Harry Redknapp could never be accused of being a toff, let alone an intellectual. Yet his autobiography, Always Managing published by Ebury Press, a book that brings his story up to date following on from an earlier book 15 years ago, has some profound observations on how football has changed in this country. It should spark debate, if not some soul searching, among those who follow the people’s game.
What Harry is mourning is how the beautiful game has turned viciously ugly compared to his youth. Growing up in the 50s you could love football, love your team yet honour the achievements of other teams even feel affection for opposition players and certainly never harbour bad feelings let alone direct vile offensive chants at them.
Harry’s father and uncle were both Arsenal supporters and he went to Highbury travelling on the 86 bus from Poplar. Redknapp junior saw some great football there including the Busby Babes at Highbury. He once told me it was the best game he had ever seen. That game featured Duncan Edwards and was the last time the Busby Babes played in this country as a week later came the Munich air disaster killing Edwards along with many of the remarkable collection of players Matt Busby had moulded into a team. As Edwards lay dying Redknapp prayed for him and his desolation when Edwards died was as great as that of any Manchester United supporter. And Redknapp was not alone, millions of football fans up and down the country felt a similar sense of loss.
And this young boy growing up in West Ham was to grow to love footballers of other London clubs. So he went as a youngster to Tottenham, then under Bill Nicholson and the first English team to do the League and Cup double in the 20the century. As Redknapp once told me, “I used to go to Cheshunt and watch John White juggling the ball for an hour during the lunch break.” White, like Edwards, was also to die tragically young, killed by lightning while playing golf.
Redknapp treasures these memories because he can contrast how things have changed now. As he says in his book, “Fans would have felt the same about any group of players. You went to a match and you’d stand and talk football with the away fans and no one would be shouting abuse or fighting and arguing. Everyone had a rattle and they just went to enjoy the game. If that sounds a rose-tinted or nostalgic memory, I’m sorry, but it’s true. It was especially brought home to me when I was shown the door by Portsmouth in 2004 and Southampton offered me the chance to go there.”
As Redknapp presents the story his decision to move to Southampton was because he had to look for work and, “Southampton were the only other Premier League club within range of where Sandra[his wife] and I lived – why shouldn’t I work for them? Why should I have to move up the other end of the country?”
But as he turned up for work on his first day at Southampton’s training ground at Marchwood contractors engaged in road works held up banners saying ‘JUDAS’, ‘SCUM’ and he writes, “a few other choice phrases. The contractors were Portsmouth boys, about 10 of them, and they were there to welcome me every morning for months. They had plenty to say, too. Even at home, there was no respite. We live on the sea and a lot of Portsmouth boys go out fishing my way. I’d be out in my garden and I would hear the unmistakable accents. ‘You f****** scum, Redknapp.'”
It is not hard to understand why Redknapp found this shocking for as put it to me a few years ago when I interviewed him, “When I was growing up I didn’t know segregation. We used to go and have a cup of tea with the fans from Preston who had travelled down. My dad would have a flask and pour out the tea. Now there is nastiness on the web. Society has changed.”
Ironically given how Redknapp was treated by Portsmouth fans I had my first indication of this nastiness coming into the game about 15 years ago when Ian Branfoot was managing Southampton. This was in the early 1990s. Branfoot was an odd ball of a manager to be sure. At one post-match conference he claimed that his Southampton side were playing the same pressing game as A.C. Milan, then the dominant side in European football. Given how his team was performing then this was a delusional statement. He followed this up by dropping Mathew Le Tissier, the darling of the Saint fans.
Yet even then I was surprised when I saw a Southampton fanzine, which had then just begun to emerge as media vehicle for fans, with a cover saying Die Branfoot Die. I just could not understand how a game of football could provoke such vile sentiments. But what was even more surprising was when I mentioned this to some of my then colleagues in the Sunday Times. Not only were they not surprised, let alone horrified, they felt this was perfectly legitimate fan views. As they saw it these fans paid their money at the turnstile and were entitled to such opinions.
Since then as Redknapp chronicles such opinions have got even more dreadful with fans shouting unspeakable chants about Hillsborough, Munich or Nazi gas chambers.
Like Redknapp I just do not know where all this comes from. Although my upbringing in Bombay could not have been more different from Redknapp’s and the Cooperage Football ground, where I went with my father and mother to watch football, a different world compared to Highbury, like Redknapp I was brought up to respect opposing teams.
Indeed in my family my father supported East Bengal, my mother Mohun Bagan, two great Indian rivals, and while I followed my father’s team there could be no thought in my head that my mother’s team was “scum”. Indeed, then in my teens, I did not know what the word “scum” meant. Yes, I enjoyed seeing East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan but I did not question the right of Mohun Bagan to be on the field of play or fail to appreciate the skills of their players. And when I came to England in the 60s I found the same attitude being told that it was common for supporters to have season tickets for both Arsenal and Tottenham and go to Highbury and White Hart Lane on alternate Saturdays. Irving Scholar, the former Tottenham chairman, whose devotion to Spurs cannot be doubted, knew many supporters with season tickets for both teams.
Like Redknapp I do not know when and how it changed but it has changed. Changed so much that now to declare your allegiance to a club is to invite abuse from supporters of rival clubs. So over the years I have had much abuse directed at me by Arsenal supporters because they know I support Tottenham. Some years ago when I was writing about the problems Arsenal were experiencing in trying to fund their construction of the Emirates stadium and how this had led to a split between David Dein and Danny Fiszman, then both on the Gunners board, I was accused of inventing things because as a Spurs supporter I must want Arsenal to fail.
The irony was my information was coming from well informed sources who were all Arsenal season ticket holders including its well regarded Supporters Trust. They were very concerned about how things were going. Subsequent events were to prove how accurate my reporting was. Yes, Arsenal moved from Highbury but they had a great many hurdles to jump over, they still have some, and as a journalist, whatever my sporting allegiance, it was my duty to report these problems.
Such abuse from Arsenal supporters got so vitriolic that when I was BBC sports editor the BBC did not want me to ever admit that I had grown up supporting Tottenham. What makes all this so idiotic is that those making these ridiculous charges do not seem to understand that you start following a team game like football, cricket or rugby by first falling in love with a team. Generally as a child you worship success and so I fell in love with Tottenham after they did the double, while my nephew fell in love with Liverpool when they dominated England and Europe in the 80s. How else do you take to sport? This then becomes part of your sporting DNA which you carry through all your life. But that does not, and should not mean, you cannot appreciate other teams or players.
In some ways the greatest irony is that modern supporters while unable to abide opposing teams, players and supporters want a return of the old days of low ticket prices and for the players to behave as if the world of the maximum wage still existed and a player’s loyalty was to one team only.
The reality is players have no loyalty to clubs and with many of them paid vast salaries they have also lost their link with the community. As Redknapp once put it to me, “We used to get on the bus and see Tommy Lawton, getting on for his first game at Everton, not being able to get a seat, standing up on the bus. Incredible. The players were part of the community.”
Now they are part of show business. Their real ties are with agents who instigate moves of players well aware that this will earn them a fat fee. And where in the past, whose passing Redknapp moans, an unhappy player would knock on the door of the manager now his agent is likely to ring the chairman and ask: why isn’t my player playing? He should be in the team.
Fans would love the old world of players staying with one club and respecting contracts to return. But will they be prepared to return to the old world of fans respecting opposing teams, players and fans? If, as I suspect, they do not then are they not being hypocritical?