‘Slav smoked 60 fags a day but he was fantastic for us’

Former Irons boss Harry Redknapp on the Olympic Stadium, Bilic, the West Ham way and why he’ll never rule out a return to management.

Harry Redknapp believes Slaven Bilic can lead West Ham United into a new golden period in their history. The former Hammers chief says the Croatian is the perfect man to take the club into the Olympic Stadium, and reckons the move will give West Ham the chance to compete with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. In a wide ranging interview with Blowing Bubbles Monthly, the 68-year-old insisted the Irons were right to leave Upton Park and maintained it could herald a new dawn in the club’s future.

‘People say West Ham won’t fill it but I think they will easily,’ said Redknapp, who managed at Upton Park between 1994 and 2001. ‘West Ham can attract the fans, they have a great fanbase and are a well-supported club. ‘It’s sad to see them leave Upton Park after all this time but sooner or later you have to move on. There is no room to extend the current ground and this is a great opportunity.

‘I don’t know the exact numbers involved but it sounds like the club have had an absolutely fantastic deal. It’s a very clever deal and you have to say it looks like Karren Brady and the rest of the board have done a great job.’ Critics of the move claim the new stadium, which will maintain the running track and be shared with British Athletics, will lack the atmosphere generated at Upton Park.

However, while Redknapp admits he will miss the ‘special nights’ at the Boleyn Ground he is convinced the facilities, retractable seating and size of the new stadium will more than make up for it. ‘Upton Park is, and always was, one of the great football stadiums in the country because when the crowd are in full flight singing bubbles it is fantastic,’ he added. ‘But Upton Park has changed so much over the years anyway, it is already miles away from what it was like when I first started playing there in the 1960s.

‘When I was a kid we used to clean the Chicken Run out or do a bit of painting at the end of the season. It was a tiny little stand and all wood, that original old chicken run was full of characters, East End characters if you like, and the atmosphere there was amazing in them days. ‘You’re not going to get that back whatever you do, but if they can bring the stadium in so the fans are closer to the pitch then I’m sure it will be just fine. You wouldn’t want to go back to what it used to be like at Stamford Bridge when they had the dog track as there wouldn’t be an atmosphere, but by bringing it in over the athletics track I’m sure it will be a great stadium.’

Of course, the success of the move will, in part, depend on how West Ham are performing on the pitch. It is crucial the club begins life at the Olympic Stadium in the Premier League. The man now entrusted with ensuring that happens is former Lokomotiv Moscow and Besiktas boss Slaven Bilic. The 46-year-old, who had one and a half seasons at Upton Park under Redknapp in the mid-1990s, replaced Sam Allardyce over the summer after the board decided not to renew the manager’s contract.

Redknapp admits to feeling ‘sorry’ for Allardyce, insisting that he did a good job for the Hammers during his four seasons in charge, but says once the decision to replace Big Sam was made Bilic was the outstanding candidate for the job. ‘I wasn’t surprised but I thought Sam had done a really good job there in all honesty,’ he explained. ‘I don’t think anyone could deny he had done a top job but it didn’t surprise me as when the owners didn’t renew his contract at Christmas you could tell it was heading that way.

‘I don’t know if there was something behind the scenes or what but for some reason it wasn’t right. ‘I’m pleased for Slaven though as I like him a lot. He was a great character when he played for me and I’ve seen a fair bit of him over the years since he left West Ham. He is very enthusiastic and he knows the club. ‘I think he’ll be good and it was good to see that he brought in Julian Dicks. He’ll be a big help to him and I’m thinking he will do well and I’m really hoping he does and it works out for him and the club.’

Redknapp first met Bilic in January 1996 when the player came over to train with West Ham having fallen out with Winfried Schäfer, who was then manager at Karlsruher SC where Bilic was captain. And the former Portsmouth, Tottenham and QPR boss says he knew within one hour of seeing him in practice that he wanted to sign him. ‘He came over for a couple of days to train with us,’ he recalled. ‘I wouldn’t call it a trial as we knew he was a top, established player

Redknapp first met Bilic in January 1996 when the player came over to train with West Ham having fallen out with Winfried Schäfer, who was then manager at Karlsruher SC where Bilic was captain. And the former Portsmouth, Tottenham and QPR boss says he knew within one hour of seeing him in practice that he wanted to sign him. ‘He came over for a couple of days to train with us,’ he recalled. ‘I wouldn’t call it a trial as we knew he was a top, established player already but it gave us the chance for us to have a look at him.

