Monthly Archives: May 2012
To much excitement my ticket came through the post this morning and for the first time in 31 years I’m off to Wembley with West Ham. Although we journeyed together to Cardiff’s excellent Millennium Stadium for three consecutive years between 2004 and 2006, the League Cup final in 1981 was of a different football age. That match against Liverpool was the Hammers third visit to Wembley in two seasons following an FA Cup win against Arsenal and Charity Shield defeat to the same Anfield outfit. As an example of the different prevailing attitudes our then manager the late John Lyall (by every account a decent man) stole the next day’s headlines after he told referee Clive Thomas (a deliberately controversial referee) he’d felt “cheated” by a decision to allow an Alan Kennedy goal despite Sammy Lee lying in an offside position and interfering with play.
Not a season ticket holder at the time I’d had the presence of mind to claim tickets prior to the semi-final against Coventry via the Sunday league club I played for and unfortunately my dad and I were placed in the Liverpool end. As we watched Ray Stewart slide an injury-time extra-time equalising penalty past Ray Clemence I don’t think I would have bet on it taking over three decades for a return. I certainly wouldn’t have had any idea of the changes in the game I love in the interim. For a start it was another six years until play-offs came into being and not until 1990 were the finals played at Wembley. Even despite the present slight fluttering in my stomach which I know will slowly grow until peaking at dysenteric level some time next Saturday I believe play-offs to be inherently unfair.
Having played 46 games to decide an order of merit it is entirely perverse sides should then enter into a cup competition for promotion. As an example, my team benefited in 2005 from beating first Ipswich then Preston to gain promotion despite finishing sixth. Conversely this year’s final pits us against Blackpool, a team we beat 4-0 and 4-1 in the league. Perhaps there might be a justification if say, the top six sides played-off. But third to sixth seems arbitrary at best. The “reward” of finishing second in the table is less than our day out in Cardiff and doesn’t have the possibility of a trophy. Surely natural justice would legislate against the game of football rewarding failure in such spectacular fashion? But no, play-offs have been deemed a success by TV, and the hundreds of millions spent on Wembley need to be justified, so the FA collectively tug their forelock before counting the cash.
And let’s be absolutely clear about this, the flood of TV money since the second Taylor Report post-Hillsborough has done little for the game. Financial rewards are the highest they have ever been yet because of the huge disparity in reward between placings there has never been more debt – the Premier League alone loses close to half a billion pounds each season. Driven by the insatiable desire of supporters, clubs leverage themselves in order to grab the next rung on the ladder. So prevalent has the borrowing become any club remiss enough to keep a grip on finance is all but guaranteed a slide down the leagues – witness the recent demise of “well-run” clubs Charlton and Crewe. We are constantly told the play-off final is the “biggest prize in football” as if fans measure success in the folding stuff. The claim is of course nonsense either way – far from banking the money, boardrooms will immediately spend it on the wages of players needed to keep the side at their new level.
The ease with which competent foreign players can be bought in has led to a vicious circle of poor coaching in this country and a removal of the admittedly already waning local identity of clubs. As an example, the West Ham side that drew with Liverpool contained four home-grown players (five if you count Alan Devonshire) and seven born within the M25. In contrast, the Hammers XI that beat Cardiff in their play-off semi-final last week consisted of a notable three products of the youth team but a mere two native to London. Little surprise Canning Town-born Mark Noble’s No16 shirt is the club shop’s best seller.
For the fans who attend games the startling improvement in comfort of grounds has come at a heavy price. Although Dad and I are unlikely to forget the rivers of Scouse piss sluicing down Wembley’s rotting terraces, the cost of attending football has, in a total inversion of that which were told prior to the nascence of the Premiership, rocketed. My FA Cup final ticket of 1980 cost me £3.50 or assuming a 40-hour week just over an hours’ work at the then national average wage of £6,000. Today, even the cheapest ticket at £38 for an inferior competition would take around three hours’ work at an average wage of £26,000.
Once it was the Police who decided when games were to be played, now it’s Sky with scarcely a passing concern for supporters. This season’s away game at Brighton – pencilled in at the start of the campaign as a weekend away with or without the missus – was scheduled for a Saturday kick-off. Yet Sky moved the game to a Monday night only after tickets had been bought, travel arranged and hotels booked. So much for their doubtful advertising claim, “Football – we know how you feel about it – cos we feel the same.” Although a qualitative judgement, I doubt many who have experienced 30-years of football would say anything other than the atmosphere at games has plummeted, hence the ever more desperate attempts of clubs and TV to “sell” the game. Thankfully, the owners of West Ham have come out against pre-recorded goal celebrations – even if I suspect this to be a reprieve rather than full pardon.
