Football: A young Red the old hand

Simon Turnbull meets the Liverpool playmaker who has risen to a pivotal role
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The Independent Online
Jamie Redknapp has been this particular way before. Indeed, in the six years and 10 months the England midfielder has spent at Anfield, Liverpool have never quite managed to rediscover their title-winning direction of old. Redknapp, in fact, was a 17-year-old new boy on bench duty the very match after Liverpool started to lose their bearings. Four days after his pounds 350,000 arrival from AFC Bournemouth, in January 1991, a 1-1 home draw against Wimbledon cost the defending champions leadership of what was then the First Division of the Barclays League. Kenny Dalglish departed the following month and Liverpool ended the season runners-up to George Graham's Arsenal. They have failed to finish in the top two ever since.

For seven years now, Liverpool's championship credentials have been on the line. This afternoon at Highbury will be no different in that respect. But the seasonal pressure is mounting earlier than usual on the Liverpudlian Reds. Redknapp and his team-mates were jeered as they descended the tunnel steps at Anfield eight days ago, after a Barnsley victory which, even accounting for Liverpool's susceptibility to the odd shock in recent years, still registered on football's Richter scale. When someone appeared on the Ricki Lake Show on Thursday wearing a Liverpool shirt it seemed the raging debate about the trophy-winning stock of Roy Evans and his side had crossed the Atlantic. The gentleman had, in fact, turned up merely to debate the possibility of being abducted by aliens.

With Arsenal and Dennis Bergkamp to contend with this afternoon and Manchester United, who visit Anfield on Saturday morning, already threatening to disappear over the horizon, Merseyside's merchants of doom might suggest there is more chance of that red Reebok top being paraded on the planet Zog than of Liverpool hoisting the Premiership trophy in May. Clearly, judging by the reaction to the thrashing in Strasbourg last month and to the Barnsley debacle last week, Kopites are not prepared to endure more than a seven-year hitch.

It was clear at Melwood on Friday that Evans and his players appreciate that score. The Liverpool manager was conspicuously absent from the training ground Bill Shankly turned from a bomb-site into a fine- tuning factory for his Anfield machine. Evans was returning from a scouting mission to Norway, and the mere fact that he deemed such a journey to be an urgent priority, just three days before the high-pressure match at Highbury, left his players in no doubt that the supporters are not the only Anfield natives becoming restless.

"It's all part of the territory," Redknapp said, sheltering from the hammering rain in the Melwood car park. "It's all part of playing for a club like Liverpool. You have to accept the pressure when you play professional football. I was under pressure when I was playing for my dad when I was 16 at Bournemouth. You have to be prepared to take the criticism too. You're there to be knocked down. I understand that."

It is perhaps only natural that a young man whose girlfriend happens to be a celebrated songstress should be prepared to face the music. In Redknapp, though, you cannot help feeling that Liverpool have one of the major keys they will need if they are to strike a trophy-winning chord this season. Indeed, but for the two-year catalogue of injuries inflicted upon their thoroughbred playmaker, the pressure of Anfield expectation might well have been relieved by actual, silver-plated, fulfilment by now. Since the night he was seriously hamstrung on England duty, against Switzerland at Wembley in November 1995, Redknapp's longest run of first-team appearances was the 15 he strung together at the end of last season.

Since then, of course, he has been obliged to overcome another serious setback, the broken ankle he suffered against South Africa at Old Trafford in May. Just four Premiership matches into his latest comeback, though, Redknapp is in his prompting pomp again. It did not help, against Barnsley, that he was required to play in a deeper role - to plug the gap left by Paul Ince, who will still be serving his suspension today. But followers of the Mersey football beat will tell you that Harry's boy is back at his best. And that is good news for Liverpool, and for England.

"I'm really pleased with the way things have gone," Redknapp junior said. "To come back playing well has been a big bonus. To play in the World Cup would be lovely but the important thing is to keep playing well for Liverpool. Then, hopefully, everything else will fall into place. It's a big game for us on Sunday and it's a big game for us the following Saturday too, but we seem to do better in games like these. It's against the likes of Barnsley, the so-called lesser teams, that we've tended to let ourselves down. We've got to put that right."

Liverpool's search for such salvation, and for silverware, can only be helped by the pivotal presence of Redknapp, who at 24 has found himself the third-longest serving player on the Anfield books (after the Steves, McManaman and Harkness). It might have been different. Tottenham, heading for the other side of Stanley Park, had him on schoolboy forms. "I also had trials with Everton," Redknapp confided. Instead of playing for a club that has veered off course, Anfield's midfield conductor might have joined one going nowhere.

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