Football: Redknapp's guile builds a strong hand

Ronald Atkin finds the West Ham manager has become a shrewd transfer dealer
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THE two boys peering over thefence at the handsome spread of West Ham's Chadwell Heath training ground didn't seem to mind that Friday's session involving their heroes was taking place at binocular distance from them. To be adjacent was enough; one of them sporting Rio Ferdinand's name and number 15 on the back of his claret and blue shirt, the other nameless and numberless, perhaps biding his time as a temporary precaution against the current Premiership tendency for players to arrive and depart precipitately.

After all, there is a week to go yet, though West Ham look settled and ready for the off, having dodged the worst of the close-season transfer feeding frenzy. Out went David Unsworth for pounds 3m. In came five new players, including Ian Wright from Arsenal, for pounds 3m. Neatly balanced, the way the manager, Harry Redknapp, likes it.

The way the Hammers are run, and the way they are performing, provide an excellent target point for Charlton Athletic to aim at as they step into the big- time; a team who survived a couple of shaky seasons in the top league but who last year finished eighth, missing a place in Europe by one point.

Redknapp, sweatily returned from that oven-heat training stint, sat back in the cool of his office contemplating his fourth anniversary in the job. Were it a company report he was presenting, the shareholders would be content: steady progress, excellent business sense, sound operating base. But with a football club only one word counts. Results.

"If you buy big and it doesn't work, your head is on the block," said Redknapp. "But it's also on the block if you don't spend any money and do no good anyway. It doesn't matter how much you have or haven't spent, nobody cares if you tell 'em you've got a good youth policy coming through; no one says `he's done a good job building the club up'. The average supporter doesn't look deeper than the results and where you've finished."

For what it's worth, which is plenty, West Ham have an excellent youth policy, one which has seen Ferdinand and Frank Lampard establish themselves as first-team regulars, with a host of youngsters from the home policy and the new venture involving association with Australian clubs bidding to make their mark, too.

"When I first took over here in August 1994 it was a continual battle to survive, that's all it was. But the standard of players has gone up so dramatically in the last 18 months it has been incredible. It has taken time because I didn't have a squad two years ago that was capable of staying in the Premiership. There was no way we were good enough. It has been a case of putting the jigsaw together. Last year we were nearly there, we did ever so well, and I feel we have improved the squad again this year. Obviously the emergence of the two kids, Ferdinand and Lampard, has been a massive bonus for us.

"We struck lucky there, having two of them out of one youth team. That sort of thing gives you a terrific buzz. Seeing another three or four come through like that in the next few years would be lovely. But it's a question of striking lucky. Look at Manchester United, they've had five or six come through at the same time. Normally, if you get one a year it's a miracle, that's how tough it is.

"The kids all come with high hopes and you have big hopes for them. But it's only about a five per cent success rate if you're honest, even if it's that much. Look at Chelsea now. With their new policy of bringing in high-priced foreigners it's going to be even harder there for the kids, isn't it? I feel kids will look at West Ham now and feel it's a good club to come to because we are producing our own players. And I think the good kids will still come through."

So you don't go much on imported talent then, Harry? Redknapp smiled and insisted there was no Upton Park ban on foreigners: "I am just looking for good players." But he has moved on from the days when, watching enviously as clubs went out and paid multi-millions for the best British players, he decided that West Ham's finances dictated he had to look overseas and went, first, for the Portuguese and then for Romanians.

"The Portuguese worked out fine. Dani came for three months and did OK, scored at Tottenham and won us three vital points. Porfirio did very well and we were looking to keep him but he was only on loan at the end of contract and decided on Spain. Then there was Paolo Futre, one of the world's great players, but he had a knee injury and wasn't fit enough unfortunately. None of them were any problem.

"My problem was with the Romanian lads, Dumitrescu and Raducioiu. I ended up with too many of the same type at one time. Those two and Futre only wanted to play when we had the ball. When we didn't have it they weren't prepared to work. We went to Sunderland one Sunday, the wind was howling, Sunderland were swarming forward and those three were on the halfway line with their hands on their hips. You can't survive in the Premier League carrying three or four people."

That experiment concluded, Redknapp has concentrated on buying wisely - Slaven Bilic and Marc Rieper are examples - selling them on at a profit and investing the money in the likes of John Hartson, Trevor Sinclair, Ian Pearce and Eyal Berkovitch to strike the balance which made West Ham the crowd-pleasing combination of attractive and successful last season.

"I have brought in Wright and Ruddock because the one thing we lacked at the very end of last season was a little bit of experience and know- how. We had one or two injuries, the squad was too thin, but I think I have put that right. So we will be able to call on people who can do the job for us.

"Obviously clubs like Chelsea are in a different bracket from us. We can't compete with someone who pays Brian Laudrup pounds 60,000 a week wages. And we would all love to go out and buy someone like Marcel Desailly. But there are only half a dozen clubs who could think about doing that. The rest of us can only dream. But we have bought players and we have improved.

"I am really looking forward to the new season, though I think it's going to be the toughest Premier league ever, both at the top and the bottom. Everybody has improved their squads. If we can improve a bit on last year and get into Europe it would be a fantastic achievement. But whatever happens, I think the fans realise they are seeing a good West Ham team. This is as good a squad as I have ever had, the best at West Ham for a long time."

Redknapp does not share the opinion of those who have already written off Charlton as relegation certainties. "I think they could be OK. Alan Curbishley has done a good job, they have a terrific team spirit and work their socks off. They will surprise a few people, I am sure."

And if they are looking for inspiration, Curbishley and Charlton could do worse than try to emulate Redknapp and West Ham.