As a comparison between the games that preceded it and our previous final 23 years earlier the 2004 play-off final against Crystal Palace was illuminating. It was my last match of a 56-game season – the only time I’ve been ever present throughout an entire campaign – and irrationally I felt my commitment should be rewarded with a win. However, unlike the semi-final home leg against Ipswich (brilliantly stage-managed by then manager Alan Pardew to produce an atmosphere) I felt more of a spectator than supporter. Mr Woo juggling a football prior to kick-off had nothing to do with my experience of football, nor did the various other “entertainments” on show, all of which belonged to TV. And despite the 30-odd thousand West Ham present there wasn’t any “heart” to the crowd as you get at Upton Park in the Bobby Moore Lower Stand or the gloriously named “Chav Corner” between the Alpari and Sir Trevor Brooking Stands.
Like John Lyall I felt cheated – and not least as Palace won to complete my worst day as a West Ham supporter. Worse than relegation the previous season and much worse than the shoot-out FA Cup final defeat to Liverpool two years later that didn’t feel like a loss at all. As joyous as it was to gain promotion with a play-off victory against Preston the following season, the post-match emotion was more vindication than victory. And that’s the biggest problem with play-offs – you have so much more to lose than gain.
None of which can stop me being just as excited over going to Wembley as I was 31 years ago. Maybe all this is my fault?
I was standing in the away end at the Valley, Charlton, and it was simply hosing it down as West Ham attempted to hold onto a 2-1 lead with a bit over a quarter of an hour on the clock. Despite an arthritic knee and what pace he ever possessed forever gone former Hammers hero Julian Dicks had been asked to play in an unfamiliar wingback role and was taking a chasing from Addicks right-back Danny Mills. Worse still Charlton boss Alan Curbishley, along with everybody else in the stadium, spotted Dicks’ distress and doubled up on him by bringing on substitute winger John Robinson. When I say “everybody” I mean all bar the West Ham manager. Despite having the useful French wide player Marc Keller on the bench he failed to act – Mills banged one in and Andy Hunt and Neil Redfearn grabbed a late goal each to give our South London cousins a 4-2 victory. I walked back to the car in Anchor and Hope Lane unable to believe any manager worth his name could have been so tactically inept. Soaked to the bone, angry and confused – that Saturday in October 1998 was the day I stopped believing in Harry Redknapp.
My journey with the man began almost 30 years earlier with a match at Upton Park against Stoke City. Seated with Dad in the recently opened East Stand two memories from my first ever visit to the Boleyn Ground remain. A dull 0-0 draw closed with a woman running onto the pitch to attack the referee. Off the pitch my spectator experience, as it would no doubt be called today, was enhanced by the mainly good-natured but relentless barracking of West Ham’s spindly right-winger. “Oi Redknapp! Stick yer tongue out – you’ll look like a zip”, they chortled, “How about starching that number seven on yer shirt – give yer some backbone”, they laughed. For me, versed only in primary school banter it was inexplicable how fans might not treat players as heroes. But even at nine-years-old the truth was as obvious to me as it was them. Harry was chicken.
Redknapp hung around the club for a couple of years more before coming to the same conclusion as all his “admirers” and leaving for Division Three side Bournemouth. His return came from the same club – this time in a coaching capacity and following a spell in the United States – as understudy to manager Billy Bonds while the club languished in the second tier. Following an initial struggle Harry’s presence revived the side as they played with energy and enjoyment, gained promotion and consolidated their position with a 13th place finish in the new Premier League. Bonds jumped/was pushed, Harry took over and the club established itself as a mid-table side over the next few seasons.
Even if there were obvious faults to be rectified (our away form and propensity to fall apart under pressure, for instance) Redknapp appeared to be doing a good job. His buys were astute and our home form remained solid. But Harry’s profile in the media seemed to bear an inverse relationship with his ability to manage the club. Journalists loved the crafty Cockney rent-a-quote even if in person he could be extremely brusque and quick to anger. Along with the fame came a biography and a telling insight into the man – but not in a good way. Ghosted by Derek McGovern it was little more than a series of justifications for a host of allegations many of which were never made in the first place. It was also rather, shall we say, slippery with the facts. Despite claiming to have made “no money out of football” and leaving Bournemouth £2.5million in debt he arrived at West Ham living out of Sandbanks on Poole Harbour, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country.
