Friday, 19 November 2010
Harry Redknapp divides opinion like few other football managers. Some see him as a straight-talking, canny, shrewd operator and a wonderful motivator of players, while others see him as over-rated, ungracious and untrustworthy. In fact, many in the latter camp have more-or-less already made up their minds that he must have been involved in some illegal activity; the odd dodgy deal or twelve over the years.
I’ve always put myself – albeit increasingly tentatively – on Redknapp’s side. This is not a fashionable point of view, particularly in recent years. As a Bournemouth fan, who started watching the Cherries in the 1988/89 season and became instantly hooked for life, Harry was something of an idol to me as a child. Redknapp, captain Mark Newson, goalkeeper Gerry Peyton, classy midfielder Ian Bishop, and talismanic striker Luther Blissett were my heroes that first season at Dean Court. They were the key men, and none of them could do any wrong in my eyes. They all seemed immaculately good at their respective jobs. Redknapp seemed so much cleverer and more earnest than most of the kick-n-rush football managers of the late 1980s. I was, in short, a big fan. But that’s started to change in recent times, and never more so than this season. But I’ll get to that later.
Let me first explain where my fondness for the man comes from. The late 1980s were a cynical time for football. Much romanticised now of course, now we’re all pining for crumbling terraces and £5 tickets, but at the time it wasn’t much fun for many football fans. Functional football was increasingly the order of the day. Huge centre backs and centre forwards would crash into each other, nippy wingers would be chopped down by hard-as-nails full backs wearing metal studs, anybody with an ounce of guile – Peter Beardsley, Kevin Sheedy, Ossie Ardiles and the like – were adored like messiahs by the fans; givers of the few moments of flair that would, once in a while, light up a muddy Saturday afternoon and make it worthwhile.
The beauty of Harry Redknapp was his ability to combine skill and toughness into one side – a quality his teams still often exhibit today. The squad contained the flair of Bishop, Sean O’Driscoll and the vastly underrated Shaun Brooks, the searing pace of Richard Cooke, but also the rugged bite-yer-legs-and-any-stray-testicles graft and occasional downright nastiness of Tony Pulis. Most of the squad could really play, including the back four, but there was that bit of steel when it was needed. You can apply this template to most Redknapp sides ever since.
He was a champion wheeler-dealer even back then. Yes, I used the phrase ‘wheeler-dealer’. What better expression is there? That’s what he is. It’s not an insult. Astute signings from the Football League such as Gavin Peacock, John Williams, Blissett and Bishop were combined with brilliant, inspired non-league discoveries like Sean Teale, Efan Ekoku and Newson (pinched from Maidstone United, under the nose of apoplectic manager Barry Fry, after Redknapp found out Newson hadn’t actually signed his contract at Maidstone – Fry telling Redknapp in response that “there'll be two blokes coming down the motorway to shoot your ****ing kneecaps off”).
Bournemouth had their highest ever league finish under Redknapp in 1989, hanging around the Second Division play-offs until late March before petering out and ending up 12th. Sadly, they were relegated the following season (minus Ian Bishop, I should add), and Redknapp would soon depart the club. In a (not widely known) moment of controversy, it emerged after his departure that Redknapp had accepted a payment of £100,000 from then chairman Norman Hayward on leaving the club. Hayward insisted the money was his own and hadn’t cost the club, but still nobody knew what the payment was for. The story caused some unrest among the fans and led to the council withdrawing a grant for car park improvements. It was to be the first of a fistful of allegations and rumours that would dog Redknapp at various times during the long managerial career he has enjoyed.
After he left Bournemouth, I continued to follow Redknapp’s fortunes with some interest. West Ham effectively became my second team for several years. Players like Bishop and Matt Holmes continued a long-standing tradition of links between the two clubs, which carried on throughout the 1990s with the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe joining the Cherries on loan, and Matt Holland and Scott Mean arriving on free transfers – much of this on Redknapp’s recommendation, no doubt.
And so there are the foundations for my liking of the man. Over the years since he left Bournemouth, I’ve defended him so many times when other football fans have been critical or taken the mick. I’ve sometimes felt that the main things he gets attacked for are slightly unfair.
