Thursday, January 28, 2010

Harry's Game


Last week everyone’s favourite cheeky chappy, happy Harry Redknapp, admitted that Tottenham Hotspur were keen on bringing Real Madrid forward Ruud van Nistelrooy back to England, but warned that meeting the Dutchman’s wage demands could “kill the club.” It was no surprise to see Redknapp wake up during the transfer window, the time of year when his revolving door transfer policy comes into its own, nor was his interest in an over-priced player well past his best particularly unexpected, but it was simply astonishing to hear of his new-found financial prudence. After all, this is the manager who normally spends money like it isn’t his own (actually, it isn’t). In the 2009 window, he splashed £45m on five players, an amount which was only exceeded by “more money than Croesus” Manchester City.

In the past, Redknapp has argued that he should not be blamed for this “hey, big spender” approach to football management, as it was financed by the (stupid) owners. It was not his fault if they wanted to “live the dream” and funded his acquisitions accordingly. Tough luck if those dreams ended up being of the shattered variety. The money side of the game was “nuffink” to do with him. So, logically, you cannot expect Redknapp to be sympathetic about what has happened to the clubs he left behind. It’s probably just a coincidence.

"Shiny Happy People"

Whatever the reason, it’s a veritable trail of destruction for Bournemouth, West Ham, Southampton and Portsmouth, but Redknapp has stated that he does not feel responsible for the financial problems that have troubled these clubs after his departure. Bournemouth were forced into administration, suffering points deductions two seasons in a row. West Ham have undergone two changes of ownership with the recent deal with the porn barons narrowly avoiding a fire sale. Southampton suffered a similar fate, entering administration and struggling to make the payroll before being sold to a Swiss consortium. Portsmouth are perhaps in the most serious economic difficulties with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs presenting the club with a winding-up order and they have become a laughing stock as they seek investment from anyone that sounds like a wealthy Arab: Sheikh Your-Money-Maker, Sheikh It-All-About, Sheikh Rattle-And-Roll and even Sheikh n-Vac.

And what do these clubs have in common? They’ve all been saddled with a crippling wage bill for the footballing equivalent of prima donnas, lame ducks and assorted waifs and strays. If ever anybody had done his utmost to provide an unbeatable argument for a salary cap or at least a rule to limit wages as a proportion of turnover, that man would be Harry Redknapp.

Financial disaster has yet to hit Spurs, but with Jonah as their manager, it’s surely only a matter of time given his perfect record in ruining a club’s balance sheet - unless chairman Daniel Levy can keep him on a tighter leash than usual. Tottenham are already trading at a loss if you exclude player sales and I think that the days of persuading bigger clubs to spunk their money on the likes of Berbatov and Keane are long gone.

"Shirty Harry"

Droopy’s modus operandi has become horribly familiar over the years. First, you crank up the transfer merry-go-round, moving out large numbers of the existing squad, only to replace them with your own tried-and-trusted bunch of mercenaries (Pascal Chimbonda anyone?). Next, and this is crucial, you highlight how astute your transfer dealing is, for example hailing West Ham’s purchase of Liverpool’s misfiring forward Titi Camara as a coup: “I’ve got a £10m striker for £1.5m”, while conveniently forgetting to mention the ridiculously inflated salaries that are used to tempt the players into joining a second-rate team.

At a later date, you also overlook how these bargain buys actually perform on the pitch, so Camara’s record of no goals in eleven appearances for West Ham will never be discussed. The team might do well for a while, but sooner or later they will suffer from the gigantic increase in running costs and the associated rise in debt levels, and then the walls come tumbling down.

Redknapp started as he meant to go on in his first managerial role at Bournemouth, when he traded players like a South Coast version of Arthur Daley, increasing the debt from £150k in 1987 to £2.6m in 1992 (enormous for a club at this level in the early 90s). Although he made a small profit on the transfers, he drove up the salaries to a level that was to prove unsustainable. A financial advisor commented, “There was a degree of irresponsibility in his actions. It has developed into the mess we are now trying desperately to resolve.”

"Geezer!"

