Harry Redknapp was playing golf with his son Jamie when the draw for the FA Cup sixth round was announced in February. Alone on the fairway they stood together, turned the loudspeaker on Jamie's mobile phone on and listened to the teams being drawn. When Portsmouth came out as the team away to Manchester United, Jamie says that Harry picked up his clubs and threw them – with the anger of a man who has just seen his best chance of a big trophy go up in smoke.
"I didn't know what to say so I said to my dad, 'You never know, you might beat them'," Jamie says. "But even I didn't believe it. In the end that day, beating United at Old Trafford, turned out to be probably his greatest achievement as a manager. By the same evening, Chelsea were out, too, and I was saying to dad, 'Hold on, you've got a chance here'."
Today's FA Cup final is the anomaly, the odd one out. Two sides who scarcely seem to have a place among the other big teams who have, in recent years, contested this blessed Saturday in May. For Portsmouth there is Redknapp, a man for whom the game has long found a place as the rogueish horse-trader of footballers; typecast as a Cockney caricature. Cardiff's Dave Jones has an even heavier cross to bear: the memory of that child abuse court case in which he was acquitted in December 2000 after just four days. For these two men, today is not just an occasion to gawp at Wembley and wave to the grandchildren. It really means something in their lives and careers.
It means a great deal to Redknapp, especially because Portsmouth are expected to win today. He is a deeply serious football man, whatever the twinkly-eyed, knees-up-Mother-Brown persona might suggest, and he spends hours turning over the merits of formations and players in his mind. "I've never met anyone who cares like he does about football," says Jamie of his father, "someone who eats, sleeps and drinks football like him and he has always wanted to play it the right way. He likes his team to pass the ball, he's never given in to pressure to play it long."
These last two seasons, perhaps for the first time, Redknapp has bought higher up the food chain of footballers than ever before. David James came in 2006, Sulley Muntari joined for £7m in the summer, Sylvain Distin was a highly sought-after free transfer. Redknapp bought Lassana Diarra from Arsenal in January. Jermain Defoe is Cup-tied. These are good players and that is why Jamie says that his dad is more nervous than ever. He has been an underdog virtually all his management career – until, that is, its most important day.
The whiff of scandal will haunt him for ever, especially after police raided his home in November, although there have never been any charges. His wife, Sandra, has been struggling to deal with her grief after the death last month of her younger sister, Pat, mother to Frank Lampard, and amid all that Redknapp himself has been trying to get to grips with more prosaic matters. Like 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 today? "I don't really want to say, to be honest," Redknapp said this week when asked about his team. "I'm telling you lads a load of bollocks really. I know what I am going to do, I just don't want to tell you."
It tends to get forgotten that tactically, Redknapp was just as smart – if not smarter – than Sir Alex Ferguson in their win. His family hate the phrase "wheeler-dealer" to describe him but the man himself accepted it with a certain reluctance this week. "People call me a wheeler-dealer, but I don't want to change people around, I've tended to do it because when I've walked into a club the players haven't been performing," he said. "When I came back here [in 2005] I took over the worst team you've ever seen in your life, so it was some feat to keep them up."
For those of us who witnessed Cardiff's semi-final win over Barnsley it is not as if the team from Wales are to present the greatest obstacle to Portsmouth on their big day, especially not a Portsmouth side who have beaten Manchester United. Cardiff's best player, Aaron Ramsey, is arguably too inexperienced to be in the starting XI today and, all said, they represent that element of the Championship that looks like being a whole team away from being able to compete in the Premier League. Jones, however, is an impressive character, unflinching and tough; he does not seem to care much whether he is liked or not.
He was gloriously unsentimental about the last Cardiff City team to win the FA Cup in 1927, although in one nod to tradition the team did travel up by train yesterday just as their predecessors did 81 years ago. "To be honest, 1927 has become a bit of a standing joke," Jones said. "Listen, what they achieved was fantastic and no one can take that away from them. But 81 years is too long not to even get past the fifth round and now we've managed to do it."
There must be part of Jones who worries that his team, a mix of ageing pros – Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Gavin Rae and Robbie Fowler on the bench – and a lot of solid Championship players will do well not to be embarrassed on a day like this. Redknapp's Portsmouth, 24 places ahead of Cardiff in football's hierarchy, are a team built along the modern lines of the Premier League: powerful, fast and strong. In terms of disparity in league places it is the equivalent of Manchester United facing Bristol City. It will have to be a really bad day for Redknapp's team to blow his chance of a first major trophy.
But that is assuming that this season's FA Cup has already run out of silly plot lines. This time Jamie will not be in the Sky Sports studio, he will be with his son, Charlie, and the rest of the Redknapp clan, and all the Lampards too, in Wembley hoping that his dad finishes the job. There are no plans for a major celebration afterwards, which is just the way that Harry, who has waited for this moment his whole life, says he wants it.
