the past 12 months.
There was a court case, speculation linking the Spurs boss with the England job, a surprising managerial change, a busy summer of transfer activity and a move to a new training ground – and that is before we get to what happened on the field.
In that sense, 2012 will be remembered as the year when the Lilywhites finished fourth but still missed out on the Champions League.
With Harry Redknapp at the helm and Ledley King, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart at the spine of the team, the Lilywhites went into the year in third place and looked set for their highest ever Premier League finish.
The prospect of losing Redknapp seemed to be the only cloud on the horizon, and Tottenham went into February’s north London derby at the Emirates with a 10-point lead over Arsenal as foolish journalists (including this one) questioned how many of the Gunners’ flops would make it into Spurs’ star-studded line-up.
It proved to be horribly premature because Arsenal battled back from 2-0 down that day to triumph 5-2, cutting the gap to seven points.
Spurs never recovered and took just six points from a possible 27 between that fateful derby on February 26 and April 21, while also losing the FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea. Meanwhile, Arsenal suddenly came to life, collecting 22 points out of 30 during the same period.
Spurs had the chance to overtake the Gunners on the penultimate weekend of the campaign but were held to a costly draw at Aston Villa with 10 men – and Arsene Wenger’s side ultimately claimed third spot with a fortunate 3-2 victory at West Brom on the final day.
That left the Lilywhites at the mercy of Chelsea, who had the chance to steal Spurs’ spot in the 2012-13 Champions League and make up for their disappointing domestic campaign by winning the European crown.
What had started out as a far-fetched piece of trivia gradually became an apocalyptic scenario of Mayan proportions and, ultimately, a heartbreaking reality which rendered Spurs’ efforts in the league utterly worthless.
By then, Roy Hodgson had been selected for the England job – and Redknapp’s rollercoaster year took another twist as he was sacked by Spurs. Having seemingly had the choice of two enviable jobs, he ended up with neither.
It was a shocking turn of events given that he had secured not one but two top-four finishes in his three full seasons in charge at White Hart Lane.
The surprise of Redknapp’s exit was only compounded by the identity of his replacement – Andre Villas-Boas, who had been sacked by Chelsea a few months earlier and had left England with his tail between his legs.
The reasons for the change have never really been revealed, and the truth probably lies somewhere in a combination of factors, but there had always been tensions between chairman Daniel Levy and Redknapp when it came to the transfer market.
While it may not have been his sole motivation, it appears that Levy took the opportunity to recruit a man who shared his own ideals and would embrace the challenge of lowering the average age of the squad and making full use of the club’s new academy in the future.
Redknapp had generally seen things differently, highlighting the importance of experience and consequently signing Brad Friedel, Scott Parker, Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha in his last two transfer windows at Tottenham.
We can only imagine Levy’s reaction when Redknapp suggested that he would extend Nelsen’s deal and loan Steven Caulker out for another year, delaying the prodigious home-grown talent’s shot at earning a Spurs jersey.
Where the ruthless Roman Abramovich saw abject failure in Villas-Boas, Levy saw an unfortunate, talented young manager with an attractive set of principles, who had cost the Blues £28million the previous summer – and he was quick to take advantage of the Portuguese’s availability.
It was the start of a new area at Tottenham, with a new state-of-the-art training facility and a much-changed squad.
King retired while Modric and Van der Vaart all departed, as did the likes of Sebastien Bassong, Vedran Corluka, Niko Kranjcar and Steven Pienaar.
They were replaced by Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Hugo Lloris – although fans continue to debate whether Modric and Van der Vaart have really been adequately ‘replaced’.
The jury is still out, and the same could probably be said of Villas-Boas’ tenure thus far.
He has certainly become exceedingly popular with the majority of the fans, who are fiercely protective of their new manager and have become equally scathing about Redknapp.
But are Tottenham better placed now than they were this time last year? Look at the league table and the answer has to be no.
Spurs amassed 42 points from their first 19 league games last season and have collected 33 from the same number under Villas-Boas this time around.
For every notable triumph like the historic 3-2 victory at Old Trafford there has been a setback – the 1-0 home defeat against Wigan or the late 2-1 reverse at Everton.
While Spurs hammered Aston Villa on Boxing Day, most games are tense, tight struggles. Spurs have narrowly come out on top against the likes of QPR, Southampton, Liverpool and Swansea, but they have also been held to home draws by West Brom, Norwich and Stoke at White Hart Lane.
As the old cliché goes, there are no easy games (apart from Villa, it seems). While Spurs fans are still bathing in the afterglow of that demolition, it would be generous to suggest that that has been a typical Tottenham performance and result this season. In general, Lilywhites fans arrive in hope rather than expectation these days.
Yet Tottenham still sit fourth, because their rivals are also struggling for consistency as they adapt to their own changes.
Chelsea are in a state of flux after the departure of their talisman Didier Drogba and their latest change of management, while Liverpool are starting a long-term plan under Brendan Rodgers and Arsenal are getting used to life without their saviour Robin van Persie - the latest key man to leave the Emirates.
Everton and West Brom are surpassing themselves this season, but Spurs and their usual rivals are still finding their feet, and none of them look set to click into top gear and sail away over the horizon.
That gives Villas-Boas and his players an opportunity to grab a top-four spot in a transitional year when they could probably be forgiven for falling short.
Meanwhile, the head coach’s ambition in the Europa League has set up an enticing tie with Lyon in the last 32 – an avenue which Redknapp declined to pursue last season.
Ultimately, Spurs are probably weaker than they were at the end of 2011 - both when it comes to the starting XI and the depth of the squad.
There was no striker on the bench as Spurs sought a winner against Stoke at the Lane on Saturday and, while Dempsey is comfortable out wide, Andros Townsend is the only proper winger providing cover for Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.
However, the Levy-Redknapp partnership had become an uneasy alliance, and little can be gained in the long-term if the chairman and manager are pulling in different directions.
Tottenham may have taken a temporary step backwards by selling Modric, Van der Vaart and a host of talented squad men in 2012, but they end the year with a united hierarchy who are singing from the same hymnsheet behind the scenes, and a streamlined squad with fewer marginalised fringe players.
In the end, Spurs fans may always look back on this year – particularly May - with regret and wonder what might have been.
But, if Villas-Boas can add the necessary quality to the first team while developing a relatively young squad and building for the long-term future in the youth ranks, then Spurs fans may yet reflect that 2012 was a very successful and important year after all.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs