ARCHIVE: Yesterday’s Man Right For England’s Future

As one chapter closes, another opens. Just hours after being cleared of tax evasion charges at Southwark Crown Court in London – a case that dispelled accusations of financial skulduggery that have shadowed him for five years – Harry Redknapp stands alone as the clear favourite with bookmakers and the wider public to be appointed the next manager of England within the next few days following the resignation of Fabio Capello after his row with the FA over John Terry’s suspension as England captain.

Harry Redknapp

Rollercoaster: Can Redknapp go from court to manager of England in the space of a few days?

Even for a man well used to the rollercoaster nature of life as a football manager, the events of today will have had the 64-year-old Tottenham boss pinching himself. From potential disgrace in a court of law to being within touching distance of a job often referred to as the second most important in the country in the space of a single afternoon trumps anything that even he has experienced in almost 50 years in the game as a player and manager.

The relegation battles, the crossing of bitter divides and the last-minute transfer deals that have nourished his reputation as a wheeler dealer are etched across Redknapp’s face and are explicit in his character, which invokes nostalgia for a bygone age. At a time when football clubs are being increasingly dominated by nutritionists, psychologists and statistical analysts, here is a man cut from a vintage English cloth. A throwback to an age where men in camel coats and fedoras puffed on cigars in dugouts across the country in between devising deals to swap players for lawnmowers or vice versa.

The major factor in Redknapp’s success has been the force of his endearing and shrewd personality, a by-product of which is his ability as a manager of men and as a master motivator. If a poll was conducted to find which Premier League manager most fans would like to go for a few pints and a trip to the races with, you can be certain that Redknapp’s would be at the top. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the majority of those on the terraces and in the pubs close by appear happy to turn a blind eye to the accusations of financial irregularity that have seen him answer charges. He is a loveable rogue in the mould of a Trotter, despite taking up residence in Sandbanks – an area with the fourth highest average real estate value in the world – instead of Nelson Mandela House.

Yet all of this should not detract from Redknapp’s credentials for the biggest job in English football. The nurturing of several future England internationals during his spell in charge of West Ham, which also included a fifth placed finish in the Premier League in 1999, first served notice of his managerial talents. FA Cup success with Portsmouth in 2008 followed, but it has been his work with Tottenham Hotspur in recent seasons that has seen him earn broader praise at both home and abroad.

Taking over a grand old club in crisis and at the foot of the Premier League at the end of 2008, by the end of the following campaign – his first full season in charge of the squad – he had guided Spurs into the domestic top four and qualification for the Champions League. This term, his team has outshone Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool by producing the only sustained challenge over the first half of the season to the hegemony of the Manchester clubs in the current Premier League title race.

Tottenham Hotspur

Redknapp’s Spurs arguably play the Premier League’s most exciting brand of football

Redknapp has built his Tottenham on the principles of versatile attacking football, in possession of the flexibility of both patience and directness. He has nurtured and developed the abilities of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric and has added the contrasting qualities of Scott Parker and Rafael Van Der Vaart to a midfield that at its best can be mentioned in the same sentence as Barcelona’s without provoking derision. And his effective handling of the hugely talented but notoriously combustible Emmanuel Adebayor, a task seemingly beyond the capabilities of even Jose Mourinho, illustrates Redknapp’s genius as a motivator in a nutshell. England’s squad is full of talented players laden with domestic and European medals on one hand, and exciting youngsters on the other. The older generation have not only become accustomed to disappointment and underachievement, but also to playing with fear. Redknapp’s appointment would give those players the best possible opportunity to to relieve that malaise, while his record of successfully fast-tracking the careers of young footballers has been well documented.

Given the baggage that he has carried around for so long, proven or unproven, whether the naturally cautious Football Association have the courage to appoint him remains to be seen but the outcome of his trial earlier today removes a significant obstacle. The institution’s reluctance to bow to public pressure in the 1970s and employ the controversial but brilliant Brian Clough sets a worrying precedent for Redknapp’s backers. So does its failure to back Terry Venables, himself plagued by rumours of financial wrongdoing, following England’s unfortunate exit at the semi-finals of Euro 96.

