Harry Redknapp: Passion still sears after 60 years
Written by Ben Dirs — August 14, 2019
THE Burton Albion defence is caught napping. Again.
Leroy Sane steals into the penalty area, crosses and Gabriel Jesus nods in to make it 2-0 to Manchester City. Harry Redknapp is not impressed. In fact, he’s furious.
“You’re taught that as a six-year-old! If someone plays a one-two, you go with the runner!”
Redknapp shakes his head and puffs out his cheeks, before adding darkly, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up 10-0”.
The game in question, January’s League Cup semi-final second leg, finishes 9-0. But it isn’t Redknapp’s ability to read the runes that impresses me most. Rather, it is his boyish passion for a football match that has no bearing on his life, a passion entirely undimmed after six decades in the game.
Sitting next to Redknapp on his plush velvet wraparound sofa, I have a breathtaking view of a sunny Poole Bay. But I haven’t noticed Redknapp drinking it in much.
If he’s not glued to the telly, flicking between the football and the racing, he’s talking football, racing or property deals on his phone. Redknapp is a welcoming host, but he is not an easy interview.
Even during the short car journey from Poole station to his modernist glass pile in Sandbanks (‘Britain’s Palm Beach’, according to the media and grateful estate agents), one caller tries to flog him two horses and another pumps him for information about an obscure Swiss defender.
Having been sent on a mission to ghost write his latest book, I’m a little bit concerned. In a café on the marina, Redknapp is received as a conquering hero.
A couple of old boys congratulate him on his recent triumph in the jungle before two young ladies on an adjacent table request a selfie. Redknapp, surprisingly spry in the flesh, boings from group to group, clearly enjoying the attention.
“If people are nice to me, I’m nice to them,” he says, glasses perched on the end of his nose as he pores over a copy of the Racing Post. “I talk to everyone. My old man was the same, he gave everyone the time of day.”
On arrival at Chez Redknapp, he introduces me to his beloved bulldogs Barney and Lulu (“I missed them almost as much as Sandra while I was in the jungle”) before pressing a button on the wall and ushering me into a lift.
“I’ve never walked up those,” says Redknapp, sticking his head out of the door and pointing at an admittedly treacherous looking glass staircase.
“How long have you lived here?” I ask.
“About three years,” he chuckles.
One subject Redknapp does enjoy talking about, other than football and racing, is the old East End. Get him on hop-picking in Kent, which passed as a summer holiday for cockneys of a certain vintage, and he becomes quite wistful.
But Redknapp’s humble roots have always been fashioned into a stick to beat him with. Countless journalists haven’t been able to resist caricaturing him as, in his words, "a cross between Del Boy and Ronnie Kray".
And, of course, a ‘wheeler dealer’, the mention of which still makes Redknapp bristle.
Read some newspaper interviews with him, littered with dropped aitches and cor blimey, guvnor clichés, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he was the first East Ender the journalist had ever encountered.
The fact that Redknapp was the subject of a five-year corruption investigation, culminating in him standing trial in 2012, convinced some that they had been right about him all along.
It didn’t matter that the jury found him not guilty, his reputation had been cemented: ‘Arry was a dodgy cockney geezer, plain and simple.
Mix in the post-match one-liners while still a manager and his ability to bring the house down as a pundit or celebrity (it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard the one about Redknapp virtually kidnapping Portsmouth transfer target Amdy Faye, locking him in a bedroom and telling them that his bulldogs would "bite his bollocks off" if he tried to escape, you can’t fail to be tickled), and the impression has formed in some circles that he is a joker (not in a good way), a dinosaur (always a favourite with his detractors) and not a serious football person.
It’s that last accusation that hurts Redknapp most.
“In this country, people make assumptions about someone purely based on the way they speak,” says Redknapp, looking genuinely wounded.
“They hear a Spaniard or German speaking English and automatically think they’re more intelligent than someone with a cockney or scouse accent. People thought I was just a motivator, with no clue about tactics. What a load of cobblers.
