Football: Redknapp makes up for lost time

Euro 2000 Battle Of Britain: `You keep going up and up until something happens. The important thing is how you bounce back'
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YOU COULD forgive Jamie Redknapp if he felt apprehensive ahead of the two play-off matches against Scotland. Anxious about the games themselves and the importance of qualifying for next summer's European Championship, of course, but nervous also about his chances of completing so much as the first leg.

The last time Redknapp faced the Auld Enemy, during the group stages of Euro 96, he transformed the game virtually single-handed before succumbing to a freak injury and being stretchered off. It was the cruellest of baptisms, but perfectly encapsulated the nature of the tie. A bit of rough, a lot of tumble and the occasional sprinkling of skill.

"That game was unbelievable," recalled Redknapp as we spoke at Liverpool's Melwood training ground on Friday. "Terry Venables kept on saying that I'd get my chance at some point in the tournament, so I was just itching to get on. At half-time he came up to me and told me to get ready. He pulled Stuart Pearce off and I was instructed to get some passing going. I think I did that."

Redknapp's arrival turned the game on its head. Within 10 minutes of the restart, he had launched the attack which led to Alan Shearer's opening goal. As the half wore on, his orchestrating from central midfield was so measured and assured it was allowing the likes of Paul Gascoigne and David Platt to venture forward with growing regularity. Redknapp had freed both the game and England.

Unfortunately, his afternoon, and tournament, were brought to an abrupt end when he landed awkwardly on his right foot and damaged the ankle ligaments. "Yeah," he said, still clearly disappointed. "Although it was a very special occasion, that game obviously brings back mixed emotions. Coming off with two minutes to go spoiled it. I wanted to be out on the pitch with the rest of the lads, clapping the fans and all that, but instead I was having an X-ray. I knew the injury would keep me out for the rest of the Euro so I was pretty gutted."

Those 40 minutes perfectly encapsulate Redknapp's international career. He has always promised much, only sometimes delivered, and all too often gone missing. In fairness, his England appearances should come with a health warning. After a solid debut against Colombia in September 1995, he tore his hamstring during the following month's 3-1 win over Switzerland. Having made a full recovery, he then picked up that ankle injury in the 2-0 group-stage win over Scotland. He got himself fit once more, only to break his ankle against South Africa in May 1997. With fewer than half- a-dozen caps behind him, Redknapp had suffered three career-threatening injuries while playing for his country.

"I was really unlucky," he said. "There's no point in getting all philosophical about it now. The point is nobody wants to get injured and the important thing is the way you bounce back. I often say that to Michael [Owen] about his troubles. You keep going up and up and up, until something suddenly happens to you. That's when you realise you're human and things don't always go your way."

Few doubt that had Redknapp remained fit, he would have made that central midfield berth his own by now. "Who knows," said the Liverpool captain with a shrug of the shoulders. "I'd like to think so. Some people have said that I don't stamp my foot down enough when I play for England, but I feel that I've done OK. People must not forget that I've played in a lot of tricky games."

Redknapp may have faced awkward opponents, such as Sweden in Stockholm, or Bulgaria at Wembley a year ago when there was unrest in the camp following Glenn Hoddle's publication of his World Cup diary, but none will be more delicate to negotiate than Scotland. England will start as favourites, but after another lacklustre performance, against Belgium last month, confidence is unlikely to be sky-high. "Having got into the play-offs the day before [courtesy of Sweden's win against Poland] we maybe didn't play as well as we could have," he said. "But we won and that is the type of positive aspect that we should look at more."

Redknapp will look back at that 2-1 victory fondly for years to come. He capped an excellent second-half display with his first goal for England - a 30-yard cannonball struck with his weaker left foot. "Whatever happens, nobody can take that away from me now," he said. "I love watching it on video. I'll never score a better one... well not with my left foot!" So is his England place secure after that performance? "That's not for me to say, but it's nice to be involved again. I know that if I'm picked I can do a job."

What role he is given remains to be seen, but if Redknapp is the first to admit that England have been lacking a creative force in the centre of midfield for nearly two years, he is at pains to emphasise that he is not the new Gazza. "Let's face it, there is nobody in the country at the moment who is anywhere near as good as he was at 22 or 23. He was different class. The fact is I'm nothing like him. The people who know me and have seen me play week in, week out are well aware of our differences. I don't go dribbling past players. My game is more about passing."

Passing, but also serving as a link between defence and attack. England have suffered in recent matches because of the lack of continuity between the various units of the team. Keegan will be hoping that Redknapp is now confident enough to drop back, receive the ball from the defence and carry it forward and distribute it intelligently. If, by the England manager's calculations, it takes a player 10 full games to find his international feet, then Redknapp, who hopes to win his 16th cap on Saturday, must be ready now. "Yeah," he said. "I realise what is expected of me, and I know that unless I impose myself and control the game, the management will probably look at someone else."

Redknapp trusts that he and the rest of the team play well enough over the two legs to avoid yet another bleak period in modern English football. He remains supremely confident of both his own ability and that of the team, yet refuses to label the "Battle of Britain" a foregone conclusion. "Scotland have some excellent players and I'm not going to start dismissing them because I don't want to get egg on my face. People think that they're just going to play the long ball, but during the Euro 96 match they had the likes of John Collins, Craig Burley and Gary McAllister in midfield, so they had plenty of good ball-players in the team too."

Although both sides will be looking to pass the ball around as much as possible, the first 20 minutes of each leg promise to be hectic, good and bad old-fashioned British football. "It's going to be really intense, like a derby. I think the atmosphere, at both grounds, will be unbelievable. They'll make Hampden like a cauldron and come at us early on. They'll definitely try to ruffle us in the first leg, but we have a good chance."

Redknapp hopes to repeat his virtuoso performance of Euro 96, this time as enduring star not bit-part hero. Injury permitting, he can finally complete his long journey of self-fulfilment and share in those Wembley post-match celebrations.