Reviewed: Harry’s Games: Inside the Mind of Harry Redknapp by John Crace

Win or lose, on the booze.

Harry’s Games: Inside the Mind of Harry Redknapp
John Crace
Constable, 256pp, £18.99

It was the morning after the night before. Tottenham Hotspur had experienced one of their rare and glorious Champions League triumphs, back in 2010, and I was walking to work along Ludgate Hill. The traffic had stopped and I noticed a couple of men waving frantically at a fat jeep waiting at the lights. The driver, it turned out, was Harry Redknapp and the opportunity was too rich to miss. I joined the well-wishers, and when my turn came inevitably panicked and gave the Spurs manager a cheery thumbs up.

A thumbs up! Not that Harry minded. He was waving and grinning and soaking up the good will and backslapping as though there was nowhere he would rather be than stuck in traffic being accosted by over-enthusiastic fans. As John Crace says in his new book about the jowly manager, there is something about Redknapp “that makes you feel as if you know him when you don’t; he has genuine charisma”. Most public figures shirk from encounters with the man (or woman) on the street, whereas “Redknapp gives the impression he enjoys it”.

I can’t call him Redknapp. No one can. He’s Harry (or, to be precise, ’Arry). He’s your friend, one of the boys, a wisecracking avuncular stalwart who you’d have a pint with after the game. Crace says he talks as if he knows you, “as if you’re an old mate with whom he’s sharing a confidence”. You get that feeling just watching him on television, in a post-match interview, when he ribs the journalist and almost winks at the camera. Perhaps my favourite Harry moment was after Spurs beat Man City a couple of years ago to qualify for the Champions League. In the middle of giving an interview to Sky, he starts to cower against the wall, having spotted off-camera a group of players brandishing an ice bucket, which they promptly empty over his head, on camera. Harry takes off his sodden jacket and wipes the rivulets of liquid off his head, smiling all the while. You can’t imagine Alex Ferguson reacting in quite the same way.

Crace shares the love he describes others having for Harry. His book is the work of a football fan: that devoted, tortured breed. I can’t claim to be a true fan – the game doesn’t make me feel pain or joy to that wonderful, ludicrous degree – but I’m married to one (also, like Crace and me, saddled with Spurs). There is something particularly agonised about the Spurs fan, the constant sense of near-greatness, then abject hopelessness; the annual tailing off. Spurs, if you’re not familiar, are grade-one bottlers. All this simply means that Redknapp, as a former Spurs manager, isn’t a straightforward subject for Crace, and Harry’s Game is no hagiography.

Crace’s object is to delve beneath that chirpy East End front, to discover the contradictions in the son of a docker who’d risen to great fortune. He does this not by talking to Redknapp himself but gathering evidence from those around him – the local Portsmouth reporters who followed his every move when he was manager of the club, old team-mates from his playing career, a writer who used to ghost a column for him. No one still close to Redknapp will speak on the record, so much of the book is a collage of sorts, pieced together from old interviews, recollections and quotes from Redknapp’s 1999 biography (in which, wonderfully, there’s chapter called “Win or Lose – on the Booze”, remembering his exuberant playing days at West Ham).

At times the book can feel like the result of someone trying to get dressed in the dark: a cobbled together collection of information from a mass of sources and voices. But it works: Crace succeeds in dismantling the facade of the kind of Olympic-level charmer, who even when in court for tax evasion can seduce a crowd (“this man could put a glass eye to sleep,” said Redknapp of the prosecuting QC). Detail by detail you realise that Harry is more complicated than he seems – he never really wanted to go into management and yet has been one of the most enduring managers in the Premier League; he just wants to be liked and yet has shown remarkable disloyalty to both colleagues and players over the years; he’s brilliant at signing players but bad at keeping them, or, as Crace puts it, “he doesn’t have a nose for stability”. The one consistent message of the book is his devotion to his family and his dogs (the famous Rosie, who lent her name to his suspicious Monaco bank account: “you would be a lucky man to have a wife as lovely as Rosie”).

Now Redknapp’s star has fallen somewhat. QPR, his latest club, has just been relegated and those heady days when he appeared to be a shoe-in for the England manager’s job seem remote. But, as Crace concludes, he’s still going, still managing, still Harry. “Only fans and romantics think that football is all about the glory”, he writes. “It isn’t – it is about survival”.

Rosie future: Redknapp looks on as QPR play Wigan. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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