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Apr 29, 2006

Redknapp's final redemption

As an entire stand at the JJB Stadium reverberated to the sound of 'we are staying up', Harry Redknapp paced his technical area, seemingly a study in frustration.

Each gesture betrayed exasperation: at players seemingly ignoring his every, increasingly animated, instruction; at each decision referee Mike Riley made; at events still further beyond his control, 80 miles south at Birmingham.

And this was after Portsmouth had staged a memorable fight back to take a 2-1 lead.

As 'Harry Redknapp's Blue and White Army', a chant seemingly confined to history, was given an airing, its recipient was joined by Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond, each maniacally pointing and shouting, delivering, various, possibly conflicting orders, to their players.

It was interrupted only when each paused, hands on hips, to watch the match unfolding.

And when the final whistle blew, he took a deep breath, shook Paul Jewell's hand and turned to the directors' box, arms spread wide with the unspoken question; what was the final score at St Andrews?

Upon discovering it was Birmingham 0 Newcastle 0, enough to complete Portsmouth's great escape, Redknapp trudged towards the visiting fans - many of them invading Wigan's pitch - but, despite Dejan Stefanovic's hug, he hardly betrayed a flicker of emotion, let alone the kind of joy apparent in the Portsmouth players and supporters alike.

Redemption, however, has been secured for Redknapp; in a two-year tale of Saints and sinners, he has earned his place back in the affections of the fans at his spiritual home, Portsmouth.

By the laziest of cliches, he is officially Harry Houdini. But Harry Lazarus seems more apt.

In a relegation battle that seemed a straight fight between West Brom and Birmingham, Portsmouth have come back from the dead. With just 18 points from 28 games, they were in danger of the ultimately ignominy; finishing below Sunderland. And then they had lost eight of their previous nine games, so to take 20 points from the next nine verges on the miraculous.

Misery in the Midlands, however, will be unconfined. In one fell swoop, Portsmouth have relegated both the Blues and the Baggies.

Pedro Houdini doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but the ultimate act in escapology began with Pedro Mendes' injury-time winner against Manchester City on March 11 that started Portsmouth's revival. For a sixth win in as many weeks, Portsmouth had a still more unlikely catalyst.

For 14 games Benjani was the striker who simply could not score. In the 15th, perhaps owing his place to Lomana LuaLua's somersaulting celebration against Arsenal, he finally broke his duck.

Two key contributions from Benjani, each from about two yards, turned the game on its head and preserved Portsmouth's Premiership status. The £4.1 million signing now has one goal, but it may have been worth £25 million.

With Wigan leading 1-0, Matthew Taylor advanced through the inside-left channel, shot from an acute angle and, when it rebounded off the inside of the post, Benjani headed in from two yards.

Seven minutes later, Gary O'Neil released Svetoslav Todorov. The Bulgarian rounded Mike Pollitt and crossed from the byline. Benjani's header would have resulted in a goal but for Gary Teale's handball. Referee Mike Riley dismissed the Scot: Taylor, appearing impervious to pressure, sidefooted the penalty in.

It was a case of déjà vu for Portsmouth; last week they were trailing 1-0 to Sunderland but ran-out as eventual winners courtesy of a Taylor spot kick. Without a previous penalty in Redknapp's second reign, two have emerged at vital moments, though neither Sunderland nor Wigan had grounds for complaint.

Fortune, however, has favoured Portsmouth, whether in the shape of the weakened West Ham, Arsenal and Middlesbrough teams they encountered or, today, a disallowed goal by Henri Camara. The Senegalese striker's pace was too much for the visiting defence and the linesman alike. Released by David Thompson, he rolled his shot past Dean Kiely, but a late flag halted his celebrations.

Camara - signed by Redknapp at Southampton as a relegation fire-fighter last year - did score later in the first half, latching onto the rebound after Kiely parried Matt Jackson's header. At that stage, Wigan's right to lead was unquestioned. 'We could have gone in 5-2 ahead,' said Paul Jewell.

But in a match that epitomised their season, a Redknapp reshuffle revived Portsmouth. Off came Sean Davis, on came Noe Pamarot. Andres D'Alessandro switched to the right flank and Taylor, with a pivotal role to play in both goals, exchanged left back duties for a role in midfield.

With transfers never far from his mind, Redknapp recalled his January dealings - a £12 million investment in Benjani, Mendes, Davis, D'Alessandro, Pamarot and Kiely - as an explanation for Portsmouth's late upsurge.

'I had to throw a team together at Christmas,' he said. 'I took over a poor squad. There were players nowhere near good enough to play for Pompey. I had to shift a load of them.' It was a task he approached with relish.

'It's an incredible achievement,' he added. 'It's no good me saying 'I'm pleased for everyone else'. I'm pleased for myself.'

He objected, though, to suggestions Portsmouth had bought safety. 'Birmingham spent their money in the summer. I didn't - I took over a team who had 15 players who weren't good enough,' he insisted. Further investment, he thinks, is needed in the summer.

But will Redknapp remain at the helm? 'It's not up to me. It's up to the people that own the club. I just shook hands with Milan on a six-month deal [when he returned]. I didn't even ask what he'd pay me.' And what about a contract for next season? 'I honestly haven't thought about it.'

His future may be uncertain, but his reputation is restored.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Andres D'Alessandro
A high-class act. The Argentine, on loan from Wolfsburg, has displayed enough quality and endeavour to surely tempt offers of a permanent deal.

WIGAN VERDICT: 'All of the players can look back with pride and satisfaction but we'll have to improve in all aspects of the team,' said Jewell. They contributed greatly to a hugely entertaining game, but missed injured captain Arjan de Zeeuw. Pace at the back will be a prime requirement for Jewell in the summer.

PORTSMOUTH VERDICT: Defensively deficient and with a pair of strikers guilty of horrendous misses - Todorov's had to be seen to be believed - they nonetheless played some superb football. Redknapp has assembled an entertaining midfield and, while Birmingham and West Brom tried to grind their way to safety, the purists may savour Portsmouth's survival.

JIMMY JIMMY: Further proof that sentiment and football make for uneasy bedfellows. Paul Jewell dropped the Fulham-bound midfielder after 146 consecutive league appearances, but fears the irrepressible Bullard would be missed were unfounded. David Thompson, on a short-term contract and playing for his future, excelled at the top of a midfield diamond.

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