Updated: May 10
John Crace sets the book up succinctly in his intro, saying “Traditional methods of biography hadn’t really come close to pinning Redknapp down”, saying he remained “an elusive character in whom everyone saw the reflection that suited them”. In wondering whether he’ll succeed in the task he’s set himself, Crace hopes the journey is “fun and interesting. Just like Harry.” It is.
What people might not like about the book is that there’s a fair bit of psychological second-guessing. Where Crace talks of people “who have learned the necessary mechanisms to hide their vulnerability, and the automatic response to any new and unfamiliar situation is to avoid any possible conflict between saying whatever they feel is required; a joke, a half-truth, whatever,” you can imagine Harry responding that “he just needs to go out and fucking run around a bit”. But analysing Redknapp’s character is what this book is all about, and Crace is also enough of a football fan to keep everything grounded. And he has a distinct advantage.
Crace’s position outside the mainstream sports media means that, just as Tom Bower showed when he examined the rather larger subject of football’s finances in Broken Dreams, he is able to take a more measured perspective. Indeed, there’s a telling snippet in the introduction when Crace quotes one contact saying he won’t go on the record because “I work in this world, I’ve got to live with these people”.
Harry’s career in management is looked at in depth, with Harry’s playing days also taken into account. Crace combines his own observations with interviews with figures in the game, most of whom won’t go on the record, plus reporters, fans and other observers of Redknapp’s career at all his clubs. I should disclose here that I’m one of those quoted, on the record.
What comes out is, if not exactly affectionate, sympathetic. Football’s a brutal, thankless industry, and Crace acknowledges that much of what Redknapp does is survival, self-preservation, the nous needed to survive and to make a living. But he also shows why these very tendencies can drive those around Redknapp nuts. So there are plenty of examples of Redknapp saying one thing one minute and then completely the opposite the next – both with equal conviction and apparently no conception that there might be any issue.
At Portsmouth, for example, he said “I mean it this time, This is my last job. I feel comfortable here.” Seven months later he left. There was speculation he might go to bitter rivals Southampton. “I will not be going down the road. No chance,” he said. Two weeks later he was manager of Southampton.
There are some uncomfortable, but necessary, questions raised about the circumstances in which Redknapp got the manager’s jobs at West Ham and Portsmouth (the first time). Because Redknapp won’t like them, that doesn’t mean they are questions that shouldn’t be asked.
It seems everything Harry says is true when he says it. It’s just that circumstances change. The issue is perhaps not with Redknapp, but with a sports media that tends to reproduce everything he says as gospel without employing that essential element of professional cynicism. ‘But Harry gives good quote’ seems to be the stock response, but just reproducing quotes without examining context and background is not so much journalism as plain lazy.
Redknapp’s tendency to say something without thinking of the consequences is examined. One example that sticks out is him laying into Darren Bent after a particularly bad miss for Spurs by saying “My missus could have scored that.” Quite how that was supposed to motivate the increasingly wretched Bent is anyone’s guess but, as Redknapp also liked to point out, us fans know nothing. Reading the book, though, there are serious question marks over Redknapp’s ability to man-manage those players outside a close circle of favourites.
As Crace also shows, Harry is not as daft as he likes people to think. He’s more than capable of deploying a killer line, perhaps nowhere more effectively than when assuring the press he had no problem with the appointment of Clive Woodward as director of football at Southampton. “There has not been one problem, ” Redknapp said. “Clive is a high profile person so we know you are always going to get these stories. He’s given up rugby and wants to try his hand at football.” Never has the phrase ‘damned by faint praise’ been more apposite. His remarks earlier this season on clever managers with “70-page dossiers” spouting “bullshit that can baffle brains” came from the same school.
The book also provides a useful addition to the debate on just how good a manager Redknapp is. It acknowledges his successes while also asking whether Redknapp has been content to settle for good enough rather than being the best, whether he has always been careful to lower expectation in order that success shines more brightly. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, which is why I wasn’t too surprised when he was sacked from Spurs at the end of last season. For all that Rednapp’s media pals fulminate about how “ungrateful” Spurs were to sack their man, the suspicion will always remain that Redknapp could have done more with a fine squad at a time when the established top four were stumbling.
But what really remains after reading this book is the fact that it’s not Redknapp but the persona that’s built up around him that has been arguably his greatest problem. As Crace concludes, Harry is one of football’s great survivors, and that is an achievement in itself. Redknapp does what most of us would do, making the best of whatever situation he’s in. Whether that comes across as self-interested or astute depends on where you’re looking from, and it’s hard to condemn him for trying to survive.
But the trouble with Redknapp is that, on many occasions, he’s been made out to be what he’s not. Some of this is to do with the media’s need to fashion simple narratives about heroes and villains, some of it undoubtedly to do with Redknapp’s own willingness to feed the media image – intentionally or not. Crace’s book makes a good effort in trying to understand an enduring football character.