“Even the FA thought I was a bit of a risk. Not only had I just come out of a 15-day trial for tax evasion [when they appointed a new England manager in 2012], but the FA also look for a certain type of manager. I was considered to be a bit rough around the edges, whereas Roy Hodgson fitted their mould.”
You can’t accuse Redknapp of being rough around the edges when it comes to matters of the heart. During his victorious stint on I’m a Celebrity, he made grown men cry with his unabashed declarations of love for Sandra, his wife of 52 years.
Not what people were expecting from a 71-year-old former football manager from Poplar, if they were expecting anything. And I can happily report that his soppiness was not an act to further his celebrity.
Redknapp’s voice chokes and trails off when he speaks about Sandra’s recent illnesses, and the time a few years ago that he accidentally reversed over her ankle, “slicing it in half like a rasher of bacon”.
Sandra’s arrival on the scene, carrying two mugs of tea, instantly transforms Redknapp from distant and jaded – a raconteur on autopilot – to bright-eyed and keen.
And over a couple of glasses of wine in Rick Stein’s restaurant just around the corner, Redknapp now has someone to impress. That’s a relief for me, if not for Sandra, who has no doubt heard it all before.
When Redknapp married Sandra, he was earning £25 a week at West Ham, plus about £10 for coaching kids in local schools. All the West Ham boys mucked in, including England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore. Meanwhile, Sandra was earning £13 a week as manager of a hairdressers.
“Think about that for a moment,’ says Redknapp. “In 1967, a hairdresser could earn more than half a First Division footballer’s salary. And I was playing in front of 40,000 people every Saturday. For that to be the case now, a hairdresser would have to be earning a hundred grand a week.
“But I wasn’t unhappier back then. Remember what it was like playing with all your best mates for your school team? That’s what it was like playing for West Ham in the 1960s. Almost everyone was from East London – Geoff Hurst was about as exotic as it got, and he came from Chelmsford. We’d all played with and against each other at school, stood on the terraces with our dads at Upton Park and come through the youth team together.
"Now, a lot of players have no understanding of the football club or the fans and no interest in learning.
"They turn up, spend a season kissing the badge and sign for someone else as soon as they get the chance.”
While Redknapp concedes that football was less professional in his playing days (he tells a wonderful story about an ancient Bournemouth physio who spent months using a state-of-the-art ultrasound machine that wasn’t switched on), he believes the players were just as talented as they are now.
“Players are fitter and quicker than they used to be,” says Redknapp, “they eat better food and drink less alcohol, but they don’t have more ability. Players in my day learnt to play in the streets and had mastered a football, or tennis ball, by the time they were teenagers. It’s good to have nutritionists and what not, but that’s not going to help you kick a ball straight.”
Predictably, Redknapp is scathing about the over-reliance on computers and technology in the modern game, preferring to let his eyes be the judge.
“Technology has its place,” he says, “but you can go overboard with it. More and more, football is being run by computer experts, academics and people who can talk a good game, rather than proper football people who have played the game to a decent level and understand reality.
“I was more concerned with how my team played than what a computer told me about the opposition. Alex Ferguson was the same. When I was at Tottenham, all I was worried about was getting the ball to Gareth Bale, so he could rip to opposition to pieces. That’s got nothing to do with computers.”
Get Redknapp on youth football, and he’ll run and run. He is aghast that kids are limited in the amount of training they can do – “If Frank Lampard Jr, who wasn’t the most talented but was the hardest worker I ever saw, had been told he was overtraining, he might not have made it” – and believes talented teenagers should be playing ‘proper football’ with men in the lower leagues, rather than with less-talented teenagers on the training ground, “strolling about, passing, passing, passing, with nobody putting a proper tackle in”.
“I was playing in front of 25,000 people in FA Youth Cup games,” says Redknapp, whose West Ham side won said trophy in 1963. “And reserve team football meant something back then. The reserves were made up of eight senior players and a few kids. And that’s how kids learnt to play, by playing proper football with proper players. Under-21 and under-23 football is not proper football. And if you haven’t made it by that age, forget it.
