Afortnight ago, Harry Redknapp was honoured by the Football Writers' Association at a dinner in central London. The tribute was in part due to overseeing Portsmouth's FA Cup success last May, part recognition of his decades in the game, but also a thank you for a quarter of a century of quotable press conferences.
No one does media like Harry. Yesterday, as he held court at Spurs Lodge, in Chigwell, it was hard to reconcile his good humour with the harsh reality that Spurs remain equal bottom of the Premier League, have a packed treatment room, and, today, face an FA Cup fourth-round tie at Old Trafford.
Not that Redknapp will be fazed by that. He has already beaten Manchester United with three different clubs in the FA Cup – Bournemouth, West Ham United and Portsmouth – each time against the odds. The last victory is understood still to rankle with Sir Alex Ferguson as it denied United another treble. "Does it?" said Redknapp with mock regret, "I'm sorry he's got upset about it but you can't win everything. I was quite pleased really, to tell you the truth."
Redknapp rated that success his fondest, because it led to victory in the final, but the most extraordinary was probably the first, at Dean Court 25 years ago.
"We were very, very poor, bottom half of the third division. We'd been taken to a replay by Windsor & Eton in the previous round, then we drew the holders. To be honest, we beat them easily, a very comfortable 2-0 win. It was unbelievable.
"Most of that team I gave free transfers to at the end of the season, except one of the scorers, Ian Thompson, who I sold for £20,000.
"I remember, we went for a pre-match meal on the Friday and the goalkeeper, Ian Leigh, had a pizza. He was a bit fat, a little bit lumpy. The owner knew us and he promised Ian free pizza for the rest of his life if he kept a clean sheet. He said, 'I'll have some of that!'
"I bought the restaurant a year later and said, 'Sorry that deal's off, we're under new ownership.'"
Everyone laughs, but the Redknapp stand-up routine hides a shrewd football brain, as he reveals when he moves on to West Ham's 2001 win.
"We'd been murdered up there a few weeks before. We had big problems with Teddy Sheringham dropping off, picking it up. One of our centre-halves kept coming out with him and he'd guide balls into Andy Cole. So I played three at the back, one went with Teddy, which left two with Cole. It worked for us. But that was a good team, [Paolo] Di Canio and [Freddie] Kanouté up front, Joe Cole in the hole, [Frank] Lampard and [Michael] Carrick, Stuart Pearce. It was a proper team."
The only problem with this is that neither Cole nor Sheringham played in the first game, it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Dwight Yorke. But Cole and Sheringham did play in the Cup, and Redknapp's tactics worked.
Last year, noted Redknapp, Portsmouth had a bit of luck but, he added, "You need a bit of luck to win at Old Trafford."
He will this year. After provoking a furore by saying, having scraped past Burnley in Wednesday's Carling Cup semi-final, that he would field the weakest possible team today, Redknapp backtracked by explaining he meant most of his first XI were injured. "I'm not devaluing the FA Cup. Some clubs have fielded reserve teams en bloc. I watched Blackburn on television [against Blyth Spartans], they put out 11 reserves. I've always championed the Cup and you want to have a go. Each season you've got a chance to win two competitions, the Carling Cup and the FA Cup. The league is not going to be won by anyone out of the top four – Aston Villa might think they can win it, they can't. I will field my strongest team, but I've injuries."
He reeled off the names, "Aaron Lennon has a groin strain; [Vedran] Corluka, groin; Ledley King's not fit; [Heurelho] Gomes is not fit; [Jonathan] Woodgate, struggling; [Luka] Modric, stiff back; Darren Bent's not fit; Jermaine Jenas is out; Jamie O'Hara's at the hospital having an injection in a hip problem.
"It means lads are going to come in who I've not had a chance to see. Giovani's not even played a reserve team game for me. They tell me he's a real talent. Let's put him on the big stage and find out. We really are short. I've got to put a 16-year-old kid on the bench as back-up goalkeeper."
"Who is he Harry?" comes the question. Long pause. Redknapp turns to the press officer for advice. "An Italian kid." He turns out to be Mirko Ranieri, 17 next month, who is the youth team's reserve keeper.
"He's a young kid," Redknapp said, "What an experience for him." Pause. "What an experience for me!"
"Will you be having a word with him beforehand?"
"Yes, of course," said Redknapp, before turning to the press officer and asking, "he does speak English doesn't he?"
"Ferguson has injury problems too," we point out. "He's got injury problems," agrees Harry before adding, deadpan and after a pause – for the secret of his stand-up, as with most comedians, is the timing and delivery – "but he can bring in [Dimitar] Berbatov, and [Cristiano] Ronaldo, and Carrick and [Paul] Scholes... yeah, big problems." There is a serious side to this gag-making. His ex-players all talk about Redknapp being a players' manager and it is easy to see how his personality has lifted the dressing room after the downbeat reign of Juande Ramos.
Not that it is all sweet-talking. Redknapp has been very critical of his team recently, collectively and individually, accusing some players of sulking and excoriating Bent for a missed chance against Portsmouth last week. He has no regrets.