The similarities between Venables and Redknapp are pointed. Both are men that have spent their careers trading on their ability to extract the maximum from the players at their disposal, and both are men that you are more likely to encounter at an East End greyhound track than at a UEFA coaching convention. In Venables’ case, that very English mixture made him the England manager that has come closest to glory at a major tournament over the last 16 years. After years of failed experimentation with foreign coaches and fashionable methods, it is time to give yesterday’s man another shot.

© Mark Robinson 2012


ARCHIVE: End Of The Affair – Emotions Run High As Benitez And Liverpool Part Company

Saint Rafa

Saint Rafa: Benitez was idolised by Liverpool fans – the feeling was mutual but after six years the relationship is over

In the end his exit was as dignified as the public politicking of the previous months hadn’t been. From a holiday villa in Sardinia, after leaving his job by mutual consent, Rafa Benitez issued a brief statement saying goodbye to a club and group of fans that he had devoted his life to over six turbulent years as manager of Liverpool FC.

During periods of extreme pressure Benitez has deployed code and riddle as both sword and shield, increasingly so at Liverpool as his grip on the club loosened in recent months, but when the end came there was no hidden message to be uncovered somewhere within his words. They revealed, ultimately, that Benitez was a man in tune with the emotions of the club’s fans. It was an understated yet deafening rebuttal to the one-time evangelists who now used their laptops and microphones for denunciation, impatient to finally press send on long-completed obituaries about a self-interested Machiavel whose biggest talent was over-selling his achievements and manipulating the club’s supporters.

“It is very sad for me to announce that I will no longer be manager of Liverpool FC,” the statement read.

“I’ll always keep in my heart the good times I’ve had here, the strong and loyal support of the fans in the tough times and the love from Liverpool. I have no words to thank you enough for all these years and I am very proud to say that I was your manager.

“Thank you so much once more and always remember: You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Often, and justifiably, accused of a lack of warmth, this parting shot did much to redeem the reputation of Benitez the man. A quick examination of the social networks revealed numerous sympathetic messages from the journalists, former players and media figures who had acted as gravediggers in the final weeks of Liverpool’s disastrous 2009/10 campaign. And on the club’s official message board, fans who had spent months calling for his head posted apologetic messages of regret almost instantly – wondering if the turmoil, hearsay and in-fighting of those final months had clouded their judgement.

It will be interesting to see how Benitez’s supporters among Liverpool’s enormous global fan base view these developments in the weeks and months that follow, as knees stop jerking, rationality replaces emotion and heads start to clear. They are a set of fans with an emotional bond to their club and city that is not surpassed anywhere in the world. This bond was strengthened by the club’s morale-boosting rise to the summit of European football in the 1970s and 80s, which coincided with an economic and social depression that the city is only just emerging from. While large sections of the population looked upon Merseyside’s problems with a combination of pity and mocking superiority, isolating and uniting it at the same time, the dominance of Liverpool FC at home and abroad was a significant source of consolation and pride.

Kop Banner

The Kop has always valued its managers higher than its players

And while supporters of other teams focus much of their idolatry on star players past and present, fans of Liverpool have always revered the club’s managers above everyone else. You will find more iconography on the Kop canonising Shankly, Paisley and Fagan than banners and flags celebrating the likes of Rush, Hansen and Barnes. And they fell harder and faster for Benitez than any of his illustrious predecessors, after he took Liverpool back to summit of European football by winning the European Cup less than 12 months after he took the job in June 2004.

After 15 years when the English league trophy – once considered part of the furniture at Anfield – had almost exclusively resided in London and Manchester, Liverpool fans believed, in vast numbers and with unprecedented conviction, that here was the man to reclaim it, and with it the club’s position as the biggest and best in the land. But despite a second-placed Premier League finish in 2009, a second European Cup final in 2007 and another semi-final in 2008, Benitez only won one more major trophy after that miraculous night in Istanbul in 2005 – the 2006 FA Cup.

