Harry’s Games: Inside the Mind of Harry Redknapp
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”.