Given their precarious position, Redknapp’s activities at Portsmouth are also worth reviewing, as he effectively gambled the club’s future by gathering together a large squad of over-paid players. As an example, he wasted £13m on the totally unproductive forward line of John Utaka, the club’s record signing at £7m, and David Nugent, a snip at just £6m. When they were signed, Redknapp boasted, “I’m delighted with the pair of them. They will give us an awful lot up front.” At least, he was right about the awful bit, as Nugent has been loaned to Burnley after scoring a pathetic three goals, while Utaka is still a long way from reaching double figures after over fifty appearances.

Utaka is a perfect example of how Redknapp’s “strategy” damages a club, as he is paid a quite unbelievable £80,000 a week, which means that his total cost over his four-year contract is a staggering £23.6m. At his current rate of scoring, that will work out to something like £2.5m for every goal. Signings like these took Portsmouth’s annual wage bill to nearly £55m, which is around 90% of the club’s turnover (according to an investigation by the News of the World).

"Happy Harry"

As the respected former Tottenham manager David Pleat commented, “Some of the have-nots have been absolutely stupid, like Portsmouth, and have just paid for what they consider assets in the pursuit of short-term glory. A lot of clubs are loaded with players on high salaries who they would have massive problems manoeuvring to other clubs.” These costs are often funded by the club taking out loans, borrowing money against future income, sometimes with the stadium as collateral, which can be highly risky if the projected revenue stream (normally from television) does not materialise, e.g. if the club is relegated.

While Redknapp should be given credit for developing the likes of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole at West Ham, his policy is normally to buy a new player or twenty, rather than coax the best of his existing team. He has denied this, “Sometimes you get unfairly labeled in this game. I’m supposed to be a wheeler dealer, but I understand the game and maybe I don’t always get credit for that.”

It is hard not consider him a bit of a barrow boy, when he launches into his standard transfer spiel, “We’re down to the bare bones and desperately need new players.” This is usually accompanied by numerous public shows of admiration for the target with plenty of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink”, but obviously no, absolutely no tapping up. His reputation for being able to spot a player is also far from perfect, as West Ham fans would surely agree, when considering expensive flops like Marco Boogers, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, whose displays Redknapp himself described as “worth about two bob.”

"Big Mouth Strikes Again"

Possibly those who consider Redknapp a cheque-book manager are thinking of the 44 players he brought in during his first 30-month spell at Portsmouth or maybe they remember the 134 transfers he was involved in at West Ham, prompting Chairman Terry Brown to ask, “What’s Harry up to?” Fair question, given that Redknapp had thundered, “The day I would want to leave West Ham is the day we start wanting to sell the Ferdinands, the Lampards and all them”, a few short months before accepting Ferdinand’s transfer to Leeds, possibly comforted by the £300,000 bonus he himself received for the deal. This was apparently on the condition that he did not use the Ferdinand funds on transfers, which he subsequently ignored, buying just the ten players.

Imagine what managers like Harry Redknapp would have to do without the transfer window. If they weren’t able to reach into the owner’s wallet so easily, then they would have to stand or fall on their ability to coach, the quality of their preparation and the ingenuity of their tactics. At least that would give Redknapp the opportunity to make use of his enormous back-room staff. I confess to having lost track of how many coaches Spurs have now, but I believe that the lengthy list includes Kevin Bond (more of him later), Joe Jordan, Tim Sherwood, Clive Allen and Les Ferdinand. Maybe that’s why journalists are always talking about their strong bench, as they would certainly need one for that lot – especially if Tom Huddlestone is among the subs.

"All by myself"

If ever a film were made about Redknapp, it would probably focus on another aspect of his colourful career, namely the many accusations of corruption. They could call it “When Harry Met Money” or possibly “Dirty Harry”. Of course, our crafty Cockney has never been found guilty of anything and he is innocent until proven otherwise, but some malicious folk will still mutter, “no smoke without fire”. For the record, three allegations have been widely reported.