Fortunately the book also went a long way to confirming personality traits I would argue define his subsequent career. As yellow as he may have been on the pitch, Redknapp is ruthless on an interpersonal level and extremely difficult to deal with. Examples from the book include spats with friends Barry Fry and Peter Storrie. Even Sir Clive Woodward, author of the England rugby side’s 2003 World Cup win, found him impossible to work with as he attempted a role as Performance Director while both were at Southampton.
Club Chairman at the time Terry Brown claims in Brian Belton’s biography Brown Out Harry was tactically illiterate and relied heavily on first Frank Burrows then brother-in-law Frank Lampard. As somebody who went to a lot of away games over that period I’d echo those sentiments. Time upon time we would travel with a 3-5-2 formation – used ostensibly to accommodate a playmaker such as Eyal Berkovic or Joe Cole only for it to quickly become 5-3-2 with three static centre-halves as soon as we came under pressure. After yet another heavy defeat Harry would brush off questions about the performance with claims such as, “These lads wouldn’t know how to defend” and expect nobody to question why he had first bought then selected them. Perhaps his behaviour when “accused” of being “a wheeler and a dealer” by a Sky reporter gives us a clue?
As a motivator Harry employed a pretty simple technique. Build a large squad before dividing it into pariahs and teacher’s pets. Given his force of personality nobody would want to be on the wrong end of a Redknapp tongue-lashing. For the huge majority of players there’s nothing worse than being dropped and I’ve heard several top flight managers observe the only way to motivate them is with the threat of not playing. Multiply that by the knowledge falling out with your boss would ensure you’d never be picked and it’s a pretty useful if ruthless model. A case in point was the previously mentioned Keller – who never enjoyed a run in the team despite some very good one-off performances. Jermain Defoe would no doubt sympathise too.
Perhaps Harry’s vague association with truthfulness was a concern for the FA regarding the England manager’s appointment. When appointed West Ham boss following Redknapp’s sacking, relative unknown Glenn Roeder was asked which attribute he could bring to his new job. “Honesty” was the immediate reply, a declaration that in true Harry fashion led to a series of putdowns in the press. In reality, it was easy to see Roeder’s point, after a nasty training ground fight between Berkovic and John Hartson denied by Redknapp but filmed by Sky a case in point. From my vantage I was interested to witness a TV appearance where Redknapp claimed a whole series of events during a game against Bradford that simply never happened. A former colleague of mine worked for the Newham Recorder and shared a good relationship with H. Post-presser the cub reporter would be summoned to Harry’s office to be told. “What I said out there was a load of bollocks, this is what’s really going on…” An indication perhaps, the man is less the cheerful duffer the press would have us believe but more of a ruthless operator.
It surely can’t be coincidence that every club H has departed have been left in severe financial distress. I’m going to have to be very careful what I say here, especially as a recent court case brought by HMRC absolved Redknapp of any tax misdeeds. Suffice to say, the more money H spent at West Ham the less value we seemed to receive from it. Great signings such as Trevor Sinclair from QPR declined and were outweighed by washed-up rubbish like Titi Camara and Gary Charles. As time went by players appeared to be bought to serve not the team but agents. As an inveterate gambler Harry didn’t seem able to develop from a punt to purchasing solid players. In Tom Bower’s tome Broken Dreams Brown is said to become increasingly frustrated with his signings and offers Redknapp a proportion of any money gained above £15million for the sale of Rio Ferdinand if he would stop buying players. All of which begs the question who was signing the cheques? Scriptwriter and director Tony Grounds is a good mate and pre-match drinking buddy (not that I drink that much) I met through football and would no doubt say his Channel Four film All In The Game about a corrupt football manager had nothing to do with our West Ham. I’d merely invite you to watch it and make up your own mind.
One of Harry’s proudest boasts concerns the players he “brought through” at West Ham. Happy to claim credit for the development of Ferdinand, Frank Lampard jnr, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick – even Defoe – who played exactly 13 minutes for Redknapp – the sad truth is those players were moulded into what they were by the West Ham Academy Director Tony Carr and with the possible exception of Lampard all needed a different manager to develop.
All these things and more are known by FA committee member Trevor Brooking who was a non-executive director of the club for much of Redknapp’s tenure. So it’s hardly likely he would have been an advocate when it came to the Three Lions job. Privately Harry will be fuming. But I rather wonder if there isn’t a tiny part of him that’s glad. For the truth is, stripped of the day-to-day involvement of a football club Redknapp may well have been exposed at the top level – especially as to misquote Enoch Powell, “All managerial careers end in failure.” His honeymoon period would undoubtedly have been longer than Roy Hodgson – the man who got the job – but by God Harry wouldn’t want to lose the people who’ve been his best ally all these years – the press.