“Nowadays, Academy kids and first team players don’t mix. When I played my first senior game in 1965, I didn’t feel intimidated, because I’d been mixing with senior players for years. I considered Bobby Moore to be a good pal of mine. The manager Ron Greenwood really cared about the kids, because he considered them to be the club’s future. That’s why West Ham had a conveyor belt of players going straight from the youth team into the first team.
“Chelsea have won the FA Youth Cup for seven of the last 10 seasons, but how many of those players have graduated to the first team? Hardly any. There’s such a waste of talent. And one of the reasons for that is because those kids aren’t learning to play proper football – men’s football – early enough.”
As a manager, Redknapp was also a great believer in the loan system. While in charge of West Ham, a young Lampard was sent out to Swansea (above), Michael Carrick to Swindon, Rio Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe to Bournemouth, Glen Johnson to Millwall. About the only one Redknapp didn’t loan out was Joe Cole, because he was on the verge of the first team at 16.
“Those that went on loan trained with players in their 30s, who they could talk to and learn from, and played against people who thought nothing about steaming into them, chopping them in two or sticking an elbow in their face,’ says Redknapp. “And they came back as better players and better people.”
On our way out of the restaurant, Harry and Sandra bump into some old family friends. Half an hour later, I find myself hugging them all goodbye. Redknapp’s sense of bonhomie is clearly infectious. Outside, Sandra discovers that Harry has secretly paid their bill. He thought they only had a couple of drinks. Giggling, Sandra points out that they actually had a three-course meal.
Back at Chez Redknapp, Sandra whips up a nice bit of pasta for the three of us and Harry and I retire to the living room for one last chat.
Redknapp maintains he doesn’t miss being in the game that ruled his life for so long. By the end (his last job was with Birmingham City in 2017), football was ‘making me a bit weary’. It had always made him depressed.
“Most managers are miserable gits,” he says. “Whenever my team lost, it was like someone in the family had died. Scary. Next time you see a manager being interviewed after a defeat, look closely at his face and it well tell you exactly what kind of weekend him and his family have got to look forward to.”
Redknapp buys and sells property, plays more golf than he used to, enjoys walking his dogs along the beach, owns a few horses and loves a day out at the races. In the autumn, he will perform a one-man show in theatres the length and breadth of the country. Redknapp in retirement is still non-stop.
But while he has taken permanent leave from football’s frontline – “I think that’s probably me done” – nothing thrills him more than watching the action from a safe distance. Seeing the flak fly, knowing it won’t hit him.
"I sit downstairs on a Sunday and watch football all day. English football, Spanish football, Italian football, African football.
“If I’m walking the dogs over the park and there’s a game on, I’ll stop and watch it. I still get the hump if I see a player doing something wrong. I also feel for a manager if I see players being lazy, because I know what it’s like to feel let down.
“I’ll be on the edge of the sofa, shouting at the telly: ‘Fuckin’ ’ell! Track back! Track back!’ It’s impossible to let go of that passion. I never will.”
On the way back to the train station, Redknapp tells me a story that Graeme Souness once told him, about his debut for Liverpool in 1978.
“Graeme was sitting in the dressing room and said to the manager, Bob Paisley, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Bob replied, ‘We paid all that money because we thought you already knew.’ Liverpool were the greatest football team in the world, but there was nothing complicated about their philosophy.”
The unspoken moral of the story is that life – or at least the game Redknapp loves so much – was less complicated back then. And better for it.
It is tempting to write Redknapp off as a hangover from a bygone age, when apprentices painted the ground in the summer, senior pros gathered balls after training and managers doled out bollockings in the changing room.
But he’s a lot more sophisticated than that. And in an age when teenagers sell for tens of millions, senior pros are already in their Bentleys when the balls are being gathered and some managers daren’t raise their voice at half-time for fear of offending, he makes a lot of sense.
- The World According to Harry was co-written by Ben Dirs and is published by Penguin.