Back in September 2006, the BBC’s “Panorama” investigated football corruption, including a video of “Readies” appearing to express an interest in approaching a player illegally, though our hero told the BBC that he had never taken a bung and considered himself to be “one million percent innocent.” His assistant manager at Portsmouth, Kevin Bond, was accused in the same programme of receiving payments, which provoked him into taking legal action against the BBC. However, the corporation stood its ground, only for Bond to mysteriously drop the case just before the hearing was about to start. Nobody knows the reason for this volte-face, which seems particularly strange after all the legal costs he had incurred, but those interested in an answer could always contact Mr. Bond at Tottenham Hotspur, where he has once again been re-united with his old mucker, Harry Redknapp.

"Happy days are here again"

Along with four others, including Portsmouth Managing Director, Peter Storrie, and former Chairman, Milan Mandaric, Redknapp was actually arrested in November 2007 on allegations of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting, though he was later released without charge. With his customary chutzpah, Redknapp bizarrely claimed that being arrested somehow proved his innocence, “I’ve been answering questions to help the police. I am not directly concerned with their enquiries. They have to arrest you to talk to you, for you to be in the police station. I think that’s the end of it.”

So, imagine Redknapp’s astonishment this month, when he was informed that he would be charged with two counts of cheating the public revenue following a lengthy investigation by HMRC. This focused on allegations of unpaid tax relating to an offshore payment made to Redknapp by Mandaric. Liverpool fans greeted this announcement with their legendary Scouse wit, “You’re being taxed in the morning”, though it is not known whether the Anfield DJ played the Beatles’ classic “Taxman” during the half-time break. Whether or not Redknapp is guilty as charged, there is a moral issue about this payment, as it was apparently linked to a bonus scheme where Redknapp was given 5-10% of any profits from transfers, but it surely cannot be right to incentivise your manager to sell your best players (assets).

"Hurry Up, Harry"

There’s also a nasty smell about the strange betting patterns on Betfair prior to Redknapp’s appointment at Portsmouth, following his short-lived tenure at Southampton. An incredible £16.5m was traded on the exchange before Redknapp’s surprising return to his “spiritual home” was announced. This was obviously nothing to do with Redknapp, but eyebrows were raised.

This was just one of the many moves that Redknapp has made that have caused accusations of disloyalty. Of course, people change jobs all the time, but they don’t always profess undying loyalty before exiting stage left shortly afterwards. When he first walked out on Portsmouth, claiming that he needed a break from football, he told a reporter that he would not join their arch rivals Southampton, “I will not go down the road, no chance”, but was appointed their manager two weeks later. Similarly, when he was asked about rumours that he might quit Southampton, following the hiring of Sir Clive Woodward, England’s Rugby World Cup winning coach, as Technical Director, he boomed, “If I wanted to walk out, I would have gone in the summer”, only to resign a few weeks later. Most revoltingly, he never stopped telling people that he would stay at Portsmouth:

“Any unfulfilled dreams I have left in football can be achieved here. I turned down two exceptional offers in the last twelve months and that was a clear indication of where my heart and mind was.”

"It wouldn’t make an ounce of difference who came in for me now. This is where I belong and this is where I want to finish.”

“It would have been easy to walk away in the past year and I don’t think anyone would have had any real complaints. But, as tempting as the offers were, I couldn’t have lived with myself. There would have been a massive sense of betrayal.”

"Fans' Favourite"

Well that’s cleared that up – except that five months later, Redknapp jumped ship and headed off to Tottenham, leaving Portsmouth’s number one fan (and annoying bell ringer) John Westwood to sum up the fans’ feelings, “Every fan feels let down. When he came back from Southampton he said how much he loved the club and this would be his last job. Yet again he’s stabbed us all in the back and left us in the lurch.”

People should not be too surprised; after all, this is the man who has no compunction about rubbishing his managerial colleagues. After he returned to Portsmouth, he complained that his predecessor had left him with a useless squad, “Look what I have to work with. Some of the guys don’t even speak English. It’s ridiculous.”

