Interview: Harry Redknapp; Director of arts and artful

West Ham's straight-talking manager is backing his judgement over enigmatic talent.
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The Independent Online

IT IS as well that Harry Redknapp's nose for bargain players is sharper than the one he employs to find his way round the West End of London. " 'Aven't got a clue," the West Ham manager says, attempting to steer his Mercedes the two miles from Oxford Street, where he has been appearing on Tom Watt's Talk Radio show, to a restaurant in the back streets of Knightsbridge.

IT IS as well that Harry Redknapp's nose for bargain players is sharper than the one he employs to find his way round the West End of London. " 'Aven't got a clue," the West Ham manager says, attempting to steer his Mercedes the two miles from Oxford Street, where he has been appearing on Tom Watt's Talk Radio show, to a restaurant in the back streets of Knightsbridge.

Frankly, the character who has done nearly 20 years of managerial "knowledge" since he started out with Bobby Moore at Oxford City would never complete the cab driver's equivalent. So he relies on a mobile phone link with Tony, a friend since childhood and now a cabbie, to navigate him round the capital.

His accomplice also helps out by ferrying Paolo Di Canio between his home and the Hammers' Chadwell Heath training ground. "At one time, when we signed a foreign player we used to just chuck them out into Essex somewhere, tell them 'That's your house' and let them get on with it," Redknapp explains. "There were all kinds of problems with the players getting lost. It makes sense to look after them."

En route to his favourite eating house - other than his own establishment, Lorenzo's, in Bournemouth - we walk past an art exhibition in a swish gallery where the wine- sipping, chattering clientele have spilled out into the street. This isn't obvious Hammers territory but, suddenly, everybody wants to talk to the man with the splendidly lugubrious features, who patiently poses for photographs and shakes hands. The fact that his autobiography, 'Arry, has sold 35,000 copies, an excellent return for non-fiction, is clear evidence that his fascination extends well beyond the environs of Upton Park.

Redknapp's appeal, other than the fact that he has generated a splendid football team on relatively limited resources, is his lack of evasiveness. On the £1.5m acquisition of Di Canio, for instance, the manager is candid enough to reveal that he manages his fragile Latin temperament with a degree of circumspection. "I do give him decisions in training," says Redknapp insouciantly. "I don't want him to blow up on me. If he thinks he's been fouled I say 'Free-kick, Paolo? No problem', even if there's some doubt. I don't want him getting up moaning at me and making a lot of what is just a silly little incident. Every day there's confrontation with players, if you look for it, but you have to let things go."

If it is suggested to him that the thick end of this particular wedge is player power and managerial impotence, he shakes his head emphatically. "To me, there's no point in having confrontation for the sake of it. Look at Ruud Gullit. Can you tell me that he was a shrewd manager in what he did to Rob Lee, who was the captain of Newcastle and Alan Shearer's best mate? Why make problems for yourself?"

Foreign investments have not always proved so astute as Di Canio and his fellow striker, Paulo Wanchope. Florin Raducioiu, the man who was shopping in Harvey Nicks while West Ham were travelling to Stockport for a cup game, will always be in an exhibition in the black museum of Hammers' horrors. Di Canio is a different character completely. While he continues to score with the aplomb with which he destroyed Arsenal last Saturday, the player will remain a shrewd piece of business, but Redknapp is aware that he will always possess a temperament that ranges between highly combustible and explosive.

"I'd be lying if I said I was 100 per cent sure about Paolo," he said. "He's very volatile. But I took that chance, and the fans idolise him. I like people who can turn a game if it's evenly balanced and if the day came that he decided he wasn't happy, I'd certainly double my money with him. On Monday I had a call from a big Spanish club wanting to buy him, but he's not for sale."

Earlier, Redknapp had spent two hours fielding calls on Watt's phone- in programme. A former Bourne-mouth player named Ian Thompson had called in, recalling the occasion Redknapp had thrown a cup at him in the dressing room. "I do have a row after a game," admitted the Poplar-born manager afterwards. "I'm as bad as anybody. Down at Bournemouth, I kicked a tray of cups up into air and one hit Luther Blissett on the head. He flicked it on and it went all over my suit hanging behind. Another time, at West Ham, I also threw a plate of sandwiches at Don Hutchison. He's sitting there, still arguing with me, with cheese and tomato running down his face. But you can't do that any more, especially with all the foreigners. They'd go home."

West Ham have progressed significantly since the day he assumed control from Billy Bonds in 1994 after two years as his assistant. Four players in England contention confirm that fact. His achievements have been all the more meritorious, given the constant attempts by the elite to wrest away his most talented players. "In the summer every Italian club, and Real Madrid, was coming on after Rio Ferdinand. But if we had sold him, you'd send out bad signals to other kids. They'd think 'Why go to West Ham? They just want to sell you'."

Joe Cole and Michael Carrick are a pair who have appreciated the West Ham philosophy towards their youngsters. Both played for England Under- 18s against their Spanish counterparts last Wednesday. "Joe's going to be a superstar, really," Redknapp explains. "He's a special talent and so full of confidence, like a young Gascoigne, I'd say, when he first broke in. I love to see him show skills and I hate it when people get annoyed and say 'Give it simple, Joe'. Di Canio said to me 'I've played with Roberto Baggio, some of the finest players in the world, but Joe will become the best of them all'."

One player he did relinquish, without demur, when Wimbledon offered £7.5m for him, was John Hartson, following that infamous training ground assault on Eyal Berkovic. It was an incident that Redknapp recalls as "sickening a sight as you are likely to see in football".

His response, in attempting to keep it in-club, was much criticised at the time. "It was a difficult one. When I was first asked about it I could hardly have said 'There was an incident today. John Hartson kicked Eyal Berkovic in the head', could I? Why tell the world? John was fined two weeks wages, and I thought I should keep it within the club."

But he adds: "I've got no time for violence. I said to John afterwards, 'If you'd have picked on Neil Ruddock, fair enough. But this was a nine- stone lad with hardly an aggressive bone in his body'. It was almost bullying."

As we talk, the phone rings. It is his son Jamie who, for the first time, has been named together with his cousin Frank Lampard in an England senior squad. When Liverpool and West Ham meet, Redknapp senior admits there can be a conflict of interests. "Last year at Liverpool, Jamie made a very bad tackle on Frank, who limped off," Redknapp recalls. "Les Sealey, who works for me, shouted to him 'Get back on and f****** do him'. He was actually telling Frank to do my own son! I'm standing there thinking 'Hold on, I'm not quite happy with this!' "

He was present at Liverpool's visit to Aston Villa last Saturday, when Steve Staunton was sent off - wrongly - by Rob Harris and 10 other players were cautioned. The following day, there were a similar number of bookings and red cards for Patrick Vieira and his own player Marc-Vivien Foe in West Ham's 2-1 defeat of Arsenal. "The biggest problem is that every mistimed tackle is a yellow card. There's a lack of common sense and it's getting to the players," reflects Redknapp.

"I'm not saying the players are always innocent. Vieira was over the top in his reaction and I'm particularly disappointed with Arsene Wenger's comments, saying that Di Canio was cheating because he got fouled on both occasions.

"But 21 yellows and three reds in two days? It's not particularly fierce, it's not like having a London derby when Peter Storey was playing. That's why I can't really understand what Frank Leboeuf is saying about being afraid to play over here. What would he have done when Bobby Smith was playing? If he feels like that, he's better off going back to play in France."

That is Harry Redknapp. As ever, telling it as he sees it. May it long continue to be so.