The former Everton player has said Tottenham's style, and Harry Redknapp's approach, swayed him
At Craven Cottage tomorrow afternoon Steven Pienaar is likely to make his second appearance for Tottenham Hotspur since a £3m move from Everton this month, but the most notable thing about his transfer is not which team he left, or which one he joined, but the one he chose not to play for at all.
Chelsea were also vying for his signature, both London clubs agreeing a fee with Everton as their reigning player of the year entered the last few months of his contract at Goodison Park. Many interpreted Pienaar's subsequent decision to settle at White Hart Lane rather than Stamford Bridge a sign that the Blues' star, for all that they are Premier League champions, is on the wane.
It is nearly eight years since the arrival of Roman Abramovich and his particularly deep pockets propelled Chelsea into Europe's elite, in which time Tottenham have never – until now – been able to compete with them either for trophies or for transfers.
But if that interpretation of the deal is worrying for Chelsea, Pienaar's own assessment is damning. Speaking about the move for the first time, the 28-year-old South African suggests that he chose Tottenham not only because he believes they are now more likely to win trophies than their near-neighbours, but because Chelsea's style of play is uninspiring and their handling of the transfer was so poor that even after the club's bid for his services had been accepted they made him feel ignored and unappreciated.
"It wasn't about the money, it was about ambition," Pienaar says of his decision. "We want to fight and to play every game at the highest level and play in the Champions League and that's what I want every season, and that's why I made the decision to join Spurs."
It is a strange comment, given that Tottenham are enjoying their first season of Champions League football while Chelsea have qualified for the past eight. "The decision I made may not be the right one, but I followed my heart and prayed for the answer. Joining Tottenham was the answer," he says. "I asked a lot of people and some said go to Chelsea, some said go to Spain, some said go to Tottenham. Some may not like it but this is my decision. If I fail then it's my responsibility."
It is not, in fact, the first time that Pienaar has shunned one of English football's most successful sides. Many years ago, as he started to hone his skills at Arsenal – not Tottenham's great rivals but an amateur club in the Johannesburg suburb of Westbury – he was one of few children not to support one of England's established giants. "Most of the young boys in my neighbourhood supported Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool, but I supported Newcastle," he said. "It was Kevin Keegan's team, with Les Ferdinand and David Ginola. Back in the mid-90s Newcastle won 5-4, open games. That's why fans go to stadiums, to pay money and watch good football."
A similar swashbuckling spirit – and, perhaps, Ferdinand's presence on the coaching staff – was one of the factors that attracted Pienaar to Spurs. "I like the football Tottenham play, it's been very attractive for the past two seasons," he says. "Chelsea are a big club, they are the champions, but Tottenham are on the up and everyone can see that. Time will tell if we can do better than them, but I joined Tottenham because they are on the rise. For attacking football, they are probably the best in England. They put you on the edge of your seat. It's different class."
The final factor in making Pienaar's mind up was a perceived lack of interest from Chelsea, whose manager, Carlo Ancelotti, made no attempt to sway the decision in his favour – in contrast to Harry Redknapp.
"When a bid was accepted, Everton gave me permission so I came down to London and spoke to Harry," he said. "I wouldn't join a club without speaking to the manager and hearing what his plans are."
It is an impression that Ancelotti confirmed a few days later when he told the press: "I didn't seek for Steven Pienaar to come here. We don't need a midfielder because we have fantastic midfielders already. He was not our priority." Pienaar read the comments with interest. "Maybe that's the impression I got," he says now.
Pienaar says he has been given no assurances of his first-team place at Tottenham, but Redknapp admired the successful partnership he forged with the attacking full-back Leighton Baines on Everton's left flank and may ask him to re-create it at Tottenham with Gareth Bale, whose long-term future is likely to lie at left-back, according to his manager. An attempt to road-test the combination at Newcastle last week was foiled when Bale was injured in the opening minutes.
And so to the FA Cup, which Pienaar came close to lifting with Everton in 2009 only for Chelsea, the villains once again, to come back from Louis Saha's first-minute goal to win the final 2-1. "We were 90 minutes away but unfortunately it didn't happen," he says. "It could happen with Tottenham, it's possible, we can do it. We have to fight."
Given Pienaar's actions in recent weeks, you get the impression that few will be more inclined to do so.