‘First morning he trained and within an hour I knew I wanted him. He was a voice and a leader. He organised well at the back and had loads of enthusiasm and right then I thought he would be a real good player for us. ‘Slaven was a leader but he liked his rock music, he played in a band and smoked about 60 fags a day. He was a bit of a one off. He had something about him and I always liked him. He had a warm personality and whenever I’ve seen him around the world since I have always enjoyed his company and catching up.’ While results last season were up and down, the main reason Allardyce did not have his contract renewed was that his relationship with the West Ham supporters had broken down and was beyond repair.

Another factor, of course, was the style of football, but while Redknapp acknowledges Bilic starts his new role with an enormous amount of positive support from the terraces he insists the ‘pragmatic’ new boss will not prioritise style over substance. ‘What is the West Ham way?’ asked Redknapp, rhetorically. ‘To play that kind of football you have to have the players. There is no point having Andy Carroll in your team and start playing this passing football with lots of touches around the box. If you have Andy Carroll, you have to get the ball in the box. You have to hang it up to him in the air and go from back to front.

‘If Slaven has Andy Carroll in the team I don’t think you are going to look to him to play short stuff and slide little balls in and around the box for him to run onto. ‘It is like if you have got Crouchy – I had him in a few teams and we had to mix our game up. You had to play long as well as the intricate football. It’s a balance and I’m sure Slav will look to get that right. ‘That is the key to playing entertaining football and to do that is going to need goalscorers. You need goals and you need goalscorers. It’s vital West Ham bring in the right players this summer if they want to play a more expansive game this season.’

Yet while the Hammers clearly understand the need to bring in fresh talent this summer, and big money deals for Dimitri Payet, Pedro Obiang and Angelo Ogbonna prove there is an appetite for investment, it is clear the new manager will also have to get more out of the players already at the club. And Redknapp says the work done over the pre-season campaign will be vital as Bilic tries to establish who can have a part to play in his new-look side.

‘It would have been difficult for Slaven as he was taking over a few lads who you would class as “Sam’s lads” – a few who had been around with Allardyce over the years,’ Redknapp added. ‘Slav would have soon found out who was with him or not. Any new manager finds that out fast so it doesn’t take you long to decide who you want to keep or not.

‘That said you may go in with some pre-conceived ideas about some of them and think “I don’t want him around” or “he’s trouble” or things like that. Sometimes though the players surprise you and after a week or two you change your mind and think “actually he is alright and I’d like to keep him here”. ‘As a manager you’ve got to be prepared that they will judge you very quickly and make their mind up about you quite early. You want to hit the ground running and it is important you set out how you want to work. ‘It’s important they know who is the boss and you get your message over so the players know what you expect from them in terms of discipline as well as on and off the pitch.’

Skilful man management was perhaps Redknapp’s greatest strength as a manager, and he believes it is vital a manager knows how to get the best out of the players at his disposal. ‘I quite like characters and you need a bit of character in your team,’ he added. ‘If you look at the great teams of years back you had characters and not everybody can be a nice guy. ‘Look when Paolo Di Canio came to West Ham – he was a maverick who did things his way but he was important to the dressing room.

‘You don’t want a team of choirboys and you need some rogues. Yes at times they can be hard to handle, a few who like a night out and whatnot, and you have to be on your toes with them but I’d like to think everyone can be handled even if you have to do it in different ways. ‘Going back to Slaven, he has managed at the top level, he’s beaten England at Wembley with Croatia so he’ll not have a problem making it clear to the players that this is what he expects from them.

‘I never really worried about someone not being a good lad. I knew when I took Paul Merson or Razor Ruddock that they were characters but they were good lads really. I enjoyed being with them and I still tell stories about them now. When you went home at night you laughed but dealing with those big characters is one of the big challenges that I enjoyed.’ Whether Redknapp himself will get the opportunity to handle top players again remains to be seen. The Londoner has been out of work since leaving QPR at the start of February, unable to continue the Hoops’ relegation battle as his knee required surgery.

Six months on and Redknapp insists he would be fit enough to take on a new role, but says it would have to be the right club for him to return to football. ‘I don’t know really, I honestly have no idea if I’ll work again,’ he said. ‘I’ll see what comes up, if anything. If it was something really interesting I’d be interested but otherwise I wouldn’t.

‘Physically I could manage again, no problem. I’ve been playing in a charity golf tour and I’ve been out on the course every day playing golf. I’ve enjoyed it, it has been good fun and I’ve met a lot of nice people but I played eight days on the spin for charity days and for cancer research but in the end I got a bit golfed out. ‘I’ll just wait and see what comes up and if it looks interesting I’ll take it from there. I’ve got no need to take something for the sake of it. If I want to go to work I will if I don’t I won’t. If the phone rings, it rings but if it doesn’t I have enough to do.’ Hopefully that will include watching Slaven Bilic take West Ham into that golden new era after all.

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