Cultures collide when 'Arry meets Arsene

East End boy puts accent on home comforts as he plots Cup downfall of a Euro sophisticate; Andrew Longmore meets a Poplar football man masterminding the West Ham revival
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The Independent Online
"AIN'T many foreign coaches won the championship." Ain't many managers who would come up with a quote like that, neither. They call things as they see 'em down Poplar way and that's always been 'Arry's way too. No concession to diplomacy, just because a television camera is a foot from your nose and a bright lady reporter is asking the questions. Besides, Harry had other things on his mind last Friday. Like who was going to play centre-forward for his first team this afternoon. "Got no forwards, have I," he says, listing the litany like a car salesman sifting through some dodgy motors. "Kitson, been out for bloody ages, Hartson's suspended, Sinclair's cup tied, Lomas got a calf, Ferdinand, Unsworth and Pearce ain't trained since Monday. Nightmare, it is."

'Arry 'n Arsene. It sounds like a comedy routine. With two straightmen, at least, this afternoon at Highbury, where the prize of a place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup is no song and dance. The Premiership rehearsal on Monday night was hardly a bundle of laughs. Arsenal, without Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright, came for a point; West Ham could find no way through. Had it been the Plaistow Palais, the punters would have booed them all off. So much for sophisticated bloomin' foreign coaches.

"Not much has changed with Arsenal, has it?" asks Harry, eyes wider than sunflowers. Another litany. "Adams, Winterburn, Keown, Dixon. They've been the backbone of Arsenal for years. They're still a big, strong, determined team." Redknapp pauses for a munch of his bacon sandwich. "It comes from that Adams, he's the main man there."

Across town, at the decorous Sopley Manor Hotel, a different accent is answering roughly the same questions. Arsene Wenger, economics graduate and man of the world, is welcoming back Denis Bergkamp in time for the sixth-round FA Cup tie. Arsenal badly needed some firepower on Monday. Bergkamp's return comes not a moment too soon. This is chintzy cup and saucer country here; darn Chadwell Heath, it's steaming mugs of tea and the clack of stud on lino. The floors look as though they've just hosted the countryside march and fresh-faced YTS kids shuttle to and fro, bearing empty plates (beans and toast) and muddy boots. Same city, two cultures. Arsenal v West Ham. "Run longer than The Mousetrap", as the billboards might put it.

Try, for a moment, switching managers. Imagine Redknapp wandering through the hushed marble halls in his tracksuit and pumps; Wenger holding court behind a pre-Ikea desk at Chadwell Heath, wondering whether to entrust his expensive coat to the moth-eaten sofa in the corner. You can't do it, can you? Clubs define their manager. The interview room at Highbury resembles a courtroom: raised dais, neat wooden chairs with club crests, long pine desk. Collar and tie compulsory, when judge Graham was presiding. Redknapp's generally colourful post-match commentary is delivered from a chair in the corner of the press room, surrounded by the debris of a Saturday afternoon.

Arsene the modern Euro- sophisticate, fluent in three languages, an economics graduate from Strasbourg who arrived at Highbury via Monaco and Grampus Eight bringing with him strange new stretching routines which he introduced in the hotel ballroom before the match against Blackburn. His life is timed by stop watch. If Arsene says stretch for eight minutes, he means eight minutes, not seven or eight and a half. This man would own a toothbrush holder. Compare and contrast with Redknapp, the son of a Stepney docker, graduate of the university of the East End, management trained in Seattle, Oxford City and Bournemouth.

"Yea, I'm an East End boy. I was actually an Arsenal supporter when I was very young, but I came 'ere at 15 and been 'ere ever since, on and off," he says. "I understand the people, know the people who live in Canning Town, East 'Am, West 'Am, that's where I'm from. I know what they feel and what they think and what they want. That's a strength. Frank's [Lampard] a Canning Town boy, his mates are on the terraces on the week." And his son Frank Junior is developing into a pivotal inside forward too, a precious reminder of the club's roots after the refugee era at Upton Park. "Him and Rio [Ferdinand], they've got to be the backbone of yer team, those lads who have grown up with yer, loyal to the club, it's their club. That's died out of the game, with the money involved and freedom of contract 'n' all that. It's nice to be able to produce a few of your own players and hang on to 'em for a few years." Behind them, a wunderkind called Joe Cole is awaiting elevation from the apprentice academy.

If West Ham have refound their soul, Wenger and his team are still searching for an identity. At least, boring old Arsenal was a tag to work with. The succession of French imports have produced a cultural vacuum, easily filled by silverware, of course. The North Bank have not quite come to terms with "Allez Rouges" yet. Upton Park has become impregnable again; Highbury is more customs clearing hall than fortress these days. A succession of world travellers have swept through the nothing-to-declare channel and headed home with the points. Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester United and a bunch of Greeks last season; Blackburn this.

Wenger, with that scholarly air, is not a great motivator; top-class players, he feels, should know how to motivate themselves. He will prepare them physically and tactically, the rest is up to them. And while, in the early days, the freedom was exhilarating, particularly for the survivors of the Graham Boot Camp, the lack of direction is beginning to perplex a few old stagers now. English players like to be told what to do. As an old-fashioned gaffer, Redknapp knows that.

"I 'ave quite a laid-back attitude, but some days I'm not in the best of moods," he says. "I was in one of them moods this morning, so I gave 'em a bit of a kicking. That's good. Ninety per cent of the time we have a laugh, but if I'm too easy going all the time they'll take liberties. If I'm miserable every day, moaning and groaning all the time, they'll get bored with that too. Got to keep 'em guessing." For both managers, this afternoon is critical. If Alex Ferguson can afford to tinker with FA Cup tradition, Wembley remains a promised land for the rest. Redknapp, in particular.

The East End would love a day out in town and Redknapp has not had the best of fortunes in the Cup. A 2-0 victory over Manchester United with Bournemouth was his one flirtation with the right side of romance. Less memorable have been blind dates with the likes of Wrexham and Emley. When the Hammers won the Cup in 1975, Redknapp was flying down the wing at Bournemouth. The Cup owes him one, though he would never admit it.

On the touchline this afternoon, Redknapp will be twitchy as ever, kicking every ball. Wenger will be detached, professorial, millpond calm. Different traditions, different backgrounds, same goal. Harry doesn't think much of the "foreign coach as genius" school of thought. Nothing personal against Arsene. "He's a smashin' fella, a real gent." It's just all about players. "I ain't found a coach yet who could turn a bad team into a good one."