Few people divide public opinion in quite the same way as Harry Redknapp. He’s not Marmite. He’s the human equivalent of Brexit. Of late, loveable old ’Arry has been charming large parts of the population on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. In fact, he quickly became many people’s favourite to emerge from the jungle as the outright winner.
And who, apart from hard-hearted Irons’ supporters with long memories, would begrudge a former West Ham player and manager such an honour? You just knew he was going to steal the show from day one when, asked he if fancied doing some off-road driving, he declined politely by telling his team-mates: ‘People don’t trust me anymore. People used to think I was a good driver, then one day I ran over my wife. Don’t ask.
‘Don’t ask’ might well be the final, fitting, tribute that should appear on Redknapp’s headstone come that fateful day he eventually gets called to meet the general manager in the sky. There’s so much we’d all like to ask him, of course: What really happened that so upset Billy Bonds he hasn’t spoken to you for more than 20 years?
Why exactly did you open a bank account in Monaco in the name of your dog, Rosie? Was she down to the bare bones? If, as you so often claim, you and Bobby Moore were inseparable in your playing days, why does your name appear just once in the index of Jeff Powell’s definite biography of the great man – and that reference was to an incident which happened long after you’d both left the club?
Ah well, who needs answers to awkward questions when you can settle down by the camp fire and listen to one of Harry’s fantastic stories. Like the fact he has trouble recognising members of the royal family – even though he seems to find himself in their company more than most.
Over to you, H: ‘I went to physio in London. I turn up in the waiting room, reading the Evening Standard, there’s two fellas over there, stretching.
‘Suddenly, I hear, ‘Hi Harry!’ I look up, say, ‘All right, mate,’ and carry on reading the paper. I thought, I know him from somewhere – did he used to play for me? Who is he? I go up to the girl in reception and say, is that who I think it is? She said: “Yes, it’s Prince Harry”. I’ve gone, “all right, mate”, and kept on reading the paper. I thought, “Oh no”.’
Then there was the time he was with son Jamie and another member of the Windsor family. ‘I went for dinner with this girl and I didn’t catch her name,’ Redknapp says. ‘She told me her gran loved horse racing and won the Gold Cup at Ascot. I thought: “Her gran must have a couple of quid on her”. Turns out it’s the Queen, and I’m sat with Princess Beatrice.’
Sadly for Harry, the meagre dinner that is now being lowered down to him in a basket isn’t quite the fine dining he enjoys when rubbing shoulders with Her Majesty’s grandchildren. He certainly wasn’t impressed with emu. And he thought quail was a fish. He’d gone to Australia expecting to be able to get the odd bacon roll from a catering van parked discreetly round the corner in a quieter part of the jungle.
When he discovered that wasn’t the case I found myself wondering if he now regretted throwing a plate of sandwiches at Don Hutchison after a game against Southampton many years ago. Perhaps he won’t be quite so wasteful with the egg mayo in future.
Now aged 71 it’s hard to see Redknapp ever again having the chance to surprise a dressing room full of professional footballers in quite the same way he did that day. But he’ll never struggle to get work on TV. He may not be the next Robert De Niro, as he himself suggested, but the way he mastered flossing suggests there may be a spot for him on Strictly Come Dancing.
And, of course, there are endless panel shows crying out for his unique style. Would I Lie To You? has got definite possibilities (although he might want to leave Pointless to Avram Grant). I first saw H turn out in claret and blue when he was just 19. We loved him on the North Bank back in those days. ‘Harry, Harry Redknapp, Harry Redknapp on the wiiiiing’, was a regular refrain. I remember a couple of girls actually going on the pitch in an effort to give him a kiss.
It was hard to feel the same sort of affection when he became manager because of the circumstances that surrounded him getting the job. His involvement in the events that resulted in Billy Bonds’ resignation at the start of the 1994/95 season remains a matter of debate to this day.
Redknapp is adamant there was no stitch-up. Bonzo refuses to talk about it – just as he refuses to talk to his former friend and assistant. I guess we’ll never know the truth, but sometimes silence is even more eloquent than a thousand words from a chirpy Cockney.
As a manager, Redknapp always had the reputation of being an astute wheeler-dealer. But some of his purchases were better than others. Florin Raducioiu and Ilie Dumitrescu were disappointing, Paulo Futre and Hugo Porfirio were over the hill, and Marco Boogers was utterly clueless.
On the plus side, his imports included a certain Slaven Bilic, Eyal Berkovic and the excellent Marc-Vivien Foe. He made some shrewd domestic buys, as well. Trevor Sinclair, Ian Wright, Stuart Pearce, John Hartson and Christian Dailly all made their mark one way or another.
Redknapp also oversaw the introduction of some great young talent. Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard Jnr and Jermain Defoe made their debuts on his watch. His greatest coup, of course, was the signing of Paolo Di Canio – a player whose career appeared to be over but then went on to become a club legend.
And, whatever you think of Redknapp as an individual, his teams played some great football. After a shaky start, West Ham enjoyed two successful and highly entertaining seasons, finishing eighth in 1997/98 and fifth a year later – the club’s second highest position in the top flight.
We qualified for Europe and actually won the Intertoto Cup at the start of the following season. So, what should we make of Harry Redknapp after all these years?
I have a friend who has a curious taste in men. Let’s call her Alice. That’s not what she was christened, but if I used her real name I wouldn’t just end up snacking on the kangaroo gonads that occasionally appear on the Celebrity jungle menu – she’d serve me up my own on an unwashed plate.
Alice likes men she would describe as ‘dangerous’ – and others might call illegitimate sons of lady dogs. She doesn’t follow football closely, but there are two individuals who make her sit up and take an unhealthy interest in the beautiful game. One is José Mourinho. The other – you’ve guessed it – is Harry Redknapp. Need I say more?
If you enjoy Brian Williams’ regular column, look out for his two brilliant books, Nearly Reach The Sky and Home From Home.