"You can't keep saying, 'Well done, well done, lads.' I can't keep saying, 'Good boy, well done, it was a real good effort when you missed that open goal, fantastic effort on your part.' What was I supposed to say?" We reply, "Most managers are not that honest."
"I'm fed up hearing people talking bollocks," responds Redknapp, "I said what I felt." That extends to criticising the balance of the squad he has inherited, notably the lack of cover in key areas. The squad, he asserts, is not big enough for a campaign which sees Spurs engaged on four fronts. In that respect, a draw today is the last result he, or Ferguson, needs. So, if it comes to the last five minutes, with the teams level, will they both be throwing men forward?
"Let's hope we reach that stage, we'll worry about it then," he says.
Famous victories: How Harry shocked United by those who helped him do it
1984 Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 0
(M Graham 60, Thompson 64) 7 January, third round
By Milton Graham
Harry just told us to go out and enjoy the game. No one expected us to win. We were in the old Third Division and they had a full side out with all their internationals, not like today when the big teams rest players. At half-time he just said, "Keep going." When I scored I remember I ran away to celebrate and slipped over in the mud.
Harry was a brilliant manager. He just knows football, how to handle players, how to explain to them what he wants them to do and get the best out of them.
He likes a joke. When it came time for me to turn pro or be let go, he was the coach with Dave Webb the manager. I was waiting outside the manager's office to find out what was going to happen to me and Harry came past and said, "Never mind son, you'll get another club." I thought, "that's it, I'm out." Then I went in and he and Dave Webb were sitting there laughing.
After the game, we were in the bath drinking champagne. One of the directors came in with a few quid and told us to go out and enjoy ourselves. Harry was outside doing all the interviews. I meet United fans every now and again. It's always good for a bit of banter.
Milton Graham scored the first goal with an overhead kick. He later played for Chester and Peterborough and now works for engineering firm Perkins
Bournemouth: Leigh, La Ronde, Sulley, Savage, Brown, Brignull, Train, Nightingale, Morgan, M Graham, Thompson.
Manchester United: Bailey, Duxbury, Albiston (Macari), Wilkins, Hogg, Robson, Moses, Muhren, Stapleton, Whiteside, A Graham.
2001 Manchester United 0 West Ham United 1
(Di Canio 76) 28 January, fourth round
By Nigel Winterburn
They had beaten us in the league a few weeks before, quite easily, so we went up there more in hope than confidence. But you do get these games when a big team gets beaten and you get the headlines.
They battered us for the whole game. We tried to counter-attack and, late on, we broke away and Paolo Di Canio got clear. Fabien Barthez stuck his hand up as if to indicate offside. I don't know if he was trying to con Paolo, but Paolo was too cute for that and he stuck the ball in the net then looked at the linesman. That gave us something to hold on to. We were pushed so deep Barthez played as a sweeper, knocking balls in. Harry was a good man-manager who would come alive on match-day. He is good at instilling confidence. He knows who he can give a telling-off to and who needs an arm round the shoulder. If you fell out with him you wouldn't be at the club long but I got on well with him. He knew I had come to the club for the right reasons, to play more football.
Nigel Winterburn joined West Ham in 2000 after 13 seasons at Arsenal. He retired in 2003 after 94 appearances for West Ham and now works as a football pundit
Manchester United: Barthez, Irwin (Yorke, 79), Silvestre, Stam, G Neville, Beckham, Giggs, Keane, Butt (Solskjaer, 79), Sheringham, A Cole.
West Ham United: Hislop, Tihinen, S Pearce, Dailly, Schemmel, Winterburn, Lampard, J Cole (I Pearce, 89), Carrick, Kanoute, Di Canio (Soma 88).
2008 Manchester United 0 Portsmouth 1
(Muntari 78 pen) 8 March, sixth round
By Joe Jordan
Beating United at Old Trafford was not so much a tribute to Harry's ability to achieve a one-off victory as the way he had instilled certain values in that team. We'd had a good season, weren't far away from European qualification and our performance against United was the kind you have to produce against the big clubs on their grounds if your team is going to move forward.
The fact we finished up with the FA Cup was particularly satisfying because it gave us something really tangible for a lot of hard effort.
United dominated a lot of play but we dug in and stayed alive. United – and the crowd – were convinced they should have had a penalty when Cristiano Ronaldo and Sylvain Distin went shoulder-to-shoulder in the box. I didn't think it was a penalty but when the huge roar came I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been given.
When Sulley Muntari scored from the spot after United's substitute goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak had brought down Milan Baros, the "Lucky Pompey" headlines were probably inevitable. However, we knew we had done very well and we weren't whistling in the wind when we said, "Two more displays like that and we'll have the Cup."
Joe Jordan was Portsmouth coach. He now works with Redknapp at Tottenham
Manchester United: Van der Sar (Kuszczak, 46), Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Scholes, Hargreaves (Carrick, 68), Nani, Rooney, Tevez (Anderson, 68). Portsmouth: James, Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson, Utaka (Lauren, 74), Diarra, Diop, Kranjcar (Hughes, 81), Muntari, Kanu (Baros, 54).Reuse content