Football: Redknapp's laughter lessons pay off: Harry's smiling game has brought fortune out of hiding for a bubbly club facing their promotion rivals tomorrow. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
'HAPPY HARRY' was anything but, turning the air claret and blue with an apoplectic blast. Expletives deleted, it went: 'Hey, Bill. Let's get them working and closing down. Too many of them only want to play when they've got the ball.'

It was ever thus. A desultory training session had brought on the explosion, but that second, censorious sentence is West Ham in a nutshell. When they coined the phrase 'southern softies', it was probably the rubber Hammers those macho northerners had in mind.

Up and down like the fiddler's arm, they have never fulfilled the potential which has been there since the days when Moore, Hurst and Peters were trailing in 12th in the First Division, weeks before winning the World Cup for England.

Relegated again in May, for the second time in three years, the East Enders looked to one of their own, the archetypal chirpy Cockney, to lift them out of the morass.

Billy Bonds had been indefatigable as a player, but he never seemed cut out for, or sought, the pressures of management, and the events of a season which saw some of the most loyal supporters in the country alienated by a debenture scheme, and a dispirited team finish bottom of the table, brought him to his lowest ebb.

Uncharacteristically worried and unhappy, he turned to his best mate, Harry Redknapp, for help and support, inviting him to return to his roots, as assistant manager. Coincidentally, though some would have it otherwise, Redknapp had just quit after nine years in charge at Bournemouth, and was only too happy to accept.

Back at the club with whom he began his playing career, as one of a long line of clever but inconsistent wingers, Redknapp takes the training (Bonds plays), and is credited with the turnaround which has transformed a defeated army into a fighting force capable of recovering all the ground lost in a season of retreat.

'Happy Harry', all banter and anecdotes, soon banished the pall of despondency. Canny Harry then had Bonds 'change a few faces' to make an erratic team more reliable and harder to beat.

The fruits of his labours are impressively apparent. Four wins and a draw in the last five games have lifted West Ham into second place in the First Division, and victory at home to the leaders, Newcastle United, in what could be the match of the weekend tomorrow would narrow the gap at the top to a single point.

These days, it is not only Harry who is happy at Upton Park. His start, though, had been inauspicious. 'When I arrived, I sensed immediately that the spirit was ever so low, and I thought: 'Bloody hell, I don't know if I've done the right thing, coming back here.'

'We played in Scotland pre-season, and there was no confidence at all. Then, when we came to our first home game, the players were frightened to go on the pitch for a kickabout beforehand. I said: 'Why don't you go out and loosen up?', but they just looked sheepish and made excuses. They were frightened that the crowd would give them stick because of what happened last season. Some start, eh?

'They were in no mood to play well. We went to Barnsley and won, but we weren't convincing, and we got beaten at home by Charlton. The turning point came when we went to Newcastle for our third match, and lost 2-0. We didn't play well at all, and I could see something had to be done.

'I told Bill I thought we should have a meeting with the players. I don't think they'd had many before, but it was a good meeting - it lasted two hours - and it cleared the air. We told each other a few home truths, and what we all thought about each other, and it seemed to improve things. From then on, everybody pulled together, and we've not looked back since.'

The management had not been immune from criticism, with Redknapp the target for some of the home truths. 'To be fair, Tony Gale said something which probably changed me as much as I changed the players. When I came here, that first couple of weeks got me down, and I got trapped in the dourness of it all. There was no spark.

'During the meeting, 'Galey' said: 'We'd heard that you were coming, and that you were bright and chirpy, but you've been a miserable bastard. You haven't stopped moaning since you've been here'.

'I thought: 'Fair enough. He's right.' I could feel myself being pulled down, so I made a few changes to the way I'd been behaving. I was growling and groaning all the time, and we didn't need that.

'Bill is a quieter character than me, and to complement him I need to be my normal self, which is to have a laugh and a joke and keep things bubbly. We work hard at our football here, but why not be bright, and enjoy it? I've tried to get in among the lads and get to know them, and I think its working well.'