Getting above themselves: The eight FA Cup winners from outside the top flight
* 1894 NOTTS COUNTY bt Bolton Wanderers 4-1 (Goodison Park)
James Logan notched a hat-trick for the Second Division Magpies.
*1901 TOTTENHAM bt Sheffield United 3-1 (Replay, Burnden Park)
Southern League outfit Spurs came from behind to become the only non-league side to win the Cup.
*1908 WOLVES bt Newcastle 3-1 (Crystal Palace)
Billy Harrison added to earlier goals from Ken Hunt and George Hedley as Wolves beat a Newcastle side sitting 25 league places above them.
*1912 BARNSLEY bt West Bromwich 1-0 (Replay, Crystal Palace)
Tykes lifted trophy after a Harry Tufnell goal, following 0-0 draw in first match.
*1931 WEST BROMWICH bt Birmingham 2-1 (Wembley)
William "Ginger" Richardson struck either side of a Joe Bradford effort to give the spoils to the Baggies.
*1973 SUNDERLAND bt Leeds 1-0 (Wembley)
An Ian Porterfield goal and some outstanding goalkeeping from Jim Montgomery kept Don Revie's Leeds side at bay and won the game for the Rokermen.
*1976 SOUTHAMPTON bt Manchester United 1-0 (Wembley)
Tommy Docherty's much favoured United succumbed to a late strike from Bobby Stokes.
*1980 WEST HAM UTD bt Arsenal 1-0 (Wembley)
An early Trevor Brooking header won Second Division Hammers the trophy for a third time in 16 years.
1 Peter Enckelman
Age 31 Nationality Finland Caps 9
Previous finals Finnish Cup 1997 (TPS Turku, L)
Goalkeeper on loan from Blackburn. Infamous for letting a throw-in roll under his foot and into the goal against Birmingham while at Aston Villa. Vulnerable on crosses.
2 Kevin McNaughton
Age 25 Nationality Scotland Caps 3 Finals 0
One of three Scots in Dave Jones' squad, McNaughton often dresses as DangerMouse and is similarly slippery as a probing right-back. Nicknamed "Silver Fox" because of prematurely grey hair. Recently recalled to national squad.
12 Roger Johnson
Age 25 Nationality England Caps 0 Finals 0
Designer-stubbled centre-half who fell out with Tony Adams when the Portsmouth coach was manager at Wycombe. Dangerous predator at set pieces who scored in quarter-final. His presence will be needed against a big Pompey side.
6 Glenn Loovens
Age 24 Nationality Netherlands Caps 0
Finals 2002 Uefa Cup (Feyenoord, W)
Centre-half who grew up at Feyenoord with Arsenal's Robin van Persie. Partnership with Johnson has kept club captain Darren Purse out of the starting XI.
3 Tony Capaldi
Age 26 Nationality N Ireland Caps 21 Finals 0
Born in Norway, but plays for Northern Ireland, the left-back arrived from Plymouth on a Bosman in the summer. Long throw-in is a favourite Bluebirds' weapon. Began at Birmingham but never played for them.
7 Peter Whittingham
Age 23 Nationality England Caps 0 Finals 0
England Under-21 international was raved about when beginning at Aston Villa, but later deemed surplus and sold for £350,000. Fierce shot and something of a Cup specialist this season. Won the FA Youth Cup with Villa six years ago.
4 Gavin Rae
Age 30 Nationality Scotland Caps 12 Finals 0
The midfield muscle. Made debut for Rangers in Old Firm match. Former captain at Ibrox and offered new contract by Walter Smith, but opted for regular first-team football. First capped in 2001, recently recalled to national team.
10 Stephen McPhail
Age 28 Nationality Ireland Caps 10 Finals 0
Captain who also enjoys role as main playmaker. Played in Champions League semi-final when with Leeds and on way back up after dropping to League One with Barnsley. Sweet passer who has not fulfilled his early promise.
16 Joe Ledley
Age 21 Nationality Wales Caps 20 Finals 0
Local lad who joined club as a nine-year-old. Highly rated Welsh international who scored winning goal in semi-final. Nicknamed "Deadly Ledley" for his finishing prowess. Everton and Wolves both attempted to buy him this season.
36 Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
Age 36 Nationality Netherlands Caps 23
Finals (see panel on page 77)
Veteran famous for moans and tantrums. First-rate striker who still has the touch. Lack of pace matches his bafflingly small medal haul. Just the Portuguese Cup to his famous name.
11 Paul Parry
Age 27 Nationality Wales Caps 11 Finals 0
Winger was converted into a striker in mid-season and has been a success with 11 goals. Pacey, skilful and referred to in Wales as the "poor man's Ryan Giggs". Not too poor, though.
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