Friday, 19 November 2010

Learning to not like ‘Arry

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.

Monday, 1 November 2010

How Danny Baker changed my life

It's with much sadness that I read today's news confirming that Danny Baker is battling cancer. I'm sure we all really hope the big man pulls through. I have special reasons for adoring the guy and it feels only right to document them here.

In early 2002 I was surprised to be invited to attend an interview for a place on a journalism postgraduate course in London that I'd speculatively applied for. I rocked up to the interview feeling blasé and like I had nothing to lose. I'd ummed and erred about whether journalism was for me during my undergraduate days, and really hadn't been the most proactive person in terms of getting work placements or internships during my studies. I was about to head off backpacking and was going to London for the interview experience as much as anything.

First question: name a journalist you admire and talk about the reasons why. My mind went blank - I was not an avid reader of newspapers and spent most of my time reading about football rather than *proper*, hard subjects like news, politics and other terrifyingly grown-up things. The only name coming to mind was Danny Baker. Man alive!

I decided to run with it, and gave an impassioned five-minute speech about why Baker is a genius, an essential part of the footballing press and an inspirational user of the English language. There were initially raised eyebrows from the panel at my choice (I think most people said AA Gill, Will Self and the like) but clearly I won them over because they offered me a rare place on the course despite the rest of the interview being downright ordinary. I haven't looked back since. So thanks Dan, I really owe you one.

The love affair with Baker and his wonderful vocabulary began in childhood with his series of Own Goals & Gaffs videos and other similar releases. I was bought the first installment as a Christmas present. "Why have you bought me a video by the man from the Daz adverts?" was my baffled response to my parents. But as soon as I stuck it on, I was hooked.

I used to play Own Goals & Gaffs over and over again. I knew every sentence, in the same way that some people can quote you the entire script of Withnail & I or scenes from Spaced verbatim. The rich and florid language used by Baker, combined with his London twang, fascinated me. It was like a door had been opened in my mind: this was how to get the most out of our Mother Tongue. It was the moment in my childhood when I realised that using long or intelligent words was not simply a preserve of the pompous; it was not necessarily done to exclude the uninformed but to embrace the possibilities available in a language riddled with near-infinite possibilities.

If you haven't seen the Own Goals & Gaffs series, I would urge you to try and pick them up at the earliest opportunity, even if you have to buy them on VHS and track down something to play them on. The footage is very funny in itself, but what makes it is Baker's introduction and commentary over the clips. It would always be the small detail that caught his attention - an old man in the crowd sarcastically applauding a hairbrained own goal by his team, a bald fella falling over, a fleeting glance between goalkeeper and defender as they attempted to blame each other without moving their lips. Baker would highlight all of this minutiae to the viewer; it was delicious.

Into my teens and the Radio 5 show Baker & Kelly Upfront was essential listening. The idea of a football phone-in that spent hardly any time talking about action on the pitch, instead concentrating on every other aspect of being a supporter, perfectly summed up what it is to be a football fan in this country.

And by football fan, I mean a fan of football. Some people just support their team, and as long as they win that's all that matters. I, and I suspect most of you, have never been that way. I am a fan of the game, played in the right way and in the right spirit. And that spirit has to include humour. Without humour the game would die. Would we really pay anything from £5 to £50 to watch our team if there was no possibility of the referee falling over, a hilarious own goal, some girlish fisticuffs between foppish midfielders or - best of all - a brief floodlight failure? It is all this other stuff that Baker (and Kelly) would celebrate. And today more so than ever Baker's Saturday morning show on 5Live retains this heavy dose of the absurd. Any caller wanting to discuss the actual match action in a game is usually given short shrift in favour of a lady with an anecdote about how she knits baby booties during Reading's home matches.

But for all Baker's lovably verbose delivery, nothing makes me smile more than when a caller rings in with a beautifully silly football anecdote and Baker responds with a roaring, uncontrollable belly laugh of delight. In that moment, as you can almost hear the tears of joy rolling down his cheeks, he embodies us all, us proper football fans.

It's not about whether you win, lose or draw. It's about the last man, desperately dashing towards a ball trickling towards the goalline as a result of a squiffy back-pass, straining every sinue to get there in time, failing, and ending up in a heap with one boot stuck in the net. Wonderful. That is the game we love and the game Danny Baker brings us every single time we tune in.

Football is not about Alan Shearer telling us on Match Of The Day that a centre forward has "done great" in beating his man to a header. It's about Danny Baker asking former England captains whether they prefer red or brown sauce on a sausage sandwich.

Everything else is just noise.

Get well soon, Dan. I would say that I love you more than words but that wouldn't quite be true. I look forward to hearing more of your immaculate words soon.