It is - the table is testimony to that - but why, having previously turned down the managership of Stoke City, had he settled for second best, and a No 2's job? Serendipity would cover it.

'Bournemouth had been good to me, but at the end of last season we missed out on the play-offs when we lost our last game, and that made me have a long, hard think. I'd turned down a couple of good jobs the year before, and I thought to myself: 'Have you got any ambition, or what?' I needed to try something else. It had got too cushy down there - nice area, nice lifestyle and all that.

'I could have gone to Stoke - they offered it to me before Lou Macari - and that would have been a terrific job, but I didn't want to move. I was getting more interested in living in the country and having a nice life than I was in football, and that worried me.

'Everybody thought I left Bournemouth because I had this lined up, but I didn't. I left because I needed a change.

'Anyway, Bill phoned and said he was fed up with it all. He'd had a bad year and was feeling low. He said: 'I need some help, Harry. I need someone to come and work with me and help me.' I fancied it immediately. I get on great with Billy. We're real mates. I was best man at his wedding and we go back a long way. We get on well.'

On Redknapp's recommendation, Bonds bought four new players at a total cost of pounds 230,000. Bargains, all. Apart from their impact individually, which has been substantial, an infusion of new blood - any new blood - tends to lift a bedraggled team, which is what West Ham were in the aftermath of relegation.

Mark Robson, recruited on a free transfer from Spurs, has been the most obvious success, scoring nine times in 31 appearances from the wing, but Peter Butler, who cost pounds 170,000 from Southend, has brought resilience and steel to a midfield not renowned for such qualities, and Steve Jones, with two goals in three games, has been a promising stand-in for the injured Clive Allen since arriving from Billericay.

'The new faces have definitely helped,' Redknapp said. 'Butler is a good little scrapper and Robson is a real West Ham fella - a bright-as-a-button Cockney. He's our Arthur Daley. Always up to something iffy.

'Jones came from Billericay, so he gets a fair bit of stick (Tricky Dicky), but the atmosphere is better since the new lads arrived. Much better. The process of having everyone get to know one another and talking to each other definitely helps. That, and being a bit brighter on the training field, has got us going.'

A tougher shell had been needed to protect West Ham's traditionally brittle passing game. 'We've played with two in midfield, Butler and Martin Allen, who are both tremendous workers,' Redknapp said. 'Maybe they haven't got the flair of some of the people who've played there in the past, but they are both good footballers, and they are not afraid to put their foot in.'

Talk of which brings us to the Dreaded Dicks - the bruiser who threatens to turn the academy into an approved school.

'Everybody knows about Julian,' Redknapp chuckled. 'What they don't know, not working with him every day, is just how good he is. He's got the best left foot I've ever seen, his right is not bad, he's the best header of the ball at the club, and he strikes the ball beautifully. I can't think of any left- back who is better, and he should be playing for England.'

Seeing more early baths than Great Ormond Street will have done nothing for his international prospects, of course, and an early call from Graham Taylor should not be expected.

'Obviously he's got to control himself,' Redknapp said. 'We all talk to him about it. Before every game we say: 'Keep cool, don't go getting booked today', but it's not easy. In the heat of the game, anything can happen.

'He's just the same in training. He gets the hump over anything and steams in all over the place, flying into tackles regardless. That's his nature. He's a great competitor, but he's got to learn self-control somehow, because we can't afford to have him missing 11 games through suspension, as he has this season.'

Dicks, available again, will play tomorrow, but two more familiar faces, Clive Allen and Alvin Martin, will be absent, injured.

West Ham are on the up and up, Newcastle suddenly fallible, their 15-point lead down to four after five League matches without a win. Redknapp forecasts 'a good game, with a full house', but sees it as no more than a stepping stone.

'We've got to get in the Premier League,' he said. . 'That's where we need to be. With the spark we've got now, and the way the players are all working for each other, we've got a great chance. We'll never get a better one.'

'There'll never be another.' An epitaph Happy Harry could share with another Cheeky Chappie.

(Photograph omitted)

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