The season just gone, one of the most turbulent in the club’s recent history, has proved to be his last, and it’s hard not to conclude that it was an unfitting finale to a period when he restored the club to the higher echelons of European football after almost two decades in the wilderness. Liverpool were out of the title race and the Champions League by Christmas, and out of the FA Cup a few weeks later. A consolatory, mostly laborious Europa League campaign ended at the semi-final stage; by this point the tank was almost empty, with the team’s progress fuelled only by the fumes of experience, pride and memory. The ultimate disaster was, of course, a seventh-place finish in the Premier League and failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Rafa Benitez

The 2009/10 season was a turbulent one for Liverpool and Benitez

Many neutral observers have stared disbelievingly at the Kop’s unflinching support of Benitez to the bitter end and, judging by the hundreds of people demonstrating against his sacking outside Anfield tonight, beyond. The calamities of the last 18 months were numerous but did little to dent their love for ‘the boss’. His shortcomings were glossed over because of the club’s well-documented off-field problems: a pair of owners who can’t stand to be in the same room as each other; their dragging of the club into £350m of debt, which had a handicapping effect on the manager in the transfer market; their broken promises in terms of transfer funds and the building of a new stadium; and their fruitless prostitution of the club around the world in a desperate attempt to sell the club for a massively inflated asking price.

Yet there were shortcomings, and plenty of them: the signing and selling, six months later, of £20m striker Robbie Keane – he may not have been the right type of player for Liverpool’s system (which should have been identified in the first place) but he simply wasn’t given enough time to prove his worth; the reluctance to release the shackles in the middle months of the 2008/09 season, resulting in too many drawn games and dropped points that cost the club the Premier League title; the failure retain the services of Xabi Alonso – one of Benitez’s first and most successful signings for the club – whose departure to Real Madrid came after his relationship with Benitez broke down irretrievably; the fact that Alonso was replaced with Alberto Aquilani – a gifted player, but one who was injured when he joined and was never fully fit during his entire first season at the club; tactical inflexibility, bizarre substitutions and an over-reliance on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres; the huge turnover of players in and out of the club in his six years in charge, suggesting that lots of time and money had been wasted; and, most curiously and controversially, the breakdown of the relationship between him and his current players, some of whom are being blamed for Benitez’s departure.

Aside from all of this, his relationship with owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett had been strained for some time and, whatever the justification, there is always only one winner in a power struggle between board and manager. Benitez clashed with the Liverpool owners on numerous occasions, often publicly. He knew he had the fans in his corner but that kind of currency was of limited value to a pair of owners from another continent who are utterly detached from the historical values of the club and its supporters. Their egos were never going to stand for it and there was always an underlying sense that they were biding their time to exact their revenge on a man who, rightly or wrongly, so often questioned their ability to take the club forward.

Rafa Benitez with the European Cup

Benitez couldn’t match his 2005 European Cup victory in five subsequent seasons at Anfield

So as he walks through the storm to the other side with his head held high, how will his tenure be remembered? Much will depend on the progress the club does or doesn’t make in the coming months and years. Off the field it is at the mercy of its creditors and in financial crisis. Should the owners not find a suitable buyer with deep pockets it may never recover its glorious past in England and Europe. In this instance, the Benitez years and the regular forays into the latter stages of the European Cup could be remembered as a glorious last hurrah for the club on the grand stage. If new owners are found and his successor brings the Premier League trophy back to the club then he will doubtless be cast as the last in a line of ‘nearly men’ alongside Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier.

But this would be unfair. For these reasons, all of which form part of his legacy and which separate him from the others: the victory in Istanbul – the most memorable European Cup final in the competition’s history; taking on the financial muscle of Chelsea in three consecutive major semi-finals and beating them each time; the restoration of the club’s reputation as a major European force, achieved largely through Benitez’s supreme tactical prowess in knockout ties; Torres, Alonso, Reina and Mascherano – four world class players brought to the club by Benitez; Carragher, who was transformed from journeyman full back into one of Europe’s finest centre halves by Benitez’s coaching; and Gerrard, who became the most complete midfielder in world football with Benitez’s guidance. It wasn’t all bad. Far from it.

© Mark Robinson 2010