The wheeler-dealer issue first. Surely the very definition of a wheeler-dealer is someone who buys and sells a lot of things, chiselling out a profit overall. Yes, he buys and sells at a rate of knots, but it’s misleading to say that he’s wasteful with money – as a lot of pub bores do. During his 27-year career as a manager the ‘spent’ and ‘recouped’ columns from his transfers are almost exactly balanced at approx £220-230 million each; if anything the ‘recouped’ total is slightly the bigger figure. That’s textbook wheeler-dealage! The bargains (Rafael Van der Vaart £8m, Sean Teale £50,000, and an honourable mention to Robert Prosinecki on a free while director of football at Portsmouth) and the stinkers (Robbie Keane £12m, John Utaka £7m, Nigel Quashie £2.1m) balance out and leave Redknapp marginally in the black.
Then there’s the twitch. People always laugh at silly old Harry with his craggy, jowly face and his ‘hilarious’ twitch. The affliction seemed to coincide with Redknapp’s recovery from a major car crash at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, in which Bournemouth’s inspirational managing director Brian Tiler was killed. Redknapp was lucky to escape from the wreckage with his life – and I’ve no recollection of him twitching before that. So as well as permanently losing his sense of smell in the crash, that twitch is a perhaps permanent reminder of the day Redknapp lost a colleague and a very close friend. It’s probably not something to make a cheap joke about.
The biggest Redknapp haters of all are probably Southampton fans – and they are perhaps the ones I do have some degree of sympathy for. He did take them down, and he couldn’t get out of St Mary’s quick enough when the chance came to return to arch rivals Portsmouth. To offer some sort of caveat, he did inherit a poor squad, where the likes of Darren Kenton and Neil McCann were getting games, and he did have Clive Woodward brought in over his head the next season – a rugby coach with no football experience. So it’s not quite as simple as dismissing him as a Judas, though it’s certainly true that he could have handled things a lot better.
But among the average football fan there has been a move towards having a go at Redknapp about every little thing he says in recent years. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people in pubs where I’ve stuck up for the guy, and it’s been getting harder to win those arguments I can tell you. It’s been a challenge not to get sucked into following the herd, and sticking steadfastly to my own feelings about the man. Until this season, that is. I’ve gone. I’ve finally cracked.
Good grief – he’s been a dislikeable sod this season, hasn’t he? It’s been a non-stop torrent of spite and selfishness. He’s declared interest in the England job (more than once) when England have a manager and he himself has a contract at Tottenham. He’s threatened to stop talking to the press after speculation he could get into hot water for some conspiratorial and disparaging comments about referee Mark Clattenburg following Nani’s controversial goal at Old Trafford against his team. He’s humiliated an interviewer live on air for using the ‘wheeler-dealer’ tag ("I'm not a wheeler and dealer – f*** off. I've not made my name as a wheeler and dealer, don't say that. I'm a f***ing football manager"). He’s blamed Spurs’ performance away at Young Boys on the artificial surface, when clearly his team defended like they’d never seen each other before. He’s winged to anyone that would listen that Man City wouldn’t loan him Craig Bellamy – why the heck should they? Would he have loaned them anyone that could help them finish above Spurs? Of course not. And when asked before the World Cup if he was interested in signing Joe Cole, he hinted in no uncertain terms that Cole already had a deal in place with another club, giving no thought to whether the player himself might want to tell the Chelsea fans that had supported him for years that he was moving on. He’s become a real fan of poking his nose into other clubs’ business, and openly discussing rumours with journalists instead of politely avoiding the questions.
So the question is: were all of you Redknapp haters right about the man all along? Or has he just become much more objectionable in recent years?
He is, of course, due back in court in the next few months – to answer charges of tax evasion along with Milan Mandaric and Peter Storrie. Which makes his status as bookies’ favourite to be the next England manager quite interesting. Obviously he’s innocent until proven guilty, but if Fabio Capello has another couple of bad results and walks, Redknapp could conceivably be convicted of the crime while in the job. Then what?
Harry Redknapp, despite spending most of his career managing middling teams, has a career win percentage of roughly 40% – no mean feat. He has the knack of getting the best out of players, particularly those that lack the intelligence to comprehend complicated tactical instructions – as recent quotes from Van der Vaart made clear. He is a wily, savvy, dogged survivor. But though it saddens me to say it – deary me, he hasn’t half turned into a bit of a tosser.