Never mind his own chequered history with foreign imports, “Samassi Abou don’t speak the English too good”. When he arrived at Tottenham, he lost little time in whipping out the traditional self-serving script, “This is a football club that has been put together by I don’t know who and I don’t know how. It is a mish-mash of players. It’s scary.” And he might just have mentioned on a couple of occasions that when he took over Spurs only had two points from their first eight games …

"Blow football"

Forget other managers, what about his celebrated man management? The proverbial “arm around the shoulder” was by all accounts the main inspiration for the Spurs revival, as Harry explained, “I have just got to know them, talked to them and encouraged them.” However, not everyone at Spurs has been singing “Kumbaya” around the camp fire with Roman Pavlyuchenko complaining that Redknapp was “mocking him”, while Sunderland’s Darren Bent was understandably miffed when his manager joked that his “missus could have scored” after he had squandered an easy chance, “Even last year when I was the club’s top scorer, I never actually felt wanted.”

Nor does Redknapp appear to be in full control of his team. Apart from David Bentley’s drink driving and Ledley King’s alleged assault, his decision to not allow his team to hold a Christmas party was ignored, as the majority of his first team squad simply flew to Dublin where they went clubbing late into the night. Of course, it must be fairly difficult to take a moral line when you’re frequently in the headlines for corruption charges. That sort of undermines your authority.

One thing that football managers demand is consistency, whether it be from their players or referees, but this is a concept that has frequently challenged Redknapp. Having previously claimed that he was a “big Arsenal fan as a kid”, he altered his stance when he moved to White Hart Lane, “I followed Tottenham”. He tends to sway with the wind, so when John Hartson kicked team-mate Eyal Berkovic in the head during training, he initially dismissed the incident, “it was nothing”, before bowing to public opinion, “what he did was totally out of order, absolutely terrible.” This is one man who can “handle the truth”.

"Taxing times"

Given the tests posed by his Del Boy character, you would have thought that his lengthy career as a football manager must be justified by many great accomplishments, but in fact he has been no more successful than Peckham’s finest market trader, winning just one trophy of significance (the FA Cup) in nearly thirty years – and he virtually bankrupted Portsmouth in doing so.

He was described as Harry Houdini when he “miraculously” steered Portsmouth away from relegation, but this reputation does not really stand up to close scrutiny, as he was unable to keep Southampton in the Premier League, ending their 27-year spell in the top flight. Moreover, Portsmouth were in 16th place when Redknapp arrived and actually finished one place lower. The immediate response to Redknapp’s appointment was nine defeats in ten games, before a fine run saved them, largely thanks to significant investment from the new owner, Sasha Gaydamak, and a favourable fixture list (with two teams fielding reserve sides in advance of important FA Cup matches). In reality, Redknapp’s record was only marginally better than his much-maligned predecessor, Alain Perrin.

Of course, Redknapp is a darling of the media with his down-to-earth, “apples and pairs”, lovable rogue persona, so he invariably gets a good press, even if his managerial style is extremely predictable, as summarised in this glorious flowchart:

The newspapers also don’t appear overly concerned about the way he manipulates them, such as when he returned to Fratton Park with Spurs. Before the game, his concerns about his likely reception were quoted every day: “If people are stupid enough to shout abuse when I go back, they need their heads looking at”; “I know some idiots will try to have a go”; “The phone calls hurt. They were from sickos. People said ‘I hope you get cancer’. They are not human beings.” After the game, without a trace of irony, he stated, “The fans were as good as gold. Absolutely lovely. It all just got hyped up out of nothing.”

This is clearly a man without shame, as anyone who has had the misfortune to witness the Redknapp family’s Wii advert will attest, though this is nowhere near as bad as the hideously tacky Thomas Cook ad featuring Jamie and Louise, which has set a new low that will surely never be beaten (“We dream about it” – oh, just do one, you tight-trousered buffoon and take your has-been wife with you).

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"

Harry Redknapp has achieved relatively little in football, yet receives far more credit than he deserves. He is a sneaky, disloyal, feeble excuse for a manager, who appears to be motivated more by money than results. As he infamously said, possibly when taking in the ocean view from his palatial property in Sandbanks, “At the end of the day, no one gives a monkey’s about you once your career’s over, so in my view you should make the bucks while you can.” This is one manager for whom money is never too tight to mention.